Knitter Nation, by Deb Witwicki
The image of European settlers trading cast beads for pelts with Canada’s Indigenous people is one that many of us hold from our school history studies. What is perhaps less well known is that one of the coveted items of trade was sewing needles.
In her book, Canada Knits, Craft and Comfort in a Northern Land, Shirley A. Scott goes so far as to speculate “… one of the reasons why the first intrusive Europeans were not more positively repelled was the native people’s interest in the trade goods that the Europeans brought. Their fine metal sewing needles easily replaced the more awkward bone needles and were among the earliest and most prized trade goods.”
Indigenous people’s needlework skills were extensive when the Europeans settled in Canada. “They worked with skins, grasses, and other animal, and vegetable fibres, weaving, sewing, embroidering, and ornamenting their clothing and household objects with intricate skill.” They also collected wool shed from wild animals to tuck into their seal skin boots for added warmth. The Inuit people of today harvest qiviuq, the under down of muskox, in this way to create one of the finest yarns on the international market.
Knitting, however, was a skill brought over by the English and French, often taught by missionaries. Many believe The Sisters of St. Ann taught the Indigenous Cowichan people of B.C. to knit in 1864. Jeremina Colvin, a Scot who homesteaded with her husband at Cowichan Station introduced the intricacies of intarsia. The skills and an ever evolving array of motifs were passed on one by one amongst the Band resulting in the now famous Cowichan sweaters that are at once distinctly Canadian and internationally sought after.
By the time Europeans settled in Canada in the early 17th Century, knitting had taken firm hold in their homelands. Queen Elizabeth I was a champion of the hand knitting industry and was so taken with the pleasure of silk knit stockings that she reputably swore never to wear cloth stockings again.
New Canadians were also knitted sock fans but, in their case, wool was the answer to perpetually cold feet in this northern land. Socks were often the first project of those learning to knit, a remarkable fact given that turning a heal takes some know how. Canada’s first knitters crafted hats, among them the country’s iconic toques, as well as sweaters and, of course, mittens.
Women improvised designs to serve the outdoor working lives of their men. Finger mitts — a cross between typical mittens and gloves — exemplify this innovation. With their separate sections for the thumb and index finger, they allowed for dexterity for the fishermen and hunters while being warmer than gloves. Scott says rumour runs that members of the Group of Seven had versions of such mittens for outdoor painting.
Salt water made it almost impossible for Lobster fishermen to keep their hands warm. They would sometimes dry their mittens on the engine manifold of the boat, which eventually turned the fabric to felt. As usual, knitters kept pace with real life by making the mittens oversize to allow for shrinkage, sometimes felting them in advance.
Sweaters were mainly men’s garments until the 20th Century. Women typically wore knitted shawls, including one version with arms (more practical for household chores) dubbed the hug-me-tight” by Maritimers. Scott notes that French fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883 - 1997) may have taken her cues from the closets of men to introduce her chic sweaters, which were among the first designed for women.
Avid knitters outfitted their Canadian sportsmen and women — curlers, hockey players, skaters, skiers and golfers. Scott notes that an early Monarch pattern book proclaimed: “…cosy-to-wear, smart-looking hand knit sportswear is necessary to the full enjoyment of your favourite sport.” Scott says, “Perhaps no garment has been knit in Canada more than the hockey sweater.” In fact, pattern books provided instructions for complete hockey suits, from toque to toe, with careful attention to the correct colours for each team.
Canadian knitters, like those everywhere, followed printed patterns, which became available during the 19th Century, and were frequently included in household management books and later in popular magazines such as Chatelaine.
Mary Maxim, founded by Willard S. McPhedrain and his wife Olive of Sifton, Manitoba, in the 1950s, was a key influencer on Canadian knitting. According to Scott, two innovations by the McPhedrains catapulted their mail marketing enterprise to success (it still maintains an online store today). One was the decision to personalize the company by naming it after the family maid — Miss Mary Maximchuk —to market her homespun work socks. The other, inspired by his encounter with a pattern graph for a Cowichan sweater, compelled Willard to create Mary Maxim’s iconic “Graph Style Pattern.” The first pattern was No. 400 Reindeer. Quite simply, dedicated knitters just had to have them. From such Canadian symbols as beavers, totem poles moose, buffalo and geese, the sweaters were in Scott’s words “the forerunners of today’s talking T-shirts”. The McPhedrains were one of the few Canadian entrepreneurs to export their business to the United States. In 1956, they set up operations Port Huron, Michigan.
Canadian knitting had its source in Europe and our country’s crafters continued to look to their homelands for inspiration. Legend has it that a clever Canadian knitter who travelled abroad in 1948 managed to glimpse the layette made for the newly born HRH Prince Charles. When she returned home, she transcribed the pattern from memory. Scott says that the pattern was “widely published in a Newlands baby book so that every Canadian woman might ‘knit this Royal set for the king in your family’.”
Over the years, though, our country has developed its own homegrown style that serves the needs and tastes of Canadians and draws interest from around the world.