The Cowichan Sweater

The Cowichan Sweater

Over a quarter-century ago, before they came back into fashion, my father was throwing out some of his clothes. One of the items was a Siwash sweater he’d worn in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Siwash, they are also called “Cowichan” sweaters, after a style developed by the indigenous peoples of south-east Vancouver island (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowichan_knitting).

Truth be told, back then I wasn’t sure what I thought about the sweater. I’d only ever seen “old people” wear them – and most of those old folks were curlers at that. But the sweater was hand-made, and hand-made for my father with images of his 1950s construction vehicles on it, which to me made all the difference. So I saved the piece, and had it resized for my smaller frame by a kind elderly neighbour. Then I put it in a box for almost thirty years, only taking it out occasionally.

This last week I put the sweater on. My father has been wheelchair-bound for a long time. He’s lost weight – a lot of weight, and the sweater that I had made smaller would now be much too big for him in turn. I wear it, not in Saskatchewan where it came from, but in Montreal, where, for at least the moment, and for certain groups of students such sweaters are all the rage (not being the pinnacle of style, I may have missed ‘the moment’ even as I report it!).

But this was more an act of memory and legacy. When I put on the Cowichan this last week, I felt connected across the decades to the man my father was. Don’t ask me exactly how this works. But to feel the wool across my shoulders makes me realize how he and I are connected. We are very different men, in very different times and places. But as he passes 80, and suffers so badly from crippling Parkinson’s, I wear the sweater and wonder: “what was he thinking when he wore this?” “How did he look at the world?” “Did he have any idea what lay ahead?” He would have been a younger man than I am now. But the wearing connects me to him, and to that wild, open country from which both he and I come.

We can talk all we want about memory being a mental process, but in families as in religion there’s something important about the totem, the symbol, the revered object. There’s something special in taking an object into our hands and letting the memories enter us through our skin.

This last week my daughter, who has been eying one of my own sweaters, came out of her room one morning before school. “I’ve got nothing to wear,” said the young woman who has drawer after drawer of clothing spilling over. “Could I wear that sweater of yours?” She had a sparkle in her eye.

It’s all about connection. I just might ask my grown sons if they have anything I can borrow.