Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Secret of Cowichan Wool - the sheep

Washing fleece in Iceland
Thirty odd years ago when I took a spinning course from Judith McKenzie McCuin I remember her telling us about the Cowichan sweater yarn and what had made it so special - a yarn that was light, bulky, yet very warm. So the traditional Cowichan sweater did not weigh very much. She mentioned that the fleece was from sheep resulting from a variety of mixed breeds that provided wool that was high in lanolin (good for repelling water), and had a good crimp which was needed for the fibres to press against each other creating lots of air pockets which provides the insulation. Ever since I have wondered what breed of sheep created those characteristics (see an earlier blog in which I was still wondering). What did the early settlers and the Coast Salish women use for those amazing, warm, lightweight, sweaters?
Today I was reading an older issue of Spin-Off and came across an article written by Judith in which she provides the answer (MacKenzie McCuin, J. (2008). On Washing Fleece. Spin-Off Magazine, 32(3), 64-68.)! A cross breed of Churro sheep which had been left on islands in the Georgia Strait (now known as the Salish Sea) to provide meat for ship wreaked sailors or future sailors in search of nourishment, and down breeds such as Dorset and Hampshire brought over later by settlers. So, after 30-odd years I stumbled across the answer.
now have an even higher respect for Churro sheep (see and earlier post about Navajo churro). The Gulf Islands can dry out in the summer and there isn't much in the way of green grass, hence the Churro would have done just fine, as they did in the American mid-west where the Navajo raised them.
Judith's article goes on to explain how the fleeces were cleaned: they were either spread over fences or hedges, allowing the rain to clean them or placed in a fast-running creek. The water cleans out the dirt and suint (a type of sheep sweat but it is a natural detergent) but leaves in the lanolin which provides the rain-proofing for the yarn which is ideal for this wet climate.
I wonder if there are any cross-breed sheep of this type left?
Edited to suggest a great book on the history of Cowichan Wool and sweaters:
Working with Wool, a Coast Salish Legacy . Although it looks at the history of the Cowichan Sweaters, it covers the history of the wool too.



  1. I wonder this too - I work in the yarn shop in Tofino and we get asked *daily* about patterns and yarn for these sweaters. I understand the patterns are hard to come by, given that knitting them provides livelihood for many native women. But the wool? No idea.

  2. Hi Yarnsalad,
    I have been reading about the new Tofino shop. Great idea! There is a ravelry group on Cowwichan Sweaters and they discuss yarn sources. Currently the Loom at Whippletree Junction sells Buffalo brand hardly-spun roving strands, similar to what Icelandics use. I think many people use that. You could ask the Cowichan woman to sell their sweaters in your store. There is probably a good market in Tofino for the original sweaters.

  3. 2 years ago i bought a fleece at a small fibre fair from a cowichan valley local, which was grey navajo churro or a crossbreed; it's composed of relatively soft down and strong, lighter hair, which are easily separated by combing. just thigh-spinning the soft yarn with very low twist it looks and feels remarkably similar to my (authentic) cowichan scarf. now i just need to dig in my old receipts; i hope i can find it so i can track the breeder.

    briggs & little makes what they call "country roving" which might be suitable, but i haven't seen it up close yet.

    thank you for a very interesting blog! especially enjoy the info on the wool dogs. gives walking around cameron island a really different perspective.

  4. If you make it to Mayne island ever....look at the sheep at Meadowmist farm! Their wool has many of the right features and the origins of the flock seem old and poorly remembered. I'd love someone to research and answer all these questions!