17 May, 2012

Working with Wool

I read Sylvia Olsen's Working with Wool: a Coast Salish Legacy & the Cowichan Sweater

I think it is an instructive case study in making and selling handspun, handknit products at the cottage industry level.  According to Olsen, the sweaters used to be made only for family.  Then sweaters were sold directly to strangers who wore them.  Knitters retained control over pattern motifs and sizes, they sourced local wool, and they advertised by hanging a sweater out on the wash line on the reserve.  After a time, sweaters were sold to middlemen.  This led to less return per sweater but increased total volume.  The turnover rate got faster and for the producers there was less control over the sourcing of materials and motif choice, little contact with the wearers, and consequently less satisfaction. 

Olsen writes that late in the twentieth century sweater merchants and the market pushed for whiter white wool and a more crisp contrast with naturally dark wool.  These qualities came from imported wool not local.  And based on my memories I think can corroborate this change; the sweaters I saw people wearing when I was young had a yellow tinge in the white and the yarn was roughly textured.  I wish that Olsen had gotten specific about what breeds were used on Vancouver Island and which breeds gave the imported wool from New Zealand.  I appreciate her ability to qualitatively evaluate the functional, aesthetic, and technical qualities of the sweaters from the earlier half of the twentieth century versus the last quarter. 

I was much struck by the impact of one group of people having capital and credit and another not.  That is, when First Nations knitters had little cash and they needed to earn money from sweaters so their children could eat, then white merchants dictated terms of trade.  A sweater took days or a week to make.  Equally interesting is Olsen's account of the older Coast Salish blanket economy and the prestige women gained from it.  I gather from the book that with blankets, investment in skilled labour was more critical to success than capital investment.  Time to completion was long: a family "might produce one, maybe two, blankets a year, at a great expense." (p. 74)

Regarding merchants dictating terms of trade, I've read about lace makers in France and knitters in the Shetland islands in previous centuries and noted similar instances of merchants paying in script, middlemen giving materials instead of cash payment to keep craftspeople dependant, and buyers dictating pattern choice.

I was interested to learn from Working with Wool that Coast Salish blankets were made of goat hair and dog wool pounded with diatomaceous earth, a substance that kept the blankets dry and free of insects such as bedbugs.  Brilliant.

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