Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Cowichan sweaters, HBC, and what I'm not knitting for Ravelympics

Regular commenter Castor Rouge has contributed the above photograph, taken at Ottawa's Winterlude festivities three years ago. It makes a good segue to the subject of today's blog, which manages to address a bunch of stuff that I've been pondering off and on for the last few months.

During the last [summer] Olympic games, Ravelry hosted the Ravelympics, in which various teams competed in different knitting related categories. Everyone cast on their projects during the opening ceremonies, and the first person finished in each category would "win". It's happening again this year, which is pretty cool. I'm competing on Team Three Irish Girls (for the yarn club I belong to). We have our own colourway, Sheepnuts, so called because...well...

sheep nuts
(thanks to Kregarious for photo under Creative Commons license)

Anyhow. I was thinking about potential projects for Ravelympics, and I hit upon the idea of making a Cowichan-style sweater. In many ways, it would be the perfect project for the Vancouver Olympics: it would be uniquely Canadian; I could make it out of a heritage yarn, like Briggs and Little; it would be challenging but not intimidating; it would pay homage to the aboriginal people of British Columbia.

Unfortunately, when you're a critical theory person, these things are never so simple as that. At what point does pay homage become cultural appropriation? As a white person of British descent, would I simply be perpetuate the cycle of colonization? It doesn't help that these sweaters are already fraught with controversy in relation to this Olympic games. The Hudson's Bay Company (yes, the same company that used to trade blankets for beaver pelts) is the official clothing company for the Olympic games. As part of their collection for the Olympics, they have a sweater that they swear is *not* a Cowichan sweater. Local aboriginal groups are upset because HBC opted to contract out the sweater making rather than having aboriginal knitters make them, claiming that the Cowichans wouldn't be able to produce sweaters to HBC's strict standards. HBC also claims that their design isn't Cowichan:

I'll leave you to be the judge of that. I especially enjoyed the statement that HBC released:
It is a contemporary design inspired by a great fashion icon that is recognized as a knit sweater all across the country.

If you can tell me what "recognized as a knit sweater" means, exactly, I'd really like to hear it.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying that I'm probably just going to make a scarf rather than a sweater during the Olympics. Is there a way to mitigate that uncomfortable feeling of cultural appropriation?

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