Coming Unravelled


In 215, Sylvia Olsen left her family’s wool shop on Vancouver Island to begin a road trip across Canada with her husband, Tex. Visiting the nation’s yarn shops, teaching workshops and collecting stories from the knitters she met, Olsen documented her journey in Unravelling Canada: A Knitting Odyssey (Douglas & McIntyre), a delightful record of how knitting spans Canada’s history—and present—in many surprising ways. Coast Salish knitting, made famous by the Cowichan sweater, is the intersection of the innovation of indigenous knitters with tools and skills learned from European settlers. Olsen uses this as a basis for her book, looking at similar techniques used around the world and those passed on through decades of knitting culture in Canada. The Cowichan sweater allowed Coast Salish knitters a measure of financial independence and renown as the only knitting tradition established in Canada. On the road trip, Olsen searches for the oldest sweater in Canada, finding candidates she estimates being knit in the 193s. Steeped in the Coast Salish knitting tradition, Olsen’s own work has been influenced by the traditional geometric designs and naturally dyed wool—but her project for this road trip is to knit a dress with a maple leaf design. The dress never quite materializes as Olsen’s ideas for the dress change the farther she gets along the road trip, a tidy metaphor for her growing understanding of Canada as a nation. Olsen muses about colonialism, cultural appropriation and questions of Canadian identity, sometimes in a way that feels like a light history lesson, as she travels east, meeting knitters of all ages, backgrounds and skill sets in a variety of colourful settings that certainly made me want to visit distant yarn shops and drive through the Maritimes. Olsen shows knitting as something that links the present to the past and joins communities together. I was interested to learn about NONIA, the government-backed knitting cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador that paid rural knitters to create knitwear to subsidize local healthcare. As a lifelong knitter myself, I was pleasantly surprised at the depths of knitting culture in Canada, something I had never spent much time wondering about, while the travel memoir aspect of this book scratched my pandemic-induced tourism itch.

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.



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