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“Mary,” the Iconic Canadian

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Mary was a man. Her name was Willard . . .
All of knitting history is a universal story of emulation or, the garment industry’s technical term being “knock offs.” Women and men of knitting have, since the dawn of “knit and purl,” borrowed, loaned, and purloined ideas, realizing that each hand-knit piece is the unique garment sprung from a storehouse of graphic ideas from all cultures.

All of knitting history is a universal story of emulation or, the garment industry’s technical term being “knock offs.” Women and men of knitting have, since the dawn of “knit and pearl,” borrowed, loaned, and purloined ideas, realizing that each hand-knit piece is the unique garment sprung from a storehouse of graphic ideas from all cultures.

Cowichan sweaters, a Vancouver Island handmade staple of the Coast Salish culture, were adapted from Icelandic or Scottish influences and combined with West Coast icons such as the eagle, mythical thunderbird, deer, whale, bear, or fish. They stand themselves as remarkable garments that hold up as well-constructed physically, aesthetically and culturally. They are the original inspiration for the enormously successful Canadian phenomenon that is Mary Maxim.

This essay salutes the wild good luck and innovations of Willard McPhedrain and his band of witty entrepreneurs. The sweaters, visible from the streets of Vancouver to the consecrated halls of the high-fashion runway, are the witty offspring of bold Cowichan patterns. Most are the results of the design work of the multi-talented Barry Gibson, designer of the initial line of Mary Maxim Northland (type of 4-ply wool) sweaters. The knitters of Canada are champions of the knitting craft and they and their international comrades owe a lot to Gibson.

Economic need

To encourage lagging yarn sales, Olive McPhedrain, Williard's wife, had employed Stella Sawchyn to design a sweater, the now-famous Reindeer, later pattern #400. Gibson retooled the design and started an international knitting notation revolution. To this day knitting notation is universally written in the graphic shorthand manner using Gibson’s rectangle, not squared, graph paper. Armed with this innovation and an unbeatable wool yarn, this small powerhouse of extremely enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Willard McPhedrain having astutely gathered them together in Sifton, Manitoba, began a journey that is still continuing today. They tapped into the general popular psyche by delivering timely icons, all carried through the wondrous energy of the mythological Mary.

Canadian Vernacular
The origins of the Maxim sweaters and the Canadians who developed a taste for generous yarn and bold graphics demonstrate the contemporary development of vernacular arts. The ideas of William Morris and others were familiar to those who were part of the progressive movements internationally for a more collectivist or social democratic political, community, and cultural solution to the problems brought about by the perils of the Industrial Revolution. Willard saw a need and began a hands-on enterprise to address the needs of his village.

Vernacular arts and crafts are characterized by the same aspects as vernacular language :
• local resources to address local needs
• of a people, colloquial (jargon, argot, slang)
• indigenous, mostly popular taste
• regarded as native or natural
• everyday expression
Contemporary thought around the vernacular has been influenced a great deal by the Japanese idea of elevated, yet uncelebrated, achievements of “hand-crafted art of ordinary people” (minsh_-teki-na k_gei)) with an invented label out of those concepts: mingei. This idea was ascertained by S_etsu Yanagi as he discovered beauty in everyday, ordinary, or functional objects created by nameless and unknown craftspeople. According to Yanagi, down-to-earth objects are often “beyond beauty and ugliness." Below is a mirror of the criteria for vernacular arts, Yanagi’s criteria of mingei art and crafts:
• made by anonymous crafts people
• produced by hand in quantity
• inexpensive
• used by the masses
• functional in daily life
• representative of the regions in which they were produced.

Yanagi's book, The Unknown Craftsman, has become a widely influential work since its first release in English in 1972. While Yanagi's work has been criticized for its possible origins in xenophobic nationalism, its value to us is in his observation and appreciation of art and design in everyday things, including especially textiles, ceramics and woodwork. Bernard Leach, Yanagi’s UK comrade in this now-established theory, often lamented that “we do not even know the name of the knitter of a fine sweater we wear.”

(3) Comments

Lavina (McPhedrain) Shaw April 11th 2009 | 9:09 AM
Beautifully written, Tom, and a lovely tribute to the company and my parents.
Sharon December 27th 2012 | 7:19 PM

I keep thinking of the ducks in flight sweater my mom made my brother many many years ago and wish we could still get liners and the wool she used to make these sweaters. Bet they would be a big seller considering all the things retro out there.  Thank you for the many yrs of use, my daughter now uses the sweater as my brother has passed it on to her before he passed on.

 

I bought some patterns on Ebay a few yrs ago and have yet to get the nerve to try them out. :)

Muriel McGrath January 25th 2013 | 2:14 PM

Found this article really interesting as I have a number of the original Mary Maxim knitting patterns which belonged to my late mother-in-law.  Mother in law knitted The Pirate  (No 472) for my husband (now age 65) & for my son.  I am going to attempt to knit the same pattern for my two grandsons.  

Muriel E. McGrath

(North Wales, UK)