I have a big vintage armoire in my bedroom. I found it at Roost Antiques on Main Avenue in downtown Spokane and it stayed there a month or more after I purchased it while I cleared a place for it in my small house. But finally, after I figured out where I would put it, the armoire was delivered just as the weather began to turn cold and I immediately filled it with sweaters. On one side are the sweaters I wear each day. On the other side, my collection of "ranch" sweaters.
I started collecting the bulky handknitted sweaters after moving to Spokane in 1999. To me, they completely captured the outdoorsy ethos of the Northwest. I work from home and I like to keep the heat turned down, so the sweaters are not only a collection, they have kept me warm and cozy on cold winter days. But I've been drawn to them, and continue to love them, primarily for the vintage look and the idea that they were made by women who took pleasure in the folksy design and the warmth of the finished product. In the last decade I've gathered a variety of sizes, all purchased at flea markets, thrift stores and antique shops across the Northwest from Oregon to British Columbia.
Earlier this month I traveled to Mantitoba to see and photograph the Northern Lights over the small town of Churchill. To reach Churchill I first had to fly into Winnipeg to catch another flight to the small town on the edge of Hudson Bay. I spent most of my day in Winnipeg exploring the Manitoba Museum where I learned about the Innuit culture and the history of the Hudson Bay Company. There is also an excellent exhibit about the native flora and fauna. But, as I was leaving the building I passed a display of sweaters and recognized one of the patterns in my collection, a sweater that features an evergreen tree and what I always assumed was a moose or elk. Intrigued, I stopped to take a closer look.
The display included a bit of history about the Manitoba Sitton Mills and the Mary Maxim patterns that have been, and still are, so popular. Immediately, I knew I'd found the source of most of the patterns used to make the sweaters I've collected.
Debuting in the 1950s, the Mary Maxim sweater patterns and wool yarns, similar to the heavy knitted sweaters produced by Native Salish on Canada's western coast, were popular with knitters. Soon, the sweaters became iconic, even showing up on celebrities like Bob Hope and British royalty. Evenutally, to meet US demand, the company opened an office in Michigan.
I loved the Manitoba Museum and it was an added treat to learn more about the sweaters I've collected, especially one favorite pair of sweaters--both child and adult-sized-- with a flying pheasant theme. I'm looking forward to the (brief) time my grandaughter will think dressing like her grandmother is cool so we can wear them together.
As always, while traveling, I found something useful and informative in the last place I expected. But, then again, that's usually the way treasure hunting goes.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a journalist and travel columnist whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com