In the 1960s women did not imagine themselves working in sawmills, renovating houses or building schools and high rises, although we were getting an inkling that we could blaze new trails, if only we could figure out where they led. According to her memoir, Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World (Caitlin Press), Kate Braid started out by getting a BA with a Secretarial Certificate, and then went on to overcome fear, inexperience and ignorance (both hers and others’) to find out that she loves to carry heavy lumber, construct walls that are straight and true, and push around large quantities of concrete, and she did this not by summoning all her courage but by listening to a tiny voice inside of her that would tell her she could do it even as every other part of her mind and body was saying the opposite. This book is not only about learning to be a carpenter—it’s also about dancing, drinking, having sex, falling in love, and growing into a body that becomes stronger and more capable every day. For women of a certain age, Braid’s story will bring back our own struggles to find a place in a man’s world, and men of the same age will be reminded what it was like to work in a mill or on a building site back in the day. Younger readers will come away with an understanding of how we were then, and Braid’s honest and open writing will have every reader laughing, crying, cringing and cheering right along with her.
The title of the book Working with Wool, A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater by Sylvia Olsen (Sono Nis) and the promotional material surrounding it, imply that this is a history of the Cowichan sweater—which it is, but the book is much more than that. The Cowichan sweater, and its predecessors, the blankets woven by Coast Salish women using a mixture of white dog hair (from a breed raised for this purpose) and mountain goat wool, were important trade items, so by telling the story of the woolworkers of Vancouver Island, Olsen illuminates the nuanced and multi-levelled relationships between indigenous islanders and their newly arrived white neighbours. With increased settlement, the mountain goat population decreased, so the Coast Salish weavers began using wool from sheep that the settlers brought in, and they soon learned to use knitting needles, spinners and carders and began knitting sweaters, to which they added their unique designs. Sweater making became a thriving home-based business that allowed the Coast Salish people to earn money and explore their individual creativity, but although the colonials supported this industry, they did whatever they could to keep it from competing with the mainstream economy. The story of the Coast Salish woolworkers is an important story of people who persevered and adapted—and worked their fingers to the bone—in order to survive in a changing world. As Olsen states in the introduction, “until British Columbia and Canada know and understand their shared history with indigenous people, the province and the country will not fully mature.” This luscious book, stuffed with historical photographs, is an engrossing way to enhance our understanding.