Author: J. Barlow
Local businessman, Green Party electoral candidate Adam Olsen isn’t sheepish about promoting his family’s business, Salish Fusion Knitting.
He shows up wearing his product; prospective customers check him out.
Minutes after arriving at Sassy’s for an interview, enthusiastic fans ‘stop the Press’, wanting to buy his knitted courier baa-a-ag. “Yeah, just send me an email,” says Adam. “We can get you one.”
In two shakes of a lamb’s tale the interview is back on track, and for the next two hours Adam discusses kids, careers, and core values, explaining how his family’s business, high school drama at Stelly’s, and a calling for communications led him to – and through – CBC’s popular “Dragons Den”.
Adam grew up surrounded by wool. His grandmother knitted to support her family like many Coast Salish women. His parents bought tens of thousands of sweaters from First Nations knitters for their business, Mt Newton Indian Sweaters. His mother, Sylvia, also a knitter, sold and shipped them to places like Banff, Jasper, and Whistler.
“We’re woolworkers.” he explains. “It’s just something my family has always done. I can remember going to bed with the hum of the sewing machine as she [Sylvia] was putting zippers in these things, basically every night of the week… The Cowichan sweater is a Canadian icon.”
He’s right. On March 22, 2012 The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and Minister Peter Kent officially named Coast Salish knitters and the Cowichan Sweater a national icon. Sweaters have been presented to royalty and visiting heads of state, and are found in museum collections both nationally and internationally.
While the sweater has always been popular, as a fashion trend it comes and goes, a victim of its own success, with imitators fleecing the knitters out of their profits by producing cheap knock-offs, as showcased in “The Big Lebowski” and “Starsky and Hutch”. Pattern company Mary Maxim tried to pull the wool over their eyes by adapting their own patterns and then selling them back to them. Even black –sheep designer Ralph Lauren sold a mass-produced machine-made version using their ideas.
But perhaps the most infamous knock-off was the line of Cowichan-like 2010 Olympic sweaters produced in China for the Hudson Bay Company (HBC).
“It was a wrong decision that netted a positive response,” says Adam. “It brought life to the whole industry again. Our business might not have been here today if not for that. If they had thought about it far enough in advance they could have found enough knitters to produce them. But it actually turned out better in the long run.”
Instead of having to spend all their time leading up to the Olympics working on select designs, the knitters negotiated an agreement to produce whatever they wanted for purchase in two Olympic pavilions and HBC stores. And the storm of outrage among Canadians fuelled a surge in sales of authentic sweaters.
The following year Sylvia Olsen’s, “Working With Wool” enjoyed a hugely successful book launch, earning the 2011 BC Historical Federation’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing, recognizing the best non-fiction book.
So how did this Size Small boutique industry make it onto a national TV program like “Dragons Den”?
After hearing that the show was going to be at the Laurel Point Inn for one day, Adam made a pitch without any real expectations of being accepted. It was a surprise when they got the call inviting them to make an on-the-air pitch. Sylvia and sister, Joni were reluctant, but Adam was convinced they must seize the opportunity. Eventually Joni agreed to go too.
It was a lot of work prepping for any questions the hard-nosed investors might throw at them, “But by the time we were finished, it was a real business, with a real, professional business plan” says Adam.
During his one minute pitch, Adam spoke of his grandmother, sparking some lightning-quick verbal sparring with Dragons’ Den venture capitalist and business mogul, Kevin O’Leary.
Adam: “For five decades our grandmother fed herself and her twelve children on the proceeds of her knitted products.”
Kevin: “How much do you make? How many grandmothers can you enslave?”
Adam: “We’re not enslaving any grandmothers, Kevin.”
It was the chance of a lifetime for Adam and Joni: a national audience; business advice from the nation’s most successful financiers. But did they get everything they wanted?
To find out, venture into the “Dragon’s Den” yourself at