The Great Depression of the 1930’s may have started in the United States, but it quickly spread worldwide. Canada was particularly hard hit; its Gross National Product dropped forty percent (as opposed to the US’ thirty-seven), and at one time, two-thirds of the population received relief money from the government. The farmers and ranchers of the Great Plains and western provinces were particularly hard hit, as markets for wheat and other farm products dropped dramatically, sometimes closing completely. Entrepreneur Willard McPhedrain and his wife Olive sought to help themselves and their community by opening a cottage industry, and the pair purchased Spinwell Manufacturing Company. In 1954, this business moved to Ontario, and where it hired a store employee named Mary Maximchuk. Given the ongoing success of Betty Crocker, the McPhedrains decided to rename the company, and the Mary Maxim brand was born. Two years later, the business went international as a United States office was opened.
In comparison to the ‘make do and mend’ ethos of the Depression and war years, the 1950’s were a time of great style. Dior premiered its ‘New Look’ right after the end of World War II, and a world starved for design turned to elaborate fashion. This of created a ‘perfect storm’ for the Mary Maxim Company, which offered graphic knitting patterns in bulky weight yarn. The look featured trees, forest animals, and other pictorial elements, drawing heavily from the Cowichan and Icelandic knitting traditions. These sweaters seemed perfect for cold-weather dwellers who wanted to dress with a little oomph. When Bob Hope and other celebrities were photographed wearing Mary Maxim designs, the status of the company was assured.
Specific styles go in and out of fashion, and a period of time ensued when the “Mary Maxim sweater” was derided as, well, provincial, tasteless, and ugly. As a Canadian company in a world dominated by United States and European fashion, however, the company remained as a type of icon for those interested in something homegrown. Of course, what is “out” one day comes back in style; the ‘80’s once again featured oversize sweaters. In succeeding years, the ‘vintage’ ethos helped to keep these sweaters from falling completely out of style. After the turn of the century, the Vancouver Winter Olympics focused international attention on Canada, and the “Mary Maxim” look became once again popular. In 2014, a Canadian sweater company called Roots developed a collaboration with the Mary Maxim Company, offering pre-made garments at premium prices. Buyers could also procure matching toques and mitts.
The question of cultural appropriation comes up when discussing these sweaters, as so many patterns were based on Cowichan design. In 2010, the tribe protested the use of Cowichan-appearing designs in marketing tie-ins for the Olympics. Eventually, the government decided that anyone, including the tribe, could sell sweaters at the event, and First Nation designers were able to market their wares alongside the likes of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Today, the Mary Maxim company still operates as a store for knitters, crocheters, and other crafters, and has a strong on-line presence. While current patterns use a variety of styles and yarn weights, the web site does sell vintage patterns from the fifties as well. The thick-knit, warm sweaters have become Canadian icons, most notably sported by the Nova Scotia rock band Barenaked Ladies on the cover of the 2004 holiday CD. The look remains popular with lovers of rustic design and vintage style.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the Mary Maxim company.