Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Mary Maxim Sweater

When I did a special Canada Day post last July 1st, a commenter pointed out that I'd missed the most iconic Canadian knitting pattern of all, the Mary Maxim sweater. She was quite right, and I replied that I planned on doing a special Mary Maxim sweater post at some point. Well, here it is.

Mary Maxim is the largest privately held craft and needlework mail-order company in North America. The company was founded in the 1950s by Willard and Olive McPhedrain, who had been running a company called Sifton Wool Products Ltd. which sold wool blankets and socks. Willard saw possibilities in the hand-knitting market, and set his designers to work creating sweater patterns. The patterns sold well, and Willard derived a new name for his company that had a more homely, relatable appeal from the name of the McPhedrains' maid, Mary Maximchuk. Sixty years later, Mary Maxim has store locations in Paris, Ontario, and at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto, Ontario, as well as an American office in Port Huron, Michigan. Most of Mary Maxim's revenue is derived from their catalogue and online sales.

Mary Maxim can definitely count me among their customers. They are one of the three companies from which I generally buy yarn, and are my main source for needlework supplies. I very much enjoy shopping at their Toronto store, I occasionally order some items from Mary Maxim online, and I can never forget how much I loved getting a parcel from them as a teenager. I grew up on a farm, the only craft store I ever got to visit was a good hour's drive away and wasn't exactly up to par anyway, and being able to buy anything I wanted from Mary Maxim's comprehensive catalogue was the best thing ever.

My catalogue lands in my mailbox at regular intervals and I still read it with enjoyment, though also with some bemusement. Besides the craft kits, patterns, needlework tools, and yarn you'd expect, they've branched out into offering oddball household gadgets such as an electric dog treat maker, an expandable back scratcher, a "detoxer" foot bath, pajama jeans, and other products of the kind one sees advertised on TV infomercials.

Tucked among all these items is the best-known Mary Maxim product ever — the classic bulky weight cardigan patterns based on the Cowichan sweater. Their reindeer cardigan is the first pattern Mary Maxim ever produced, and they still sell it. There are many of these patterns now and they feature quite a variety of images, which are usually either some type of animal or sports figure. To be honest, I find most of these bulky cardigans hideous. But there's no denying the Mary Maxim sweater's iconic status in Canada. The Mary Maxim sweater is familiar to most Canadians. If you didn't have one yourself when you were growing up, at least one of your friends did, and you didn't hear them complaining about being cold or uncomfortable.

The most appealing of the Mary Maxim sweater designs are those which are most similar to the Cowichan sweater. (Some are, indeed, nearly indistinguishable from an authentic Cowichan sweater.) This is a picture of Bob Hope sporting his Mary Maxim totem pole sweater.

This is a screen cap of Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in episode two of the first season of Murder She Wrote, staying warm in a Mary Maxim fish sweater while on the cold trail of a murderer.

Mary Maxim sweaters aren't really city wear. One sees them much more often in small towns or in rural areas. But of course they can always be worn anywhere if worn ironically, as they are here on the cover of the Barenaked Ladies' 2004 Christmas album. I remember reading at the time that Mary Maxim sweaters were a hot item in Toronto's vintage clothing stores, as hipsters had gotten into them. Literally.


  1. Yay!!! Mary Maxim sweaters! For some reason my Grandma never made one for me but she made some (plain cabled) ones for my mom and dad, and plain cowichan style for my aunt and uncle which somehow all ended up as mine!

    In high school I wore my uncle's giant sweater. Sometimes with a bunch of sweaters under it because I live in Winnipeg. I was less than 100 lbs and wore his large to x large sweater every winter for 3 years!

    when I got pregnant, I didn't need to get a large parka to wear either time. I started with my mom's sweater because it was the most fitted. Both times, I didn't get very big so I didn't graduate beyond my dad's old sweater. I love wearing these things.

    I've also had to search for old patterns for my Grandma when she wants to make them for people!

  2. I made several of those sweaters when I first started knitting - for my then toddler sized nephews. I loved that catalog and thank you for this blog with the link to the site. I thought they were gone with a lot of good things from my early years.

  3. I have a pattern for a cardi my mother made for one of my many younger siblings. It was so well made that at least 4 of them wore it before it gave up the ghost. Thanks for posting about Mary Maxim.