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The Sweater from Paris

Pages from 1950s/60s catalogue showing Mary Maxim sweaters and a graph pattern for a child's sweater with the Three Little Pigs motif.

Unlike most Canadian cities that share their name with a foreign capital, Paris Ontario is not named for the City of Lights but rather the lime gypsum found in the area that was used to make plaster (as in plaster of Paris.) Despite the namesake’s lack of prestige, there is at least one important fashion based in Paris Ontario – the Mary Maxim sweater.

It all began when Willard and Olive McPhedrain of Sifton Manitoba opened a small woollen mill in 1937 to make blankets and work socks. In 1947 Willard felt that Sifton Products didn’t portray the right identity for his goods so he advertised his goods under the name of Mary Maximchuk, an employee of the McPhedrains (the name was later shortened to Mary Maxim.) At the time, using women’s names was thought to give a product a more homey, comforting feel; the most famous woman’s name brand was probably the fictitious Betty Crocker who first appeared in 1936.

By 1950, everyday knitting was falling in popularity – it had become associated with the Depression and World War II when the craft was an economic necessity. In the post war world of the 1950s, store-bought socks were more desirable but there still remained an appreciation for hand crafted fashion items. In 1951, Alma Warren from Woodward’s department store in Edmonton Alberta suggested to McPhedrain that his company make bulky yarn sweaters. She suggested he look at sweaters made on Vancouver Island by the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish Natives; Cowichan sweaters were made with Native spun sheep wool in a circular knitting method using European Fair Isle style patterns with totemic motifs worked into the designs.

Later that year, McPhedrain hired Barry Gibson as his manager/designer and the two then laid the groundwork for the Mary Maxim 4-ply wool sweater style and its distribution through department stores across Canada. The company created and copyrighted designs based on outdoor activities and Canadian emblems and hired Stella Sawchyn to design a sweater with a Reindeer motif. Sawchyn and Gibson created a graph style pattern for Mary Maxim sweaters and soon reindeers, prancing horses, curling brooms, beavers, and totem poles were appearing on men’s, women’s and children’s sweaters.

The graph style patterns were a hit and created a new international standard for knitters who preferred to work from graphs than words. The company quickly found success and in 1954 Mary Maxim was officially incorporated. The new headquarters were in Dauphin, Manitoba with a branch office opened in Paris, Ontario, managed by Earl Shaw, the McPhedrain’s son-in-law. In 1956 an American office was opened in Port Huron, Michigan, managed by Willard McPhedrain’s son Larry. By 1958, Barry Gibson had left the company but Mary Maxim continued to expand when Earl Shaw opened an office in Leicester, England. That same year the McPhedrains moved the company’s headquarters to Paris, Ontario to be near its largest fibre supplier, Spinrite Yarns in Listowel, Ontario.

The Mary Maxim sweater era was coming to an end when Earl Shaw left the company to buy a woollen mill in St. Thomas, Ontario in 1964. By the time Willard McPhedrain died at the age of 68 in 1971 the sweaters were considered kitschy and were no longer popular. However, the original Cowichan sweaters were increasing in popularity throughout the 1970s, spurring on copycat versions in earthy-coloured wool using a combination of totemic and Fair Isle motifs. The classic Mary Maxim style sweaters depicting everything from antique cars to oil rigs never found the same popularity they had in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a small revival in popularity for Mary Maxim sweaters in vintage clothing stores in the 1980s when collectors and museums began to appreciate their designs and they have remained a collectable vintage clothing style ever since.

The company continues to operate, selling a variety of yarns and their graph style patterns. Rusty McPhedrain, the grandson of the founders, currently runs the company after his father Larry McPhedrain passed away in 2002. In November 2017 the Port Huron branch of Mary Maxim closed. The company now sells only online or through stores in Paris and London Ontario.

Antique car motif sweater, c. 1960

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