Ahoy, it’s Katherine Bone! I love to knit, especially anything with a cable in it! Recently, while researching historical information for my next book, The Pirate’s Duty, The Regent’s Revenge Book #3, I came across knitted frocks worn by fishermen and miners and the women who produced them in Cornwall.
The Guernsey, Gansey, or jersey sweater originated in the 17th Century Channel Islands, becoming the most reliable garment for seamen and fishermen from the 17th to 19th centuries. Comfortable, popular, and dependable, the tightly-packed wool fibers, combined with a snug spinning twist and a simple pattern helped ‘turn water’ and resist sea spray like oiled skin. Variations on the patterns were passed down through generations of fisherman’s wives. Drowned men were identified by deviations of these patterns: diamonds, breaking waves, rope ladders, seeds and bars, each particular to certain areas of Cornwall. (The most complex patterns evolved in Scottish fishing villages.)
A few Guernsey facts:
- Royalty found favor with the gansey. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, owned knitted versions. Mary even wore a pair of knitted stockings to her execution.
- Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson reported to the Admiralty that the garment would be beneficial to the Royal Navy. In fact, guernseys were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar.
- In addition to sweaters and stockings, pockets were knitted for men’s watches because warm clocks were able to function better.
In Cornwall, women acquired wool from local ship and then spun yarn by hand. They also ‘preached, pricked, and cooked the cards’ when demand grew and wool merchants began seeking their employment. Knitting quickly became a means of supplementing income from fishing and mining industries. And proving their worth, local women produced sweaters at a rapid rate, making the local wool supply inadequate. (One gansey could be produced in a week by experienced knitters!) Yorkshire rose to meet the demand, placing wholesale distributors in the Channel Islands, Devon and Cornwall. There, warehouses were stacked high with brown paper packages containing yarn and guernseys for distribution.
‘Knit-frocks’, the Polperro term, were made with dark navy worsted wool in four or five ply. Beautiful ornamented knitting sticks and sheaths found their beginnings from wood carved from wrecked ships or bone, ivory, or silver. Later, fourteen inch steel needles with pointed ends, sold in sets of five, were used to create traditional guernseys.
“In 1790, the Fox and Tregelles families of Falmouth established a ‘school of industry’ for the very poor, mostly girls, ‘to learn knitting, etc.’” ~ Cornish Guernseys and Knit Frocks by Mary Wright
“Dame schools existed to give a rudimentary form of learning to pupils at a fee of twopence (one new penny) a week, which was sometimes paid in kind.” ~ Cornish Guernseys and Knit Frocks by Mary Wright
Women knitted sitting, standing, walking along trails, and while overlooking cliffs to help watch for shoals of pilchards. In Looe, knitters walked in their pattens with eight to ten sweaters strapped on their backs, traveling twelve miles to Plymouth with an extra skein stowed in their skirts. On the return home with fresh supplies, they repeated the process.
“At the beginning of this century, women were paid 3s. 6d. (17 ½ pence) for a fancy knit frock; 2 s. 6d. (12 ½ pence) or 2s. 9d. (14 pence) for a plain one. An eighty-year old lady pointed out that only 2s. (10 pence) was paid if a fault were found in the knitting. The yarn was received in 2 lb. (900 g) hanks (cost 4s. [20 pence]) and was wound by the knitters.” ~ Cornish Guernseys and Knit Frocks by Mary Wright
Paper patterns did not exist between the 17th to early 19th centuries so women learned how to create guernseys verbally or via demonstration. Most were so experienced they could copy a pattern on sight.
Quality not quantity rules. The Shetland Islands claim gossamer lace. Colored patterns made the Fair Isles famous. Aran sweaters are Ireland’s claim to fame, but the guernsey from the Channel Islands, Devon, and Cornwall has kept fishermen warm for over four hundred years.
Do you knit? Here’s a lovely stole I knitted a few years go.
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