The Guernsey: Cornish Sweaters!

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.

 

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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.

 

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“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

 

 

CGK21.c-630x479Women 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.

 

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“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.

 

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Do you knit? Here’s a lovely stole I knitted a few years go.

 

Sources for this post:

 

Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks by Mary Wright

Guernsey Woolens

Guernsey

Cornish Knitfrock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Responses

  1. dholcomb1

    I don’t knit. Well I was taught once when I was in 5th grade, but I never had the opportunity to take it up again with my teacher–the lady who lived across the street. She taught me when I had chicken pox. I stayed with her when my brother was in for his tonsillectomy.

    Love the stole.

    denise

    • Katherine Bone

      Thanks, Lady Denise! The stole is super soft and comfy. Knitting is so easy and fun. I hope you get a chance to try it again. Craft stores usually offer classes. 😉

  2. Barbara Monajem (@BarbaraMonajem)

    Great post, Lady Katherine. I knit, but not very well. I used to be able to knit mittens, hats, and gloves, but lately I’m hopeless. I managed to make one pair of tube socks, but haven’t been able to manage heels. Next project is a hat with cables. Wish me luck!!

    • Katherine Bone

      Oh! I love cables on anything! Have fun knitting the hat project, Lady Barbara! I’ve never knitted mitten or socks, however. I like knitting in the round and having to use various short knitting sticks in a circular pattern is vexing to me. LOL! #fumblefingers

    • Katherine Bone

      FANtastic! I had a thingie that I used to spin yarn with, a spool sort of tool. I haven’t used it in ages, Lady Michele. Keep calm and knit on! 😉

  3. Nan

    Hi Katherine. I don’t knit, I quilt. (could never get the tension right) I love history and your snippet on the Gurnsey Cable Sweaters is great. It brought to mind a few years ago I was at a sewing / knitting group with some local women, someone had a pattern for a Newfoundland Cable mittens which were supposed to be waterproof. The fishermen in Nfld. Canada wear them while out on the water. I wonder if this is related to your research? A lot of Newfie families are from Scotland.

    • Katherine Bone

      That is super cool, Lady Nan! Yes, there is a special way the knitters twist the yarn while knitting that enables it to repel water. I think the entire process is extraordinary, especially when you think how those fisherman are doused with waves out there on the open sea.

      I used to quilt a LOT. LOL! My fingertips were riddled with tiny holes. I’m usually at my computer nowadays and my hands aren’t as dexterous as they used to be. Neither are my eyes, darn it! I have a devil of a time seeing up close. But I have a lot of quilts hanging on my walls and on beds and used as lap quilts too. Such a pleasing and calming craft, don’t you think?

  4. Liah Rene

    Very interesting. I have a heritage in Cornwall and Jersey. I haven’t knitted for ages. I should. Fascinating to read about the patterns being used for identifying corpses. I believe smocking patterns identified various trades. Also heard that the knitter’s guild only admitted tradesmen or their widows. Never think of knitting being a male dominated trade.

    • Katherine Bone

      So true, Lady Liah! Happy to meet you!!! Fishermen knitted their nets, didn’t they? Or there was a similar technique used to mend their nets. I find this whole topic so fascinating and love researching Cornwall for my books so much.

      Do you have any special memories from Cornwall or Jersey you can share? 😉

  5. alinakfield

    I’m a knitter, and I LOVED this post, Lady Katherine! It’s amazing to me how quickly those ladies could put together a complicated sweater.

    • Katherine Bone

      Oh my goodness! I couldn’t believe the stats when I researched them. Can you imagine putting together an entire sweater with precise twisted stitches and patterns in a week? Whoaa! So amazing that they could walk and stroll about while knitting too. I sit on my bum. LOL! Glad to hear we have knitting in common, Lady Alina! 😉

  6. spiritofnlmk

    No I don’t knit *sigh my mom’s talent skipped right over me. She could knit, cross stitch, and crochet so beautifully that she even made extra money that way. My mom made me the most awesome clothes and accessories for my Barbies and Cabbage Patches, we couldn’t afford the ones you bought but I always thought my stuff was better. Thanks for the great post Lady Pirate Katherine!

    • Katherine Bone

      Ahoy, Lady Crystal! Great to see you here! Thanks for your kind words about the post. Knitting isn’t for everyone. I can’t crochet! I can never seem to get the tension right. (My mom made clothes for my Barbies too. Woot!)