The tradition of knitting guernseys began as early as the 17th century in the Channel Islands. Around the same time, a Cornish industry in hand-spinning began to form, using the wool from local sheep to make yarn that could be sold at markets. By the end of the 18th century, the invention of new machinery made these hand-spinners redundant and the women turned to hand-knitting.
Although knitting is now associated with dark winter evenings in front of a roaring fire, before the days of homes lit by electricity people often knitted outdoors for better light. In cottage gardens all around the coast of Cornwall and the clickety-clack of knitting needles would have been a common sound and a common sight throughout villages would be men wearing a navy blue jumper.
The tradition of Cornish guernseys, ganseys and knit-frocks has its roots firmly in the fishing industry which once dominated this region. Guernsey jumpers themselves are not uniquely Cornish – they have been made all over Britain for many years. Named from the knitting industry that found success in the Channel Islands, guernseys were nevertheless seen throughout the British mainland thanks to strong sea links. They are also common across the North Sea in Holland.
However, it is only in Cornwall that the sweater is commonly referred to as a ‘Knitfrock’. In Newlyn, it was known as a ‘Worsted Frock’ with the word ‘Frock’ widely used throughout the 19th century to describe a man’s knitted garment as opposed to a sewn one.
Those produced in Cornwall, however, have a distinct history all their own. The pattern of each garment showed, to a certain extent, the place in which it was made. Every Gansey tells its own story, this was originally for a very practical, if morbid, reason. As each village fishing community could be identified by the design on its Gansey, if the body of a fisherman was found it could then be returned to his home for burial meaning that if either fisherman or jumper was lost, its wearer could be identified. Naturally, in different parts of Cornwall patterns could be replicated by chance, but within small communities this identification process would have worked.
On a practical level, the tightly knitted, and snug fitting the fisherman’s gansey was virtually windproof and waterproof. The cuffs were very close fitting so as to keep out winter winds and ended short of the wrist to avoid being caught on any pieces of equipment or becoming soaked as the fisherman worked at sea. Cast off at the bottom end, any necessary repairs could be made by unravelling from the cuff and re-knitting. As these working garments were rarely washed, a layer of filth would have given extra protection against the elements. If well-made, they could last for more than twenty years and became an item of clothing for all occasions. Young boys were given oversized guernseys that reached their knees; something to ‘grow into.’
The upper part of the body was knitted more densely than the lower part to provide extra warmth, and it was on the yoke and upper arms that the knitters had the opportunity to show off their knitting skills and to elaborate on the basic stocking stitch with numerous variations.
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