The guernsey is the mainstay of Guernsey's knitting industry which can be dated back to the late 15th century when a royal grant was obtained to import wool from England and re-export knitted goods to Normandy and Spain. Peter Heylin described the manufacture and export of "waste-cotes" during the reign of Charles I. The first use of the name "guernsey" outside of the island is in the 1851 Oxford Dictionary, but the garment was in use in the bailiwick before that.
The guernsey came into being as a garment for fishermen who required a warm, hard wearing, yet comfortable item of clothing that would resist the sea spray. The hard twist given to the tightly packed wool fibres in the spinning process and the tightly knitted stitches, produced a finish that would "turn water" and is capable of repelling rain and spray.
The guernsey was traditionally knitted by the fishermen's wives and the pattern passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. While commercially available sweaters are machine knit, the final finishing of these machine-knit parts is completed by hand.
Through trade links established in the 17th century, the guernsey found favour with seafarers around the British Isles, and many coastal communities developed their own "ganseys" based on the original pattern. Whilst the classic guernsey pattern remained plain, the stitch patterns used became more complex the further north the garment spread, with the most complex evolving in the Scottish fishing villages.
Mary Wright argues that the use and wearing of guernseys throughout the British Isles for over a century and a half almost justifies the guernsey for qualification as a national costume. A guernsey from the Folk Museum Guernsey was included in the 2010 BBC project A History of the World in 100 Objects.
The term can also refer to a similarly-shaped garment made of woven cloth, also called a Guernsey shirt or smock. There are a number of different names for the same garments, for instance Guernsey frock, Guernsey shirt, smock-frock, or fisherman’s frock. Essentially these are all the same garment, with the materials varying based on the purpose for which it is worn.
Two styles of guernsey exist: a plain "working" guernsey and a "finer" example that was generally saved for special occasions and Sunday-best attire. Traditionally, Ganseys were seamless and worked in the round using the circular knitting method.
The "working" guernsey design was kept simpler in order to reduce the amount of time and materials needed to produce. The sale of knitted garments to supplement family income was important to many island families and thus the garments that were sold were also of a simple design. It is estimated that a total of 84 hours was needed to complete a guernsey: a simpler design could be produced faster than a more elaborate one.
The guernsey that is still produced on the island retains much of the original design and patterns. The rib at the top of the sleeve is said to represent a sailing ship’s rope ladder in the rigging, the raised seam across the shoulder a rope, and the garter stitch panel waves breaking upon the beach. As a working garment, the gussets under the arm and at the neck are for ease of movement, as are the splits at the hem. Twenty-four principal patterns have been identified in Cornwall alone, each one again drawing inspiration from ropes, chains, waves, nets and sand-prints.
Worn as a source of pride and often knitted by prospective wives "to show the industrious nature of the woman he was about to marry", the "finer" guernsey was more elaborately patterned than its working cousin. With the advent of the machine-knitted guernsey and the decline in the knitting industry, this guernsey is a much rarer sight.
The guernsey's tightly knitted fibres and its square shape, with a straight neck so that it could be reversed, make it a particularly hardy item of clothing. It is not uncommon for a guernsey to last several decades and be passed down in families. Guernseys knitted for children were knitted to be "grown into" and often came down to the knee.
Use in the British Armed Forces
The guernsey was first widely used in the rating uniform of the 19th century British Royal Navy. It is said that guernseys were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar (although these were probably made from woollen cloth, rather than knitted). The association of the guernsey with the British Armed Forces has continued into the 21st century. In 2006, the British 7th Armoured Brigade ordered three hundred jumpers from a company in Guernsey and these were sent out to Iraq. Each jumper was hand-finished in a neutral colour and had the Desert Rat insignia sewn onto the left hand sleeve. Orders for variants of the guernsey have also come from the Intelligence Corps, the Mercian Regiment, the Tank Regiment and Gurkha Logistics where they form part of officer uniforms.
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- Mary Wright, Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks, 1979, 2008 Polperro Heritage Press
- Marr, L.J. (1982), A History of the Bailiwick of Guernsey Philmore & Co. Ltd
- "The Story of the Guernsey" accessed 6 May 2008
- "A Short History of the Hand-Knitted Gansey" accessed 6 May 2008
- Wright, M. (1989) Cornish Guernseys and Knit-froks, Alison Hodge/Ethnographica Ltd.
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- "The guernsey becomes a fashion must-have" accessed 22 June 2011