The Knitted Jumper known as a "Guernsey"
as worn by our Vice President & Lands Director, Martin Ozanne.
Knitting, either with one needle and fingers/thumb or with two needles has been practised since before the time of Christ, and socks knitted in the round have been found in Egyptian tombs. The skill gradually spread from the Middle East to Europe and in the Middle Ages it became an industry organised by Guilds, whose master knitters controlled quality and levels of production.
The French Knitters Guild, whose patron saint was St Fiacre, was highly organized. Apprentices served for six years, and were then examined over three months. During this time they had to knit a shirt, a felted beret, a pair of socks and a “carpet” of original design. The introduction of four or five needles occurred in the 13th century, and there are contemporary paintings from Germany and Italy showing women knitting garments in this way. It is known that Guernsey merchants traded from Norway to the eastern Mediterranean in those days, and it is possible that the knitted jumper came to Guernsey through trading links with Europe.
At the end of the Middle Ages the knitting of stockings became a major source of income in the Channel Islands. The industry was developed by a group of local merchants in an effort to recoup the money they had spent on a mercenary army, led by an English admiral, to drive the French out of Jersey in 1469. The merchants imported wool and employed the inhabitants to knit mostly stockings, but also what Heylin called ‘wastcotes’ and other garments.
These items were so well made and highly thought of that on 1st January 1556 Queen Mary Tudor accepted from the Governor of Guernsey, Sir Leonard Chamberlayne, a gift of “wastcotes, sleeves and stockings all of worsted and Guernsey manufacture”. Knitted goods from the Channel Islands were also given as gifts to Queen Elizabeth I and to her ladies in waiting, and they purchased them for themselves. The stockings were exported not only to England but all over Europe. They were patterned, and English names for the designs included descriptions like Turk’s Head, and Peacock’s Tail. The industry gradually declined during the 18th century, and nothing more is heard of it after 1800.
But local people continued to knit ‘wastcotes’, or guernseys as they came to be called.
Instead of knitting them on four or five large needles, they now used the thin fine stocking knitting needles. This produced a tightly knitted garment which soon became much sought after, especially by sailors. It was almost windproof, considerably waterproof as the blue dye [woad] used did not require the natural oil to be removed from the wool, and extremely practical.
The jumper was not known initially as a ‘guernsey’. It may have been the ‘wastcote’ of which Heylin speaks, that is a short garment which reached to the waist. The local French dialect name for it is a ‘corset d’oeuvre’, a working corset or body. A corset is something that fits the body tightly. The jumper only started to be called a ‘guernsey’ or ‘gansey’ at the beginning of the 19th century.
In 1838 a travel writer noted that “Guernsey partakes of the manufacture of wool into coarse fabrics, especially such as are adapted for sailor’s clothing, and these articles, many of them knitted, are to be found in the seaports of most parts of the world”.
The guernsey jumper continued to be knitted throughout the 19th century but by the beginning of the 20th century was considered to be mainly a garment for fishermen. The jumpers had had distinctive patterns knitted into them for many years, patterns which may have had their origin in the patterns knitted into the Tudor stockings. Each family had its own pattern, passed on by word of mouth.
During the Second World War the Channel Islands were occupied by the German Armed Forces, and many people were evacuated to England. By the time of their return five years later the children only spoke English, and could no longer understand the older people who still spoke only Guernsey-French. So the chairwoman of the Women’s Institutes, seeking to preserve local crafts, wrote down a pattern for a guernsey and this soon became the only pattern knitted, and the ‘family’ patterns were lost.
Wherever Guernseymen went they took their guernsey with them and ‘ganzeys’ are still to be found around the coasts of England and Ireland, along the eastern seaboard of Canada and America, and in Australia the expression “to get a guernsey” means to be selected for a team.
Detail of a Guernsey Jumper
photograph kindly provided by Channel Jumpers, Alderney.
PATTERN AND CONSTRUCTION OF A GUERNSEY
Originally the body was knitted in the round, joined together at the shoulders until small enough for the head, and a narrow ribbed neck was cast off in the usual way. The armholes were then cut in the body, the edges sewn back, stitches picked up and the sleeve knitted down to the cuff. The advantage of this was that the sleeve could be easily unpicked and re-knitted when worn out.
Traditionally the wool used was a 4 or 5-ply English worsted, which gives a tough hardwearing thread. The number of small needles was usually ten or eleven, varying in size from 14s to 17s [UK old size].
In earlier centuries raw wool was imported into Guernsey and spun and dyed here. The dye used was European woad, which produced a deep navy blue, but which gradually washed out to a grey-blue colour.
The patterns on the guernseys were family patterns, and were often used to identify a fisherman if he drowned. They were all produced by a simple combination of plain and purl stitches. Cable stitch does not appear to have been used in the Channel Islands. The more intricate designs seem to come from the west of the island, and the simplest ones from the north. There is a pattern from the parish of Torteval which covers the whole of the top of the body and sleeves, as does one from the district of Cobo, whilst the ‘traditional’ pattern, which is quite plain, is said to come from the parish of St Sampsons.
The patterns were passed on from mother to daughter by word of mouth. The knitter was usually able to judge how many stitches to cast on by looking at the person who was going to wear the garment.
Although family patterns are no longer knitted, local manufacturers have produced three parish patterns in recent years, for the Vale, St Sampsons and St Peter Port. High-necked and v-necked cardigans and waistcoats are also knitted, in both cotton and wool, and in a wide variety of colours.
THE BRIDAL SHIRT
In England there is evidence for a guernsey/gansey being knitted specially for a man to be married in, and it was called a bridal shirt. However no written evidence has been found in the Channel Islands for this expression being used, although there are one or two mentions of guernseys and smocks being made new for a wedding.
These were used to hold knitting needles, and to wedge the needles into, thereby taking the weight of the garment. No knitting sheaths or anything resembling them have been found in Guernsey, but they were for use with long needles, and would probably not have been of any use with the short needles used to knit the guernsey.
THE SACRED ACT OF KNITTING
There was a religious aspect to knitting, and a lot of very high quality work was done in convents in the Middle Ages and later. Gloves and other accessories were produced for Bishops and Cardinals, and also for Royalty.
Bishop Blaize, or St Blaize, is said to be the patron saint of wool-combers, and the medieval guilds had a religious aspect to them, but only one mention of a confraternity dedicated to St Blaize has been found, attached to the Town Church in St Peter Port, Guernsey. No evidence has been found for a knitting guild in Guernsey.
The National Trust of Guernsey has several knitted guernseys in its collection of local costumes.
Costume Curator, NTG Guernsey Folk & Costume Museum