Inside a Guernsey – the traditional knitted garment unravelled

Technology (and its associated gadgets) is killing off traditional crafts – discuss.
The above proposition might seem to be a foregone conclusion. After all, why would anybody take the time and effort to make something by hand when there is all manner of technology and numerous devices to do it for them? However, the situation is not so dire as it might seem, as I found recently.
Usually about this time of year, when the nights get longer and colder, I get the urge to start knitting. I’m not sure why, except that I can think of the reason I don’t knit in summer. The idea of sitting with an ever-growing pile of knitting in progress on my lap during the hot weather just doesn’t appeal.
When the urge hits, I generally wander into my LYS (local yarn store, for those who don’t frequent knitting blogs), spend an hour or so trying to decide which yarn to buy, what to make, and take it from there. This year though I deviated from the pattern. I decided to make a Guernsey.
A guernsey is a traditional knitted garment worn by seamen, originating from the Channel Island of Guernsey. So says Wikipedia. They are reputed to date back as far as the 15th century, when the island was granted a royal warrant to import wool, and to export the resulting knitted goods to Normandy and Spain. I presume this means the concept dates back to the 15th century, not an individual garment. Guernseys are knitted from a tightly spun yarn, and knitted with relatively small firm stitches, so they keep out the wind and spray, ensuring a warm and cosy wearer. The traditional pattern also is knitted with no differentiation between front and back, so it can be worn either way round. This means the garment lasts longer, since the wear is equally spread. No elbows hanging out for the Channel Island seamen!
There are a number of myths about guernseys, not all of which turn out to be true. There is even a division of opinion on whether they actually come from Guernsey. Similar garments are found all around the coast of the British Isles. There doesn’t seem to be any differentiation between the spelling ‘guernsey’, which might be expected to have come from the Channel Islands, and ‘gansey’, which could come from anywhere.
Fishermen in the seas off the British coast used to follow schools of herring and other fish all around the coast, so it stands to reason that a garment as useful and practical as the guernsey would have been copied by anybody who saw one. Each knitter would also have put their own interpretation on it, and devised their own patterns, which also leads us to another myth.
It is said that a drowned fisherman could be identified by the pattern on his guernsey, or that at least the garment would tell which village he came from. However, this seems unlikely. Similar patterns crop up all around the coast, and in some photographs of groups of men from the same village, or even the same family, there are a number of different patterns of guernsey. What seems more likely is that some knitters had their own favourite patterns, and might knit matching garments for all the men in their family, or keep knitting the same pattern many times.
Interestingly, not all of the wearers were men. Their womenfolk, who were kept busy onshore gutting herring or other salubrious occupations, had their own guernseys, which were not always the traditional blue that the men wore, but pink or green. I guess a girl who spent all day up to her elbows in fish guts liked to look her best. The only photo of this that I could find is from the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Scotland. The photo is in black and white, so the exact colour can’t be seen, but it certainly isn’t navy. As an aside, the girl is ‘tying up’ her fingers, but with what, and why, is probably best left to the imagination.
So, having put to rest some of the myths surrounding guernseys, it was time to get started on my own. I went looking for wool, and although I could have bought some from the UK, which would have been more traditional, I decided to support the Australian wool industry instead, and requested a shade card from the Bendigo Woollen Mills. I needed some kind of pattern too, but I wanted my own guernsey, not somebody else’s, so I disregarded the commercial patterns I found, and instead bought a book on the construction of guernseys. I know that once I have an understanding of how to make the basic shape, I can devise my own combination of patterns, cables etc. to make a unique garment.
I’m also going to need new needles, since guernseys are usually knitted on a circular needle, and I don’t have one. I had always assumed that needles were needles, but apparently not. There is extensive debate on knitting sites about different brands, how sharp the points should be, whether you prefer smooth slippery needles or ones that are slightly less slippery and give better control of the yarn. One person even knits with flat pointed needles, but there were no photos, and I am left trying without success to visualise these rarities.
So, before I have even cast on a single stitch, I have learned quite a lot about the guernsey, its origins, the people who wore it, the people who now knit it and are keeping the tradition alive. By reading various blogs I have also learnt something about human nature, the different attitudes and beliefs of the people who write the blogs.
Is technology killing off traditional crafts? I don’t think so.

Julie Livingstone 2015

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