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A history and characteristics of Guernsey knitwear

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March 3, 2014 by Ville Raivio

Guernsey jumpers are original work and leisure models born on the British protectorate island of Guernsey. One of the oldest pieces of knitwear, Guernseys have been knitted since the 1600s as fishermen’s work clothing. The Island has produced knitwear for export since the 15th century, when Guernsey was granted a royal permit for importing English wool and selling jumpers and such made from the raw material. The rolling swells and surging gusts of the English Channel are still a challenging place to fish in, but these must be thanked for the particular jumpers: the fishermen needed very warm, durable, waterproof and flexible workwear for the settings, so these characteristics took a woollen form.

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A Guernsey, made by Le Tricoteur, with shoulder seams set on biceps

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The collar is of even height and form on both sides

While there cannot be The Guernsey jumper, as knitters have always used different patterns and marks of individuality, most of them share many details which combine to make Guernsey jumpers unique. Most of them are made from unfinished British worsted wool, with the sheep’s natural lanolin left in the yarn. These jumpers have more or less bestial smell, but the wool grease helps them strongly to repel water and dirt. Traditional models have a many-plied construction, with 5-ply choices common, where the individual yarns are twisted tightly together to combine one thick and durable yarn. The body of the jumper is straight, sleeves tapering close to the cuff, and the models have no front or back side. The jumper can be worn with either side facing front over the years, so the yarns won’t rub or wear from the same places each time.

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Neck gusset on both sides of the O-neck

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Ribbed sleeve tops

Guernseys have a high O-neck with gussets for strength, and cuffs are longer than average to protect from cold winds. Two slits in the hem line and shoulder seams placed on the biceps guarantee flexibility. Large, separate underarm gussets provide great range of movement. The hem also has a garter stitch welt for burly good looks. Guernsey jumpers are longer than average to cover and protect the waist at all times. All of these many, wonderful characteristics are designed to protect the wearer and form the perfect knitted work garment. Well, very close to perfect as the wool is scratchy and has an odd smell for us landlubbers. The odour will lessen with washes, but the reader with dry or tender skin should be advised to wear a long sleeve shirt under Guernseys.

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Underarm gusset

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Long, long cuffs

Traditionally the fishermen’s wives would knit jumpers for the whole family and pass on their patterns to the daughters. The isle’s knitwear would travel through trade to other British nations in the 17th century, and many coastal villages created their own interpretations from Guernseys. The original, modest models became more decorative the higher up North they travelled. The most colourful (or garish) jumpers were created in Scottish altitudes. The strong Guernseys were also taken as part of the British navy’s regulation uniform in the 19th century.

A_history_of_Guernsey_knitwear_at_Keikari_dot_com07Garter stitch welt

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Slit hem line for movement

The jumper patterns were symbolic for the fishing men, representing ropes, waves, chains, nets and traces on the sand. The Guernsey island has numerous versions of its namesake jumper, but a crude split can be made into two archetypes: the modest work garment and the decorative holiday piece. The simple jumper was easier and faster to knit, and most of the export models were humble but handy. Still, any fully hand-knitted Guernsey takes dozens of hours to create. Knitwear was an important source of income for the isle’s people like the Aran jumpers were up North. 

A_history_of_Guernsey_knitwear_at_Keikari_dot_com09The X marking the spot

A_history_of_Guernsey_knitwear_at_Keikari_dot_com10Flat and comfy seams

When the knitwear’s strong 5-ply yarn and details are summed correctly, one understands that Guernseys are nearly perfect work clothes. Flexible, warm, strong and durable from one year to another. The factories still working on the island have been forced to broaden their range in the hopes of prospective customers — Guernsey jumpers are difficult to wear through. When the classic navy blue one has been bought, there is no need for other pieces for the random buyer in many years. Factories have also taken to bright colours and cotton versions for summer to help the business. Most of the jumpers on offer today are hand-finished, but knitting hasn’t been discarded in the island so the old-world make can still be found. Guernsey knitwear is far from dressy, the thickness alone won’t make it in an office setting, but in work, leisure, sailing and fishing it protects any wearer from the elements like woollen armour.

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3 comments »

  1. john miller says:

    Thank you for an informative page on the Guernsey jumper,I have five! two navy,one grey, one rust and one bright red, all second hand,a testimony to their durability.I have pondered over many years as to whether there is a front and a back,turning them over and over,leaning back..close up too so puzzle solved thank you.. phew!that’s another mystery I can tick off my list.

  2. Ville Raivio says:

    Thank you for the correction — the text is now edited.

  3. Rob Ozanne says:

    Please edit your article, Guernsey is NOT an English Island. The Channel Islands are a self Governed British protectorate. The residents are British subjects definitely not English !

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