Tradition & History

Edward Puckey, John Marks and Charles Jolliff of Polperro. All fine looking fishermen and proudly wearing their Ganseys. chaps

The navy blue Guernsey sweater is not peculiar to the county of Cornwall. It is found throughout the UK and The Channel Islands. They are also common across the North Sea in Holland too. 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 nineteenth century to describe a man's knitted garment as opposed to a sewn one.

The sweater itself was warm, very hard wearing and almost water proof which made it perfect for the very hard life of the fisherman. Contrary to popular belief, 5ply Guernsey wool is not oiled. The garment is knitted on very fine needles, 1.5-2.25mm which makes a very densely woven fabric which water finds hard to penetrate; a fact I can testify to as it takes some time to wet-block, waiting for the fabric to get thoroughly soaked. In Cornwall, the lower part of the sweater began with a ribbed welt and was knitted in plain stockinette to just below the armholes. The sleeves began in the same way and were also plain up to the fancy sleeve straps.

All this was purely practical. The cuffs and elbows would be worn out first and could easily be unravelled and reknit. The relief stitch patterns of knit and purl were saved for the chest and upper sleeve. The motifs were a combination of seeds, waves, bars, nets and ropes which echoed the fishing community and its environment. This patterned part, as well as being attractive, gave extra thickness and warmth to the exposed chest area. The whole sweater was totally reversible which was also purely practical eg: when the elbows wore a hole, you could just reverse the garment for a new lease of life.

Some women knitted initials into the garment for ease of identification but most families would have had their own style of patterning which they had consigned to memory and passed down through the family.

It was said that it took a Polperro knitter a week to knit a Gansey sweater which to me is incredible. I am by no means a slouch and yet I struggle to finish one within a month. Of course, it is true that the whole family played a part with the little ones knitting the rib or 'traces' (the sweater became too heavy for them to manage more), the middle children knitting the plain and mother knitting the more complicated pattern parts. The women's hands were never idle and they knit as they watched for shoals of fish and managed the family and home.




Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Jolliff

showing their knitting skills


 Charles Jolliff (1808-1887) next to his eldest son, Charles (jnr) and to the right, Polperro fisherman, Jim Curtis holding his daughter Kate - born in in ganseys

Payment was 3s 6d (17and half pence) for a 'fancy' Knitfrock, 2s 6d (12 and half pence) for a plain one and only 2s (10 pence) was paid if there was a fault in it.

In the official census of 1851, twenty eight women and girls from Polperro were listed as 'knitters'. A large percentage for a small village. But at this time, with wives who had husbands at sea or working abroad in mining, the women bore the financial burden of the children. They worked under contract to an agent who brought fresh supplies of yarn either weekly or monthy, inspected and collected the completed work and made the payments.

It is interesting to note how canny the women were in their methods of economy. Contract Ganseys were often stretched through a mangle to make the length. This meant they could keep a little of the yarn left over to make socks and garments for their own families. Wholesalers got wise to this however, and soon had a method of weighing each sweater before payment was made.

Speed and accuracy were key to contract knitters and the use of a knitting stick/fish  or belt was very important. This tool helped anchor the working needle and helped keep finger movements small, thus speeding up the throwing of loops. In addition, the growing weight of the gansey could be secured over or pinned to the belt which gave the knitter added mobility as she didn't need to carry the knitting in her arms. In this way, very high speeds of up to 200 stitches per minute could be acheived.

The needles themselves were made of steel. Due to their fineness of diameter, any other material such as wood would just snap under the weight. Knitting sticks or fish were often made of wood and are highly decorative items. Some examples can be seen at The Polperro Heritage Museum. Initials and dates were often carved into them and the items were often unique to their owners. Many were fashioned by young men and given as tokens of affection.

During the First World War, when needles were hard to come by, there are memories of bicycle spokes being used. Circular needles were never used; only five double ended steel needles about 36cm in length.

Why not try knitting a Cornish Gansey or Knitfrock yourself? With our Classic Kits, you'll have everything you need to get started. Your fingers will craft a garment to last a lifetime and you'll also be sharing a part of Cornwall's Knitting Heritage.

Photographs by kind permission of Polperro Press



Elizabeth Jolliff. Girls learn to knit at an early age.