During a recent trip to Cornwall I stayed in the picturesque fishing harbour of Polperro.

Apart from the place being a picturesque fishing harbour, the other reason I had wanted to stay there was for the history of Cornish guernseys and knit-frocks.

Guernseys (or ganseys) were essential wear for the Fisherman in fishing communities around the British coast and the western coast of Europe. Wool was ideal for outdoor wear plus it could be repaired and worked at home so was economical. Another important factor for the Fisherman was that it dries by body heat when wet.

The name 'Guernsey' reflects the close links with the Channel Island. 

The sweater was knitted in one piece on sets of long needles (umbrella spokes were also used in hard times). They were worked in the round to the underarm level, normally with a mock seam on the sides to differentiate the front from the back. Once the underarm level had been reached, the back and front were then knitted separately, then joined back together at the shoulders. The Sleeves were picked up and knitted downwards from the shoulder to the wrist. The neck would be either ribbed or have a button opening. The guernsey often had the fisherman's initials knitted under the arm or above the welt so they could be identified if they drowned.

Patterns were usually in knit and purl stitches only along with cables, which were used in bands horizontally, in panels vertically or in yoked patterns. Some guernseys also had contrast patterned shoulder straps.

In Polperro, guernseys were knitted to help the small income of the residents and were taken to a collecting base in the nearest large town, where more yarn was purchased, and carried home for the next batch of knitting.

Patterns tended to be more varied in areas further away from towns as families had their own versions.

The wool varied from area to area but was usually dark, often navy blue or even black and was a smoothly spun yarn of five-ply weight. Finer yarn was also used but whatever thickness used, the needles were always extremely fine for the wool quality, producing a fabric that could be more water resistant and ultimately less absorbant than softly spun and openly knitted yarn.

As well as being used for fishing, new guernseys were also worn for weddings, then kept for best or Sunday wear until lthe next guernsey was knitted, older ones being worn for weekdays until they could no longer be repaired. Even then they were not always thrown away as the thrifty housewife could unravel the yarn and send her old guernseys to the mill to be turned into blankets.

The Polperro Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing has a really nice display of Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks. I really enjoyed this display during my visit and looking at the intricate stitches on them.

Here is a link to their website:

www.polperro.org/museum.html

Whilst visiting the museum I was able to purchase a knitting kit produced by the Cornish Gansey Company which are knitted in the traditionaly 5-ply weight wool. I could have chosen a scarf or hat to knit but in the end I opted for the mittens kit which had a lovely beading detail. I didn't opt for the traditional navy blue colour, instead I chose this beautiful mustard colour. Here is a picture of my finished mittens:

Little Laney Beaded Mittens

I absolutely love my new mittens! The yarn was knitted tightly so they are going to be nice and hard wearing for my winter walks along Brighton beach!

Here is a link to the Cornish Gansey company website where the kits, yarns, and books about the history of Cornish Guernseys/knit-frocks can be purchased:

www.thecornishganseycompany.co.uk

My trip to Cornwall has left me well and truely inspired by the Cornish Guernsey history. I'm currently obsessed with looking into the construction and stitch patterns of the sweaters.

Both my husband and I love to sail and also enjoy mackerel fishing on Brighton Marina.

I've promised to knit my husband a traditional guernsey sweater and also some mittens for the winter.

I'm looking forward to blogging my progress once I make a start.