Megan Westley unravels the history of Cornish knit-frocks and guernseys
Over a century ago, in cottage gardens all around the coast of Cornwall, the gentle clacking of knitting needles would have been a common sound. Equally as common would be the sight of an indigo blue jumper – though the intricate pattern each man bore on his chest would rarely be seen on another.
The tradition of Cornish guernseys and knit-frocks has its roots firmly in the fishing industry which once dominated this region. Guernsey jumpers themselves are not uniquely Cornish – they have been made all over Britain for many years. Named from the knitting industry that found success in the Channel Islands, guernseys were nevertheless seen throughout the British mainland thanks to strong sea links.
Those produced in Cornwall, however, have a distinct history all their own. The pattern of each garment showed, to a certain extent, the place in which it was made. Each fishing family wore hand-knitted guernseys in their ‘family pattern,’ meaning that if either fisherman or jumper was lost, its wearer could be identified. Naturally, in different parts of Cornwall patterns could be replicated by chance, but within small communities this identification process would have worked.
On a practical level, the jumpers were well-suited for fishermen as their thick, tightly knitted wool provided vital warmth and protection from the sea-spray and blustery winds that could hit when out on the waves. If well-made, they could last for more than twenty years and became an item of clothing for all occasions. Young boys were given oversized guernseys that reached their knees; something to ‘grow into.’
The tradition of knitting guerseys began as early as the 17th century in the Channel Islands. Around the same time, a Cornish industry in hand-spinning began to form, using the wool from local sheep to make yarn that could be sold at markets. This was largely a female occupation – women would receive deliveries of raw wool, to be spun into yarn at home. By the end of the 18th century, the invention of new machinery made these hand-spinners redundant. To fill the gap, hand-knitting developed as a popular pastime.
Although knitting is popularlyassociated with dark winter evenings in front of a roaring fire, before the days of homes lit by electricity people often knitted outdoors for better light. The method they followed was also different to that which we use today. Most women used a holder; a piece of hardwood around twenty centimetres long, which could be hooked onto a belt or waistband.
This acted as a sort of ‘anchor,’ or stand, for one of the needles, meaning that it no longer had to be held; leaving one hand free for faster working. These holders, known as knitting sticks, were made from wood and decorated with ornate designs. They were often used as gifts, with men buying sticks carved with hearts or their initials for their sweethearts. The needles used for a traditional guernsey were made of steel, very thin in width, and pointed at both ends. During the First World War, shortages led to some women improvising by using bicycle or umbrella spokes.
Guernseys became so iconically associated with fishing that the eccentric Reverend Hawker of Morwenstow made a point of choosing to wear them instead of clerical robes, describing himself as a ‘fisher of men.’ The traditional dress of a clergyman was cast aside in favour of a three-quarter length coat, ‘blue fisherman’s jersey’ and long boots.
Though Hawker’s life was far removed from that of a fisherman, he did have a remarkable affinity with those who made their living on the sea. He made it a personal quest to give drowned men a Christian burial; scrambling down the cliffs whenever there was a wreck to retrieve the bodies and carry them safely to shore. His unusual costume, featuring at least two differently patterned guernseys, can be seen in several of the photographs and sketches made during his later years.
Nowhere in Cornwall is the practice of knitting guernseys – or knit-frocks – as well-recorded as in Polperro. In a village dominated by its relationship with the sea, most residents worked within the fishing industry, either on or off shore.
Those not casting the nets themselves might be employed making boats, cleaning, washing and salting fish, or manufacturing ropes and nets. Wives and mothers with husbands and sons out at sea, spent much of their time knitting outside. In tight-knit communities (so to speak), making knit-frocks could be a social activity, with children learning to join in as soon as they could work the needles. It was also a possible career route: in 1851, 28 women and girls were employed as knitters in this small village.
At the beginning of the 20th century, women could earn 3s. 6d. for a ‘fancy’ knit-frock, and between 2s. 6d. and 2s. 9d. for a plain one. A skilled knitter could make one knit-frock a week; not bad when a domestic servant earned only an average of 9d. each week. It wasn’t just in Polperro that money could be made this way. Contract knitting became a good money-making venture for women whose husbands worked away, either in foreign climes or on the sea. Many had young children to care for and were not able to go out to work as single women might. By 1901, almost 6,500 wives had husbands working in a maritime trade.
Contract knitters became a vital cog in an expanding home industry, often producing garments for an agent who visited once a week or once a month. Generally, the agent supplied yarn, the knitter made a guernsey, and the agent collected the work to be sold. Other knitters took their finished items to a shop, though this often resulted in being paid in kind, rather than in cash. In Looe, one shopkeeper refused to pay anyone with money, and instead only gave out goods from her stock.
Despite its downsides, contract knitting was a reasonable occupation for those who needed it, and it continued for many years. The industry in Looe was still alive in the 1930s. It could also be a communal activity – in Polperro, women knitted in groups, meeting along the cliff path or on high rocks over the harbour. To get the most out of the free yarn that was given to them, some used leftover scraps to knit stockings for their children – these were often inadvertently patterned many shades of blue from different batches of wool. If an agent suspected this was happening, he could choose to weigh the finished items to check that they equalled the yarn originally given out.
The Polperro knit-frock is now seen as so uniquely Cornish that it was one of the items chosen as part of ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects.’ This project, which ran throughout 2011, explored the Duchy’s heritage through objects found in its galleries, historic sites and museums. In being chosen, the knit-frock joined other famous objects from Cornwall’s past, such as the Davy Safety Lamp, a hurling ball and William Bickford’s safety fuse.
One of the reasons that Polperro is so well known for its knit-frocks is that a photographic record of its fishermen and their clothing was created from the 1850s onwards. A collection of 82 images of local men, each named, were captured by photographer Lewis Harding. Photographs such as these – along with others in private collections – now form the most comprehensive record of the different patterns that were once used. Patterns were generally not written down, but instead passed from mother to daughter by word of mouth and demonstration.
The book Cornish Guernseys and Knit-Frocks by Mary Wright contains many of these patterns, from towns and villages such as Sennen, St Ives, Porthleven, Bude, Looe and, of course, Polperro. It is a reliable and authentic starting point for anyone keen to try making a guernsey or knit-frock of their own – and to keep alive this wonderful, now sadly lesser-known, Cornish tradition. Photography provided by care of Polperro Heritage Press.
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This feature first appeared in myCornwall Vol 2 Issue 9 December 2011/January 2012. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine here for the very best of Cornwall’s food, culture, events, art, heritage, personalities and places.