The term Gansey and Guernsey are interchangeable as far as describing a knitted woollen sweaters, often worn by fishermen, goes. The Guernsey originates from the Channel Island of the same name. However, the origin of the Gansey is from coastal Britain with distinct designs from Scotland, north Yorkshire and Tyneside. To further complicate matters the Jersey, a similar knitted sweater, is usually a machine knitted garment whereas the Guernsey is hand knitted.
The knitting industry of Guernsey can be dated back to the late 15th century when a royal warrant permitted the import of wool from mainland England and then the export of knitted items to France and Spain. By the 17th century the increasing range of fishing fleets bought the Guernsey designs to other British ports inspiring the local women to knit a local Gansey and hence the more regional history of the Gansey. Interestingly, Gansey’s were often worn as undergarments requiring less detailing as they were only seen as the wearer peeled off layers as temperature increased. Over time the Gansey became the choice as outer garment and designs became more detailed accordingly.
Guernsey deigns were handed down from mother to daughter making them unique to families or areas. Without, generally, the ability to print and read patterns, designs were memorised and different designs were to be found within the same locality. Different designs existed for Whitby, Filey and Scarborough though only 25 miles separates the furthest towns.
Like many clothes of the poorer working classes Guernsey’s came in standard working quality and finer ‘Sunday best’ quality. With the time taken to knit a Guernsey being over 80 hours, work wear had to have simple designs that allowed for the quickest production for either family members or for sale as another source of income. Finer ‘best’ Guernseys were more elaborate and as much to show off the skills of the knitter.
By the 19th century the Guernsey had become the uniform of ratings in the Royal Navy and association with the UK’s armed forces continues today.