They say that if you wait long enough, then anything from the past will eventually come back into fashion. And true enough; over the decades we’ve seen all sorts of unlikely fashions from yesteryear experience a new lease of life on the high street Disco pants, eighties neon and double denim… I’m looking at you.
However, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who was slightly amused and bemused to see our very own Guernsey jumper (which is over 400 years old) hit the headlines recently. At first, it may seem quite hard to imagine how a fisherman’s jumper, with humble seafaring origins, could make it into a glossy spread in Vogue – and be sported by none other than world renowned supermodel Kate Moss. Recently the Guernsey was promoted on ITV news by intrepid explorer Ben Fogle – It seems official; the Guernsey is in the media glare, it’s being worn by the fashion set. Celebrity endorsement has elevated our much loved Guernsey jumper into the upper echelons of glamorous knitwear. Forget cashmere and forget angora… it’s all about the Guernsey. It’s never been cooler to be seen in vintage look clothes, brogues and chunky knits that could have been worn by your grandparents.
The Guernsey or ‘Gansey’ is a garment that was originally valued for its practicality. Knitted using oily lanolin wool, it serves as a great insulator against the elements. It’s important to remember that not so long ago, the main stays of the Island’s economy were the tomato trade and the fishing industry – the latter job requiring the fisherman to be outdoors in all weathers and temperatures. The Guernsey was therefore seen as a vital item of clothing. Traditionally, a wife would knit a Guernsey for her husband – once completed, she could sleep safe at night, secure in the knowledge that her fisherman would be snug in his woollens, mostly protected from harsh winds and relentless sea spray.
The Guernsey has a simple yet unusual shape. For example, if you look closely at a Guernsey, then you’ll notice that the sleeves are much lower on the arm than on your standard jumper. The sleeves are stitched on below the armpit, (knitted on by hand to the main body of the jumper as a finishing touch) allowing for unrestricted movement – something that is a priority when you’re controlling a boat in unpredictable weather. The tightly woven stitching on the sleeves denotes different maritime symbols, such as rigging, ropes and waves breaking upon the shore. Occasionally, certain patterns on a Guernsey could be used as an identifier for men from different families or parishes. So you’d be able to tell your Queripel from Torteval from your Le Page from Castel just by his clothes. Looking back now, this creativity may have seemed like a cute personal touch, however this decision to customise the Guernsey was not fashion based. The grisly truth, was that the unique pattern meant that if a man had been lost at sea and his body eventually washed ashore, the pattern of his Guernsey – the lanolin wool not being damaged by the sea – would lead quickly to his identification. The high symmetrical neckline meant that the Guernsey could be worn back to front – if you got one side dirty or it started to show a bit of wear and tear then you could just flip it round. It was seen as an enduringly loyal item of clothing – iconic Guernsey.
Guernsey jumpers and stockings are historic objects with a rich heritage – and date back as far as the 1600s when English wool was first imported to the island. According to the BBC and The British Museum’s ‘A History of the World’ project, Guernsey knitting even had royal connections – Mary Queen of Scots is said to have been executed in her favourite pair of Guernsey stockings.
If you go down to the Fermain Tavern today, there’s a fair chance that you will see one or two middle aged professionals (and maybe even a sixth form student) wearing their Guernseys with nonchalance. However, if you ask these finance types why they wear their fisherman’s Guernsey, you’ll notice that they’ll tell you their sentimental reasons for doing so with a typical Guernsey donkey sense of pride. My sixteen-year-old brother even asked for a Guernsey for Christmas – and when I questioned him why, he replied that not only was it an ideal garment for outdoor pursuits (you’ll often find him down the shooting range on a Sunday) but also that he liked to support local industry. Furthermore, it reminded him of his roots and heritage. “If I’m looking for a quality jumper, then why wouldn’t I go for the best?” The Guernsey is not disposable fashion – for many it’s an heirloom.
So what do we make of the Guernsey becoming ‘on trend’? Well, we won’t settle for anything less than the very best, will we? It’s only natural for it to be modelled in one of the world’s leading fashion bibles and by top models. Because what does a publication such as Vogue, Kate Moss and the Guernsey have in common? They’re timeless.
This article was written by Louise Le Pelley (of http://www.lavalisedelouise.com) and appeared in the Fashion section of Gallery Magazine Guernsey’s 2014 Passion Issue