We explore the origins of a knitwear icon favoured by everyone from the humble Guernsey fisherman to the British Armed Forces.
Originally designed to keep the island’s seafaring men warm and dry in the Channel’s notoriously unpredictable conditions, the traditional Guernsey jumper is a robust knitted garment that has been around since the 17th century – and it’s still going strong. Still produced and hand-finished on the small Channel Island from which it takes its name, this deceptively simple looking jumper has quite the rich history.
As an industry, knitting on the island can be traced back over 500 years, with famous fans including Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, who was wearing Guernsey-knitted stockings on the day of her execution. The actual Guernsey jumper, however, is believed to have been developed in the 17th century, knitted with close stitches from tightly twisted wool that help it withstand sea spray and heavy rain. It features a clever diamond insert at the underarm and slits at the side of the waist, both to allow ease of movement within the thick woollen style.
Knitted by fishermen’s wives, the pattern of the jumper was passed down from mother to daughter through the generations, with islanders hand-knitting distinctive patterns into the design that still remain today. The ribbing at the top of the sleeve mirrors a ship’s rope ladder, while a garter stitch panel depicts waves breaking on the shore. Many families had their own variation of patterns; this was not only a way of showing your husband your knitting prowess, it also meant that if he was unfortunate enough to go missing at sea you would have a way to identify the body – cheerful, maybe not, but useful nonetheless.
The Guernsey was first widely used in the uniform of the 19th century British Royal Navy, and legend has it they were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar. Since then they have been worn by the crew of the Virgin Atlantic Challenger power boat and several teams in The British Challenge of the Americas Cup, as well as by British Forces serving in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. However, the most common place to spot a Guernsey? At the ports and piers of, well, Guernsey, where the local fisherman (and everyone else, really) still sport their traditional navy knits with pride.
For the past two seasons Sunspel have taken inspiration from this classic coastal style and created our own Guernsey; first from merino wool and now, just in time for spring, from a soft cotton instead. Referencing the original, the Sunspel Guernsey features a high ribbed neck and ribbed cuffs, and comes in the traditional navy as well as a smart ecru shade.
Discover the Sunspel Guernsey jumper online and in store now.