A Brief History of Knitted Garments

The use of wool in garments can be hard to trace precisely as it predates written records and the material, on exposure to oxygen, is so beautifully biodegradable! We do know that for a period over the Middle Ages and into the pre-industrial era, the British Isles were considered to be a world-leading centre of wool production, weaving and knitting but the economic importance of rearing sheep and processing their fleece dates back a few thousand years before that. Sheep were great fertilisers of land, sometimes provided meat and milk and even before the days when it was spun into wool, men used wild sheep’s fleece as simple protection from the elements. On open boats, seal and sheep skins would have been the closest to waterproof material available.

The first domesticated sheep were probably brought to Britain by Neolithic settlers. Woven materials appear in Northern Europe from Neolithic times and two pieces of evidence of it have been found in Scotland, but wool was probably not commonly woven in Britain until the Bronze Age when men began to farm and shear the sheep. Before this, wool naturally moulted from ancient breeds as the seasons changed. Soay sheep, for example, will moult each summer. (Modern sheep breeds do not tend to moult).

Soay sheep are the most genetically similar to Iron Age breeds, they are considered to be “living fossils” and of great scientific interest, their traits having changed so little over the centuries. Today, they are mostly found on the outer fingers of North West Britain, in the
archipelago of St Kilda.

Looking north-eastwards to Shetland, ancient flocks were probably bred with those brought by Norse Settlers and centuries earlier, when Romans brought their own preferred breeds of sheep, more mixing of the ovine gene pool on mainland Britain was enabled. The land on which sheep are grazed influences the nature of the wool they produce and the names of breeds are often linked to where they originated.

Wool was first spun by hand, then on a drop or whorl spindle but gradually spinning wheels and weaving looms were developed which worked their magic on the raw material with the resulting yarn increasingly being refined to something prized as well as practical. Wool is resilient, takes dye well and is perfect for felting. Whether it was spun into “worsted” or “woollen” yarn depended on the properties of the wool fibres. (Trousers and waistcoats for seamen were made of a dark blue woollen material known as Pilot Cloth).

Producing and selling wool played a significant role in the economies of a succession of peoples to settle and control Britain, being encouraged by the Romans and Normans, providing the wealth that built monasteries in the C12th, stimulating export trade across the Medieval and Early Modern eras and displacing highland communities in the C18th whilst shaping the towns of the industrial north of England.

Overcoming a temporary decline in the early C14th, the desirability of the output from highly-skilled hand-knitting cottage industries and guilds in Britain surged and were sought at markets across the continent for another couple of hundred years. (The bonnet makers of Dundee, for example, formed their guild in 1496). The industry had peaked again by the C15th & C16th in part thanks to the interventions of English monarchs Edward III and Elizabeth I and the arrival of skilled weavers from Flanders and France.

Monumental changes to the industry were wrought between 1750 and 1850. Methods of spinning and weaving were radically altered for the first time ​since the C14th revival. Even when hand – knitting retreated from the march of mechanisation in urban centres, it survived in remote and coastal communities, perpetuated by skilled knitters of agricultural and
fishing towns and villages.

Ganseys, as they were known in Scotland, were hardwearing jumpers which have been worn by fishermen since the eighteenth century. A robust, weather-resistant garment, usually navy blue and featuring unique features (such as the underarm gussets and seamless structure) and an array of distinct patterns, its purpose was more than just to keep the fishermen warm. By the late nineteenth century the gansey formed part of a fisherman’s “uniform”, his jumper made by members of his family or wider community, proudly identifying his occupation.

In 1955, at the tail end of the Herring Industry’s good fortunes, Gladys Thomson set out to document gansey patterns from around the British Isles, her book was reprinted in 1971 in the context of a very different economic and social landscape. Later that decade and into the 1980s, perhaps as a reaction to a perceived extinction of long-held craft skills and cherished natural materials, a flurry of interest was ignited with the publication of books by Michal Harvey, Rae Compton, Michael Pearson, Henrietta Munro and others. More recently, Esther Rutter has written eloquently about ganseys and other knitting traditions in her wonderful book This Golden Fleece.

The Moray Firth Gansey Project, launched in 2007 revived public interest up north and established the beginnings of an informal national network of interested, passionate and knowledgeable individuals. The Knitting the Herring project intends to pick up where our friends in Moray left off, driving forward connections between knitters, designers, teachers and researchers, charting the existence of ganseys around the whole coast, consolidating knowledge on their construction, patterns, makers and wearers and celebrating the durable, wonders of wool and the skilful dexterity required to convert it into a beautiful, practical item of clothing.

Jen Gordon, Assistant Curator (Audience Engagement) at the Scottish Fisheries Museum

If you have any information or know of any recent research linked to the contents of this piece,
please Get in Touch!

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