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Guernseymen wearing their guernseys at Lé Viaer Marchi (The Old Market), Guernsey

A guernsey, or gansey, is a seaman's knitted woollen sweater, similar to a jersey, which originated in the Channel Island of the same name.



The guernsey is the mainstay of Guernsey's knitting industry which can be dated back to the late fifteenth century when a royal grant was obtained to import wool from England and re-export knitted goods to Normandy and Spain. Exactly when the Guernsey was first knitted is unknown. Peter Heylin described the manufacture and export of "wast-cotes" during the reign of Charles I. The first use of the name "guernsey" outside of the island is in the 1851 Oxford Dictionary, however, the garment was in use in the bailiwick before that.[1]

The guernsey came into being as a garment for fishermen who required a warm, hard wearing, yet comfortable item of clothing that would resist the sea spray. The hard twist given to the tightly packed wool fibres in the spinning process and the tightly knitted stitches, produced a finish that would "turn water" and is capable of repelling rain and spray.[2]

The guernsey was traditionally knitted by the fishermen's wives and the pattern passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. This is a practice which still exists today with the final finishing of the machine-knit parts completed by hand.[2]

Through trade links established in the seventeenth century, the guernsey found favour with seafarers around the British Isles, and many coastal communities developed their own "ganseys" based on the original pattern. Whilst the classic guernsey pattern remained plain, the stitch patterns used became more complex the further north the garment spread, with the most complex evolving in the Scottish fishing villages.[3]


Two styles of guernsey exist: a plain "working" guernsey and a "finer" example that was generally saved for special occasions and Sunday-best attire.[4]

The "working" guernsey design was kept simpler in order to reduce the amount of time and materials needed to produce. The sale of knitted garments to supplement family income was important to many island families and thus the garments that were sold were also of a simple design. It is estimated that a total of 84 hours was needed to complete a guernsey: a simpler design could be produced faster than a more elaborate one.[5]

The guernsey that is still produced on the island retains much of the original design and patterns. The rib at the top of the sleeve is said to represent a sailing ship’s rope ladder in the rigging, the raised seam across the shoulder a rope, and the garter stitch panel waves breaking upon the beach. As a working garment, the gussets under the arm and at the neck are for ease of movement, as are the splits at the hem.[2]

Worn as a source of pride and often knitted by prospective wives "to show the industrious nature of the woman he was about to marry", the "finer" guernsey was more elaboratly patterned than its working cousin.[4] With the advent of the machine-knitted guernsey and the decline in the knitting industry, this guernsey is a much rarer sight.

Formerly, when all garments were hand-knit, it was possible to identify which parish or family the wearer came from. This potentially could help identify the bodies of sailors lost overboard.[3][2][4]

The guernsey's tightly knitted fibres and its square shape, with a straight neck so that it could be reversed, make it a particularly hardy item of clothing.[6] It is not uncommon for a guernsey to last several decades and be passed down in families.

Use in the British Royal Navy

The guernsey was first widely used in the rating uniform of the nineteenth century British Royal Navy.[7][8] It is said that guernseys were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar.[6] The association of the guernsey with the British military has continued into the twenty-first century. In 2006, the British 7th Armoured Division ordered three hundred sweaters from a company in Guernsey and these were sent out to Iraq. Each jumper was hand-finished in a neutral colour and had the Desert Rat insignia sewn onto the left hand sleeve.[9]

Use in Australian sport

In Australia, the word "guernsey" is used to describe the usually sleeveless shirt worn by Australian rules football players, although the word “jumper” is also commonly used.[10][11] The top worn by National Rugby League and Australian Rugby Union players is more commonly called a jersey,[12][13] though it is still frequently called a guernsey, often interchangeably. As an extension of this tradition, the expression "to get a guernsey"[14] is a metaphor for being selected for something or to gain recognition for an achievement.

BBC 'A History of the World'

A guernsey from the Folk Museum Guernsey was included in the 2010 BBC project A History of the World in 100 Objects.[15]


  1. ^ Marr, L.J. (1982), A History of the Bailiwick of Guernsey Philmore & Co. Ltd
  2. ^ a b c d "The Story of the Guernsey"[1] accessed 6 May 2008
  3. ^ a b "A Short History of the Hand-Knitted Gansey"[2] accessed 6 May 2008
  4. ^ a b c Lambert, G.A. (2002) The Taxonomy of Sweater Structures and Their Origins, Raleigh
  5. ^ Pearson, M. (1984) Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company
  6. ^ a b "The History of the Gansey"[3] accessed 6 May 2008
  7. ^ "The History of Rating Uniforms"[4] accessed 6 May 2008
  8. ^ "Traditional Guernsey knitwear and genuine Alderney sweaters from the Channel Islands"[5] accessed 6 May 2008
  9. ^ "Desert Rats get 'knitted out' for Iraqi winter" [6] accessed 6 May 2008
  10. ^ "Guernsey". Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms. Australian National Dictionary Centre. Retrieved 30 December 2009. 
  11. ^ AFL heritage critics slammed by Worsfold
  12. ^ Jackson, Glenn; "Pride in the Rabbitohs jersey - and dollars, too", Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 2006, accessed 9 January 2007
  13. ^ "History of the ARU" [7] accessed 9 January 2007
  14. ^ Miller, Nick; "Technology gets a guernsey", Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November 2006, accessed 9 January 2007
  15. ^ BBC 'A History of the World'


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