I keep coming back to the question of when seamen and fishermen started wearing knit upper body garments. I open the topic of "Traditions of Commercial Fishing in Great Britain", and folks bring up anecdotes about herring and salmon fishing in the 18th and 19th Centuries. No!, I want to go back to when British fishermen were developing the skills, tools, ships, and systems that allowed them to “fish out” the waters around Britain by 1300 AD. When people talk about “traditional” fishing from the coast of England in the 19th Century, they are talking about fishing in waters that had been fished out for 600 years. They are talking about the last embers of a long dead industry.
Read *Cod* by Mark Kurlansky (ISBN 0-08027-1326-2) very carefully. Look at the bench ends from St. Nicolas' Chapel near Norfolk, England in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that were carved circa 1415. These bench ends depict English ships in the Icelandic Cod Fishery. They went to Iceland because they had fished out home waters.
Iceland was cold. It was a longer voyage. And, it belonged to the Hansa. A British ship caught fishing in Hansa waters was in trouble. Fishing Icelandic waters was the result of British fishermen being so good that they had taken all the fish closer to home. The St. Nicolas' Chapel bench ends tells us that those British fishermen were good enough to make a great success of the Icelandic Fishery, despite its great difficulty. The bench ends tell us that they had mastered the concept of the square-rigged ship. Thus, by 1415 they had all the tools, skills and systems to make square-rigged ships work in an open ocean environment. That is not when they started developing those systems, that when all of the systems were in such good working order that they had already made a lot of money. It likely took generations and generations of seamen and fishermen to develop those skills.
This was consistent with what was going in English maritime trade. From *A history of the administration of the royal navy and of merchant shipping in relation to the navy* by M. Oppenheim (1896) or *The Royal Navy* with Some Notes on the Costume of Sailors by Swinburne (1907).) we discover that the English navy and the English merchant trade developed together, and thus must have shared a large number of ship management skills and tools such as how to feed crews, how to keep crews warm, sleeping arrangements, as well as the obvious sailing and navigation skills and tools. The maritime trade overlapped with the fishing industry and they shared the same management skills and tools.
On page 342 of *The Royal Navy*, I note a reference to G. Chaucer (1343-1400), who spent several years as a special royal envoy to textile merchants in Flanders, and later Italy, prior to writing the referenced passage. Thus, Chaucer knew his fabrics and had spent time on ships, when in latter life, he wrote his great poetry. The term "falding" from which Chaucer's sailor's "sea-gowne" was made included knit fabrics. This is all consistent with the History Chapter in Priestman's (1921) *Principles of Woolen Spinning*.
Considering the trade and fishing record, we look to *A history of Newfoundland from the English, colonial, and foreign records* by Daniel Woodley Prowse (1895) to find discussion of Cabot's voyages derived from -- Spanish Archives. The last paragraph on page 15 and the first paragraph on page 16 are key to understanding the history of English fishing fleets. That is, from *Acts of Parliament* we understand that English fishing fleets actively and continuously fished these (Newfoundland) waters, but there is little mention in other histories. This is not unlike the situation where a history dismisses the discovery of the New World in 3 lines and gives Anne Boleyn a hundred pages. Fishing and knitting do not get much space in popular histories, and even less in academic histories.
*The Royal Navy* establishes that by G. Chaucer's time, English sailors had traditions of knit clothing to keep themselves warm. This is consistent with what we know about knitting on the Channel Islands. The Channel Islanders had been great fishermen, but by the end of the 11th century they had fished out their waters and had turned to spinning and knitting for export as a source of income. By the end of the 12th Century, the Channel Islands had become a knitting production center, in part because of the quality of their spinning. Soon, the Channel Island knitting industry out stripped local wool production and the Channel Islands turned to importing raw English wool. Somebody was buying a lot of "Guernseys" and "Jerseys".
Then, I look at other indications of sea faring. One such is the ceramic pots for transporting goods by sea made in in the7th and 8th centuries in what is now Southern Turkey. A large number of these pots, are found around old Irish monasteries. Thus, it was likely that there was extensive trade by sea between Ireland and the Eastern Mediterranean at that time. Remember that we have very early knitting with knitting needles from just south (Syria) and just East of the place where those those shipping pots were made.) Just east was the path of the Silk road. Just south was the route used by the Arab traders bringing goods from India to Europe. Southren Turkey was where goods from both trade routes were repackaged for transport by sea. Thus, there was a direct trade route by sea from Ireland to a place where we know there was knitting.) Ireland was likely knitting sailor's “sea-gownes” of some type by the 8th century. I have thought for a long time that The Origins of Knitted Fabrics by Braham Norwick made cogent argument that the Irish knew about knitting in the 8th century. He goes on to layout similar evidence for the knowledge of knitting in Scotland in the 8th to 9th century. Ireland as the Western Terminus of a sea trade route to Southern Turkey makes this more plausible.
Have you ever reefed a square rigged sail in a rain squall? ( As the ship rolls, you are bounced against the yard (spar). If the deck is moving a foot as the ship rolls, you are going to move a yard during that roll. Top-men (sailors working highest third of the rigging) get thrown around with 3 times the acceleration that the crew on deck experience. (Fortunately, tall ships tend to roll more slowly than your little motor boat.) And, top-men are up in the wind. If the deck is subject to 15 knot of wind, 90 feet above the deck, a sailor is likely subject to 30 or 45 knots of wind. If you try reefing square rigged sails in squall while wearing a woven garment, you will come away bruised and cold. If you have to reef several sails in a single watch, you will be very bruised and very cold and unable to work for a couple of days. However, if you are wearing a well knit Filey, the cables will have padded your chest and you will be able to go back on deck in 4 hours. And, working in the cold, until exhausted, getting 4 hours of rest, and going back into the cold was the life of a seaman. They did not have weathermen, they had seamen that could work in any weather. And, the seamen had their tightly knit woolen garments.
You cannot understand a seaman's clothing unless you understand his work and environment.
Moreover, life at sea in a ship without an engine is very different from life at sea in a ship with an engine. Don't believe me? Ask Capt Douglas on the Shenandoah,
(Somehow, in this picture he looks older than he did in 1979) See also
the only tall ship left without an engine. And, even on the Shenandoah, most sail management can be done from on deck. Crew on the Shenandoah do not have to brave the roll of the ship and wind of the upper rigging for routine sail management.
I knit ganseys, and wore them fishing and sailing to see how they functioned. I was very surprised to discover how differently the various stitch patterns performed. This is most notable when when the fabric is knit very tightly. And yes, some patterns of ganseys are better for some jobs, and other patterns of ganseys are better for other jobs. If the sailor is heaving a capstan, he needs padding (cables) across the chest. If he is carrying his boat and/or spars on his shoulders up and down the beach, then he needs padding on the top of his shoulders. A deck worker hoisting 300 pound dories on and off the rolling, heaving deck, needs as much padding as he can get, because eventually one of those dories is going to swing over and hit him. If the fisherman is going to be rowing, he needs extra ease in the shoulders. One could give ease for rowing by knitting loosely, but then the garment would not be as warm, so one gives ease with moss or seed stitch. Some of the dory fishermen on the Banks survived weeks of being in an open boat, so we know their garments were very warm and tightly knit. Some rowed thousands of miles so we know they had ease. On the other hand a whaler in the Azors or South Pacific does not need such warmth.
Some English ports tended to specialize in particular kinds of fishing. This was reasonable, because good fishing takes a lot of very specialized knowledge that changes fairly rapidly. It takes a good deal of continuous effort to keep track of where fish are being found. The different fisheries were found in different climates – cod in Iceland, whales around the Azores, and herring in the Baltic. Thus, the different kinds of fishermen needed different weights of clothing. Thus, ganseys worn by fishermen doing a particular job in a particular fishery are going to wear similar ganseys, because those fishermen all need a similar level of warmth and padding.
And, skills and jobs were passed from father to son. A port that produced a large number of top-men, would have mothers, wives, and sisters that knew how to knit the kind of garments that would protect and help top-men survive and be successful. With the right kind of gansey, a young seaman was likely to live to marry and have his own son. With a poorly knit gansey, a young seamen was likely to perish of the cold. Thus, good knitting enabled good seamanship.
If the fisherman is standing in a barrel of straw (to stay warm while fishing from deck of the ship) then the stitch pattern does not have to go to the bottom of the sweater. This tells us that some of the sweater traditions go back before ~1500 AD when fishermen moved from fishing from barrels on the deck to fishing from dories.
Ah, but were those fishermen's and sailors garments knit? I keep being told ( by folks that do not fish or sail) that woven fabrics, or felted fabrics was just as good - and cheaper. (And , those folks assert, “They did not have knitting that early!”
Three hundred years later, similar knit garments served the crews of the Endurance and the Star of Alaska. Such garments served the fishermen of Digby fishing out of Nova Scotia. These three groups from around 1900, all had access to woven and felted materials, and yet they all turned to tightly knit wool fabrics. Why? Because tight knit wool solved the problems of cold, wet, and durability better than woven fabrics. Or, rather a combination of tight knit wool and woven fabrics solves the problems. Woven and felted fabrics alone were not enough to solve the problems. The Endurance, the Star of Alaska, and the Digby fishermen all needed to add tightly knit wool – just like the fishermen that fished out the waters around England and the Channel Islands in the 11th Century.
A boat owned by my friend, Al Dring.
I cannot seem to find a picture of Al from the days when he was captain of the Alma.
Photo ©2004 Michael Slater May 29 2004