Thursday, February 07, 2013

Why Seaman's Sweaters?

Or, Why didn't they just change their clothes and put on rain gear as required?

Back in school, I had a  professor that said, "One must make a thousand pots of tea, before one is ready to make one tea pot".  He meant that one must understand how the product will be used, before one can make a truly excellent product. One must remember that Russian tea is served differently than Japanese tea.  In this vein, one must understand the life of that sailor before one can understand the clothes of that sailor.

On sailing ships (pre-1830), top men were stationed in the top of the ship’s rigging because with every change of weather or course, there was ship’s work that had to be done promptly.  There was not time to climb down, change clothes, and climb back up.  And there was no way to store clothes in the top, and in a squall, there was no way to change clothes in the top.  (Yes, oil skins could be lashed to the mast, but one is not going to be able to don oil skins in the top of a ship during a squall. Modern skippers do not even allow crew in the rigging in such conditions.) The clothes that a top man wore as he climbed into the top, were all that he had for his 4 hour watch, regardless of what squalls should blow up (or blow away).

Their rigging and sails were natural fiber, when it got wet, the fiber swelled and the lines shortened and had to be slacked – rather promptly.  When the weather cleared, the lines and sails dried, and had to be trimmed – rather promptly.  The times when a land lubber would have the sailors changing their clothes, are in fact the exact times the sailors had the real work of a sailor to do.

If a weather event required "all hand"s, they came on deck in whatever clothes they wore while sleeping.  A modern racing crew can sleep in their rain gear for the duration of a race, but a seaman did not sleep in his oil skins every night for years on end.  He slept in his sweater, and trusted that to keep him warm during all hands calls. 

Real seamen could do real work, on real ships, because they had real sweaters.  Sweaters that shed rain, but vented under warmer conditions.  The technology to knit such sweaters includes long needles and a knitting sheath.  The technology can be used to knit other things, but it did make  good seaman’s sweaters.  It is a technology that most modern knitters have forgotten and  product that few modern knitters can imagine.

How much clothing and gear did a seaman have?  Space on board a ship was very limited. An officer or midshipman could have a sea chest, but a seaman kept his things in a sail cloth bag, perhaps a foot in diameter and 2' long. He would have the clothes that he wore and slept in; including a neck cloth, leather belt, belt knife, and marlin spike. He could swing out of his hammock, and go on deck ready to work. He would have a change of clothes for shore wear. He would have a couple of pairs of mittens, a couple of pairs of socks, a knit helmet, a cap, an oil skin & rain hat, an extra sweater, perhaps some knit drawers, and a pair of sea boots.  There would be his sailor's palm and needle, thread, beeswax, a razor, and a bible if he could read.   There might be a pipe and some tobacco.  In some fleets, there would be a cup, spoon and bowl.  A fisherman would have a pair of  knit nippers.  Sail cloth could be purchased from ship's stores to make other items.

 I estimate that it would take on the close order of  500 hours to knit all the knit wear.  I estimate that it would take a thousand hours to hand spin 5-ply for that much knit wear.  Thus, a young sailor's kit was a large investment.  

 In the Navy, the entire seaman's bag would be lashed to the railing inside the seaman's hammock and blanket while the seaman was on watch or at battle stations.  The sun and air killed the lice. It made theft more difficult.  And, during battle it reduced the number of splinters from the railings - Splinters from the railing were actually the most common cause of injury during naval battles. It is no surprise that we do not find seaman's gear in ship wreaks.

Typical water rations on board sailing ships was 3 liters per day for cooking, drinking, and washing.  There was no fresh water for washing clothes. (Except when it rained, and a rain squall was not likely a good time for sailors to stop work and wash.)  Woolens were "washed' by dipping them in stale urine and letting them dry in the sun.  It does a better job of cleaning wool than trying to wash it in sea water. Soap will not lather in sea water, and tightly knit wool tends to strain little critters out of sea water.  Then, the little critters die and rot, making the fabric smell like rotting sea life.  Stale urine was the best dirt extractor that they had.

Oops, that may be a bit more than you wanted to know.  : )


Kate said...

Please would you provide real evidence to support your claims.

Anonymous said...

Great information- thank you!

plnc said...

Thank you! I have recently found your blog and am enjoying your interesting explorations.

Karen said...

If you're thinking about British fishermen, please be aware that most of them were fishing in much smaller boats, and would be out of harbour for no more than a day or two. Most of the fish processing was done onshore by the rest of the family. These did not have the complicated rigging systems of the larger ships.

Whilst there was no formal uniform for ratings in the Royal Navy before 1857, all existing images show shirt and jacket and breeches. Surely at least one image would show a sweater if such were in common usage at that time?

Aaron said...

Dear Karen,
British fishermen had fished out the near shore waters by the late 12th century. They then started fishing Icelandic waters, which where claimed by the Hansa.

Nevertheless, some parts of Britian grew rich off the profits of Icelandic cod. Then, as catches decreased, the British fishermen fished the Banks.

Yes there was always some near shore fishing in small boats, but that never made anyone rich. The wealth came from-off shore fishing. In particular note the 1746 ordinances of the Admiralty relating to FISH and FISHERY.

Note how Anderson (1789) in "An historical and chronological deduction of the origin of commerce" discusses the Newfoundland Fishery. This is broadly expanded in MacPherson (1805). This is extended forward by Aflalo The Sea Fishing Industry of England and Wales (1904)

Britain did a huge amount of offshore fishing. I do not think you have even read "Cod" by Kurlansky.

Consider Boyd, where only in one reference are they called "knitted worsted jackets" and other times simply jackets. Note well the use of "jackets" by Liardet, for the garment the crew is wearing to sleep in on cold nights. Likewise,
knit wear may be called a "frock".
John Marchant's dictionary (2d ed 1760) defines jacket as a short outward garment such as a sailor might wear. Thus, what you would call a gansey or Guernsey would be called a shirt if worn as an under garment and a jacket if worn as an outer garment, and a frock if rather loose.

If sold by by the ship (slop chest), they would all be known as "slop". See for example The Royal Navy, 1790-1970 by Wilkinson-Latham.

Additonal info in the Reports of the Commissioners for Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of His Majesty's Navy. In the laws, ordinances and institutions of the Admiralty Vol 2 pg 301 we see both broad cloth coats and Kersey gowns are to be sold at 19 s. each. In the accounts of the Lord High treasurer of Scotland: 1473-1498, we see that "kersey" is a fine knit material.

Thus, we have knit frocks in the British navy slop chests in 1746.

These are all references that I have pointed out before. Moreover, this is one path to this info. There are several other paths.

Anonymous said...

I think we can agree that it's difficult to justify using a 15th century definition of "kersey" in an 18th century Admiralty report. Kersey by the 18th century was a twill (sources differ; some have it a plain weave) cloth used for coats, not a knit material.

chathamh said...

I think we can agree that it's difficult to justify using a 15th century definition of "kersey" in an 18th century Admiralty report. Kersey by the 18th century was a twill (sources differ; some have it a plain weave) cloth used for coats and "buttoned waistcoats", not a knit material.