Organic Wool Beginings

A short history of spinning and knitting in Cornwall.

Towards the end of the 17th century the Cornish started hand-spinning using wool from local flocks.  Women and children were involved with the carding and spinning and the yarn was sold to wool merchants and manufacturers at local markets.

A hundred years later came the spinning-jenny and the virtual demise of hand spinning.  The loss of income hit hard so hand knitting became an alternative source of money.  In 1790 a "school of industry" was founded in Falmouth for the very poor, mostly girls, "to learn knitting, etc".  It was funded by public subscription and took in about 60 children at a time.

Inevitably, local wool supply couldn't keep up with demand so yarn came from wholesalers in Yorkshire.  Yorkshire spinning mills also supplied most of the wool to the Channel Islands for their famous Guernseys!

As many Cornishmen left the county to work "up-country", knitting became an essential occupation for the women left at home.  Knitters usually worked under contract to an agent and he would visit weekly or monthly with fresh supplies of yarn.  He also inspected and collected finished work.  Many knitters worked out of doors - presumably the light was better - and many villages had recognised venues where the knitters would meet, thus making it a sociable occupation!

Cornish knitters used a "knitting stick" or "knitting fish" to hold the working needle.  This increased the speed of knitting considerably and speeds of up to 200 stitches a minute were recorded!  Sticks were often given as tokens of affection, much like Welsh loving spoons.

Cornish Guernseys (or "Ganseys") were knitted in the round with 5-ply yarn on double pointed needles about 14" (36cm) long.  They came in sets of five and were very fine - 1.5 - 2.5mm diameter!

An experienced contract worker could complete a Gansey in about a week and was paid about 17 pence for a "fancy" frock but only 10 pence if a fault was found in it!

Ganseys were made to last and often lasted more than twenty years; they were knitted in the round to armhole level with a single garter stitch each side marking the "seam".  An underarm gusset links the body to the sleeve.  From the armhole up, the front and back yokes were worked separately on two needles and were patterned.  The shoulders were jointed by grafting and the neckband was knitted in the round.  Sleeves were picked up around the armhole and gusset and were knitted "down" the sleeve, again in the round, decreasing as required.  Using this technique made the garment very strong as there were no sewn seams and also meant that if/when the wearer wore through the elbows the sleeve could simply be unravelled from the bottom and re-knitted!

Each village/port had its own pattern - usually a combination of bars, seeds and cables.  The story goes that this meant that if a fisherman was washed overboard his body could be identified by the pattern on the Gansey - wool, after all, would survive longer in the water than human flesh!!  If there was more than one man in each family the knitters would often add the wearer's initials in the underarm gussets.  There is one story of a knitter identifying her son's stolen Gansey by asking the new wearer to raise his arms and asking if his initials were, coincidentally, the same as her son's!!

Julia has designed a lady's sweater in our DK wool based on a traditional Cornish Gansey design.