Now that we’ve explored a bit of the history behind the wool trade in the UK, it’s time to take a look at the fashions that came to define it.
A derivation of the name Jersey, the island in which they were developed, Guernsey jumpers are primarily fishermen’s garments made from durable navy blue yarn that is spun and knit very tightly in order to repel water. In addition to keeping fishermen warm and dry on their boats, Guernseys also functioned as an important source of household income for Jersey women, who would knit extra jumpers to sell. Plainer patterns were used for everyday jumpers and for those that would be sold, since they were faster and easier to make, while those with more complex knitwork were reserved for Sundays and special occasions. One such pattern is a zigzag called the “wedding line” that symbolizes the ups and downs of marriage, and the bride would often present it to her new husband as a demonstration of her knitting skill. Use of the Guernsey spread to the British navy in the 1800s, and several modern divisions of the British armed forces still have Guernseys as part of their uniform items, including the 7th Armoured Brigade (a.k.a. “Desert Rats”) while on tour in Iraq.
Another distinctive type of jumper named for its home island off the coast of Ireland, the Aran jumper is one of the most well-known and most debated types of British knitwear. While the popular belief is that it was developed in the early 1800s from a modified Guernsey pattern and worn by fishermen due to the waterproof properties of its untreated wool, at least one textile scholar claims that Arans have only existed in their current form as late as 1946 and were made from processed yarn. Whatever its origins, the popularity of the Aran jumper is firmly rooted in the latter half of the 20th century. Irish culture preservationist Pádraig Ó Síocháin bought a company that made, sold, and promoted Aran jumpers in the 1950s, and a Vogue feature gave the garment exposure in the U.S. and Canada. During the folk music revival of the 1960s, singers such as The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem wore them on national television and the Aran reached its highest popularity ever, once again with the help of mass media. Like most modern jumpers, these were traditionally knitted by hand but are now mostly made on machine looms. Arans characteristically have a single center panel of knitting from which other panels are striped vertically across the jumper, using raised cable stitching to create various patterns such as ropes, zigzags, diamonds, and others.
Popularized as golfing attire by King Edward VIII in the 1920s and worn by such celebrities as Victoria Beckham, Rhianna, and even Monty Python’s famously dull Gumby characters, the colorful Fair Isle jumper from Scotland’s Shetland islands is one of the most recognizable and widely worn elements of British knitwear. But if you think your latest purchase will bring you a little piece of British heritage and craftsmanship, you’re bound for disappointment; only about 75 authentic Fair Isle jumpers are knitted and sold on the island per year. Each jumper takes 15 days or more to knit, and as with most traditional crafts, the few aging knitters who know the technique find it difficult to pass their skills down to younger generations due to lack of interest and inability to turn it into a living wage. While demand far outstrips supply and individual jumpers can sell for hundreds of pounds each, the amount of labor needed to make the garment means that the knitter’s profits can come to 5 pounds an hour or less. Luckily, steps are being taken to revitalize this dying art and benefit the community in which it was developed. Local knitter Kathy Coull gives demonstrations about the island’s traditional textiles, and there is a call to give the Fair Isle patterns and techniques protected status under the law, such as the kind that Harris tweed enjoys, to counteract the millions of factory-produced knockoffs flooding the market.
Originating from the same group of islands as the Fair Isle jumpers, Shetland lace differs from the lace that most of us are familiar with
since it is not made from cotton thread on bobbins or needles but knitted from wool. The cold, harsh climate of the Shetlands produces goats with very fine wool, similar to the Orenburg goats found in Russia. Probably the most iconic Shetland lace garment is the wedding ring shawl, so called because the fabric is so fine that the entire shawl can be passed through a wedding ring. Queen Victoria herself was instrumental in popularizing Shetland lace in the mid-1800s, setting the precedent for modern royal support of homegrown wool continued by her descendents King Edward VIII and Prince Charles. She bought 12 pairs of lace stockings from Shetlander shipping magnate Arthur Anderson in the 1840s and showcased the lace in the Great Exhibition of 1851, where nations came together to display their newest and best products and innovations for trade.
The history of tweed’s name is nearly as twisty as the multicolored thread its yarn is made from: some say it takes its name from the river Tweed in southern Scotland, others that it comes from “tweel,” the Scottish dialect for twill, which was then misread by a London merchant who thought that the L was a D on an apparently sloppily handwritten letter. While the etymology of the fabric’s name may be muddy, manufacturers must follow a crystal clear set of guidelines laid down by the British government itself in order to qualify for the protected Harris Tweed trademark.
Harris Tweed’s brand origins trace back to Lady Dunmore, the landowner of Harris, who had her clan’s tartan made in tweed fabric and promoted it in the 1840s, seeking to produce a handmade cloth comparable to machine-made textiles of the time. In 1909, Marion Campbell founded Harris Tweed Assoc. Ltd. in order to inspect and regulate the quality of the fabric. Trademarks began issuing two years later, making Harris Tweed the longest continuously used trademark in the UK. Its official symbol features a royal orb, which Vivienne Westwood aficionados will recognize as the basis for her iconic “orb and Saturn ring” logo – Harris Tweed actually sought to stop her from using it due to the similarities between the two designs, but Dame Viv was able to prove that hers was sufficiently different.
A 1993 parliamentary act cemented Harris Tweed as a protected product under UK law and specified the strict qualifications that any fabric bearing the Harris Tweed name must conform to: most importantly, it must be “handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides,” keeping profits in the community and preventing any knockoffs from being passed off as genuine. Other types of tweed exist, such as Breanish and Donegal, but these do not enjoy legally protected and regulated status.
Traditionally used in attire for country sports such as hunting and golf, tweed has gained a somewhat undeserved reputation as the fabric of choice for stodgy old geography teachers, but is seeing a resurgence in popularity due in part to recent manufacturing improvements. A new type of loom was developed in the 1990s which introduced new weaving techniques and allowed weavers to create softer, lighter fabrics that were easier to work with and more comfortable to wear. After Vivienne Westwood’s 1987
“Harris Tweed” collection, many influential designers such as Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Hugo Boss, Rag and Bone, and House of Holland have used tweed fabrics in their designs, proving that there is more to tweed than the standard herringbone and houndstooth.
Rugby Ralph Lauren held its first tweed run in 2011 after the success of the original London Tweed Run, which has spawned offshoots in over 30 cities since 2009, and Topman released a Harris Tweed collection this year. Most recently, Glamour magazine ran a “Tweed comes Out To Play” editorial in its November 2012 issue featuring brands such as Burberry and Stella McCartney.
Stumped on Christmas gifts or want some woolies of your very own? You can buy them here:
http://www.fairisle.org.uk/fairislecrafts/index_2.html - NOTE: this site is currently under construction, but you can email the administrator with inquiries.