Not just a fisherman’s friend: Guernsey Woollen sweaters are being exported around the world, as Gill Maccabe discovered
Heart throb Colin Firth looked very sexy wearing one in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The Desert Rats relied on them for warmth and comfort on night patrols in Afghanistan; the junior cast of Swallows and Amazons wore them for all sailing shots; 100 were ordered for the police to wear in the JK Rowling film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald; a bespoke version appeared in American Vogue this year.
The traditional Guernsey Woollen sweater, available in a variety of colours and a choice of 100 percent wool or cotton, has never been more in demand, with a client base unrecognisable from when they first opened their doors in 1974.
Today the company is still run along traditional lines in Guernsey’s Vale parish and can, on a busy day and night shift and (without machinery breakdowns) produce some 75 hand-sewn sweaters a day for export around the world.
The traditional Guernsey (without the anchor motif) and the Jersey (with anchor) is the last remaining icon of the Channel Island knitting industry which can be dated back to the 15th Century. It is exactly what a sweater should be: square of body, wide of neck with a long back and neatly ribbed side slits which grace the hips yet never cling.
The unisex fit is generous; it can be dressed up with a set of pearls or a silk scarf or worn down with Wellington boots. There is no right or wrong way to wear it, you can wear it back to front if you like and nobody would notice. There are no seams and not one visible bit of stitching so you can even wear it inside out for a change – stocking stitch one day, purl the next.
The Guernsey also has an environmentally conscious back story. All packaging is either compostable or recycled and you don’t actually have to wash a wool Guernsey if you don’t want to. The label says hand wash with care, however according to Paul Eldridge, one of the managing partners who joined his father Arthur in the business only five years ago, many of their customers find that airing them between washes is quite sufficient.
The utilitarian core design, which manages to be both comfortable and elegant, is just right for our new working from home ethic. Younger girls can slip on a larger size and wear it as a dress teamed with thick tights and young men might prefer the turtleneck Arran knit style. Everyone whatever their age can turn down the heating, save on washing powder and still look bang on trend during their Zoom calls.
They feature in the wardrobes of the most edgy Japanese and South Korean fashionistas. Exports to South Korea are huge. ‘They love the nautical look, they love the anchor, they have anchors stitched in contrasting shades, sometimes on the chest, sometimes down the sleeve, as long as they have an anchor,’ Paul said.
‘Our Japanese customers like them with a baggier neck and with shorter wider sleeves like a tunic. We made a tunic design in a lovely shade of grey with large pockets emblazoned with an ace of Spades design for a Japanese retailer called Nest Robe. They featured us on their Instagram account at the end of last month, over 50 percent of our manufacturing goes to Korea and Japan.’
Paul calls himself a knitting machine programmer but with a little bit of persuasion modestly admitted that that he really likes designing and turning customers’ doodles on the back of an envelope into a finished product. He is passionate about the products and it shines through with pride as his numerous anecdotes about customers from around the world and the messages he receives from them attest.
Bespoke orders come thick and fast, but delivery to Jersey is quick if you want an off-the- peg design. If your recipient has long arms, short body, wide neck or any other special requirement then the website makes bespoke ordering so easy you wonder why all knitwear companies can’t do the same. There are 13 different colours to choose from, a choice of Jersey or Guernsey styles and a children’s range.
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