History of the Fisherman's Cable Sweater

Seaman's Iron

During the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century, seafaring in Britain enjoyed a boom, with international trade at the time having grown quickly in a short period of time. As the time spent at sea grew, so did the need arise for a thick and robust top for the seamen to be protected from the elements. Wool was, naturally, the material that British seamen and their families turned to, given that we had it in abundance on these islands, and so the cottage industry in Guernsey and other rugged coastal communities in Britain developed the fisherman’s cable jumper to serve this need.

The gansey gang, c. 1900s

The traditional fisherman’s cable jumper was fitted and tightly knitted, usually in a 5-ply yarn and in a hardy wool that is oiled, to keep the wearer dry at sea. It was appropriately referred to as “seaman’s iron” for this reason. A slightly raised collar, sleeves slightly short of the wrists and body length also slightly shorter, were all common characteristics. 

Interestingly, the traditional sweaters were knitted with the same front and back so that it can be worn "back to front", so to speak, and it can also be turned upside down if certain areas such as the chest or elbows, were in need of repair, but they are still months away from being back on land.

Although the very first sweaters were plain stitch, cable patterns were soon added, not least for added warmth. Back then, the cable patterns were thick for this reason, unlike the iterations we see today which are mainly for form rather than function, and the cables knitted on were often inspired by seafaring motifs such as ropes and nets, ladders and anchors. Some communities even developed patterns specific to them, as a badge of honour for the seamen who wore them, sometimes even specific to the particular crew member, in case anything unfortunate were to come to pass at sea and they needed to identify him.

The fisherman’s jumper thus became closely associated with seafaring and fishing communities along the coasts of Great Britain and also the brave and adventurous seamen who proudly wore them to work.

Our fisherman’s cable crew neck and roll neck pay homage to this traditional sweater, rooted deep in one of the most revered traditional occupations of the British Isles. In keeping with these origins, our fisherman’s cable jumper is knitted thick in a 6-ply superfine lambswool yarn in a pronounced cable pattern like it used to be, with a slightly higher neck, and shorter sleeves and body length to keep the sweater from being too baggy. The corollary of this is that we ended up with a thick, slim and fitted sweater that would work seamlessly under a leather jacket or a thick melton wool pea coat.

We don’t presume to know your occupation, but if the seaman’s iron has proven its worth as an essential piece of kit for the tough folk of Guernsey and other rugged coasts of these islands, we are confident you will find it equally handy for those bleakest of winter days.