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Polperro Knit-frocks

Generations of Polperro fishermen have worn hand-knitted jerseys known locally as 'knit-frocks'. These are similar to guernseys, working garments often with distinctive patterns to distinguish their wearers.

photo of Polperro woman knitting knit-frock
Polperro woman knitting on Chapel Hill
Throughout the 19th century, knitting was a necessary occupation for women and girls in Polperro, much of it done out of doors along the paths overlooking the harbour while waiting for the return of the boats, or watching the landing and weighing on the quay. Children became involved as soon as they were old enough to handle the needles, although the weight of the knitting prevented them from being too ambitious.

In the 1851 census, 28 women and girls in Polperro were listed as 'knitters'. The village is unique in its record of knitting history. Not only was it a source of contract knitters for more than a century, but also where a remarkable pioneering exponent of the art of photography, Lewis Harding, took some of the earliest surviving photographs. Many of his subjects were local fishermen wearing a variety of designs of knit-frocks, all reflecting the skilled knitting techniques of Polperro women over more than a hundred years.

photo of Polperro fishermen wearing knit-frocks
A group of Polperro fishermen wearing traditional knit-frocks

At the beginning of the last century (nineteenth century), women were paid 3s. 6d. for a 'fancy' knit-frock or 2s. 9d. for a plain one. More than 100 years ago knitters had no patterns in written form. They were passed on by word of mouth, and by practical demonstration, from mother to daughter, within families and village communities and sometimes by travellers. A total of ten individual Polperro patterns have been recorded.

Some examples of Polperro knit-frocks can be seen at the Polperro Heritage Museum.

[From Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks by Mary Wright, published by Polperro Heritage Press 2009]

Edited by Jeremy Johns, Polperro Heritage Museum © 2013

 

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