Knitting was such a widespread and profitable activity in 17th century Jersey that the island's farming industry began to suffer badly as workers refused to till the fields and whole families devoted their waking hours to making woollen garments.
It is widely believed that the jersey, the fisherman's sweater to which the island gave its name, was the principal product, but in fact it was woollen stockings which were in such demand that they were exported in their thousands every week, mainly to Continental Europe.
From The Bailiwick of Jersey by George Balleine
- "Next came knitting. Though this seems to have been invented in Scotland, in some inexplicable way remote little Jersey managed to secure the lion's share of this new trade. So much was this the case that the word "jersey" actually came to mean "knitting". In 1587 Harrison's England spoke of "coloured stockings of silk jersey", and in the same year an account of Mary Queen of Scots' execution said that she wore stockings "with silver about the clocks and white jersey under them".
- "And today a knitted sweater is still called "a jersey", the original one being navy blue, and made to a certain pattern, specifically for fishermen. The sister Island produced a "guernsey" which is very similar. Modern machine-made copies can be obtained in the shops, and they are a most useful and comfortable form of sweater.
- "This work became so profitable that even men took to it, and the States grew worried lest the land should go out of cultivation, and threatened imprisonment on bread and water to anyone caught knitting during harvest or the vraicing season. In 1624 a petition asked for larger supplies of wool from England because "more than a thousand souls have no other means to get their living but by knitting stockings"; and in 1682 Poingdestre's Caesarea said: "There are many houses where man, wife, and children, beginning at the age of five, have no other employment, and may be said to make everyone a pair of stockings every week, which must come to more than 10,000 pairs weekly."
From a letter by Richard Valpy, Jerseyman and headmaster of Reading School
- "Four thousand tods of wool are allowed to be yearly exported from England into Jersey, duty free; and, having been finely combed, and perfectly dressed, are knit into stockings, gloves, and various other articles of dress. This is the chief employment of the women. The dexterity and expedition with which they dispatch a pair of stockings are almost incredible. To them light and darkness are indifferent. A woman seen without her stocking in her hand is stigmatized with idleness. So attached are they to this employment, that they have appropriated to knitting the name of work. In summer they assemble in large numbers, and sit in a ring under the trees, which make of all the roads a continued avenue; and the avocation must be urgent that can call them from the social party. In winter, a number of houses send forth their fair ones, nocturna carpentes pensa puellas, sitting on soft rushes, carefully picked and dried for that purpose. There seros hyberni ad luminis ignes pervigilant, and, from the close of day till midnight, an universal activity prevails. Nor let it be imagined that these hours are dull and tedious. They indulge their native mirth in innocent recreation, and the song of festivity forbids the intrusion of melancholy. The young men, returned from their more hardy occupations of the day, repair to these chearful meetings. There, seated in the middle of the ring, they pay their offerings at the shrine of beauty, and yield their souls to the impulse of love, which is here generally attended with an innocence and simplicity unknown in larger countries. The greatest part of the stockings manufactured in Jersey are exported to London, from whence they are sent to Portugal, and various parts of Europe. Their quality is so excellent, that few, who have experienced use of them, will willingly lay them aside".
Stung by a claim by Mr Anstie to a select committee that Jersey smuggled wool out of the island, Valpy put the record straight. Jersey, which was allowed to import 4,000 tods of wool duty-free from England, had recently exported never more than 3,445 tods of wool manufactures; besides this, much is made for island use - night-caps, gloves, under waist-coats and pieces, and stockings, and more - called aventures - is destined for the Terreneuviers and for sale to the Newfoundland settlers. It is true that Jersey itself grows some wool, which is made into coarse cloth for poorer people, the combining being turned into coarse stockings, and some of this may find its way into France. But Valpy is quite clear that the island is 'most tenacious' of English wool, and in boats carrying an assortment of smuggled English and Jersey goods and tobacco to France, he never saw an ounce of English wool.