Modern fishing clothing is high tech and at the top end of the market, products are almost impregnable to wind, rain and spray. But how did we get here?
From tar covered cotton to fishing clothing today, lets take a voyage back through time and discover what salty sea-dogs used to wear.
Magellan coats and pea jackets
If you were unlucky enough to end up on a naval vessel, during the 18th or 19th century, chances were you’d die pretty young. Cramped conditions, rotten food and brutal working conditions meant that disease was rife. Clothing was limited to what the men had on their backs when they joined ship. As prior to the mid 19th century there was no official uniform for the foremast jacks.
Nevertheless, clothing was issued; typically a short, ‘pea’ jacket, waistcoat and a neckerchief. These items were worn with bell bottomed trousers – easy to put on in a blow and simple to roll up to keep them dry.
Captain cook, being an enlightened fellow saw the sorry state of his men and issued the Magellan Jacket, a heavy, warm, woolen coat that was ideal for use in bad weather – another version of the early oilskin.
Back in the old days, the only men aboard ship who’d be wearing boots were the officers. Just about all the crew would have gone barefoot – although most would have had a pair of shoes for a run ashore.
Laying aloft in the rigging of a tall ship or walking the deck of a small fishing boat was a highly dangerous business; one slip and you were a dead man. The best grip around was that afforded by your own skin. Although we can feel for the cold feet of those tough old sea dogs of yesteryear, self preservation was an undoubtedly positive outcome of abject poverty.
Now we come to the ubiquitous fisherman’s sweater. Found all over the country in its various forms, this item of clothing is thought to have originated in Guernsey. The tradition of knitting the jumpers began in the 15th century. The very hard twist given to the wool during spinning, coupled with an extremely tight knit produced a garment that was capable of withstanding both wind and spray.
As a way of demonstrating their industriousness, betrothed women would make one for their husband to be, before the wedding day – no easy undertaking, since each one took around 84 hours to knit. It should come as no surprise – when uniform was eventually introduced into the British navy, at its heart was the trusty Guernsey sweater.
Whether you are standing on the sand, beach caster in hand or staggering about on the rolling deck of a fishing boat, no doubt, you’ll be wearing a set of oilskins.
Waterproofing, the traditional way involved coating heavy weave cotton fabric with a ‘skin’ of oil. Linseed oil was popularly used as was a thin coating of tar. These bulky early sou’westers weighed a ton and would have offered limited protection from the elements.
For centuries salty sea-dogs have adapted clothing to suit a hard life working the oceans, but now technology and materials have been improved beyond recognition. Life at sea can still be dangerous and hard work, but at least modern fishing clothing offers better comfort and protection.