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The guernsey is the mainstay of Guernsey's knitting industry which can be dated back to the late 15th century when a royal grant was obtained to import wool from England and re-export knitted goods to Normandy and Spain. Peter Heylin described the manufacture and export of "wast-cotes" during the reign of Charles I. The first use of the name "guernsey" outside of the island is in the 1851 Oxford Dictionary, but the garment was in use in the bailiwick before that.
The guernsey came into being as a garment for fishermen who required a warm, hard wearing, yet comfortable item of clothing that would resist the sea spray. The hard twist given to the tightly packed wool fibres in the spinning process and the tightly knitted stitches, produced a finish that would "turn water" and is capable of repelling rain and spray.
The guernsey was traditionally knitted by the fishermen's wives and the pattern passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. This is a practice which still exists today with the final finishing of the machine-knit parts completed by hand.
Through trade links established in the 17th century, the guernsey found favour with seafarers around the British Isles, and many coastal communities developed their own "ganseys" based on the original pattern. Whilst the classic guernsey pattern remained plain, the stitch patterns used became more complex the further north the garment spread, with the most complex evolving in the Scottish fishing villages.
Mary Wright argues that the use and wearing of guernseys throughout the British Isles for over a century and a half almost justifies the guernsey for qualification as a national costume.  A guernsey from the Folk Museum Guernsey was included in the 2010 BBC project A History of the World in 100 Objects.
The "working" guernsey design was kept simpler in order to reduce the amount of time and materials needed to produce. The sale of knitted garments to supplement family income was important to many island families and thus the garments that were sold were also of a simple design. It is estimated that a total of 84 hours was needed to complete a guernsey: a simpler design could be produced faster than a more elaborate one.
The guernsey that is still produced on the island retains much of the original design and patterns. The rib at the top of the sleeve is said to represent a sailing ship’s rope ladder in the rigging, the raised seam across the shoulder a rope, and the garter stitch panel waves breaking upon the beach. As a working garment, the gussets under the arm and at the neck are for ease of movement, as are the splits at the hem. Twenty-four principal patterns have been identified in Cornwall alone, each one again drawing inspiration from ropes, chains, waves, nets and sand-prints.
Worn as a source of pride and often knitted by prospective wives "to show the industrious nature of the woman he was about to marry", the "finer" guernsey was more elaborately patterned than its working cousin. With the advent of the machine-knitted guernsey and the decline in the knitting industry, this guernsey is a much rarer sight.
Formerly, when all garments were hand-knit, it was possible to identify which parish or family the wearer came from. This potentially could help identify the bodies of sailors lost overboard, but also to enable stolen guernseys to be returned to their owner.
The guernsey's tightly knitted fibres and its square shape, with a straight neck so that it could be reversed, make it a particularly hardy item of clothing. It is not uncommon for a guernsey to last several decades and be passed down in families. Guernseys knitted for children were knitted to be "grown into" and often came down to the knee. 
The guernsey was first widely used in the rating uniform of the 19th century British Royal Navy. It is said that guernseys were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar, (although these were probably made from woolen cloth, rather than knitted). The association of the guernsey with the British Armed Forces has continued into the 21st century. In 2006, the British 7th Armoured Division ordered three hundred jumpers from a company in Guernsey and these were sent out to Iraq. Each jumper was hand-finished in a neutral colour and had the Desert Rat insignia sewn onto the left hand sleeve. Orders for variants of the guernsey have also come from the Intelligence Corps, the Mercian Regiment, the Tank Regiment and Gurkha Logistics where they form part of officer uniforms.
In Australia, the word "guernsey" is used to describe the shirt worn by Australian rules football players, although the word “jumper” is also commonly used. Until the mid 1950s the shirt usually had sleeves but now it is normally sleeveless. The top worn by National Rugby League and Australian Rugby Union players is more commonly called a jersey, though it is still frequently called a guernsey, often interchangeably. As an extension of this tradition, the expression "to get a guernsey" is a metaphor for being selected for something or to gain recognition for an achievement.
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