I am becoming obsessed with the elaborately starched and stripey ‘costume’ of the Newhaven fishwives – and what it says about the ways in which the hard lives of working women might be reinvented as romance.

These mass-produced ornaments were extremely popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They come in several varieties, and turn up on ebay from time to time. I now find myself determined to get my hands on an ornamental fishwife (If I discovered one with a pair of knitting needles in her hands I just wouldn’t trust myself). Meanwhile, I have finished writing something polemical about the interdependent activities of fishing and knitting, and have today released the pattern for Tantallon. You can find it here or here. ( Massive thanks to Gretchen and Heather for lightning-fast test-knitting and astute pattern feedback). I am not putting any pressure on myself, but I am pretty sure that further designs with connections to my local landscape will be forthcoming.

17 thoughts on “do you admire this costume?

  1. Hooray for another pattern published! I am intrigued by the differences between the fishwife in the photo and the ceramic fishwife–particularly how tall and perky the china one stands, while her real-life counterpart looks accustomed to bending under a heavy load.


  2. I will watch for future updates on this topic! I live just along the coast in Musselburgh which of course was also famous for its fishwives. The last one died in 1967, if I remember correctly, and they used to walk in the Gala parades for many years before that. I’m not a native of the town myself so my avatar/online name is a bit of a cheat but given that I spin too, I thought it quite appropriate at the time.

    I will watch out for a figurine for you at the local car boot sales etc. Does it have to be from Newhaven? My avatar (on my blog) is a Playmobil fishwife btw.


  3. Amazing post, Kate. I come from a fishing family – going way back on my mother’s side and as recent as 7 years ago, when my parents sold my father’s salmon fishing business. I grew up fishing and for years, my sister and I helped run the crew and boat for my dad. Absolutely yes, every thing you wear permanently takes on the scent of fish! All the slickers and gloves in the world can’t protect against it. In the last few years, I chose to wear short sleeves rather than end up wet through and smelling. I’ve never done any research or reading into my fishing ancestors though I know from my Grandmother that they all did knit. Thanks for the reminder to ask questions now while I still can!


  4. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men — it’s a wonderful book. The statuette brings to mind the scene where the Tiffany gives her hard-working shepherd Granny a pretty china shepherdess figurine and she is initially confused by the latter’s mixed reaction to the gift. It isn’t until later that she really understands why Granny reacted the way she did. Romanticism is something else, isn’t it?


  5. I too was fascinated by the curve of the fabric and googled… there’s a wonderful historical account on Electric Scotland of Newhaven which includes the following:

    The Newhaven fishwife’s dress is admirably adapted to her calling. Its most noticeable feature is the multiplicity of short petticoats, the home-knitted stockings, usually black, and the neat shoes. The numerous petticoats are a necessity of her vocation. Secured round her waist by broad bands, the bulging flannel forms a saddle for the creel, without which it would be equally difficult to balance and to carry, while their numerous folds form a protection both against wet weather and the drip of the creel.


    1. that’s a really great link – thankyou.

      John Russell’s account of Leith was written in 1922, and the way he describes the Newhaven fishwives as ‘picturesque’ relics leads one to be a bit circumspect about what he says about their ‘costume’. Far from being practical, the yellow kilted skirt seems to be something the fishwives wore for galas, posed portraits, choir performances, and for ‘best’. There are several different kinds of photographs of fishwives from this era, and, in the ones in which the women are clearly working (rather than carrying an empty basket in a photographers studio) they are never in full regalia, though they do seem to wear quite bulky petticoats (it must have been chilly) and are always knitting.That ‘costume’ certainly became iconic, though, and I’m sure that by the 1920s the fishwives were exploiting their ‘picturesque’ status to their own advantage in quite creative ways.


  6. It is an amazing costume, have you been to the Fisheries Museum at Anstruther? It has a section on fishwives and their hard lives (and knitting) and is a very good not-so-little museum.
    A friend of my granny’s was one of the “guttin’ girls” in her youth, unfortunately I wasn’t into knitting then so never asked her about ganseys!

    Thanks for getting the hat pattern out so quickly!


  7. Well, about the costume…I am certainly intrigued with the apron and stripy skirt. What would be the function of the large fold in that skirt? As a working woman, I feel sure that the skirt had function. It is certainly has a lovely and graceful curve. But why?



  8. My great-great grandmother on my mother’s side was a Newhaven fishwife. She apparently sang in the fishergirl’s choir – this would probably have been around the late 1880s or early 1890s, so the timing may have been right, although I have always wondered how accurate that claim might be. Her first name was Grace, but I don’t know her surname as I can’t remember whether she was from my great-grandfathers’ or -grandmother’s side of the family. She was certainly remembered as a formidable woman.
    I was given a large Newhaven fishwife doll when I was a child, dressed in the full regalia – it used to scare me silly I remember as it was only a few inches shorter than me when I was given it!


  9. I’m so excited to knit this hat! Somehow between work and preparing for Thanksgiving for 22 people I ***will*** get this knit! It will be done even if I have to hide in the backyard while all the company eats cheese and crackers and wonders where I have gone.


  10. Time will romanticise many things, not just fish wives. I was amazed to hear elderly women who had worked sorting coal at the pithead in Whitehaven, assering quite genuinely that they would go back tomorrow if they could. Of course, they meant go back to being young, but still…


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