so much to sea

Guddicks: Clothing at sea over the years

Guddicks – Traditional Riddles from Shetland (2013) by Amy Lightfoot & Laurie Goodlad offers a fascinating insight into traditional life in Shetland’s past and is packed with personal narratives by Shetlanders themselves – many born in the late 1890s. It describes a largely self-sufficient way of life in a bygone era. The chapter ‘Smookies, swaara & seaboot socks’ shows just how much materials and traditions have evolved.

Here are some excerpts:

Hard wearing, warm clothing was the only protection from the elements afforded fishermen in open boats [in the 18th century]. Foul-weather gear was made of wool and hide.

“The boat-dress of the fishermen is in many respects striking. A worsted covering for the head… is dyed with so many colours, that its bold tints are recognised at a considerable distance…the boatmen are also invested in a surtout (frock coat) of tanned sheepskin, which covers their arms, and descends below their chin to their knees, whilst like an apron or kilt it overlaps their woollen femoralia [thighs].”(1)

Customs changed rapidly towards the mid 19th century:
“Suddenly a boat dashed out of the mist, filled with the well remembered forms of fishermen. There was the red night cap of the father of the family and the gaily coloured woollen caps of the younger men; but I looked in vain for the old skin coat, without which few men went to sea in 1832. There was not one to be seen (1852), the mackintosh coat and oiled canvas jacket had effectually been replaced this old selic of Scandinavia.’(2)

By the mid 19th century, waterproof outer garments were made of cotton or canvas and barked (treated with a bark infusion to prevent rotting).

“A smooky [smock] used by fishermen or fish workers, was very often made from flour bags. They were fairly long and whole; there were no openings except at the neck. My father went to the fishing and worked on the herring stations as well; he always had one. (Jeemie Gray).

Apart from those knitted with Fair Isle patterns, fishermen’s gansies [sweaters] were usually made in plain dark colours. “They were made [knitted] tightly so they were windproof as could be.

Thick, soft, woollen yarn called swaara was spun and knitted to make swaara drawers, [long underwear], used by fishermen well into the 20th century.

“The swaara drawers were made out of wirsit [woollen yarn], they called it swaara. We made those for the men to wear, generally of three ply that my mother span. It was usually grey hog’s oo [wool from a castrated ram], we used that because it was strong and there were long hairs in it.” [Agnes Leask]

Mittens for use at sea were made in different ways: “The old men liked mittens because the hand was all covered. They were all one-colour.” [Mary Johnson]

Worn out socks of hand spun yarn were also made into improvised mittens by cutting off the toe, and cutting a hole for the thumb. They were still used by fishermen in the 1950s and preferred to rubber gloves.

Information taken from Guddicks, Traditional Riddles from Shetland (2013) written by Amy Lightfoot and Laurie Goodlad. The book is available to buy from The Shetland Times bookshop for £24.99.

Pictures kindly reproduced with permission from the Shetland Museum and Archives.


(1) Hibbert, Samuel, Description of the Shetland Islands, Edinburgh 1822

(2) Charlton, Edward, Travels in Shetland 1832 – 1852