“Guernsey…. A thick, knitted, closely-fitting vest or shirt, usually made of blue wool, worn by seamen. 1851.”
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in traditional knitting. Ganseys or guernseys are being knitted, worn and enjoyed, by a whole new generation.
Ganseys are jumpers knitted from 5 ply, unoiled, worsted-spun wool. Traditionally, they were often navy blue, cream or grey; occasionally red. For interest, they are one-colour, so rely on the knitter using purl stitches that stand out in relief from the fabric; rather than two-colour knitting like Shetland or Fair Isle. They are knitted in one piece, the round, with the body knitted up from the welt and the sleeves knitted down from the shoulders. As opposed to most contemporary knitting, which has the sleeves knit from the cuffs, up.This makes a truly seamless garment, although seams were often simulated with a ‘seam stitch’, either side.
Most ganseys have a diamond shaped gusset under the arms, for ease of movement and to save wear. As a working garment, they were often knitted to fit the body tightly, so the wearer wouldn’t get caught in machinery. Researching for my forthcoming book, ‘River Ganseys’, I uncovered new information that challenged some old myths. For example: we think of them as “fishermen’s jumpers” now, but ganseys were worn by all kinds of people, not just fishermen.
The word ‘gansey’ has long been interchangeable with ‘guernsey’ – leading to some confusion around its origins. According to the OED, 1851 is the first known usage. I managed to find references from around 1820 onwards – but it was sometimes unclear whether they were mentions of knitted pullovers, or the older sewn garment, ‘Guernsey frocks’, which were made from woven canvas, and worn by fishermen and farmers as a sort of work overall.
The modern word ‘yarn’ comes from the Old Norse ‘garn’ (Old English ‘gearn)’. That initial ‘g’ in Old English was actually pronounced more like a cross between a ‘h’ and a ‘y’. So the ‘gan-sey’ may just be a corruption of ‘yarn-sy’, ie: “thing made from yarn”. In the Yorkshire Dales, thick ‘bump’ yarn was often called ‘bump garn’ in dialect – right into the 20thC.
The whole “Guernsey” thing came later and has confused endless historians. As the island of Guernsey happened to become a centre of excellence in hand-spinning around the 17thC, people assumed ‘gansey was a corruption of ‘guernsey’ and the two were interchangeable. Costume historians have only been able to find references to ‘ganseys’ from the 19thC onwards.
So how did ganseys develop?
Mentions of ganseys become more frequent from the 1830s onwards, in newspapers. By the 1850s, we have photographic evidence of some highly evolved gansey pattern motifs. Patterns so fine they can’t possibly have come out of the blue, fully formed but must have evolved over years. It looks like they developed from around the turn of the 18thC/19thC. This would figure, as the kind of wool needed to make relief patterns stand out (what knitters call “pop”) , is fine, machine spun worsted. Ganseys developed once worsted was machine-spun, and machine spun yarn became more prevalent around 1800 onwards.
To find the gansey’s ancestry, we have to look further back in time. In the Museum of London, is the knitted silk shirt of Charles I, the king we so rudely interrupted with a beheading in 1649. The shirt only survives due to the status of its owner. Structurally, Charles’ shirt has all the same elements as a gansey: under-arm gussets, it is knit in the round from the bottom up, and is reliant on plain and purl relief stitches for its visual interest. Spun silk is, like machine spun worsted, smooth and glossy: ideal for making the purl stitch patterns pop.
It is not unlike the Scandinavian nattrojer – and some extant pieces of 17thC knitting are indeed, reputed to be Scandinavian imports. The UK and Scandinavia have always had close ties. Other Scandinavian knitted silk jackets dating from the 17thC and 18thCs have survived. These are high status garments. The National Museum of Oslo, Norway, has a number of 17thC silk knitted jackets where the abstract patterns purled onto the garment, was a ground for gold wire embroidery. The purl patterns on these old garments are tessellated, and generally an allover repeating pattern. Ganseys were to evolve with horizontal or vertical bands of changing patterns, as well as some with a single, allover repeating motif.
It’s likely the gansey slowly evolved from a piece of high status 17thC underwear, or casual but high status indoor jacket like the Scandinavian ones, to a piece of lower status outerwear, over time. By the 18thC, these knitted silk shirts had become indoors, informal ‘lounge wear’ for the upper classes. The London Morning Chronicle of 24th April, 1777, lists the wardrobe contents of a wannabe man-about-town, and includes a number of knitted silk jackets and waistcoats:
“…A silk knit frock suit
… A black silk knit frock suit…
…A cashmere waistcoat, a pair of silk knit breeches, and a pair of silk lustring ditto…
…A green silk shag knit frock lined with silk, and green and orange striped shag waistcoat, with green and gold binding…
…A green silk knit coat, bordered with green and gold, striped lace and silk lining…”
Some lower status clothing had a similar structure to the gansey, too. The Museum of London has a simple, woollen 17thC knitted baby’s vest. It is plain with no relief patterning but in terms of knitting method, remarkably similar to a gansey, and knitted from the bottom up.
If ganseys shifted from under to outerwear at some point in the late 18thC, they were still making this transition in people’s minds during the 19thC. This ad from the Hampshire Advertiser, of January, 1854 shows that transition:
“The seamless knitted worsted vest may be worn either by itself, or (by Gentlemen of delicate constitutions), as a wrapper or over-vest, highly recommended for winter wear by R.D.ELYETT, 185 High St, the sole agent for Southampton.”
In a Walter Fisher portrait of a Filey fisherwoman, you can see white knitted jersey under her bodice. She also wore a knitted montag shawl and socks.
Arthur Munby’s diary entry for 1865 bears out Fisher’s picture. He met Scarborough bait-gatherers: “…all women, who wore white jerseys with long sleeves, short skirts, tarpaulin coats and strong boots…”
The undyed white jerseys were worn close to the skin, but the long sleeves were visible under the women’s bodices.
Munby met a girl called Sarah Ann, who wore: “… ‘a handkerchief tied over her bonnet [and] round her face – old shawl tied close round body – white jersey sleeves, a striped linsey kirtle to the calf, blue wool stockings and short highlows…’ ”
The plain white jerseys worn by Yorkshire fisher-lasses are never mentioned in dispatches in knitting histories. Yet we can clearly see something transitioning from underwear to outerwear, there.
The fisher-girls’ plain white under garments knit in fine wool (most likely, 4 ply or finer) resemble nothing so much as the sporting ganseys worn by Victorian gentleman gymnasts and early professional athletes – ancestor of the modern machine knit football or rugby shirt.
There is also an absence of any other evidence for ganseys before the 19thC, in inventories, wills, lists of army and navy provisions, etc. It seems ganseys, as outerwear, are a 19thC thing.
They were generally knit at a tension of around 7 stitches per inch, usually with 2.5mm or 2.75mm needles. Contemporary knitters make socks on needles this tiny, but many would hesitate to make a jumper on them, knowing how many tens of thousands of stitches one project might involve. In fact, the tension could be even finer than that, and there are some old ganseys – like one in Whitby Museum – which are knitted from 4 ply yarn, even finer than the usual 5 ply. This makes for a firm fabric – but not a waterproof one.
Traditional knitters worked fast. . Knitting was not a leisurely pursuit. In Yorkshire, farms were bought on income made from knitting. York’s Spinning and Knitting School was a charity school that in the 1780s, would only admit 7 year olds, if they could already knit a stocking in a week, or under. Given that an 18thC stocking might have more stitches in it than a 21stC adult’s jumper, it’s apparent that high speeds were reached. A competent contract knitter might expect to work at a rate of 200 stitches per minute. In ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, more than one Dales Knitter mentioned their mothers or grandmothers knitting an entire jumper in a week. These people would now be up there vying for the World Record; only a handful of contemporary knitters can hit those speeds.
Knitting history was largely ignored until the middle of the 20thC, when a few pioneers, like Gladys Thompson, started interviewing gansey knitters, and collecting and publishing their patterns. Early TV Knitter, James Norbury, also visited the history of knitting in the introductions of his many knitting books, and ‘Traditional Knitting Patterns’, 1962.
There are many myths that were created and perpetuated by these early knitting historians. One that to this day is even repeated by traditional knitters themselves, is the idea that “Each village had its own distinctive pattern”.
The truth was, fishing families were almost the only truly mobile section of society. At a time where most labourers had to settle in one parish or risk not receiving poor relief, and often were born, lived and died in one place; fishing families moved. In my researches I found Grimsby girls marrying Cornish fishermen at the same date my own farming ancestors would be thought exotic for marrying someone from two villages away. When you examine old photos of ganseys, the same patterns might crop up in Scotland, Yorkshire, Norfolk, and Cornwall. The conventions of publishing meant, many early knitting writers wrote their book in a travelogue format, so if a pattern got recorded in the ‘Filey’ chapter; to generations of successive knitters, that became a ‘Filey’ pattern. Surviving photos give a different story with that same ‘Filey’ pattern turning up in Polperro, or Robin Hood’s Bay, or Yarmouth.
Ganseys can be broadly characteristic of an area, or even place. For example, some areas favoured vertically arranged patterns; some horizontal; some covered everything with ropes (cables), others didn’t…. But their distinctiveness, and different patterns’ exclusivity to certain towns, even families, is exaggerated.
When you pay attention to what knitters actually said, it becomes clear patterns were often made up on the spot. Dentdale knitter Clara Sedgwick said:
“….Patterns were knitted ‘out of the head’. They were not written down because, of course, many people in the early days could not write or wouldn’t know how to describe patterns in writing.”
Inland mariner, Harry Fletcher, said, of his mother’s ganseys:
“…She never used a pattern. No one did. They all made it up as they went along – ropes and cables and knots and diamonds: all kinds of patterns….”
Which also suggests the diversity of patterns. The photographic evidence does not support the romantic idea of ‘family patterns’. If you examine Lewis Harding’s famous Polperro portraits of 1860s fishermen, you can see immediately that within a single, entire family group, (for example, the Jolliffs, photographed at various times), there may be several wildly different patterns going on. In Rae Compton’s ‘The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting’, there is a Filey photo of the four Crimlisk brothers. Wearing different ganseys.
Patterns also famously moved round the coast with the herring and the well documented herring girls.
And I think if we accept there is a huge cross fertilisation between Scottish, Norfolk and Yorkshire patterns – then during my research, I discovered the Yorkshire inland ganseys were massively influenced by those of the Netherlands, who shared a gansey tradition with England and Scotland. The Ouse and Humber vessels sailed daily to the Netherlands, and some Dutch gansey patterns were called ‘English’.
Patterns changed, evolved, and were subject to new influences. Women would admire eachother’s handiwork – and have plenty of time to commit to memory – new and interesting patterns, whilst at church or chapel of a Sunday.
I started my odyssey into knitting and researching ganseys, in the 1980s with the publication of Michael Pearson’s ‘Traditional Knitting’. It’s about to come full circle later this year, with the publication of my own ‘River Ganseys’. When researching my family history, I discovered some of my ancestors were Humber fishermen; others were vessel owners, and horse marines on the river Ouse. I decided to try and find out more about the ganseys of the inland waterways, as so much material has involved coastal ganseys. I wanted to find out patterns and motifs that might typically have been knitted by my own ancestors, and bring an almost lost piece of our heritage back into the daylight.
Humber and Ouse fishermen – like fishermen everywhere – had their own set of superstitions and beliefs, which informed the choice of gansey motifs. And sometimes, dictated what to avoid. Nets or ‘masks’ – diamond shapes – were seen as particularly lucky, maybe because they had a very direct reference to catching fish. One common Yorkshire motif, the ‘Eye of God’ was seen as protective. And also a reminder to the wearer that God, if not the gansey’s knitter, was watching them in distant ports. Researching the famous ‘Humber Star’ motif, I discovered that Humber and inland fishermen, were often devout Methodists and members of the ‘Bethel’ chapel. The Bethel’s symbol was… a star. No doubt, the star conferred protection on the mariners, at work. Other gansey motifs like ropes, steps, ladders, fish, seem to be a nod to their environment.
‘Sunk Island’, commissioned originally by the entirely wonderful Shannon Okey, uses some typical Humber/Ouse motifs: the Humber Star above the waves. Almost any motif pattern can be found in various parts of the UK; both inland and coastal. Only one gansey motif is thought to be unique to one area: the Humber Star. As a child’s gansey, ‘Sunk Island’ is a not-too-daunting first foray into ganseys. Many gansey knitters start with a pattern from a book, but soon feel confident enough to develop their own, unique designs and ideas, as the gansey is a very straightforward shape, it makes a great blank canvas for improvisation.
As Elizabeth Zimmerman remarked, nothing in knitting is entirely new – we ‘unvent’ rather than ‘invent’, she said. In gansey knitting we are playing with some patterns that are over 200 years old. But nothing is cliched, as everyone can combine and recombine, refine and evolve, what appeals to them, from within the tradition. Understand the tradition – then have fun with it. Make it your’s. It is your’s.
Knitting Ganseys, Beth Brown-Reinsel, White River Press, 2010
The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting, Rae Compton, 1985
Traditional Knitting, Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys, Michael Pearson, Collins, 1984
Fishermen’s Sweaters, Alice Starmore, Collins & Brown, 2010
Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans, Gladys Thompson, Dover, 1979
‘River Ganseys’ will be published by Cooperative Press, Ohio, 2012.