ganseys History Knitting Re-enactment spindle whorls

Wheer Theer's Muck

Knitting Sheath From the Hull Maritime Museum

The myths around traditional knitting are worth exploring.  One new one seems to be the idea that Tudor, even medieval, sailors or fishermen wore a forerunner of the gansey.  I’m going to explode a few myths in a forthcoming book, so should keep my powder dry  – but here’s a few thoughts and woolgatherings that are accruing alongside the tumbleweed that is generally between my ears.

Years ago, when we ran Foxe’s in The English Civil War Society, we had a couple of new members we called ‘The Leicester Lads’. The Leicester Lads were not your usual 1980s Foxe’s re-enactor – not historians, not archaeologists… they were Leicester Lads.  And when we were helping them kit themselves out, as we did with all the new recruits, their constant refrain was:

“Why didn’t they have jumpers in the 17thC?”

To which our stock reply was:

“They didn’t.”

“Well why not?  They could knit, couldn’t they?  They could knit tubes couldn’t they?  They could join tubes together, couldn’t they?  Why couldn’t they knit jumpers?”

“They just didn’t, OK?”

“But how do you know they didn’t?”

“They just didn’t.  Alright?”

And no, they didn’t.  And here I am 30 years on still having this dialogue.

The danger with reconstructing historical costume is – we have the benefit of hindsight.  The trouble is, we expect clothes to perform and to be weatherproof.  Fishermen in the past? They didn’t need a gansey to be equivalent to Superman’s high tech outfit.  They wanted waterproof… the put an oilskin over it.  There is a danger with all the myths flying around, we’re turning the gansey into some super-garment that it never was.  It’d be great if it was this paragon of wind-cheating, water-turning, preternatural super-powers. But what we see as ‘great’ is again, with the benefit of 20/20 vision in hindsight.

If they had jumpers in the 17thC – so by inference, earlier than that date, too –  there’d be at least one scrap of evidence for them. Somewhere.  Not an entire garment maybe but a hard to ascribe fragment of knitting.  A portrait. A reference in one, just one of the millions of Wills and Probate Inventories. I’ve read many hundreds of these on Microfilm, even coming from these villages along the river here, where there were always fishermen. Nope. No such thing as a 16thC, 17thC or even 18thC jumper.  Nil. Zero. Zilch. Pas un sausage.

Medieval Spinlde Whorls, from PH's collection

And I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever for knitting in England prior to the 1460s.  No hard evidence.  Which means – no evidence.  Which is not the same as saying – no jumpers.  But as good as.

OK…Certain things it would be nice to find. It would confirm what we like to think.  But the hard truth is, you can only reconstruct what is provably there.  And we can look at the entire period of history right up til the 15thC to say, we can’t prove knitting was even here in these islands. Post that kind of date, it was done here but only specific items of clothing – caps, hose, scoggers (sleeves), and at the high end, ecclesastical adornments like fancy silk and metal thread cushions. No jumpers.

Alright, what about the archaeology then?  Let’s find some hard evidence of knitting in England prior to the 1460s.

Look at the textiles found in digs. Let’s look here. In the anaerobic muck of York. Wheer there’s muck there’s brass . And maybe some fragmentary textiles. I bet if they knitted jumpers in Viking times, say – there’d be fragments of knitted fabric. Let’s see if there are.

I have in front of me ‘Anglo-Scandinavian Finds From Lloyds Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites’ (Arthur McGregor, Council for British Archaeology, 1982).  32 fragments of textile were found at the Anglo Scandinavian levels of the Lloyds Bank site due to our “exceptional soil conditions”; 13 pieces of textile from 5, Coppergate and 21 more from Lloyds Bank in 1974.

Most textiles from this period survive on the back of metal artefacts in graves.   Many of the fragments were light brown, sophisticated twills, remarkably like those found at Birka. The twills vary in sophistication but let’s just say we know the vikings had weaving down to a fine art. Witness the silk coif in The Yorkshire Museum. Two of the fragments were fine worsted (wools) and one, mulberry silk.  It is thought that they have “professional homogeneity” (ie: look manufactured). All the fabrics are woven. No knitting.

Fragments of fabric survive – even when comparatively discrete sites are dug. No fragments of knitting, though. Given that the wool used to knit with is identical chemically to the wool used to weave with – had large, knitted upper body garments existed – we’d have a square inch of one.  We have a sprang Roman stocking, after all.

The fabrics from 5, Coppergate were also broadly the same kind of thing – “woolly medium coarse repp twill”. [124]. Woven.   There was also a piece of plain woven golden coloured silk.

I venture so far back as a thousand years to prove that fragments of textile can and do survive in our mud.  It has been said they would be as rare as ‘finding a Rolls Royce’ in the mud. Tell that to the archaeologists who found this, equivalent to maybe a fleet of Rollers a few miles from here. In the mud.

If 1000-1300 year old fragments of textile are there…

How about going into medieval times, now?  Let’s sample the mud for the later period.  How about a quick look at ‘Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds From Medieval York’, [YAT, pub. Council for British Archaeology, 2002, Patrick Ottaway and Nicola Rogers].

We turn to the Textile Production section, written by the foremost expert, Penelope Walton Rogers.

This book has a very useful summary of the hard evidence for the introduction of knitting to England.  Why?  Because amongst the finds, were 3 copper alloy rods, two of 2.6mm and one of 1.9mm diameter.  They have been designated ‘knitting needles’ but no-one’s entirely sure what they are.

The two larger ones were found in the floor of 2, Aldwark.  The other one which is thought to be post-medieval, was found  at the Foundary site. At first that looks like an early date – but in all probability, the needles were deposited at some later date. Not everything found on the floor of a lost building, is contemporaneous with the day that building was raised.

The earliest samples of knitting in England are of a similar date – late 14thC. London, and early 15thC Newcastle.  Penelope Walton Rogers points out both are port towns and, for this kind of date, “there are records of knitted garments being imported in Italian galleys...” She cites Crowfoot.  Analysis of the Newcastle fragment did indeed prove it to be not English at all – but using woo and a dye from Southern Europe.

Penelope Walton Rogers cites Kirsty Buckland’s citation of the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first HARD evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465.  Until that date, there is no hard evidence for knitting.  No doubt it existed.  But the earliest evidence we have is 1465 and that is for a cap knitter.  Which is in line with everything else we know about the history of knitting in England – caps, hose, and ecclesiastical fripperies came first.

We have sumptuary laws for this kind of date and no mention of a knitted body garment ever appears in 15thC sumptuary laws.  Again – had jumpers or something analogous existed – we’d find documentary evidence of it even if we lacked archaeological/ visual arts recording it. And as you can see, we have no reason to lack the archaeological samples.  Old textile fragments survive.

Tellingly, almost as soon as we get the first reference to a knitter here, the references start to come thick and fast – knitting spread fast as references to cap knitters and hose knitters start to appear.  Yorkshire was always at the centre of this industry, so no surprise maybe the first reference to it is from here and that within 100 years or so of Marjory Clayton, references to it become numerous.  All of those references, however, are to caps, hats, hose, and later, petticoats.  Which is in  line with the archaeological finds.  Had something like a jumper existed – there would be one painting showing it, one woodcut, one find, and – easiest of all these things to find – a myriad of written sources referring to it.  We have port records of imports and exports.  We have personal journals.  We have estate records – often detailing things like the selling of a wool clip, getting things woven up/dyed by journeymen, etc. We have, of course, the literary sources. I remember seeing the Concordances for Shakespeare’s works alone in my University stacks.  They were vast.  Let alone all the surviving other literary stuff – endless writers but not one reference.

Something we do find in the muck with monotonous regularity are spindle whorls.  These can be hard to date. But most of those in my collection are, broadly speaking, ‘medieval’ or not a lot post medieval (the exceptions being some Roman ones and 17thC Bellarmine ones).  Years ago we weighed a random sample of them, well over 100.  Many of them had provenances if not dates and came from all over England – London as well as here in the North East and pretty well everywhere inbetween.  They had a surprising consistency – around 1oz in weight.  To knit a gansey you need worsted spun wool, not woollen spun.  This is made from long, fine fibres (the best of which were only developed post 1750 – another argument for no ganseys prior to Industrial/Agrarian Revolution dates!)  You also need a minimum of 3 plies to make it more perfectly circular in cross section, so giving you the crisp stitch defintition. No point in elaborate patterns from fuzzy wool!  Of course longwools existed prior to this date – Cotswold, for example, was developed from a Roman type of sheep. But ever tried to ply on a spindle?  Ever tried to 3 ply or more on a spindle? (Pre Navajo plying which was only known in England in the 20thC). You’d quickly realise that you’d need a wider variety of whorl weights if you were making ‘gansey’ style yarn at a time in history when we only had spindles. We don’t see that variety.

17thC Bellarmine spindle whorls, from PH's collection.

Back to those 3 putative ‘knitting needles’ in York…. That still leaves us with what are possibly knitting needles in a late 14thC context, but no proof of knitting for another 60 years or so.  And all of that of course, leaves us with no ganseys/jumpers/knit frocks, call em what you will. (These needles are the equivalent in size to standard sock needles, so look like they’d most likely be used for hosiery – and finer caps, possibly.

All the textile fragments from medieval York are of woven, not knitted, cloth.

There is no evidence for a sleeved upper body garment til the 17thC knitted silk damask undershirts (that’s vests) for adults, and the child’s vest from the 17thC in the Museum of London I think it is.  And no evidence that undergarment migrated to becoming an outer garment til the 19thC.  The liklihood being, therefore, it made that transition – in England – at some point in the 18thC.  There are high status knitted silk waistcoats from the 18thC.  No jumpers.  And no record of them as a woolly, lower status garment, even here in the fishing community along the river for any 18thC date.


The lovely Polperro Press allowed us to use some of these iconic photos in an article in Yarn Forward 18, last year – Harding’s images thought to be the first ever of ganseys – taken by Lewis Harding in Polperro, Cornwall, around 1850.  Mary Wright’s classic little book, Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks is back in print, thanks to them.  Well worth buying for you gansey fans!

Yorkshire Inland Waterways Museum, Goole

The earliest printed pattern for a gansey is as late as the 1880s. A survey of the 19thC newspapers picks up nothing for ‘knit shirt’ or ‘knitted shirt’, but a few references for ‘knit frock’ concentrated around the 1850s onwards, and that word yields to ‘gansey’ by around the 1870s.  Curiously, the word gansey even then often appears in inverted commas, as if they thought it was a vulgar word.  The gansey is very firmly post Industrial Revolution – the crisp stitch definition etc only an option once most gansey worsted can be machine spun and, post 1860, chemically dyed, if necessary.  It is a product of the mechanised age even when it is handmade, so sadly, no spinning ladies in the picturesque doorways of cottages with roses round them. It’s an occupational costume, maybe ground out as often by Dales contract knitters doing generic garments, as made by loved ones for loved ones.  It cannot predate the 18thC and very likely does not predate say the 1790s.  By the time Lewis Harding took the first photos of ganseys in Polperro,  Cornwall in 1850 – it is clearly an evolved art.  But that’s an evolution that may only have taken one or two generations.

So whilst it would be lovely to give the Leicester Lads their fantasy and say yes there were Tudor/17thC jumpers – hard truth is – sorry lads.  There just weren’t.

To see images of earlier knitting, look at the V & A Collection,  here.

Museum of London Collections here.

Shetland Museum (Gunnister and others) here.

Also, some old links but maybe you’ll find something here.


12 replies on “Wheer Theer's Muck”

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It may be the case that costume historians don’t “do science”. I can say with absolute certainty that none of your assertions have been derived from any recognized scientific method. The number of false assertions. The logical fallacies, the disdain for any sort of research, and the sheer amount of WRONG beggars my descriptive powers.

You, sir, may knit a fine gansey, but by no stretch of the imagination are you capable of making your arguements support you conclusions. You leave me dumbfounded.


“The truth is: that woven cloth is not as warm as knit”

Why do you say this? Prove it, cite sources (“I’ve worn both and I know” does not count as proof). What is this magical knitting you do that makes the exact same wool yarn much warmer when knit then when woven? Warmth of a wool (or any) textile is based on the fibre used for the yarn, the thickness and density of the yarn, and the tightness of the weave/knit. You can weave extremely dense wool cloth from thick dense wool just as easily (ok, I lie, much more easily) then you can knit.

The only benefit knitting has over weaving is conservation of materials seeing as (most of the time) once you weave the fabric, you then need to cut the clothing out of it.


Pickup the nearest cell phone and describe the antenna. Most art and textile people would look at a modern cell phone and say. “it does not have an antenna”. In fact, cell phone antennas are printed with conductive inks on the inside of the back cover of the cell phone. The point is, that one must understand the physics/engineering so that you know what you are seeing. Physics says every cell phone has an antenna. That same physics says that the traditional clothing ascribed to AB sailors was not warm enough to keep them warm while they were on duty in foul weather at sea. Sailors that get cold, die. Some sailors came home, therefore some sailors were wearing something else, or something more than the ascribed costume. That is not a myth; that is physics. I spent years as senior scientist at the world’s largest engineering firm. The safety of a lot of people depend on the perfection of my physics. If there is a chance that my calculations are wrong, I test.

The myth is: that AB sailors wore linen shirts next to their skin while on duty in foul weather. They did not. They wore wool. That is engineering talking, not physics. You may not understand reverse engineering, but I do. Trust me. There is an antenna in your cell phone; and, the sailors of old wore wool next to their skin. I do not know what they called those garments, but they were wool and almost certainly knit.

The myth is: that we would have found such garments. No, there are too many critters that eat wool. The (woven) linen and wool that we find have been preserved with metallic salts or acids. Knit wool is much less likely to have been so preserved. If bogs and muck did a good job of preserving proteins, those bogs and waterways would be full of all the feathers and fur that had fallen into them over the years. They are not. They are full of a peat, a plant material — not unlike linen. Toss a man wearing armor off the bridge and into the water, and 50 years later you may find his helmet, but you are not likely to find much of his hair despite its original proximity to the metal helmet. Knit wool is not that much different from feathers, fur and human hair. It does not last as long as — linen.

The myth is: that there would be documentary evidence of knit wool shirts. The truth is that people have been calling “shirts,” shirts for a long time whether they are made of wool, silk, or linen. If Charles could die in a silk shirt, then “Jack” could live in a wool shirt. Sometimes shirts are made from woven material and sometimes shirts are knit. People on the spot knew that seaman’s (under) shirts were knit wool, because the seaman would die (of hypothermia) if he wore linen next to his skin.

The myth is: that they would not have used knitting because weaving is cheaper. The truth is: that woven cloth is not as warm as knit, and the goal here is to keep the sailor warm.

The myth is the linen was worn because it was “washable”. Anybody that has worn wool socks knows that wool is washable. Anyway, sailors did not have water for washing their clothes. Like the Romans, sailors used urine as a dirt extractor. Urine works much better on wool than on linen.

I do not care what you call those knit, wool, upper body garments that sailors wore, but they were just as real as the antennas on cell phones.

The problem is that costume historians do not do science. Then, they get upset when somebody comes along and tests their concepts of clothing against a scientific standard of how much insulation is required to keep a particular worker alive in a particular environment.


One of the most interesting things I found in a book (Dandanell & Danielsson, out of print) on twined knitting (stranded twisted technique from the mountain area of western Sweden and eastern Norway) is a garment the body of which was woven but the sleeves of which were twined knit. (Twined knitting has a very different fabric from ordinary stranded knitting; it’s very firm with a slight elasticity, not unlike spandex. Super warm and very weatherproof, good for working poor soil in a hideously inhospitable climate.) I think the earliest extant example is from the 17thC, but wondering whether this might mirror the development of the jumper in other places? It’s very remote, or was then, so it’s possible it sprang up from this place and never moved on anywhere else, but it seems like a sensible garment for this kind of occupation…


These needles [the York needles] are the equivalent in size to standard sock needles, so look like they’d most likely be used for hosiery – and finer caps, possibly.

I’ve got a gansey on the needles which I’m using 2.5mm needles for. I knit socks on 2.0mm needles, so using the York needles for a garment similar to a gansey would not be totally improbable. I’ve also seen Fair Isle knitting done on similar small gauge needles.

I don’t think they were knitting ganseys back then — just wanted to point out that just because we knit on tree trunks, doesn’t mean they did. OK, not really tree trunks.

One of the things that bears consideration too is the time cost to make ganseys. Knitting is a comparatively slow method of producing a garment. Not only do you usually need a plied yarn (you can weave with singles), but knitting takes longer than weaving and sewing. Or more likely buying fabric and sewing a garment. Even if all the sewing is done by hand, it’s still faster than knitting (especially at a fine gauge). That time cost makes hand knitted garments a luxury item, not a necessity.


One more thing! In “Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th centuries” by Avril Hart and Susan North, which is about clothing taken from the V&A’s collections, one of the items detailed is this jacket:

The authors say in the book text:

“While these jackets were originally thought to have been made in Italy, recent research into the knitting industries in Britain indicates that by the third quarter of the 16th century, the silk for such knitwear was being imported from Naples and made up in London.”

Plenty cryptic if you ask me, since I haven’t been able to figure out WHAT recent research is saying this, but it’s more evidence for knit, sleeved upper body garments before the 17th century in England. Even if they are fancy silk ones for rich people.


Hi! I saw your post about this in the thread about Rutt as the source for historical knitting in Historic Knitting on Ravelry. I’ve been doing research lately on knitted upper body garments in the 16th century, and while I agree with most of what you’ve said in this post, I think you’re cutting it a bit too fine by saying that knit upper body garments are exclusively a 17th-century phenomenon. There is evidence for knit upper body garments in the 16th century, but it’s scattered and nobody has really done a serious academic study of it, so it’s hard to find anything but sort of glancing mentions of it in scholarly texts.

I’m currently having a low blood sugar, but I want to get this out before I forget about it, so if any of this is too garbled, please ask me clarify and I will be happy to do it.

Firstly, I believe that the child’s shirt from The Museum of London has been dated to the 16th century. There are several images of it available on the print site for the MoL. I hope this link works:

This image of the shirt:

states that, “Knitted shirts or vests are mentioned in a list of knitted items in an act of 1552 limiting the times of year that wool could be bought and sold.” So there’s a textual reference to knitted shirts in the 16th century in England.

Secondly, a friend of mine has turned up a reference to watermen in London wearing knitted waistcoats in a letter written by Sir Fulke Greville in 1579. You can read the quote here:

I’m not sure I agree with everything she says there, but the reference in the letter is rather tantalizing, as it’s clear from the context that the reader would be familiar with the knitted items worn by the watermen.

Thirdly, if you can get your hands on “Moda a Firenze” by Bruna Niccoli and Roberta Orsi Landini, there’s a brief bit in one of the chapters (I’ll be happy to give you page numbers!) which discusses the knit items worn by ladies in Florence, Italy, while Eleanora di Toledo was a presence there. The chapter mentions knit “camiciola” from silk, which is Italian for waistcoat. Eleanora di Toledo died in 1562, so the camiciolas are all before that. The V&A seems to believe that the stranded silk waistcoats from the 17th century originated earlier in Italy and the fashion then traveled north. So, that’s not England, but it is a knit upper body garment in Europe well before the 17th century.

Fourthly, there was an article in NESAT X which discusses fragments of knit upper body garments found at Lindisfarne that might date to the 16th century. The article is called “Not so much Cinderella as the Sleeping Beauty: Neglected Evidence of Forgotten Skill” and is by Ruth Gilbert. There’s a thread about it on Ravelry here:

The last post in that thread is mine, and while I haven’t read the article yet, I did manage to turn up an abstract of sorts and find out what Ruth Gilbert is currently researching, which is also knit upper body garment construction in the pre-industrial era. I’m really excited to see what she comes up with! Hopefully I can track down a copy of NESAT X at the library so I can read that darn article.

I do agree that ganseys are at the very, very earliest a very late 18th-century thing and most likely a much later 19th-century thing. It’s just foolish to say they were being worn in the middle ages. I only know of one person who claims this, and his interpretation of historical knitting varies wildly across the board from any other person’s that I’m willing to discredit it almost entirely. But I also don’t have contact with “Leicester lads”, so there probably are others out there! 😀


Sarah, thanks for your insightful and interesting reply. The information in it will be useful to a lot of people and you are absolutely correct – I should have said ’16thC’ not ’17thC’! Will go back and amend later.

I’ve seen the Fashion In Detail book – had it from the library but don’t yet own it. As well as the jacket you link to, isn’t there an 18thC knitted waistcoat (waistcoat in the modern sense of ‘sleeveless’)? And I am going from memory, but I think the Museum of London have a Tudor child’s knitted vest. So what is intriguing as well is that when the knitted upper body garment does evolve, across the 16thC – 18thC it looks to be, influenced maybe by the Danish nattrojer, something with a front opening. Now, whilst I think modern knitters make too much of a thing about steeks – they really aren’t so difficult to do – it does interest me that earlier garments seem to have front openings rather than be continuous tubes of knitting when we’d assume just knitting a tube, like a gansey, would be the first thing to occur to them. But then again, we see this all the time – a new sort of fabric comes alogn and they seem to have tried to force it to conform to the existing modes – the obvious example being knit hose. The earliest ‘recipe’ for knitting a stocking makes up into something that is essentially a knit copy of the older cloth hose. It takes them a while to figure out that ribbing would help hold the thing up – so the Tudor/17thC ones seem to start with moss stitch and they continue to rely on garters below or above the knee to keep the thing up, when just a little lateral thinking would yield the fact they could rib it and it would be self supporting!

Thanks again, Sarah.


How interesting! Jumpers really are a modern invention. I love the idea of them being a super-garment to cover every eventuality, and everytime I think of Superman from now on he will be wearing a jumper his Mum knitted him.


Those early “knitting needles” may actually be mandrels for wireworking, specifically wire coils, often seen in small jewellry and silkwork done over wire.

I’m specifically thinking of the following examples found in _Dress Accessories: Medieval Finds from Excavations London_:

Two annular-frame pins with what is described as “twisted” wire decoration in the text, but is clearly coiled wire in the illustration of one (item 1340) of the two nearly identical examples. 1339 BIG82 acc. no 3068 (context 5400) ceramic phase 6; and 1340 SWA81 acc. no 363 (context 720) ceramic phase 6 or later (illustrated in figure 64 page 254)

There is also a clumiser example made of coarser coiled, stretched and flatted wire, formed into a ring: 1341 BWB83 acc. no 1442 (context 389) phase 11 (also illustrated in figure 64 on page 254). This one would have used a larger mandrel for the coiling.

The text notes that a similar brooch made in gold was also found in York (Daniells 1979, 27), so it’s not an unusual style of wirework in small jewellry.

Two examples of silk-covered wirework of similar structure are also found in the same book, and there is a discussion of coiled and twisted fine wires, as a decorative item, during the 14th and 15th centuries, in the text on page 294. Teh silk-covered spiral examples are item 1461 BC72 acc. no 4499 (context 150) phase 11 (photograph fig 195), and items 1456, 1457, 1459, 1460, 1464, 1466, all with the same context/phase.

Shown on page 295 is a photo of a hair or veil pin, u-shaped, with a coiled wire decoration that has been again coiled around it.

If you would like to see images, these items were so simple to reproduce that I made several for my own amusement and several awful photos can be seen here: Please excuse the dreadful ads. I haven’t gotten around to moving all the content to my blog.


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