There was a time when ganseys had a “forbidden” colour. Green.
This blog has long been fascinated by the idea that colours have power; think of the rainbow flag and the current rainbow pictures children in the UK are putting in windows to support the NHS. Colours can also be patriotism and nationalism; hatred, division and also strength and unity. Textile colours are emotional. Historically, some colours had loaded meanings – for example, yellow: the colour of shame.
Today I’m going to share with you an excerpt from my favourite chapter of ‘River Ganseys’. It was certainly the most interesting to research and write. I will be adding a little to this in the new edition.
We’re currently working on the new edition – it will be published later in the year under our own imprint, Pretty Baa Lambs Press. There will be new patterns, an expanded chart section and I want to re-do all the illustrations and get higher res versions of the images and update and add new ones. We will be improving the layout and all those things I had no control over, in the first edition. The book will also reflect some research and other people’s publications, since 2011 which is when I was writing it. A total re-boot, in other words. We are constantly asked for it, so decided this is the time to do it before we continue with Their Darkest Materials 2. We hope to launch River Ganseys Reboot somewhere round September, 2020.
This seems to be a good way to ease back into writing after being ill with A Virus (no tests in the UK at the time I fell ill back in March). Revising an existing book is a bit kinder to me than writing a new one, although I will be researching for the next one. And keep looking at ‘The Knitter’ for our ongoing series about historical knitting in museums across these here islands. (In keeping with the green topic here – anyone in Ireland, if you know of a great piece of vintage/historic knitting in a collection near you, or you own an amazing photo and would like me to cover it… get in touch).
During Ganseyfest, in 2011, I was chatting about the various gansey superstitions and was told by an ex-trawlerman that green was, indeed, a taboo colour at sea.
I was thinking about the colour green after reading this:
An interesting blog post about a manufactured controversy or fake news, indeed, whipped up by alt right knitters. For more information, check out #dismantletheknittingcult on Insta.
I hadn’t heard of this til today. But being ill have been out of the loop, so to speak. And the emotions of colours in textiles is my thing.
There was always one chapter in River Ganseys that was dearest to my heart. The one about myths and superstitions. This resonated with so many knitters and always captures folks’ imaginations when we’ve done our gansey talks. For the Gansey Exhibition at the Hull Maritime Museum, a few years back, I wrote the info board for them on the subject and it remains, for me, the most compelling part of gansey history.
I managed to get the rights back to ‘River Ganseys’ so I can publish it myself – and can change all those things I’m itching to fiddle with. But that means I can’t use the original images for the patterns and at this remove in time, can’t really re-shoot as the sample knitters were the other side of the world to me and got (quite rightly) to keep the samples. So if you have knitted one of the ganseys or have done in the past and have some lovely pictures of it you wouldn’t mind us using in the book… do get in contact! If I use your image I can of course, credit you fully and fulsomely.
When you’ve read this excerpt – please don’t let it stop you buying the amazing, beautiful green guernsey yarn from :
I’ll admit, I look at the greens wistfully then move on. Frangipani have such a vast array of colours – the most any 5 ply yarn manufacturer has ever had – that I’d have no trouble finding something else. But the greens, I do just so love them. Too superstitious though. I have other green jumpers. Just not ganseys. In the excerpt we look at why early twentieth century gansey knitters avoided the colour green, but I’ve included a bit of other stuff here, because you’re worth it.
Motifs: Superstition, Folklore and Inland Ganseys
In which we whistle up the wind, visit the Stalberg Ghost and Suicide Sid, learn why one must never wear the Forbidden Colour. We discover the origins of the elusive Betty Martin.
… Alec Gill studied the Humber fishermen’s superstitions and folk magic and found ‘hundreds’ of ritualistic behaviours and beliefs prevalent amongst the Hessle Road trawlermen and families, in Hull. Those superstitions and beliefs are worth looking at, as they go a long way to explaining the mind-set that informed inland and coastal ganseys.
Keelmen – like the coastal mariners – went by nicknames. Anyone who has seen the captions on photos in books about gansey history, will have spotted “Billy ‘Clubfoot’ Mayes”, “Tanker”, “John ‘Snouts’ Cox”. For inland mariners, Gill recorded names like “Snowy Worthington”, “The Stalberg Ghost”, “Suicide Sid”, and “Cod-Eye White”. Giving objects of people their ‘true’ names has sometimes been seen as bad luck, in British folklore and “words have power”. You can dis-empower bad luck or avert it, by changing a name. What has this got to do with ganseys? I suspect it may affect the naming of the gansey motifs.
Motifs are often given short, pithy names that are easy to memorise. And by naming something ‘lucky’, its magic is knitted in with every purl stitch.
One question contemporary knitters often ask is why the ropes (cables) are never mirrored in old ganseys. Again, I suspect the answer lies in folklore. One of the objects mariners were most averse to were mirrors. Going back to pagan times, places where a person could be reflected were liminal places; gateways to the otherworld. To reflect was to bring on bad luck. If all the symbols – motifs – on a gansey could be said to evoke good luck, to mirror a cable might create bad.
Diamonds – sometimes called ‘nets’ or ‘masks’ – are a very common motif on the inland ganseys. And yet, along the Hessle Road, seeing diamonds appear in the folds of your laundry, was taken as one of the direst omens. In February, 1946, Joseph Gerrard took his first post-War job on a Hull trawler, The Kingston Pearl. On her return journey from the Norwegian fishing grounds, he was swept off deck by a sheer wall of sea. Joseph’s son, Bernard, remembered: “‘…for several weeks after losing dad, we kept finding diamond shapes in bed-linen, table clothes, tea towels….’”
The diamond as death-omen probably had its origins in the fact it echoes the shape of a coffin. The diamond may have been seen as a lucky omen, ironically, as that sort of inverse magic where you invoke the thing you most fear.
For some reason, Humber fishermen held onto the superstition that they must not even say the words ‘pig’, ‘rabbit’ or ‘hare’ – which had once also been common superstitions amongst landlubbers, but had died out on shore, long since. Even saying the words aboard ship would be as doom-laden as mentioning ‘the Scottish play’ is, to actors. Sometimes, perversely, the ‘unmentionable’ was evoked to take the sting out of it as an omen, to dis-empower. So the wartime crew of Her Majesty’s Trawler Rosy Morn were photographed, one of them holding a knitted white rabbit – for luck. Maybe the diamond patterns were used in the same spirit, to take the sting out of the most feared event: death at sea.
Also, it recalled the mesh of nets and maybe was ‘lucky’ for that reason, as well.
Maybe one of the most interesting taboos for Yorkshire fishermen and mariners was the colour green. This was called the ‘forbidden colour’ – and not without reason. Even Winston Churchill had an aversion to green:
“…A local yarn goes that when he visited bomb-torn Boulevard off Hessle Rd, he gave a man £10 to get rid of a jumper – it was green.”
Gill went on to say that in 1990, he had a phone call from someone at Hull City Council who had heard about his research into Hull superstitions. Apparently, whenever the council painted something – whether it was a tenant’s door, a park bench or a lamp-post, they were flooded with complaints if they painted it green. Most complaints came from Hull’s elderly residents, and after a while it slowly dawned on the council that ‘it was something to do with trawling.’”
Meanwhile, down on Hessle Road, the wool shop-keepers realised it wasn’t worth stocking green yarn:
“…Green woollen jumpers and mufflers (neck scarves) caused problems at sea… Jenny Pattison from Easington, however, interviewed the Spurn life-boat men and they confirmed that there is still a strong superstition against green amongst east-coast fishermen and themselves.”
When new vicar, the Reverend Tardew painted the pews of his church, off Hessle Rd, Hull, green in 1924, he was hated so much for his insensitivity to local superstition, that when he had a fancy garden party, with the Archbishop of York, the local kids pelted the vicar and his august guest with stones, eggs, dead cats and huge lumps of rotting cod.
Avoiding green was a form of ‘mimic magic’. As green was seen as the colour of creation/god, so to avoid death, one had to avoid wearing it. Yorkshire churches are full of that figure of deep folklore, the Green Man. The Chapter House at York Minster is covered with medieval green men carvings. No-one really knows why. But it points to the fusion of christian and pagan in the Yorkshire mind-set, where religion and pagan superstition often went hand-in-hand. Hull trawlermen wouldn’t have green curtains or furniture in their houses.
We can see that even the colours used for ganseys were dictated by folk belief.
Likewise, the local hardware stores refused to stock anything with birds printed on it, as all birds – not just the infamous albatross – were seen as bad mojo. It is striking that there are many motifs inspired from nature but very few refer to birds, in any way…
Incredibly, I have never owned a copy of ‘River Ganseys’, not so much as a complimentary. Never saw it in the flesh even though I wrote the thing – only got the downloadable. So I’ll be working from what’s on my screen and my original draft which may or may not resemble the first edition. In other words – even if you bought it first time round, there will be new material, a much more user friendly layout and hopefully something of interest.
Now off to work on my Hull trawlerman nickname. Also…. the gansey I’m currently knitting is not green.
Join the current Summer 2020 gansey KAL here: