Last week, my new gansey pattern came out, in ‘The Knitter’.
It’s published in the supplement. I’ll put up some gansey alphabet PDFs for initials, for anyone thinking of knitting it – or any other gansey – in a day or two. But for now, here’s some info about the gansey itself. It was knitted in Wendy 5 ply Guernsey wool, Atlantic Blue. There are three other traditional shades – Aran, Navy and Crimson.
It’s called ‘Lansallos’. Whilst I usually name them after vessels – to get away from the cliche that specific gansey motifs come from certain areas – I decided to name this after the place where its original wearer (and probably, knitter) came from; Lansallos, in Cornwall, so I could give it back to its original ‘owner’ in a way, as the design is not mine, just one I reverse engineered from a photo.
Seated on the left: Charles Joliffe Sr, one-time landlord of The Three Pilchards Inn, Polperro. Centre: Charles Joliffe Jr. Seated right (and our gansey): James Curtis, who was Charles Jolliff’s Sr’s son-in-law. Little girl: Kate Curtis, born 1874, which dates the picture to around 1877.
James was married to Emily Jolliffe (called ‘Emma’ in later censuses). In the censuses, our gansey-wearer, James was a merchant sailor, then “Fisherman”, later “Fishmonger” at Lansallos. Emily – who probably knitted the gansey – was from Lansallos, too. On the 1861 census, Emma’s occupation is “Knitter” and she is found on Census night visiting the Curtis family on Pier Head, in Lansallos. It’s rather cool – and rare – to be able to (possibly) put a name to a gansey’s knitter.
The photo was taken by Victorian photographer, Lewis Harding, in his studio at Osprey Cottage, Polperro. It’s been reprinted in most of the published gansey books, and for good reason. To reverse engineer it, I had to get the best res image possible, blow it up on my screen, and literally count the purl bumps. Then I charted the pattern as well as I could. I think it’s reasonably accurate. Although I went off piste with the sleeve, putting in a pattern that echoed the sleeve on the centre gansey in the photo. One element of design I am fairly confident about was the little Indian Corn Stitch cable – fairly sure I’m not imagining that in the magnified version of the photo. Polperro Heritage Press’s book “Lewis Harding – Cornwall’s Pioneer Photographer” is well worth a look, as is Mary Wright’s “Cornish Guernseys & Knit-Frocks”.
The diamond and fern patterns in this Cornish gansey are the same as diamonds and ferns found on ganseys from elsewhere in the UK; diamonds, “nets” or “masks” also being extremely common on the inland waterways of Northern England.
I kept the shoulder treatment straightforward, just as Emily Joliffe seems to have, in the original. The neck would be slightly deeper in the original – so if you’re knitting Lansallos and would prefer a more traditional-looking neckline, simply continue knitting a couple more inches. The tension was not so fine as this probably looks, so if you have yet to knit a gansey – this is probably a lot less daunting than it might look!
I’ll put up a link here, to Lansallos in the Ravelry pattern pages, just as soon as one goes live. Lansallos is in Issue 103 of ‘The Knitter’ and will be in the shops for another three weeks, at the time of writing. Enjoy!
Yet again, these blog posts are like buses. Nothing for ages then two come at once.
Yesterday, someone contacted me to ask where they could find the pattern for Bob Jenkinson’s gansey. I realised I never got round to figuring it out – other things intervened.
So, whilst eating my tea, I did the ultimate in multi-tasking and figured out (roughly) Bob’s gansey. What follows is my rough version chart.
As I don’t like doing moss stitch/variants, and like a gansey with something a bit more figurative I realised, looking at it, it’s one I’m never going to knit. Therefore this has not been test knitted, never will be by me, and so if you want to have a go at it I’d use my chart with any refinement of your own and take the accompanying notes with a pinch of (sea) salt.
If knitting this, do the maths yourself, in other words!
To figure out a pattern from an old image, I usually magnify it, sometimes greyscale it, and mess with the contrast. Not really needed for this one as it was fairly straightforward and in the time it took me to eat my tea, I’d charted it.
There is always the possibility that several people will look at an image and interpret what they see, differently. And so, a codicil – this is just my version. Your’s is no less (possibly more) valid. Sometimes I can look at the same picture on two different days and come up with two charts. I have fairly arbitrarily decided on an 8 round repeat for the cable. In some images, it is easy to count the rounds – others; less so. This picture looks higher res than it is, and the best way to get some idea of the cable repeats was to look at the double moss stitch alongside the cable, and count the number of rounds using those moss stitches, counting vertically. I couldn’t decide whether it was 6 or 8, so went with 8.
Looking at it again today, I’m still not sure as a 6th round repeat cable is far more common. The Filey patterns in Mrs Thompson mostly cross the cable every 6th round. But one crosses it on the 7th. I’ve stuck with the 8th because it fits in nicely with your round repeats. You decide!
Looks like Bob had around 6 cables on the Front; so maybe 12 pattern repeats in all.
You may want to add in 4 extra stitches per cable, at the welt; rising to 6 on the body. I haven’t yet made a gansey with this many cables, and so don’t compensate for the cables’ fierce pull-in with any extra stitches. But other knitters do.
This is why I’d do a tension square and figure out how far your chosen needles and yarn take you from 28 st per 4″, and then decide whether you want to cast on, say one extra patt rep front and back.
Assuming the fairly usual tension of 28st to 4″, and seeing Bob has about 6 cables on the Front, I think we can assume this is around a 38″ chest.
The cables are left leaning so made in the front of the work, a simple 6 stitch cable – I knit inside-out so I have to figure these things out for other knitters with my tongue sticking out. I don’t think the pattern is particularly centered.
We can’t see his shoulder treatment, so I’d assume something very simple – end with some ridge and furrow and cast off the Front and Back together, leaving the centre 1/3rd of stitches for your neckline.
It has a simple, old style neckline – that sort of funnel shaped treatment (as they often wore a silk neckerchief underneath – you see this on the rivers, as well). K2 P2 ribbing, ending with a couple of rounds of garter stitch. Bob’s looks to be cast off very firmly.
We also can’t see the sleeves, so I’d assume the same pattern on the top half, and maybe plain stocking stitch from the elbow as that looks fairly standard on the old Filey ganseys in Gladys Thompson’s book. It’s a fairly safe bet the sleeves ended with K2 P2 ribbing, too as we can see that elsewhere on this gansey.
The Filey Cammish, Overy and Jenkinson families have varying ganseys that turn up in all the gansey books. They are a case study in the fact that there was no such thing as a village or even a family gansey.
Although knitters often retain their favourite vertical panel and recycle it alongside different motifs; and we can see that too in the various Filey patterns in Gladys Thompson’s ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’.
In Scarborough, Gladys Thompson met someone who may have been related to Bob:
In search of further material I went to see Kate Brailey, who keeps a fried fish shop, and she told me to go to see Mr Overy. This is an old Filey name, and the door was opened by a typical Filey fisherman, with little gold earrings. George Jenkinson Overy…. Mrs Overy showed me several guernseys knitted by his mother..
I found George Jenkinson Overy on the 1911 Census. His mother – the lady who knitted the ganseys shown to Mrs Thompson – was Sarah Jenkinson. (Who may well have been a sister, cousin, or other relative to our Bob). She married Thomas Cammish Overy in September 1895 and George was born in 1899.
The fact they Filey folk turned up in Scarborough also puts paid to the ‘only one pattern here’ myth. According to Mrs Thompson’s account, they seem to have had with them ganseys knitted by the previous generation, in Filey and this is how patterns migrated around. Some of the other Scarborough fishing families were originally from Norfolk. A study of genealogy makes the overlap and movement of motifs around the coastline, far more concrete and we start to understand why there is no real ‘Filey’ pattern or ‘Whitby’…
Jenkinsons, Cammishes and Overys could all be found on the 1901 Census, on Queen Street in Filey, precisely where Gladys Thompson met them, decades later. Although gaddabout George Jenkinson Overy had strayed as far away as Scarborough by the 1940s, it seems.
The moss stitch in the chart above resembles the panel of the same in Fig 21, of ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’ [P 46] which was knitted by Mrs Overy of Filey. Her family liked a bit of moss stitch. Apparently, this was also called ‘Mary Ann’s stitch’.
Gladys Thompson and Rae Compton wondered aloud who this fabled knitter ‘Betty Martin’ was. I used my sleuthing to uncover the truth! For the intriguing tale of how I figured out who (or rather what, as it turned out) ‘Betty Martin’ was; see ‘River Ganseys’.
I should add: there is nothing wrong with substituting Betty Martin for Mary Ann stitch – just make a tension square, though, so you can do the maths to get the right number of stitches to cast on.
I hope this post gives a small insight into reverse engineering from a photo and also the Bob Jenkinson pattern basics, for anyone who wants to give it a go.
Historically, the simple Backwards Loop Cast On seemed to be popular. It was certainly a cast on described in some of the earlier knitting manuals of the 1830s-40s. It’s not the prettiest cast on and also is not as strong or elastic as we might want for a gansey, where we want to get as much yarn into that first round or two, and build into it some give.
Where you can see cast on edges in the earliest book about ganseys, ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’ by Gladys Thompson (1951), the cast ons look like nothing to write home about. Unshowy, serviceable cast ons. Mrs Thompson seemed to assume the reader would favour their own.
Many of us knit using the first cast on we learned, or our favourite, without really adapting to the project. I know I used a simple cable cast on for more than two decades, with absolute gay abandon. I might have doubled the yarn for a gansey cast on but that was the extent of it. Rae Compton’s classic “The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting” (1985) walks us through several possible cast ons, and if you’re a fan of tension squares (“swatches” and I’m no fan) then every time you knit a new square, try a different cast on.
Nowadays I favour the Channel Island Cast On. It manages to get three strands of yarn into that vital first round and looks so pretty with the ‘pearls’ of yarn along the cast on edge. So that is the cast on I want to talk about, today. But not without a quick diversion.
One alternative is a provisional cast on. I favour the one where you make a crochet chain, then knit into each loop. Later you can cut away the crochet, and have those live stitches to knit down from. I have used a provisional cast on when knitting kids’ ganseys – an insurance policy against a growth spurt. But in the past, certainly along the Yorkshire coast, they have been used so that when the welt starts to show signs of wear and tear, you can unpick the thing and re-knit the welt. It is easier to do this with a cast off edge, than a cast on.
The thing you have to trade for your pragmatism is a less pretty edge as it’s hard to make a cast off edge as decorative as a pretty cast on.
One cast on I have used for hats, and not ganseys, but would consider for ganseys, is the German Twisted cast on. That looks great with garter stitch.
I won’t give a tutorial on the Channel Island Cast On here, just a few tips. The reason being I think it’s easiest to learn from a video and I can’t do that here.
You won’t go wrong with Beth Brown-Reinsel’s tutorial, or Eunny Jang’s. Alongside those, here are a few quick pointers. This will only make sense to someone in the middle of a Channel Island cast on. Sometimes, understanding what you’re meant to be doing, and a couple of tips, make the penny drop sooner! Beth gives instructions for the C I Cast On, using either English or Continental knitting styles. I knit Portuguese style, but cast on continental. So knitting style isn’t crucial.
A general tip for gansey cast on…. I cast on flat, on two needles, and knit the first several rows flat, before joining in the round. If you’ve left a long enough tail, you can easily, in seconds, sew those initial rows together to make your rows into rounds – and that is less aggravating than knitting ten rounds before you discover a twist! Which despite my experience, has happened to me in the past year, let’s just say!
Channel Island Cast On
You are casting on in pairs of stitches. The first stitch of each pair is a yarn over. The second, you are making by pulling a single strand of yarn through that doubled yarn over your thumb.
I find it easier to work from 3 balls of yarn, rather than knit like I sometimes would for a long-tailed cast on, where I’d use a single ball or cone. It is much less stressy to use 3 balls at once as you are not worrying about running out before all the stitches are cast on. If knitting from a cone, I’d make two small balls of yarn, enough for the cast on round and use alongside the cone.
Make a slip knot with all 3 strands to start off. Ignore this and don’t knit it for the first couple of rounds, then you can undo it and darn in the ends to secure the round. (This is the end of yarn I use to close up my initial 3 or 4 flat rows, when I’m making them into rounds). Leave the slip knot and knit into it if you need an odd number of stitches, though.
You have the doubled yarn on your thumb. Remember to wrap the doubled yarn anti-clockwise, round your thumb – as then you can pull the yarn through more easily, and get a neater finish when you pull the yarn snug to the needles, before you start the next stitch.
The little pearls of yarn along the cast on edge will be set off to their best advantage with a couple of rounds of garter stitch, before you start ribbing. 1 X 1 ribbing works better with a Channel Island cast on, than 2 X 2. 2 X 2 tends to be commoner in traditional knitting, though.
Tensioning this is the hard part. It is very difficult to make sure the little pearls of yarn you’re making, don’t look sloppy; and you want them to be fairly uniform as they will draw in the eye of the beholder. So take your time to make sure each stitch is seated perfectly – I just work doggedly through each pair of stitches at a time, and try not to think too far ahead! I can be interrupted mid most things, whilst knitting but will only cast on when I can guarantee no interruptions. Well, so far as anyone with 5 kids can guarantee no interruptions.
My other tip for gansey cast ons… Place a marker every 20 stitches. Traditional knitters thought in ‘scores’. This way you can more easily keep track of where you are in the cast on. And double check your accuracy by re-counting every score of stitches. So you’re only ever really thinking in 20s, not 200-odd to 300-odds. I have dyscalculia and struggle with numbers, seeing them backwards and all sorts, so I find this keeps it manageable for me and as I know at the end of casting on, that each section really does contain 20 stitches, I only have to count up the markers to be sure I have cast on the right number of stitches.
Gladys Thompson described a Filey knitter, Lizzie-Ann:
… I often slipped up to her cottage in the evenings and listened to her lovely East Yorkshire dialect and learnt to knit the different patterns she was always ready to show me.
She talked very fast, and it was difficult to follow all she said. She called her knitting needles ‘Pins’, the stitches were ‘loo-ups’ and she reckoned nubers by ‘t’scoore’. She was a quick knitter and worked with one needle held under her arm.
Although the Channel Island cast on is not ‘traditional’ for Yorkshire knitting, I use it anyway because it looks so beautiful and with those acres of boring 2 X 2 ribbing ahead of me, followed by an expanse of fairly plain stocking stitch before my pattern starts, I’m determined to do something a bit special-looking, when I can.
In “Knitting Ganseys”, Beth Brown-Reinsel points out:
“… Whereas in modern garments, the ratio of ribbing to body stitches is 90 percent, many old gansey ribbings had the same number of stitches as the body 100 percent)…” 
And this is worth mentioning when thinking about cast ons, as well. I usually check my measurements and calculations for a gansey using Elizabeth Zimmermann’s ‘EPS’ system (See ‘The Opinionated Knitter, 2008, page 25 – first EZ book I pulled out at random – EPS can be found in most of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s books). But I tend to ignore EPS for the welt, and cast on very close to 100%. I may add in the faux seam stitches – anything from 2 stitches to 6 or more – above the welt. But yes. There’s that to consider, too, when casting on a gansey.
To add to this, there is the modern idea of changing needle sizes so a contemporary knitter may go down a needle size or two for the welt, as well as start on 90% of the final body stitch number. I am with the traditional knitters, and stay with the same size needles throughout. That said, I prefer close to zero negative/positive ease and like them to fit well.
These are matters of personal taste and the knitter must, as ever, do what seems right to her/him.
Hope these tips and random thoughts on cast ons, are useful.
Look what came for me last week! A belated Mother’s Day present, from me to me.
A knitting belt from Journeyman Leather. I have long had my eye on these, but when I had a mini windfall selling some I’ll-never-knit-this stash on eBay, I decided to finally take the plunge. Especially after I saw the picture on their Facebook Page of the nice, groovy and funky coloured knitting belts. I asked for green; or red if no green was ready to go and am now so glad it was red!
I have had a knitting belt from elsewhere for years but never fell in love with it because when it came it looked nothing like the picture in the brochure – this was in the days when there were brochures not websites! Totally nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t look usable for what I do (living history). And I never forgave it for not being the one in the picture.
No such problem with Journeyman knitting belts.They are sewn – not a rivet in sight. And even a funky coloured one is OK for living history, I reckon, because the vege-tanned leather in the past was occasionally dyed bright colours.
An historical quibble though. Journeyman say : “The Shetland Knitting belt is unique to our islands…” and I can’t blame them for being proud of their brilliant heritage. But that’s not quite accurate. Belts were used in Yorkshire. I don’t know about elsewhere in the UK as I only get to the museums here and in Cumbria. But my feeling is they may have been universal, once. Although Dales knitters seem to have preferred a wooden knitting stick.
Researching ‘River Ganseys’, I found a man’s description of his Humberside mum knitting ganseys using a ‘tipee’ and he goes on to describe a knitting belt. There are examples from here in at least two Yorkshire museums and of course, Gladys Thompson mentions them more than once. They may have been less common in some parts of Yorkshire than others, as the firm accounts I have are from Humberside and I know one example in a museum, from here on the Vale of York.
I’ve thought of them as ‘knitting belts’ or ‘tippies’ . In Staithes, Gladys Thompson saw one when she visited the elderly Mrs Manship:
Her daughter showed us the leather ’tishie’, or pouch, pierced with holes and worn on a band round the waist…
I hate it when I hear people using the old words like “pricks” (no laughing at the back) or try to pretend there is some complicated distinction between “gansey” and “guernsey” (there isn’t) – although traditional knitting belongs to everyone, the world over, there is something pretentious about swaving pricks thousands of miles away by people who didn’t grow up using this now largely defunct lexicon. I grew up with at least one parent who was fluent in the East/West Riding border dialect but even I cringe to hear what feels like cultural appropriation. I think the oldest knitting usage I heard was ‘pins’ for ‘knitting needles’ which was a common usage across the UK and not particularly Yorkshire dialect.
But I love the word TISHIE so much it’s not cultural appropriation for me to use it, right? Or anyone, come to that, because tishies deserve another life. So tishie it is.
I might revert to tipee sometimes.
Coming Soon – I’m working on a blog piece on genealogy and knitting. In Gladys Thompson’s Footsteps. I recently found out the writer of ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’ came from my neck of the woods – by no means a foregone conclusion in such a large county. So look out for a piece coming soon, about the places Gladys Thompson knew, growing up here in the Vale of York. We had ancestors in Selby at the same time, and from similar backgrounds, both with close relatives who worked on the river when Selby was a busy dock. There must be something in the water, here!
What’s not to love about a man with a log pile? To be honest, after several months sawing logs almost daily I’m definitely more into the logs than the (admittedly lovely) model. As someone else did all the hard work sawing them…
Snaky cables were not really a Big Thing along the rivers – although I have seen them in photos of ganseys from elsewhere. Here, cables were generally rather straightforward 6 or 8 stitches wide, all oriented one way and never mirrored across the body. They probably were not mirrored for superstitious reasons I go into in the book, if you’re interested!
My other patterns were named after river vessels but I couldn’t resist calling this one Whitby Wyrms. Because Whitby is famous for its wyrm (dragon).
The Whitby Wyrm was a dragonlike serpent that lived in Whitby, according to folklore. Another local legend tells of Saint Hilda turning a plague of snakes into stone. For this gansey, I did the time-honoured gansey thing and “borrowed” a nice zigzag motif from a sock pattern. Gansey knitters have always borrowed motifs from other knitters. It’s tradition. In fact, it is how motifs became so universal across the British Isles. My other inspiration and starting point was an old photo I was shown, which showed a gansey with an allover pattern that used traveling stitches to create a zigzag design.
This zigzag is simpler but more contemporary – it makes a change from the old pattern Marriage Lines.
That is in the grand tradition of gansey knitting of course – see a pattern that resonates: use it.
The pattern can be found in ‘River Ganseys’, available here:
In the next week or so, I am putting up images of all the patterns in ‘River Ganseys’ – if you’re knitting one, or planning on knitting one, the Comments here will be a handy place for questions – and the larger images will be helpful to intrepid knitters, I hope.
If you only have a print copy of the book, please do provide proof of purchase to our help desk – firstname.lastname@example.org – Cooperative Press can gift you an e copy, where the images are full colour – which helps if you’re planning on knitting these as our environmentally-friendly inks and matte paper don’t give you the details as well as full colour! I will be publishing a photo of each project here, in the next few weeks, as well.
This started life as a child’s gansey pattern. I designed ‘Ebiezzer’ for my younger sons to wear although as you can see from our photo shoot, it works for women as well! It is a classic ‘Humber Star’ pattern. For more lore and research about this fascinating and unique motif, check out ‘River Ganseys’. It is thought the Humber Star is the only gansey motif in the entire lexicon, that is unique to one area.
Ebiezzer was a vessel on the Ouse, co-owned by my ancestor, Isaac Moses, and his son, William. When Isaac Sr. died in 1820, he left his shares to pay for the education of his grandchildren, and said it could be run by his (feckless?) son William, on condition William paid all port dues and settled bills on time.
William’s own son, Isaac Mosey, born in York in 1819, was to become Master Mariner, working vessels on the river Trent down in the Midlands, and died at sea in 1862. I originally designed this for Isaac Sr’s great-great-great-greatgreat grandsons to wear.
York’s dock records are lost, and I haven’t been able to trace the Ebiezzer or find out what happened to her after Isaac’s death in Cawood, in 1820.
The pattern can be found in ‘River Ganseys’, available here:
‘Ply’ magazine’s Winter 2014 issue, “Worsted”, has my snakey handspun inland gansey and I wrote a piece to accompany it.
I spun/plied the yarn in around 12 hours. Having read an assertion by my favourite blowhard blogger who claimed to spin the yarn for a gansey in 30 hours, and the suggestion that anyone who can’t, is Not A Real Spinner. I wanted to see what was possible. I don’t normally time myself spinning, it has to be said. I don’t truly care how long anything takes me, so after thirty odd years of doing this had not a clue how long it takes me to spin a sock let alone a gansey! So when I timed, I got a pleasant surprise. If you try this at home, relax, enjoy, and rest assured that however long this takes you, and however much life intervenes – you will get there and the results will be great.
I arrived at a rather eccentric way of plying; threading each ply through a flat iron; three old flat irons dotted around the living room floor. Any heavy object with a hole you could thread the yarn through, would work – I passed it under the flat irons’ handles – used flat irons as they are heavy and I could place the three a long way apart from eachother, and so maintain plying tension. I wish I had photographed this.
I used some common inland gansey motifs to make up a fairly repetitive pattern and then spent a couple of weeks watching 1970s’ ‘Grange Hills’ on YouTube, and reading books as I knitted. I read my favourite book of the year, ‘Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search Of Tommy Simpson’, by William Fotheringham. Like all lengthy projects, you associate the thing knitted forever after in your mind with the things you were reading/seeing/doing during the making. ‘Put Me Back On My Bike’ tells the story of the incredibly talented 1960s’ British cyclist, Tommy Simpson, who was a world champion cyclist and for the first time in the Tour De France’s history, gave the Brits a glimmer of hope of winning the Tour, wearing the yellow jersey. Tommy literally cycled himself to death on Mont Ventoux, in 1967, where he died, on camera, as he almost reached the summit. It is rumoured that his last words after he had zigzagged off the road, were “Put me back on my bike”.
A combination of alcohol and amphetamines were found in his system – these things were not unusual for the 1960s’ professional cyclist. Tommy was often called a Yorkshireman or ‘Tyke’, as he lived and trained near Doncaster but he was born in the Midlands. I felt he was one of our’s, though.
All this reading about 1950s/60s cycling culture, led me to start investigating cycling jerseys – shapes, styles, colours. I’m hoping to work on something inspired by them, very soon.
There were points during the marathon gansey spinning and knitting weeks, I felt like I was doing the Tour de France – day in, day out, getting on with this Big Project. It was a relief to be out the other side, but I was very quickly itching to spin and knit again, afterwards. A case of ‘Put me back on my spinning wheel’. Around the time I was working on this, my 14 year old bull terrier was very obviously coming to the end of her time, and when I knitted, she sometimes sat next to me. When I spun and plied, she was a few feet away. She came so far with me, for so long. Around the week FedEx picked up the finished sample, she went away. Everything I have designed or made for the past 12 years, she was snoring next to me. So memories of her are spun into this, too. My usual favourite heart motif is for her.
A few months on, here it is in print. With no mention of Tommy Simpson but he was very much in my mind as I knitted the gansey and I will think of his story every time I look at it! No mention of my beautiful girl, either. But for me, it is there in every stitch. I think for knitters and spinners many of the things we make are inextricably woven together with the time in our lives when we made them.
I recently mended a gansey I had knitted in the 1980s and working on it a second time, gave me a slew of new memories to add to the old. The lovely Tom of Holland writes of this in his visible mending projects.
In the accompanying piece, I walk you through selecting the wool, how to figure out grist, how to figure out your best number of twists per inch and ply twist, amongst other things. I went with BFL because it is a soft longwool, has a buttery sort of hand to it – and, let’s be pragmatic – is probably more easily available in some parts of the world than say Cotswold or Wensleydale.
‘Ply’ is a beautiful magazine; well designed and well put together. I am really proud to be in the company of its contributors in this issue and working with Jacey was a joy.
It’s not often I’m so overt as to say – go buy one. But. for my textile friends.. go buy one.
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:
“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.
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”. . 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.
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!
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.