Yarn, beads 17cm
Yarn, buttons 17cm
FILEY GANSEY WITH KEY RING
Yarn, rings 13cm
THE HISTORY OF THE GANSEY
Few occupations are more at the mercy of the wind and weather than fishing. And it was the practical requirement for warm yet unrestricting clothing that prompted the development of a fascinating tradition in fishermen’s sweaters, variously known as jerseys, guernseys and ganseys. Tightly knitted in worsted yarn the fisherman’s gansey was virtually windproof and waterproof.
The isolated communities along the rugged British coastline were, by necessity, even more self-sufficient than those further inland. In the poor fishing communities, families could ill afford the luxury of imported goods so women knitted gainsays for their sweethearts, husbands and children. It was not unusual for men, too, to knit ganseys.
Each family had a variation, but many local patterns were very similar as families intermarried in these insular communities. Although the classic Guernsey sweater remained plain, the gansey stitch motifs became more complicated the further north the garment spread, with the most complex patterns evolving in the Scottish fishing villages. These elaborate patterns came south with the Scottish herring fleet, as the women folk followed their husbands down the coast to gut the fish. Young women, who had received little formal education, would develop the ability to memorise complicated patterns and these were usually handed down by word of mouth, through the generations and not written down.
Fishermen wore their ganseys all the time and had a “Sunday best” one for church. Young women often knitted their intended husbands a “wedding shirt” gansey to get married in. So the gansey was very much part of everyday life in the fishing communities. Knitting was a natural extension of the familiar tasks of making and mending fishing nets. Men sometimes knitted sweaters when they were shore bound or away from home on long fishing trips.
Gladys Thompson, who, in the 1950s, scoured the fishing ports on the east coast – from Sheringham and Cromer in Norfolk as far as Upper Largo in Fife collecting these patterns, produced a book of detailed records on the many local interpretations of traditional fishermen’s jerseys. Many of the stitch motifs used to decorate the ganseys were inspired by the everyday objects in the lives of fishing families. Some of the best-known designs represent ropes, nets, anchors and herringbone. Other patterns are based on the weather, echoing the shapes made by waves, hail or flashes of lighting. Some patterns had more complex symbolic meanings. One of the traditional Filey patterns, for example, is a zigzag design called “marriage lines” which represents the ups and downs of married life.
It was even possible for fishing families to recognise from the pattern of a gansey, which fishing village, or even which family, the wearer came from. At a time when the loss of a boat was a frequent occurrence, deliberate mistakes or the wearer’s initials were often incorporated into the design in order to help to identify a body recovered from the sea and fisherman often wore a gold earring which would pay for the funeral. It became traditional for the knitter to put a number of “mistakes” in each gansey so that the sweater became personal for each member of the family – one mistake for the eldest son, two mistakes for the second son and so on. As the gansey was was traditionally worn tight-fitting, with no seams to come apart, it could not be washed off in the water. Ganseys were worn next to the skin with nothing underneath. A pure silk scarf was often worn at the neck to stop the wet wool chaffing the skin. An extra diamond-shaped piece called a gusset was added underneath the arm to allow easier movement.
If a man was looking for work, he would turn up the bottom of his gansey as a sign to any captain that he was available for work. The turned-up section was handy as a pocket! In a world which is becoming increasingly global in popular culture, the preservation of our traditional craft takes on a fresh urgency.
Yarn, beads 12cm
My knitted gansey fish are much larger than brooches, up to 17cm wide, and would lend themselves nicely as accessories or suspended vertically from a simple necklace chain. These images show fish knitted from old yarns, some of which are impossible to replicate, but for any orders I will attempt to match the look and feel as closely as I can.