A gansey is the name given to the traditional hand-knitted pullover worn by fishermen fishing for herring off the costs of Britain, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The garments are supremely practical for the purpose – more flexible than a jacket, but robust enough to keep out wind and light spray; knitted by the womenfolk, often elaborately patterned, it is easy to imagine why these jerseys became so popular throughout the industry.
So what makes a gansey? The first thing you notice when you handle one, apart from the weight, is how finely, and tightly, they are knitted. So let’s start with the wool. Ganseys are knitted in a particular wool, known as Guernsey 5-ply, a hard twist worsted spun wool available from specialist suppliers. This is a very fine yarn, which knits up into quite a tight mesh. (It’s rumoured to be wind and waterproof, but this can be overstated – see Gansey Myths.)
A gansey is only ever knit in one colour. Traditionally this was navy blue or cream, but enterprising suppliers now produce a wide variety of attractive shades, and the world is a more colourful place because of it.
Apart from the yarn, the other main reason why ganseys are knit so tightly is the size of the needles – 2.25 mm. This gives a stitch gauge in the region of 8 or 9 stitches to the inch, and 12 rows per inch (my personal stitch gauge is about 9 stitches per inch).
In common with other traditional pullovers, a gansey is knit in the round, as a tube, starting at the bottom and working up to the armpit gussets. Then half the stitches are placed on a holder while the other half are worked back-and-forth up to the shoulders; then the first half are worked back-and-forth up to the shoulders too. The shoulders are then joined by knitting them together and casting off. The collar is created by picking up stitches around the neck and then knitting the collar as another tube, from the bottom up. Stitches are then picked up around one armhole and the sleeve is knit from the shoulder down, in the round as a tube, decreasing as you go, ending in a ribbed cuff which is cast off. This is then repeated for the other sleeve.
(The important thing to note here is that no sewing is required at any stage, unless you darn in the loose ends of the various balls of wool on the inside after you’ve finished knitting. For those of us with fingers like a bunch of bananas this is a major attraction!)
Ganseys were traditionally a fairly snug fit, but in order to give the arms the freedom of movement required on a busy working trawler there are gussets under the arms. These are the gansey’s secret weapon, you hardly notice them unless you look for them, but these cunning little diamond shapes let the wearer raise his or her arms even above the head with the body hardly rucking up at all.
The final and in many ways most spectacular feature of the gansey is the distinctive patterning on the body. Ganseys could be patterned from top to bottom, or just across the yoke (i.e., the chest) – possibly because many working fishermen wore waterproof trousers which came up to the midriff, so any pattern below that would be wasted effort. There are dozens – hundreds – of recorded patterns, or combinations of patterns, collected by researchers or shown in old photographs, and they vary from the very plain to extremely decorated. Because of the fine stitch gauge, they all look amazing.
The patterns themselves are easy enough to knit – almost without exception they consist of nothing more complicated than knit and purl stitches, and cables – their complexity comes from the combinations, and the fact that with some 200 stitches to play with across the chest you can achieve some very spectacular effects.