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Gansey Books

There are a number of books about knitting traditional fishermen’s pullovers, but really, there’s only so much you can say (apparently) – there are only so many old photographs, and so many places where the photographs were taken. These books are the foundation of my (small) library on guernsey knitting and are each, in their different ways, the main inspirations for the pullovers I knit.

Some of the recent books I have seen offer simplified versions of patterns and techniques. While I can see the point of this (kids grow out of clothes so quickly, busy lifestyles, compulsive TV schedules, etc.) it takes away the wonderful complexity that attracted me to the subject in the first place and makes it look like, well, just ‘knitting’.

Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans by Gladys Thompson (London 1969, my version New York, 1971).
In many ways the original and best book on guernseys – informative, readable and detailed. My only problem with it, as a non-knitter, is that as it goes on the photographs are mostly close-ups of patterns rather than whole pullovers – so it’s hard for me to visualise what they’ll look like.
Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys by Michael Pearson (London, 1984). This is still my favourite book on ganseys. It is beautifully laid out, very well written, with excellent drawings to illustrate the text, and – best of all – the most comprehensive range of photographs. The only drawback is that it hasn’t an index. A few of the pattern instructions are oversimplified (e.g., the Hebridean ganseys), and if I’m being greedy I could wish he’d charted more of the patterns from the photos, but just picking it up and flicking through the pages makes me want to start knitting again. Traditional Knitting
Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys by Michael Pearson. (Dover, 2014). A revised, updated edition of the above, now available.
Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks, by Mary Wright (London, 1979). A truly splendid little gem of a book, which concentrates, as the title says, on Cornwall. Excellent photographs, helpful explanations and loads of patterns. What more can you want?
The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting, by Rae Compton (London 1985). This is like an alternative version of Michael Pearson’s book, above. It covers much of the same ground, with some of the same pictures, but highlights different examples and in some cases offers something to test Pearson’s notation against. The charts, patterns and writing are every bit as good as Pearson’s, and it has a particularly useful “designing a guernsey” section at the back, with a range of useful patterns fully worked out by the author. Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting
Knitting from the Netherlands, by Henriette van der Klift-Tellegen (Lark Books, 1986). This book takes a similar approach to Thompson, Pearson, Compton et al, and covers the ganseys of Dutch fishermen region by region. Full of old photographs and pattern charts, like its British counterparts it’s a social history and knitting pattern book combined. The patterns are subtly different from the ones we’re used to this side of the Channel, and the book is a fascinating addition to the standard reference works.
Knitting Ganseys, by Beth Brown-Reinsel (Interweave Press, 1993). An attractive, well-laid out and welcome addition to the growing library of books on ganseys. Ideal for the beginner, if I was starting out again, this would be one of the books I’d start with. It’s full of clear illustrations and pattern charts for just about every design. Ideally you’d want to complement it with some of the other books covering which patterns were associated with which region, and which tell you something of the history behind the knitting. But it’s nice to have a book that makes you feel gansey knitting is contemporary and relevant, and not a historical recreation.
A Stitch in Time: Heirloom Knitting Skills, by Rita Taylor (Search Press, 2013).

26 comments to Gansey Books

  • Cindy Brandt

    Hello, I bought from Amazon and have received Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks, by Mary Wright. Very informative. I had no idea the cottage industry these ganseys were at one time. Love the front cover photo of the girl with her ball of yarn stuck on the spike of the fence! I also ordered and am still waiting for Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans by Gladys Thompson. Hoping to find a pattern that really peaks my interest. Want to make a sweater for my husband. I have tried sweaters twice before but did not have a very good outcome. The people they would actually fit would be very scary looking. I hope to pick up some good tips on your website and improve my overall success rate with the next one. Thank you Gordon.

    Cindy Brandt – US

  • Sylvia Sawatzky

    Hello Gordon,

    I have just discovered your website and wish I had found it earlier. What an inspiration! I just finished my first full sized men’s Guernsey for which I did a lot of research in books and on the net. I like the look of a Guernsey, but I also really like the stories and history about them. Early on in the process I came across a book containing many pictures of fishermen wearing Guernseys as well as a gorgeous photograph of an old woman in a white traditional head dress, knitting standing up, with these incredibly long needles (looked like lengths of wire to me), one side of the needle hooked into a special leather belt stuffed with horse hair to keep the work supported. That picture really spoke to me. When I knit traditional garments I always feel connected to our ancestors in a special way. (Although I prefer sitting down to knit…) Anyway, when the time came to start designing the sweater, the book was no longer available at our local library nor did they keep any information on it. Would you know anything about the mentioned book? It could be that Gladys Thompson wrote it, but I’m not sure. I do remember that the author went to a museum and took pictures of old photographs of fishermen and consecutively analyzed them for the patterns presented.

    In the end I used the first book on your above list for main inspiration and am quite happy with the result. But I do wish I could lay eyes again on those beautiful photographs from the book I can no longer find.

    Thank you for having this blog. it makes me realize that knitting can connect people over time and place.

    Sylvia, Canada

  • Lynne

    Answer to Sylvia – there is a picture as you describe on page 11 of “The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting” by Rae Compton. I just checked on Amazon.com and there are two used copies but their prices are $99 and $145 !!
    I guess I’d better take really good care of mine!

  • Cathy

    Hi Sylvia. I found two photos in Michael Pearson’s “Traditional Knitting” that may fit your description. On page 46 thee is an Old Lady Knitting in Staithes, and on Page 73 there is a Fisher Lassie of Foula.

    Dear Gordon, I have been lurking around your blog for months gleaning wonderful hints about knitting ganseys. My distant ancestry is Cornish (mining, not fishing) but the menfolk in my family are slowly accumulating knit frocks to wear in the Canadian outdoors. I have also been adapting gansey construction into other garments. Right now I’m doing a bike shirt for my brother who rides all year round in Toronto. Miles and miles of fingering weight superwash merino that will fit next to his skin.
    Thanks again for your fascinating blog.
    Cheers, Cathy Sudbury Ontario

  • Sylvia Sawatzky

    Hi Lynne and Cathy,

    thank you both for your replies. Lynne, I agree – hold on tight to that book of yours. It seems some knitting books that are out of print have become “hot items” on the market. Maybe I’ll try my luck at the library. Same with the Pearson Book. I did end up looking more closely at the Mary Wright Book featured on this page, as I am pretty sure some of the pictures in it are the same that I saw (e.g. the group of children in the front). I will probably buy that one.
    Cathy, I am intrigued by your mentioning of a bike shirt. We ride bikes a lot, too, and especially my daughter rides most of the year. What a super idea to use a fine wool. Care to share some more of your thoughts on the incorporation of Guernsey into other garments? Although we’re about 4 hours south of you (Kitchener) and haven’t seen much of a winter this year, sweaters are still appreciated for the “great Canadian outdoors.

    Sylvia

  • Lynne

    Sylvia, I just bought and downloaded a pattern for gansey leg warmers yesterday from Interweavestore.com and will knit those up with stash yarn for my daughter who bikes and skiis. (I live in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia.)

  • Sylvia Sawatzky

    What a great idea, Lynne! Come to think of it – I have a Guernsey idea as well: I made a baby sweater for the daughter of a friend last year. I used some leftover royal blue Bamboo yarn, went all wild with the stitches and patterns and added a card with some “sailor’s common sense advice” for life with it. They loved it and the picture they sent me when she was about 10 months old, wearing it, was really special. I think people really appreciate the tradition and history of those garments in addition to the beauty of the old patterns. I have even incorporated them into dish cloths – it’s still water related, right???

    Greetings from Ontario

    Sylvia

  • Mary E Morrison

    Hello, Gordon,

    Now that you have moved to Wick, you may be ready for

    Munro, Henrietta, & Rae Compton.
    They lived by the sea : folklore and ganseys of the Pentland Firth.
    Thurso : Henrietta Munro and Rae Compton, 1983 ; Golspie, Sutherland : The Northern Times Ltd. 32 p. : ill.

    It’s a little, saddle-stitched booklet, may be difficult to find but should be in the Caithness library, right? Contains instructions for three of Compton’s ganseys–George MacKay, Donald Angus, and Donald Thomson.

    Sincerely,

    MEM

  • Gordon

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comment. By one of those weird coincidences, just 2 days before you posted I got a second-hand copy of the book in the post! So it was very timely. And yes, the libraries up here have copies that can be borrowed.

    I’m mentioning the book in the next blog, so I won’t say too much now, except that it’s a cracking little book. (If anyone’s read Compton’s book – or Pearson’s too – the patterns will be familiar, but of course this has a lot more detail.)

    Now it’s time to start knitting them!

    Best wishes and thanks,
    Gordon

  • Mary E Morrison

    Oh, good, glad you found one 🙂

    There are also two Shire albums, not totally gansey-centric. One called Fisherman Knitting (Rae Compton, Michael Harvey)–has a couple of patterns, the gansey is in DK, and one with no patterns, called Scottish Knitting (Helen Bennett)(my copy of this was originally Dorothy Dunnett’s, so all the pencil marks in the margins are hers–not as cool as finding Henrietta’s letter, but still interesting 🙂 )

    Sincerely,

    MEM

    MEM

  • Gordon

    Oops, Hi Mary, this comment slipped under the wire & I missed it. I think Margaret has the Shire Fishermen knitting – but all our books are in a sort of random chaotic state after the move, I may never find it… Hadn’t come across Scottish Knitting.

    There’s a huge collection of Victorian Caithness photographs in the possession of the Wick Society, called the johnston Collection. Many of them are online and you can search them, and we’ve seen at least one patterned gansey that doesn’t seem to be recorded anywhere. Unfortunately, unlike Sutcliffe in Whitby, he didn’t do many staged set-pieces with fishermen, and most of the pictures show plain, working garments. But I hope to explore.) Don’t suppose there’s a book in it, but maybe a subsection of the website?

    All the best,
    Gordon

  • Hi Gordon,
    If you would like, I have, in stock, a wonderful new book (English Version) by Stella Ruhe, Dutch Traditional Ganseys. In my opinion, it is a fabulous book with 60 Gansey patterns which appear to be easy to follow (I will be knitting the Middelharnis one over the winter) so if anyone is interested, including yourself, just get in touch.
    Happy knitting.

    • Gordon

      Hi there,

      Thanks for the heads-up. I was going to mention it in this week’s post but I’m rotten with cold and it slipped through my mental net, as it were. Apologies. I shall give it a plug next week – any gansey book is a cause for celebration, and this looks really good.

      All the best,
      Gordon

  • mary

    I bought the Stella Ruhe book as soon as it appeared on Amazon, but soon sent it back – there’s nothing new in it, apart from stories and anecdotes (which isn’t really why you buy a knitting book!)
    A good sift through all the old books provides more than enough information. Unless you’ve not got courage to design your own garment……

    Good luck

    • Gordon

      Hi Mary,

      I guess that’s the problem now, pretty much the main ground’s been covered. Though I don’t know if any Finnish or Norman or Baltic fishermen wore similar ganseys? A bit like folk songs, the classics are already out there.

      Though I did think it was interesting that Dutch ganseys didn’t have the underarm gussets, which i hadn’t noticed before!

  • mary

    hello Gordon,
    You’re right…..and I have been waiting to check Henriette van der Klift Tellegen’s book, which I have now managed to glimpse at….and there are no gussets in that either !!
    Interesting.
    Maybe the Dutch never adopted them when they first started knitting ganseys copied from ours.
    If you’re interested, Stella Ruhe is talking at Wool Week Shetland on how to knit a modern gansey. see the webpage http://www.shetlandwoolweek.com/events
    Would be fine to be able to go along and ask her about gussets…

  • Jai

    Just to let you all know that Gladys Thompson’s book is available in Kindle format and much cheaper, currently about half the price. I have found it perfectly easy to follow in this format, although it is better to view all the photo’s etc using the Kindle app on the iPad.

    This website is a fantastic resource, thanks for your work Gordon.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jai, and many thanks for the heads-up. I’ve just downloaded a copy, as my battered old paperback is in danger of disintegrating after so much wear and tear—and this way I can mull over future gansey projects even when on holiday…

  • James

    Greetings Gordon,

    I have also become a fan of Sabine Domnick’s “Cables, Diamonds, Herringbone–Secrets of Knitting Traditional Fishermen’s Sweaters.” While I don’t believe there’s much in it that can’t be found in these other wonderful books, I find the photographed examples of stitch patterns next to the charts to be particularly helpful. I didn’t see mention of it in this discussion, so I thought I would throw it out there.

  • Gordon

    Hi James, and thanks for the reminder—you’re absolutely right, her working-up of the patterns and photographs is really helpful, and her instructions are spot-on too. You can never have too many books about ganseys! I should have added her to the list before now and will do so anon.

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • Clare Jenkins

    Please can you advise on a Gansey pattern in 4 ply as they used in Sheringham? It sounds as though it would be a lot finer than a 5 ply? I cannot find a 4 ply pattern for a Gansey.;

    • Gordon

      Hi Clare,

      The only written-out pattern for 4-ply that I can recall coming across in any of the books is in Rae Compton, pages 129-132, and it is indeed for a Sheringham gansey. Though other Norfolk patterns seem to have been knitted using 4-ply or similar (Henry Valentine “Pinny” Little’s gansey, also in Compton page 47, and featured elsewhere as well, is another example).

      I can remember 4-ply being available 30 years ago when I first got into ganseys, but I haven’t seen it advertised for years – does anyone still make it, do you know?

      Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t adapt any pattern to a 4-ply stitch gauge, just as you can adapt 4-ply patterns to a 5-ply stitch gauge.

      Kind regards,
      Gordon

  • Clare Jenkins

    Hi Gordon
    Thank you for the reply. The Rae Compton book on Amazon costs megabucks so am making do with the Michael Pearson and the Gladys Thompson (the latter recommended by a nice lady at Cromer Crab Fair today). She said the Frangipani wool is very nice albeit 5 ply so may have to just go for that .
    Have also bought on of your books for my e-reader as it is set in mid Wales where I am living

  • CLARE JENKINS

    Yay. Found the Rae Compton book at Abe books for only £28.Bought it quickly before they changed their mind

  • Hello Gordon
    I’m giviving a couple of talks on ganseys and while browsing your interesting and useful site for inspiration I notice you don’t have my book mentioned here. It’s got a good section on ganseys, if I say so myself. “A stitch in time; heirloom knitting skills”. Could you give it a plug for me?

    • Gordon

      Hi Rita, thanks for posting. I’m a little out of touch and had missed that. But I’ll flag it up with pleasure!

      Kind regards,
      Gordon

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