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Popular Gansey Myths

1. Guernseys Come From Guernsey

It’s a common misconception that ganseys – or guernseys – originate from Guernsey in the Channel Islands. (After all, you’d think, the clue’s in the name – surely?) But no. The gansey pullover as we know it appears to have nothing at all to do with the island of Guernsey.

Guernsey seems to have been traditionally associated with knitted goods, and had at one time a flourishing sock knitting industry; and it’s not inconceivable that the gansey developed from some woollen garment that originated in the island. But there’s no direct evidence of any kind. In fact, if it wasn’t for the name, no one would even think to look for a connection.

Any attempt to link the garments with the island of Guernsey is a red herring (as seems appropriate in any discussion of the fishing industry). The ganseys of the British coastal towns and villages stand alone by the 19th century at least, and are worthy of being celebrated on their own terms.

2. Ganseys Are Waterproof

It’s frequently stated that ganseys are wind and waterproof. Now, it’s true that they are tightly knitted, and are very warm, even in an Edinburgh winter – and I can testify that a light drizzle or fine spray won’t penetrate the garment; instead the water forms little beads or droplets on the outer surface which either runs off or evaporates over time.

But waterproof? Go out in a downpour, or invite a friend to pour a bucket of water over you as an experiment, and you’ll soon see that there are limits to its water-repelling qualities!

The former bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt, in his History of Hand Knitting, rather casts doubt on this myth, and I think he’s probably right. (However, he suggests that the myth may have arisen because fishermen wear waterproof oilskins at sea, and in heavy weather, and this seems equally fanciful to me.)

In short, if it looks like rain, take an umbrella just in case.

3. You Could Tell Where A Drowned Sailor Came From By His Gansey

One of the most persistent gansey myths is the romantic notion that a fisherman who had drowned, and was otherwise unidentifiable, could be traced to his home village by the pattern on his gansey.

The advocates of this theory feel pretty strongly about it, so let me say at once that I’m an agnostic on this one: I’m pretty sceptical, but I’d be prepared to accept it if anyone could show me evidence that it had ever happened. (I’m still waiting, mind you.)

In order to be true, the myth requires each town or village to have a unique pattern which is not replicated elsewhere. And while it is true that some patterns collected in some locations are not replicated in other parts of the country (Cath McMillan’s  Hebridean ganseys, for instance), other patterns (particularly the plainer ones) recur all over the place. The Staithes and Whitby “Henry Freeman” pattern of alternating rows of knit 2/purl 2 crops up everywhere from Cornwall to Yorkshire.

And when you think about it, its not surprising that patterns are replicated around the country. The fishermen followed the shoals of herring as they migrated round the coast – there are many photographs of Scottish “fisher lassies” in East Anglia, for example. So of course the fishermen and their women would have had every opportunity to check out the competition, and to copy any design they liked the look of. (The books contain interviews with knitters who cheerfully agree that they did just that.) Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that a pattern would be completely unique.

It’s also interesting to note that in locations where several ganseys are recorded – or in just about any old photograph of a group of fishermen – most of the ganseys shown have different patterns. So even in one location there would be no consistency. And in most cases, not only do they not have the same pattern, they don’t even share similar elements.

What seems more probable is that each family, or knitter, tended to have their own pattern, like those Italian bakers who even today only bake their own distinctive loaves, from recipes handed down to them by their fathers. When someone publishes “Mrs Smith’s pattern of Blanktown”, what they are really recording is the pattern of Mrs Smith – not of Blanktown.

But the main problem I have with this myth, as I said above, is simply that I have never heard of a recorded case where it happened. Has a drowned fisherman ever been identified by his gansey alone? Having trained as a historian, I am very reluctant to accept anything as fact without at least some evidence – and the evidence in this case seems to be non-existent; but I live in hope.

47 comments to Popular Gansey Myths

  • mearns pollock

    Is there a link between the gnsey and Theseus and the Minotaur?

    thanks

  • Gordon

    Hello there,

    I’ve never heard of any connection between the Minotaur and ganseys,(and in any case the fisherman’s gansey as we know it of course dates from several centuries later than the myth).

    However, the original myth (I think) says that Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of wool to unwind as he penetrated the labyrinth, so he could find his way back – I always thought it was just as plausible that Theseus was wearing a knitted garment which snagged on a rock and unravelled as he went, and he later claimed the credit (you know what princes are like)!

    Best wishes
    Gordon

  • Chris Roderick

    How nice for somebody to come out and blow the myths. I come from a long line of Yorkshire gansey knitters (my aunt was one of the ladies interviewed by Gladys Thompson) and I never heard half this stuff until some time in the mid-seventies, now even the local gnasey knitters are coming out with it. I freely admit my family would happily spin yarns to entertain the gullible visiting public. Neither do i think they were wearing ganseys in the 15th century. What I remember from my youth were the fishermans ‘dobies’ where I lived, and called slops I think in other places – thick cotton smock worn ove the gansey. A lot of people seem to think Kiewe was responsible

  • Gordon

    Hi Chris,

    Good to hear from you. Did any of your aunt’s patterns make it into the book?

    I trained as a historian, and one of the key things you learn is that theories are fine, but without evidence that things actually happened that way, then that’s all they are – theories. Speculation. Not proof. And at the end of the day, wonderful though they are, a gansey is just a pullover. Mind you, without those traditional knitters winding up the researchers in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess…!

    Gordon

  • Pamela Beeching

    After years spent knitting arans and fairisles (I can steek without screaming or fainting, although my knees go a bit funny), I’m currently hacking my way up my first gansey and loving it. After a foot of knitting with five lethal 2.25, 40cm long needles using a 5ply ‘Frangipani’ yarn, my fingers are now so strong that I’m seriously considering taking up cracking almonds with my bare fingers.

    Could the myth re. the identification of a gansey-wearer have come from something as simple as the custom in some areas of knitting the initials in the band just above the waist welt or in the armpit gusset? Turn it round and it could have been that the patterning or initials on the ganseys made it easier to tell who owned what gansey so that inappropriate garment swapping didn’t occur and in consequence lent itself to the myth.

    That having been said, I don’t know if initial-knitting on ganseys dates all that far back and I’m happy to be put right.

    Brilliant and useful website.

  • Gordon

    Hi Pamela,

    And thanks for getting in touch. I’m not enough of an expert to be able to say how far back the practice of knitting initials goes, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t account for the myth. My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that someone told a researcher the tale and it’s been taken as gospel ever since. Now it’s the one thing everyone knows – even my downstairs neighbour told it me when I said I said I knitted ganseys!

    If you can steek without flinching, you’re a stronger woman than I (well – you know what I mean!). How far on are you? How are the calluses? What pattern are you doing? What colour? And have you tried any other nuts than almonds?

    With all good wishes,
    Gordon

  • Pamela Beeching

    One of those seafaring myths recounted to excited holidaymakers after bothering the Fishermen for yet another seafaring tale at the exact moment when they are manoevering their boat close to the harbour walls – payback time!

    The gansey underway is a considerably modified version of ‘Eriskay’ in Alice Starmore’s book ‘Fishermen’s Sweaters’. It starts with a Channel Island cast-on then 12 rows garter stitch with a 3 stitch overlay each side before being joined into a round. A few rows of stockinette before my Husband’s initials on the bottom left-hand side – (for identification purposes should be mislay himself down the bottom of the garden). The sweater is then plain stockinette (with 3 stitches at each side as false seams) in the round for about 13 inches before the yoke pattern and sleeve gusset will be started. I’ve just reached this point, subject to re-measuring the Husband.

    I’m planning to cast on six stitches at the armholes for a steek, picking up the sleeve stitches before cutting the steek and then overcasting the steek edges, either by sewing machine or using a handsewn blanket stitch depending on how ‘grabby’ the yarn is (handsewing does give a more flexible finish but it’s a personal preference as the machined overcasting on a wide stitch works well. I’ll use my tension swatch as a mini-steek for testing the ‘grabbiness factor’. The sleeves will be knitted down from the armhole with perhaps a band of the yoke dividing pattern set between garter stitch top and bottom borders (or otherwise left plain) and ribbed cuffs and neck band – although I’m unsure about the neck band – still in the planning stage apparently. I’ll use a Kitchener graft for the shoulders which I’ve previously used for fairisle sweaters and which works well.

    The colour is Frangipan’si 5 ply ‘Ocean Deep’ which is a dark bluey-green/peacock shade. I needed 1.1 kilo and Frangipani sold me the bulk as 2 x 500 gm cones and wound off another 100 gm when I found I was likely to need more. No knots, no nonsense and a joy to knit. As it’s a tightly knitted texture, the 40cm dpns work well for me although an unfortunate knitting incident when my bottom lip was pierced through by a waving needle end when I turned my head sharply gave me a bit of a phobia and so all long needle ends are now capped by a cork at each end. This gives a rather ‘Heath Robinson designs a minimalist windmill’ effect but it works for me, stops stitches wandering off the ends of the dpns and protects everyone in needle-swiping distance. (I hasten to add that the incident was painless, bloodless and invisible after 3 days – much to the disappointment of my Grandson who offered to lend me his lip stud on the grounds that none of his friends have a Grandmother with a lip piercing. Nor does he).

    The original Alice Starmore version has patterning up to the sleeve gusset and then a dividing band with a panelled patterned yoke which include a very nice anchor design, a North Star and cabling. As some of the yoke patterning has yarn-over ‘tree of life’ and diamond sections which give an open lacy look, this has been deemed ‘far too girlie’ by the intended 88-year old ex-Naval, ex-North Sea oil rig recipient and so I’ve had to re-chart the relevant bits into more ‘manly’ moss stitch versions. This has given me a crash course in Excel chart-making for knitters and taught me that charting patterns is a lot harder than originally thought. (If an expandable/condensible Excel knitting chart template numbered along the bottom and sides is any use, I’m happy to pass it on to you).

    No calluses – I’m a spinner so the hands are usually smothered in toxic lanolin residue. ‘Cracking almonds with my bare fingers’ might be a slight ‘over-estimation of the exact truth’ but there’s no harm in thinking big and aiming to train up for cracking coconuts after I’ve finished a few more ganseys!

  • Gordon

    Hi Pamela,

    Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you – at home I manage my email accounts into separate folders, but I’m on a separate laptop here in Wick so everything just gets dumped in one inbox and sometimes I get a bit swamped. Anyway, apologies again.

    My concern with knitting with the long dpns and a knitting sheath is in case I sneeze and end up with a needle up my nose and accidental DIY brain surgery. Your tale is not reassuring!

    I can sympathise with your “girly-averse” recipient! There’s something rugged and manly about traditional ganseys, Fair Isles and Arans – I don’t know whether it’s just because the modern re-imaginings are mostly designed by persons of the female persuasion, but I haven’t seen many that capture that – which is not to say that they aren’t really effective designs, of course.

    When I’ve got rid of my migraine I shall try to get my head around your description. (Nothing wrong with your writing, but I struggle with traditional knitting terminology. But Margaret has the book, so when we finally move I shall make a point of looking it up!)

    I haven’t tried lanolin – but I get so many calluses, every time I go to the doctor they get very worried about arthritis. Your way is probably better. But I still couldn’t crack nuts!

    Best of luck with it, thanks for responding, and I promise I’ll try to reply sooner next time,
    Gordon

  • Paul

    Just listening now to a programme on Radio 4 about ganseys… one of the ladies on it said that an anchor symbol was knitted into the gansey to indicate that the man was already married! No idea if that’s true, but it made me laugh to think that Captain Haddock of Tintin may have a wife somewhere! Great website. 🙂

  • Gordon

    Hi Paul,

    Good to hear from you!

    I think the radio programme may have been about the Moray Firth Gansey Project – I missed it, unfortunately, but will try to catch it on iPlayer. Captain Haddock never struck me as the marrying kind – but now i come to think of it, maybe his wife left him because of the drink…?

    Gordon

  • Sarah

    One of my gansey books relates a story where a stolen gansey was identified because of the initials knitted into it. I wonder if stories like this got embellished until we have dead seamen being identified by their ganseys. I’d say, however, that this would only work if you had a sailor with a very distinct pattern, and he happened to wash up in a place where people had seen him before, such as his home town.

    And I’m hoping that Theseus’ gansey was knit flat and sewn and the seams gave way (very non-traditional, but as you said, you know what princes are like), otherwise he would have had to spin in circles all the way to the Minotaur, and would have been far to dizzy to combat him effectively.

  • Gordon

    Hi Sarah,

    I noted in the BBC radio programme broadcast recently someone took the line that drowned sailors could be identified by gansey patterns originally, but once the fleets began to move around the coast this would have been more difficult as everyone had similar patterns. But again i don’t know if there’s any evidence for this, or it’s just a way of reconciling the myth.

    I suppose Theseus could have strangled the minotaur with an unravelled jumper – after all, we only have his word for what went on…

    Gordon

  • Pam Beeching

    The Gansey of Great Size’ has now been finished (in reality just a moderate size – it just felt huge in the making) worn by Bert who is 89 years old and declared ‘Brilliant!’

    He asked for his initials to be knitted just above the hem at the side in case he ‘forgets who I am and get mislaid’ – a definite twist to the identifying initial debate, in my opinion.

    In years to come, I can foresee that ‘Time Watch’ will dig up this gansey, reconstruct Bert in clay from DNA found on the garment and come up with the true answer – ‘Seafarers used to regularly forget who they were and could be tracked down by their family from the initials knitted into the ganseys on their satellite navigation systems’.

    QED!!

  • Gordon

    Hi Pam,

    Brilliant. I hadn’t thought of ganseys as a sort of tracking system, but it makes a lot of sense! In the same way you can now track where your mobile phone is by going online, perhaps one day I’ll be able to sit at my computer and see all my far-flung ganseys on google maps…

    Any chance of a picture of Bert in his gansey for the gallery?

    Gordon

  • Love the website and the ganseys, beautiful patterns. I do wonder why people feel so strongly about some of the knitting myths though. By the logic applied by many if you haven’t heard of something before, if the knowledge is new to you then it isn’t true. This is a strange way to be. Bet you have never ever heard of me either, but I am real.
    I am a fan of the minotaur. He was a misunderstood creature made monstrous by the actions of his parents. He didn’t deserve his fate! And Theseus was a poor flawed fickle hero!

  • Hi Jackie, great to hear from you – and I ‘m certainly willing to believe you are real, having seen your blog and your splendid illustrations! (Anyone who illustrates Ted Hughes’s poems is automatically a friend of mine.)

    Yes, I was never a fan of Theseus – not that I’d have wanted to go down into the Labyrinth and psychoanalyse the Minotaur either…

    Gordon

  • Hi Gordon, this is very late but I only came across your site today. The myth of identification originated in the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland. To get to the bottom of the legend one have to turn to John Millington Synge, the writer. He describes how, 1n 1899, a body washed up in Co. Donegal was identified as an Aran islander because he was wearing a “bróga-úrleathar” or leather shoe unique to Aran. In his play ‘Riders to the Sea’ this became a sock knitted by the man’s mother and identifiable because she had dropped a stitch: “it’s the second one of the third pair I knitted, and I put up three score stitches, and I dropped four of them.” By 1961 Paddy Ó Síochán wrote, without any sense of irony, in his book ‘Aran, Island of Legends’ that the Aran Gansey ‘has always been an unfailing source of Identification of Islandmen lost at sea.’ It’s a case of “duirt bean liom go duirt bean lei …” (a woman said to me that a woman said to her) or, in this case, a mix of creative license, spin and good old marketing. Maybe that is how all legends begin.

  • Gordon

    Hi Ciarán,

    Many thanks for this. I wasn’t aware of that—we did Synge at school, but I must admit I wasn’t terribly receptive at the time and i think I must have erased the whole thing from my memory!

    What you say seems quite plausible to me; of course some people feel very passionate the other way, and I would never discount folklore of any kind. But at the same time, historians will always seek that pesky little thing called evidence! (As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data…)

    Very interesting!

    All the best,
    Gordon

  • Susan

    Gansey is Old Norse for tunic, a language that came to Normandy when the Northmen (Normans) took Normandy as dowry from the-then King of France. Their use of the native language, well-laced with their own, was what the Normans spoke when they conquered England. When the little island of Guernesey was renamed, it seems the Normans renamed it for the tunics knitted there. Jersey was renamed for the tunics knitted there. Some of the older inhabitants may still speak Guernois or Jersois (and my spelling may well be off. It’s been years since I studied philology).

    • Gordon

      Hi Susan,

      That’s interesting. A lot of people have very strong opinions on the subject of ganseys, but seldom agree with each other! And I recently discovered that all the place-name “facts” I was taught at university in the 1980s have since been discredited and replaced by new theories, so i hardly know what to believe any more.

      As far as I know, the earliest records associating Guernsey with knitting date from the 15th century, and are associated with the English wool trade—but of course that doesn’t prove anything. As an archivist the one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t trust history!

      Best wishes,
      Gordon

  • Tom

    I think there are a couple of really interesting debates that have been raised on this page.

    Firstly, the relationship between the gansey and the island of Guernsey. I have not seen any evidence to show that the gansey originated in Guernsey, but there is certainly an etymological connection. Given that the knitting industry in Guernsey was very well established in the 16th-19th centuries and many of the garments knitted there were exported, it is likely that the knitted goods came to be known as ‘guernseys’ which has then evolved into the word ‘gansey’ over the years. Interestingly, in Guernesiais, the Norman-French language of the island, there is no specific word for a guernsey, only the generic ‘aen jompeur’ which is most likely a loan word from English. At first I thought this strange, but then why would the people of Guernsey use the same word for the garments they were knitting as that of their island? Most of the literature about the knitting industry in Guernsey describes the manufacture of fine knitted goods such as stockings and draperies, curtains and table cloths, the latter items in cotton and silk thread, rather than heavy knitted pullovers.

    I would suggest that the modern guernsey is the last remaining vestige of the Guernsey knighting industry. The simple, plain pattern of the modern guernsey is the result of needing a product that is quick(er) to manufacture (than a complex pattern) and is what you would expect of a product that is being manufactured for export as opposed to a garment which is being knitted for a family member to wear as a source of pride.

    As to the etymology of the name Guernsey – according to Richard Hocart’s ‘Guernsey Countryside’ the -sey suffix of the main Channel Islands comes from the Scandinavian ey, for island. The rest of the name may come from either a personal name, possibly Grani or Warinn, or from gron (pine tree). So it seems that guernseys were named for the island and not the other way round.

    Finally, I have always been sceptical of the identification of lost sailors story associated with ganseys. I agree with Sarah that the pattern of a gansey would be farm more useful when reuniting a fisherman with his lost or stolen gansey than identifying a lost fisherman. The lost or stolen gansey is also a far more likely scenario, given that in some fishing communities you may have hundreds of men wearing ganseys, some of whom are going to be prone to leaving their precious ganseys lying around in various places, and given that there is so much time and resources invested in each one, making each one unique is a good way of ensuring a lost gansey is returned to its owner.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for a very interesting contribution. It seems to me logical that Guernsey would become synonymous with knitted goods because of its knitting industry, and the name would become as generic, and as imprecise, as “biro” or “hoover” (or “jeans” or “denim”).

      Looking at old photographs it’s clear that most fishermen wore plain ganseys when they were working, which lends support to the idea that many of the “posed” photos, such as Sutcliffe’s in Whitby, featured fishermen in their “Sunday best”. It’s a lot more work, requiring a lot more concentration, to knit a really fancy jumper, and it makes sense to have a spare for when you want to look your best (and maybe one that doesn’t smell strongly of fish, too!).

      Similarly, if you’re knitting ganseys for sale, you’d knit them plain, which means faster, which means more completed ganseys per month and thus more money.

      I think Rae Compton really exploded the drowned fishermen gansey myth by pointing out that patterns weren’t unique, and were replicated around the coast, so there was no way you could tell where the wearer was from by the pattern. (Some ganseys had the wearer’s initials knitted on anyway, a much surer means of identification.)

      And finally, as I said earlier, many fishermen wore plain ganseys when they were out fishing, which renders the myth “busted” as far as I’m concerned. Well, that and the complete lack of documentary evidence that it ever happened (though the romantic in me keeps hoping a coroner’s inquest will turn up proving us all wrong).

      Best wishes
      Gordon

  • Michael R. R. Pearson

    I am thoroughly enjoying browsing the myth making blog and I declare that you and your avid gansey community have debunked the major issues:specific pattern associated with specific area.A fisherman who unfortunately drowned and subsequently washed up on the beach,(along with attendant disfigurement by the crows and the crabs) could be identified by the pattern on his gansey.

    My own ethnographic experience, researching gansey patterns revealed to me that on drilling deep into a communities collective knitting activity, there emerged outstanding individuals -who were a focal point for other knitters who looked to these people for guidance on technique and pattern juxtaposition: hence a tendency within the community for similar pattern imagery.
    I am confidant that within my research I was able to identify these individuals within specific communities and made it very clear that the pattern I associated with that community belonged to this person.
    In my books I identified with places, to give a direction to my travels – maybe in future editions I need to bring the knitter up front and centre more prominently.
    Sometimes there was no knitting at all. Wick was a case in point.
    I remember clearly being taken around Wick by the head librarian for what seemed like days (Don’t they drink a lot of whisky north of the border!!)ending up deep in the WICK photographic archives, whereupon I unearthed a glass plate of Wick fishermen. The librarian gave me the plate -I am sure it was to assuage the lack of success in tracking down contemporary gansey knitters. I was aware that this gesture was unconventional (to say the least)and was quick to acknowledge my thanks in writing.
    I had no names – so imagine my pleasant surprise at seeing a name attached to the attractive pattern juxtaposition within this website. Does anyone have a record of the names?

    I remember once seeing names attached to my photograph in a Japanese publication -which I gave scant attention to – as you can imagine. I came to the conclusion that they invented the names!
    I would appreciate an alternative provenance if anyone has further info.

    In my life and in the lives of those fishing communities I shared – the issue of what to wear featured strongly–The compromise follows. No you cannot wear your Sunday Best to work…not until you have worn your Sunday Best for a year of Sundays!!

    In my experience this missif was interpreted as follows: Sunday Best can be worn to work after wearing Sunday Best for a year.
    e
    This observation means that there would be many fishermen wearing ‘old’ Sunday Best’ to work.!!!

    • Gordon

      Hi Michael, Great to hear from you—yes, I’ve been disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a “living tradition” of gansey knitting up here in Wick. Rae Compton collaborated on a booklet with a lady from Thurso called Henrietta (“Hetty”) Munro, the booklet was called “They Lived By The Sea”. Some of RC’s contribution reappeared in her own book, but not all. She mentions the captain’s name, but that’s all.

      We managed to track down a second-hand copy of the booklet. To my delight it included a letter from Hetty Munro offering to get someone a gansey hand-knitted, the implication being that either she, or more likely another person in Thurso, would be able to knit one. But that’s the closest I’ve come to finding evidence of gansey knitting in Caithness!

      I’m impressed that you were given the plate of the photo—what a precious gift. Many of the photos, which are held by the local volunteer-run museum, are online now—search for The Johnston Collection, Wick. At least one of the volunteers is heroically indexing the ones showing fishermen in their ganseys, she tells me, so they appear when you search the collection!

      All the best to you—and can you give us an indication when the book’s likely to appear…?!

      Gordon

    • Dear Mr. Pearson,

      I have bought your book, Traditional Knitting in London 1985. And New & Expanded Edition this year.
      I am a knitting & a crochet designer for 40 years based in Japan. My designs are in many magazines & pattern books in Japan & USA.
      I visit UK every year in June to July. I have been to Shetland & Inishman to see their traditional knitting. Last year, I went to Sheringham to see the garnsey sweater exhibition.
      I am wondering if you would be able to meet with me this July.
      Hope to hear from you soon.

      Best regards.
      Yoko Hatta.

  • Michael R R Pearson

    Gordon; Thanks for the insight. My book is a Dover extended revised reprint of a book I wrote and published through Van Nostrand and Collins – thirty something years ago. It has had its ups and downs – hopefully I can get it all done and dusted for the next USA
    winter. I’m beginning to learn all about social media in preparation,blogging and tweeting is still very much alien territory.

    • Gordon

      Hi Michael,

      Best of luck! And please let me know when it’s ready: this site gets an average of 250 views a day, so we can hopefully help promote it to its target audience.

      My only observation about social media is that you have to be strong, or else you can find your virtual social life supplants your real life, like a parasitic ivy that feeds off and ultimately chokes to death its host…

      Gordon

  • Hi Gordon, interesting site. I have a little story for you. In 1980 I was, in my capacity as a folklorist, collecting traditional dances in the the area of Yorkshire known as Holderness. It was fairly heavy going as no dances had ever been noted there. Nevertheless I made progress and the information which I gleaned eventually, and unsurprisingly sent me eventually to the village of Flamborough. THere I interview a number of the local sword dancers (their traditional dress for the sword dance is a gansey and white ducks (trousers). Their leader, Richard Traves, introduced me to a lady called Mary Cross who, as a retired schoolmistress had taught the sword dance to several generations of villagers. Mary was a native of Flamborough but she was a Bayes by birth. This is a Filey family with offshoots in the fishing community of Flamborough.
    During my interviews with Mary Cross we got onto the subject of the ganseys themselves. She went upstairs and came down with a bagful of small sized gainsays. She rummaged in the bag and extracted one and gave it to me. “You can have that for your little boy” she said. Then she added, “Its a Filey pattern you know”, pointing to the ladder-like shappes which ran like braces from hem to shoulder. (This garment is that worn by her brother, Richard Bayes, in the 1910 photograph published by Cecil Sharp in his ‘Sword Dances of Northern England, v. 2)
    Then, as we took afternoon tea she suddenly said, “There was a young man in the village when I was a girl, he was such a nice looking lad, all of the girls thought him wonderful” She paused, then added, “His mother was considered the best knitter in the village and that added to his charms because he was always so beautifully dressed. ” . There came a further pause and then she added, almost as an afterthought, “That was how they identified his body when he was drowned, that beautiful gansey.”
    As a folk song performer and writer, I wrote a song about this event, not realising that this testimony is so incredibly rare regarding such events. Just thought you’d like to know.
    Best wishes, Paul Davenport

    • Gordon

      Hi Paul, and many thanks for sharing that interesting story. And as a former member of the Brackley Morris Men (Cotswold Morris, not sword, of course) I doff my hat to your research!

      The problem with the idea that drowned fishermen were identified by their ganseys has always been to find actual cases, with a verifiable name and date. As far as I know, there are a lot of stories, but none that have been documented. But when you look at it more closely, you can see how it might be rarer than people think.

      Firstly, you need to consider the number of fishermen who drowned. Then, of these, find ones that were not recovered while they could still be identified either by their features, or what they had in their pockets. Then, they’d have to be washed up close to the communities they came from. And then, like the one in your account, they’d have to have a gansey which was so unique that it could be identified by the pattern. Put it all together, and it’s not impossible, but it’s hardly going to be common.

      None of which contradicts that moving story Mary Cross told you by any means, which is why it’s good to hear the other side. And it’s important, I think, that in recreating these wonderful garments, we also remember the hard and dangerous lives of the men who wore them, in earning their livelihoods—after all, they didn’t go out onto the open sea and risk their lives for fashion.

      Many thanks once again, and best wishes,
      Gordon

  • I’m a maritime historian and have just published a blog for English Heritage on the subject of whether ganseys were ever used to identify bodies of drowned fishermen. I was inspired by a friend knitting a gansey to explore the subject . . . read on! http://thewreckoftheweek.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/no-65-a-complete-absence-of-fishermens-ganseys/

    • Gordon

      Hi Serena, and thanks for the link. It’s such a good myth—and I heard it repeated again as fact on Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys when he went to Filey—that I wish there was a single scrap of evidence to support it!

      Just one example giving a name and date would do. After all, registrars have been recording deaths in England since at least 1845, and Scotland from 1855, which covers the period of the herring fishing heyday round the British coast.

  • I suspect death records are likely only to tell half the story – that a body was identified as so-and-so, but not how the identification was made. My feeling is that the most accessible evidence would turn up in the local press, based on my experience of these as primary sources, the sort of thing that would have made headlines locally. Even then, it would have to be looked at dispassionately as to whether it was an accurate report. That said, shipwrecks were far more accurately reported then than they are now, simply because they are relatively unusual these days, plus the fact that by and large the links with our maritime heritage have been broken, so there isn’t that awareness of the correct terminology nowadays.

    • Gordon

      Yes, fair point. I was thinking more of identifying drowned fishermen, so that you could then cross-check with local newspapers. Many of the fishermen from the Moray Firth who lost their lives at sea were caught in the sudden, violent gales that sprang up out of nowhere, but many of them were caught trying to make it back to harbour and died within sight of shelter, heartbreaking though that is.

      In a similar way, memorial inscriptions would also help identify drowned fishermen. (For example, the Caithness Archives holds a copy of all the memorial inscriptions from Wick cemetery, and those drowned at sea are mentioned there.) I have a file relating to bodies washed ashore during world war two, some unidentified, but they are obviously those of military personnel.

      But I wonder if the best source for finding examples of the myth wouldn’t be coroners’ inquests records for (English) counties with a fishing tradition such as Devon, Cornwall, Norfolk or Yorkshire. (It’s been a while since I was an archivist in England, so I’m a bit hazy on the records down south!)

  • Hello again and thank you so much for publicising my post the other day! I have had some wonderful and interesting comments.

    I can’t believe you have picked a pattern called the Vicar of Morwenstow – I know him well, so to speak, because he is intimately connected with shipwrecks in his neck of the woods. His hut – now a listed building – is built of timbers from the wreck of the Alonzo, and in his churchyard are interred the victims of the Caledonia!

    Reverting back to drowned fishermen, the story of the men lost in the Moray Firth in the way that you describe, within sight of land, is fairly typical of the east coast in general. (This was a serious problem in the mid 19th century – there were just not enough harbours of refuge.) I’d guess that many of these men were washed up quite quickly so would have probably been recognisable.

    In terms of local newspapers most of our records have already been populated with newspaper accounts, so that correlation with at least two primary sources, ideally, should exist for the most part.

    Besides coroners’ inquest records, the other source likely to drill down into more detail on the identification of bodies is probably the Board of Trade Inquiry where one took place, often held concurrently with, or immediately after, the inquest. Both inquests and BOT Inquiries were often transcribed and published in the local press as well.

    The inquest for Rev. Hawker’s Alonzo is a case in point illustrating the sort of detail to be found in such records, and published in the local press – a man was identified by his stocking with his initials, corresponding to the name of a man on board. As everyone drowned, it was the ship’s owner, summoned to give evidence, who made the identification. http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=905422

    Most of the crew of the Caledonia were named by a survivor, who, according to some sources, afterwards died. http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=905407

    • Gordon

      Hi Serena,

      I had a look at your post a few days ago and I see you had some interesting responses. I guess you’ve heard about the great storm of August 1848 in the Moray Firth that came up out of nowhere and caught so many fishermen within reach of their harbours. I think 14 died off Wick, many within sight of land, and all down the coast 124 boats were lost. There was an investigation into the disaster by Captain Washington, and one of the recommendations was that crews should put to sea in decked boats, I think; before then, many of the boats putting out of Wick were without decks and obviously vulnerable.

      I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rev. Hawker, of course for his deeds and his life, but also for that coat, which I covet as much as his gansey! (And those boots aren’t bad…)

      Best of luck with your research,
      Gordon

  • Lauren Hay

    Hi there
    I am a fashion communication student who is in my final year of study at Heriot Watt University School of Fashion & Design in the Scottish Borders. Originally I am from a small coastal down on the Moray Firth called Buckie which is rich in fishing history and in particular the gansey. For my final honours project I have chosen to create a publication inspired by my hometown and aim to bring the gansey into fashion foreward editorial through my contemporary photography, I am however struggling to get my hands on a gansey or two to do this. I would only require to borrow them and ofcourse would return them, paying the cost of postage etc also. If anyone is interested in my project or can offer some advice/knowledge regarding this I would be eternally grateful! Kindest regards, Lauren

  • Aaron Lewis

    Waterproof/ Weatherproof:
    A well knit Guernsey will keep a person working outside in a cold, hard, rain warm enough that they can avoid hypothermia. Hypothermia leads to loss of judgement and loss of coordination. For a sailor working in the rigging, hypothermia is death. I have worn Guernseys, while working all day, outside, even in heavy freezing rain and 20 mph winds. (With a knit helmet covering head / neck and knit gauntlets!) In the event of a cloud burst, or gale winds, water will run down the back, but cloud bursts do not last very long and within minutes of the cloud burst reverting to just a cold rain, I was again warm. I have worn my warmer Guernseys while skiing fast (40 mph) for sustained periods in freezing temperatures, and was very comfortable – even when the Guernsey, a hat, and mittens were my sole upper body garments. I have worn those warmer Guernseys to sleep in the snow.

    Green water on deck will go right through a gansey, but the well knit Guernsey will still provide substantial warmth. I have worn Guernseys “inner tubing” in cold water and stayed warm while the guys around me wearing neoprene wet suits had their lips turn blue and their teeth start chattering. They went hypothermia.

    Wind blown sea water goes right through any knit object.

    Modern gansey yarns/patterns are designed to make the stitches “pop”, and not be too warm in centrally heated spaces. Yarns with less ply twist provide more “fill” and are much warmer, but they do not show off stitch patterns in the same way. Yarns with less ply twist can be knit much tighter without the fabric being too stiff. And, yarns with more, but finer plies can be knit tighter without the fabric getting too stiff.

    Rutt did NOT knit fabrics from hand spun worsted yarn using a knitting sheath and DPN, and then test such objects for warmth. Then everybody cites Bishop Rutt. Rutt assumed that such hand spun yarns were too labor intensive. However, it takes me 20 hours to spin the worsted 6-ply for a sweater and 100 hours to knit the sweater. It is the knitting that is labor intensive, not the spinning. For fine Jerseys, the spinning is faster and the knitting slower.

    Sweaters knit for British Fleets fishing for cod in Icelandic waters (13th-15th Centuries) would have been knit from “6-ply” and “10-ply” yarns. (10-ply is the grist of Aran yarn but much denser and warmer. And the same skills were used for later merchant and navy ships going around the Horn to China, India, and the Spice Islands. The same skills were used to knit for the sweaters worn by Shackleton’s men on the Antarctic ice. Modern, commercial 5-ply gansey yarn is not the warmest yarn for a sweater. In fact, I can knit objects from MacAusland (http://www.macauslandswoollenmills.com/ ) that are much warmer than anything I can knit from Frangipani 5-ply (or Lopi). More importantly, objects from my handspun can be much warmer AND much more durable than anything knit from MacAusland yarn.) Objects from hand spun can be exceptionally warm. Most knitting histories ignore British knitting before the Tudors, but we have Chaucer and Kurlansky.

    Likewise, use of a sweater to identify a body would have dated to the days of the great British fishing fleets, and long before the Tudor wool export restrictions (which facilitated commercial knitting in Britain). People that deny the myth do not seem to be looking at the period when the great British fishing fleets were most active, and poaching fish claimed by the Hanseatic League.

    The warmest stitch that I have tested is the Lizard Lattice that was commonly used in sweaters for lifeboat crews. Cables provide padding for sailors reefing sails in foul weather. They did not have weather forecasts, and thus, had to sail through weather that today we can avoid. Rigging had to be maintained during storm conditions, where today rigging is less sensitive to the weather (natural fibers change length with differing moisture content, steel and Dacron do not). Today we call the sailors out of the rigging and use the engine to maintain steerage way under storm conditions.

    Really warm fabrics cannot be knit with circular needles any more than you can frame a house using a handheld piece of iron as a hammer. The handle on a carpenter’s hammer provides leverage so a carpenter can drive large framing nails tight, one after another. Likewise, a knitting sheath with “gansey” needles provides the leverage to knit one tight stitch after another. Even when my hands were strong enough to knit commercial 5-ply gansey yarn at 32 stitches/ 10 cm with circular needles for hours and hours on end, I could NEVER knit as tightly with circular needles as with a knitting sheath and DPN. Never, never, never!

    Face a very bright window, and put a piece of knit fabric about 1″ in front of your eyes. If you can discern part of the outline of the window, then the fabric will not keep you warm in a cold, hard rain. Knit navy-blue fabric that is weatherproof will absolutely block light. Lustrous white wool will diffuse the light into a bright field blurring the outline of the window. Knitting modern commercial 5-ply gansey yarn to this tightness is difficult.

  • Osmond Naylor

    Just been watching ‘Countryfile’ on TV. John Craven was talking to a a Filey woman who knits ‘Filey Gurnseys’, further north they are called ganseys. The wool is oiled wool and although would not stop water getting through it would help repel. While at sea waterproofs would be normal dress. As for ID, the lady knitted in the initials of the wearer. Since many fishermen would work inshore waters then bodies would wash up in known areas if washed of a boat. Therefore a body decomposed could be identified. As for working different ports a body could still be identified because it would be known that a boat from wherever was missing in a particular area. Unfortunately anyone lost deep sea would be unlikely found. It is not a myth about initials also slight variations would be made in the patterns throughout the family of fishermen so that if several members of a family were lost and the same initials were used for two or more men ID was made a bit easier..

  • Gordon

    Hi Osmond, yes it was interesting, wasn’t it? As ever, the idea that bodies could be identified by their ganseys is a common piece of knowledge, it’s just that there isn’t any historical evidence that it happened. (Doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course!) But looking at the old photos, many fishermen went to sea in plain working ganseys, and the fancy ones unique to them were worn as “Sunday best”—so they couldn’t be identified that way regardless.

    But who am I to argue with history? I just knit the things, I wasn’t there!

    All the best,
    Gordon

  • John Mullins

    Gordon,
    Further to your comments regarding the name Gansey and discounting the idea it’s derived from the name Guernsey. May I suggest that it’s an Irish name! Tha Gaelic word for sweater is Geansai, pronounced even in the Irish tongue as ‘ganzee’.
    Small world ‘ain’t it?
    Kind regards, John

    • Gordon

      Hello John, it’s also called that up here in the north of Scotland, and someone told me there’s a Norse word which is much the same! Though whether it’s of Gaelic origin (or Norse) or the Gaelic word is just a phonetic representation of the other term, I’ll leave to the etymologists to decide! (Or is that beetles? I can never remember.)

      But you’re right—the world is small, and if there’s one thing I learned from history it’s that fishing and water-borne trade makes it even smaller, forging connections between seemingly remote communities and sharing words and ideas; and pullover patterns!

      Best wishes, Gordon

  • Guernseyman@hotmail.com

    Gordon

    Sceptical of the origins – sceptical of the meaning of the pattern – sarcastic about its water proof qualities

    I sense a man of negativity and scepticism.

    The local Guerns in Guernsey would argue it does originate from Guernsey- the clues in the name !

  • Trevor

    What a load of rubbish!
    You call yourself a historian, Gordon, yet you haven’t bothered to research your subject fully.
    The island of Guernsey has never laid claim to originating Ganseys. A Guernsey is a Guernsey, end of!
    The island’s knitting industry can be traced back over 500 years. In the early 16th century licences were granted by the Crown to import wool from England.
    The woollen industry was so prolific that Guernsey’s government issued a law banning knitting during harvest time, to ensure sufficient workers for the harvest.
    The yarn is rich in lanolin, unwashed and tightly woven, giving the Guernsey its waterproof qualities. This lessens with washing, which is why Guernseys are not a fashion item and best kept shabby and unwashed.
    Lord Admiral Nelson recommended the garment to the Admiralty as a valuable article of navel clothing and, in 1857, soldiers of the garrison in Halifax, Nova Scotia were issued with Guernseys as part of their winter uniform.
    Original Guernseys were not dyed but left in their natural state. It was the Navy’s use of Guernseys that initiated the Navy blue Guernsey. Other (regrettable) colours followed with marketing.
    Guernseys are an official regulation garment of the R.N.L.I.
    Each of Guernsey’s ten parishes had their own recognised pattern of stitching on the sleeves and the neck. The ‘trend’ of knitting anchors etc into the weave is a marketing ploy best avoided!
    Above all, a Guernsey is a Guernsey and not a Gansey.
    All this and more is readily available and authenticated, Gordon, if only you bothered to check first.

  • The origins of “ganseys”, “Guernseys” and “Jerseys” are lost in history. However, from history, economics, and archeology, we can reverse engineer the story. We know sailors, fishermen (and land based labor) were wearing such garments at the formation of the Hanseatic League, circa 1358. So we have to look for seaman’s sweater’s origins prior to that time. The ships that made the Hanseatic League reasonable were square rigged, which were first popularized or perhaps invented somewhere in a triangle formed by England, France, and Portugal. Those sailors on those wooden square-rigged ships required more warmth with less weight, than any land based laborer. Thus, by ~1360, England, France, the Channel Islands, and Portugal all had traditions of exceptionally warm knit wear for sailors. These sweaters were knit from worsted spun 5-ply or 6-ply yarns with grists of around 1,000 -> 1,200 ypp, dyed in the wool, and very finely knit on long needles (~2 mm) using a knitting sheath. (Bye the by, blunt needles are faster – if you are knitting sweaters with knitting sheath.) The long needles and knitting sheaths allowed tighter knitting to produce a more weatherproof fabric than can be achieved with hand-held needles (e.g., circular needles). And the tightly knit worsted spun yarns would last a trip around the Horn to the Spice Islands, and back.
    Fleets fishing north, toward Iceland, often used Irish and Scottish sailors and fishermen, who needed warmer wear, so they used heavier yarns (10-ply, 500 ypp), and thicker needles, often knitting the garment on 2 needles, in pieces due to the great weight of the very tightly knit fabric. Due to the very wet conditions in the North Atlantic, these sweaters were worn under “oil skins”, and did not need to be dyed. (Dying helps the sweater stay dry. Really! That is testable science!) Sweaters with bobble designs are a good choice for wearing under an oil skin. Alternatively, 2-strand Fair Isle knitting can produce garments of similar or greater warmth. I like Fair Isle when It is cold enough that things are dry. (I often spin the yarns woolen, at very fine grists and knit on very fine needles.) And, weatherproof Fair Isle can be knit using a knitting belt and long needles rather than a knitting sheath. However, such fine yarns and needles means that the knitting must be fast=> blunt needles and knitting sheath.
    Wool must have the grease removed prior to dying, thus dyed wool was reoiled. Good spinning demands clean fiber. Well spun wool was scoured, and reoiled for spinning. It takes me ~125 hours of work from raw fleece to finished 5-ply gansey from hand spun. Believe me, it is faster to wash the wool, (dye if needed) then reoil the wool, card/comb, spin it, and knit. And, the washed wool product is much higher quality. Spinning dirty wool is a fool’s choice. You can get away with spinning dirty Shetland fleece, but not the long wools used for traditional gansey yarns. With clean fleece, I can spin/ply enough 1,000 ypp, 5-ply for a sweater in about 20 hours.
    Sweaters for seamen and fishermen were knit professionally and commercially from Scotland and Denmark to Brittany to the Channel Islands to Portugal for a thousand years. They were knit for seamen going to north to the ice for fish and seals and south to the tropics. Wool is the original miracle fiber, and those loving sisters, mothers, and talented professionals, knit the sweaters that were needed for the next voyage. And the nature of voyages changed with the voyages of discovery. They spoke English, French, Norse, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Spanish, Portuguese, Welch, Gallic . . ..In 1798, the British Admiralty had a contractor produce knit objects for seaman in Canton for sale in Hong Kong and Bombay. Thus, knitters of British seaman’s sweaters also spoke Chinese and Hindi. And, you want one word that accurately names what they knit?

    Our boat, sails more than any other boat on the Bay, so I get to test what works and what does not. This afternoon, it will be howling, but Bob’s sister is coming in from DC, and we will be triple reefed, and the deck will still be awash, with green water coming over the bow.

  • David Austin

    This is request for information on jerseys which were worn by fisherman and mariners in Folkestone in 1850.

    The reason for my interest is that I am designing and building a railway model of the harbour and branch line, and have already constructed a scale model of the 1847 swing bridge. As an historian and member of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway society I have been intrigued by the use by the railway of ‘marine porters’. These fellows were employed to carry the luggage of cross channel ferry passengers from the ship to the railway station when they were separated by some distance. A photograph in the book by Charles Witney in the Folkestone library show this group of porters dressed in fisherman’s tops which are monogrammed with the railway company’s name.

    The photo shows the men wearing a heavy top with the company name logo. There appears to be patterning to the garment which picks up on the point made earlier in this blog about working and best jerseys.

  • David Austin

    Correction: The photo shows the men wearing a heavy top with the company name logo. There appears to be NO patterning to the garment which picks up on the point made earlier in this blog about working and best jerseys.

    • Gordon

      Hello David, and thank you for your query. I’m afraid I don’t have any patterns for Folkestone (can’t see any in the basic texts in my library).

      There are two main sources for gansey patterns: one is those collected by keen knitters before the tradition quite died out; the other is from collections of old photographs which are coming to light all the time, such as the Johnston Collection for Wick. Of the two, old photographs would be best, as hopefully they would be near-contemporary (as opposed to the patterns collected a hundred years later).

      I guess as jumpers were supremely practical garments, and perfect for seamen of all kinds because of the mobility the fabric provided, they would have looked properly “nautical” for the company’s porters and let them actually do the day job without getting in the way. If they were in effect a uniform I guess they would be plain and regular (apart from the company name)—the more decorative patterns seem to have been the personal expression of individual knitters, so not likely to be the case here.

      Kind regards,
      Gordon

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