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.