What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

When I first posted that seemingly innocuous photo of Daniel Day-Lewis wearing his splendid gansey, I did not imagine anything like where it has led. I’ve spent loads of time since then in conversation with assorted people about their knowledge of these sweaters, fielding recommendations and following leads, reading the informed comments on that and the follow-up post, and most of all exchanging emails with Deb Gillanders, above, of Propagansey, who reached out after the initial post and has been filling me in on so much of what I was wanting to know! So of course, I asked if I could pick her brain a bit on behalf of all of you, and interview her for the blog. Ganseys are a rich well in the land of knitting history — tables full of books have been written on the subject — and we’re just scratching the surface here, but be sure to check out the resources at the end, and pattern suggestions here

. . .

So Deb, how did you first become interested in Ganseys?

My interest in Ganseys began some years ago when I met a retired trawlerman at a party; he was telling a scurrilous tale and wearing a beautiful old blue patinated Gansey that he’d knitted himself. I was hooked.

As Propagansey I sell Frangipani wool, attend wool shows and give talks and workshops on Ganseys and their yarns. I also curate an annual exhibition every September in Robin Hoods Bay. When I began, over 10 years ago, I thought I was doing well to show two dozen or so but it’s now probably the biggest display of its kind in the world, with well over 100 Ganseys old and new from around UK and Holland.

Ok, so first let’s talk about that: UK and Holland, or country of origin. I think most knitters have a general sense of what a gansey is (and you can set me straight on any fine distinctions here) — A type of fisherman’s sweater most closely associated with Great Britain, typically navy blue, that features a mix of stitch patterns (from simple to complex, sometimes cables but often just knits and purls) often contained to the upper part of the sweater, along with seamless construction and a distinctive underarm gusset. It’s often said that they’re called Ganseys (or Guernseys) because they originated in the Channel island of Guernsey, but that’s thought to be a myth, correct? They’re not just a UK thing — you mentioned Holland as well. And they’re distinct from that other famous fisherman’s sweater, the heavily cabled, typically ivory, Aran sweater. Where are the geographical boundaries between ganseys and jerseys and aran sweaters, fuzzy though they may be?

I hope purists will forgive me if, for the sake of brevity, I say that although the origins of the Channel Islands’ Guernsey and the more northern Gansey were possibly different, they evolved into almost identical garments, and the history is probably not worth unpicking. More recent developments have been more date-able; there was a revival of the Aran before WW2 and around the same time the Eriskay Gansey appeared; this seems to have been the brainchild of a local lady who designed a Gansey with the upper and lower body bearing different patterns. Also, in the 1930s tuna fishing became extremely popular off the Yorkshire coast with many well-heeled recreational fishermen coming to places like Scarborough for this sport — they saw the local Ganseys, wanted a special version for themselves, and thus was born the white Gansey for ‘Best.’ Around the same time, Channel Island Parishes were being altered, with some deciding to mark the occasion and promote their identity with a new motif for their Guernseys. So all these human activities had an impact on what we now think of as ‘traditional’ Arans, Guernseys, etc. As for geographical areas, Arans are still associated with the Aran Islands; the Channel Island cod fishermen took their word Jersey across the Atlantic with them and it now denotes a sweater that differs from Guernsey/Gansey in construction and use of more than one colour; and as fishermen from around the North Sea converged on the annually migrating shoals of herring it’s no surprise to find both Dutch and British fishermen wearing blue garments, patterned and knitted in the round. This seamless construction is not only unlikely to fall apart in heavy-duty working conditions, it’s also very easy to effect repairs. The Dutch word is Visserstruien.

Within the realm of Ganseys, there are varieties associated with different ports or regions — this is the part I’ve been digging into more since all that erupted in the wake of my initial Daniel Day-Lewis post. In particular, there are several patterns and references to “a Staithes” as the sub-type of gansey DDL is wearing. And I’ve also seen references to a historical figure named Henry Freeman, survivor of multiple disasters, who famously wore such a gansey in famous photos. This super-simple version almost looks to me like a starter gansey — like maybe you would have learned this and then gone on to knit more elaborate ones. But is that a logical assumption in any way, or is it in fact tied to a specific place, Staithes? Or even more specifically to Henry Freeman somehow? I noted before that Gladys Thompson and Penny Straker both have published “Staithes” patterns with their notes referencing one in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, but I haven’t been able to turn up a photo of the one they’ve apparently modeled their patterns on. So what’s the story on Staithes?

Staithes is a small, scenic, isolated ex-fishing village 12 miles north of Whitby. (Look out for the scene in Phantom Thread with a chapel behind them further up the hill where they’re walking down a street together — yes, that’s Staithes!)

There are two Gansey patterns associated with, although not exclusive to, Staithes: one in the V&A is a vertical pattern involving cable and moss, very similar to Robin Hoods Bay, about 6 miles south of Whitby; the other, associated with the Verrill family, is DDL’s. I’ve attached a photo of James Verrill (see photo above) modelling his Gansey rather successfully outside Old St. Stephen’s Church, where Propagansey 2015 was held. A ‘Staithes Gansey’ isn’t a subset of the genre, it’s simply from that place patternwise, as is a Sheringham Gansey or a Whitby Gansey. They’re all built more or less the same. You’re right; the Seeds & Bars pattern is an easy one; not only to knit but also to adjust to fit the wearer. More complex patterns can break down into more manageable, bite-sized pieces that are simply repeated ad infinitum, but still require a practised eye to alter sizewise. Growing up with Gansey knitters, a child would start on small items, e.g. socks, then graduate on to the pattern most commonly knitted in their house, which might be in the local style, with variations added from the knitters’ travels. Then she herself might marry and move to her husband’s village. Thousands of herring lassies moved down the East coast of Britain every year gutting and packing the herring, knitting and nicking each others’ patterns, and they hadn’t heard of intellectual property rights — if they saw something they liked, it was copied and added to their repertoire! Compare Gansey patterns to the treatment tartan received when Queen Victoria became so fond of Scotland; every fashionista had a ball, and tartans became officialised beyond their previous form; this never happened with Ganseys, the tribal ID of many fishermen.

The history of ganseys — and origins of Daniel Day Lewis'sAs for Henry Freeman, that Seeds & Bars wasn’t his only Gansey! Incidentally, Henry Freeman was from Bridlington (these things are important) although he gained fame as Cox’n of the Whitby lifeboat, having been the sole survivor of a disaster where he was wearing the only brand-new cork life jacket.

This upper body Seeds & Bars is also frequently associated with Polperro in Cornwall. This was a place where many women did contract knitting, and as this is a very economical pattern to knit, having no cable, it turns up all over the place. I have heard that there was a connection between Staithes and Cornwall, but I haven’t looked into that. Certainly Cornish fishermen were amongst the fleet that followed the herring down the East coast every year.

I love having the term Seeds & Bars for describing the Staithes design, thank you. And that makes perfect sense about contract knitters sticking to this comparatively simple pattern. But even though knitters all over knitted it, it’s still commonly known as a Staithes gansey? Going back to the geography question, it’s also widely believed that each port (or even each family) had its own distinct design, and you could identify a drowned fisherman by his sweater. (This is also a persistent tale with Aran sweaters.) In reality, it’s not that clear-cut, correct? And yet there are types with names that are commonly known and used and understood. How many different sub-types are there, would you say?

It’s not really true to think of each village having its own pattern. Many early, working Ganseys were very plain; Ganseys were often contract knitted and bought in chandlers’ around the UK; even local patterns were fluid. Having said that, there are regional styles — I can recognise a Gansey from Fife, Sheringham or Eriskay, for example; but I can also spot individual knitters, not only in their favourite patterns/variations but also by the construction details, and it’s when you get to this level that you begin to see the cleverness in little changes.

Having been associated for some time with Old St. Stephen’s, an old church in Robin Hoods Bay where the gravestones date back over 200 years, I can say that most drowned men remained buried at sea; the number of purely commemorative inscriptions attest to this. It was very rare for a drowned man to be returned to his home; logistically, emotionally and financially it was unfeasible. However, I have heard of a body being recognised by its Gansey.

The out-takes illustrate not only how a thing ‘should’ be done, but how impossible it is to really pin a tradition down. Just when you think you’ve nailed it … . There is a type of Double Moss motif made up of 2 rows of knit then 2 rows of p2k2 to end, which is known as Betty Martin and was widely used in Filey and Flamborough, but none knows if Betty Martin actually existed. One Yorkshire woman married and moved to Cornwall, taking her Betty Martin upper sleeve motif with her — it was seen as very distinctive. One Filey pattern is named after a local man called Matt Cammish. His family came from NE Scotland. Ganseys in Whitby usually have a 3-button opening on the left side of the neck; this came down with the Scottish herring lassies, and when I met some Polperro knitters a few years ago they hadn’t seen this but thought it was a very good idea. Incidentally, the Cornish term for Gansey is Knitfrock. The typical Guernsey has a split welt, not normally found in other Ganseys.

However, I do believe that many Gansey knitters were operating when Ganseys were a part of life and you’d pick up the basics with your daily breath, just as kids today are at home with their various devices. Hence Propagansey — I love the yarns, and how by actually spending time with them, you can get what the knitter was doing, even if was over 100 years ago. There were definitely some clever tarts around!

For those wanting to know more about Gansey history and patterns, in addition to your Propgansey website, what books or other resources do you recommend? Any specific knitting patterns you’d encourage people toward?

• Gladys Thompson; “Patterns for Jerseys, Guernseys & Arans”
• Mary Wright; “Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks”
• Michael Pearson; Traditional Knitting of the British Isles, vol 1: Fisher Gansey Patterns of North East England, and vol 2: Fisher Gansey Patterns of Scotland and the Scottish Fleet (In-print option: “Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and Fisher Ganseys”)
• Beth Brown-Reinsel; “Knitting Ganseys: Techniques and Patterns for Traditional Sweaters”
Propagansey 2018; 8-16th September at Fylingthorpe Methodist Chapel, Fylingthorpe, N Yorks, UK; 10-4 daily

. . .

Thanks so much, Deb! I hope to get to your exhibit someday.

And here’s a fun fact, dear readers: The gansey Deb is wearing in the top photo was later knitted for her by the trawlerman who first sparked her interest in ganseys. How awesome is that?


PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

Photos courtesy of Deb Gillanders




35 thoughts on “What I Know About: Gansey origins (with Deb Gillanders)

  1. That Verril gansey! I really want to knit one of those. Have we found a pattern for that yet? KAL.

    Thank you, Deb and Karen! Wonderful interview and information.

  2. This is a delightfully fascinating interview, thank you for sharing it! And since my own knowledge of fishermen’s sweaters generally resides a bit further north/east, I thought I’d mention that the Norwegian word for pullover, “genser,” is thought to come from English gansey/guernsey.

  3. Thank you Karen, for this wonderful series. I find myself sitting amongst all my gansey books, wondering if I need a few more. I just love history combined with patterns. SUCH a delightful rabbit hole….

  4. I will call it the “Scurrilous Guernsey”:) It can be a summer project seeing it is size 3 & 5 needles. As always you spark inspiration and brain cells!

  5. Thanks for this; I really enjoyed the interview and now I have ideas about ganseys/guernseys floating about in my head.

  6. I found the Ganseys in the Cromer museum fascinating, and wrote a post about them about this time last year. So interesting to hear more about them. Thank You!

  7. Really interesting, A few of those story’s I have heard appropriated to Fair Isle patterns too – a wearer being identified by their Jumper etc and the sharing of patterns by gutters travelling. There is evidence of some Ganseys in Shetland as there was a large Dutch contingent here for a time. It’s strange though that it didn’t become as infamous as Fair Isle/Lace but the strength of those traditions was maybe too ingrained already. We also call any kind of jumper a Gansey which is dialect though.. thanks for sharing xx

  8. So nice to see such interest in Ganseys & their yarns. For more photos of Henry Freeman, have a look in the fisherfolk section of the gallery on http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk (I particularly like the one of him with ‘Hat hair’..). FMSutcliffe was a famous Victorian photographer who lived in Whitby & these images are an absolute treasure trove. And of course visitors to Whitby are always welcome to come & do some Gansey-handling in Whitby Wholefoods.

  9. Deb is a fount of knowledge, all things Gansey related. I hope to catch up with her at Wonderwool Wales later this month where she usually exhibits gansey old and new. She’s passionate about them and is more than willing to pass on information and stories…. See you there….

  10. All I know about ganseys is that at Flamborough each family had its own distinctive pattern I.e. Pockley, Emmerson etc

    Apparently this was a way of identifying any drowned fisherman by the pattern when the ravages of the sea would have made them unrecognisable otherwise.

    They also used to wear a gansey for best on Sunday to go to church or chapel and when this started to wear a bit a new one would be knitted and the old one would be used for work.

  11. Does anyone know what they wore on the west coast of Scotland? My family is from Skye, and I suspect that they wore something knitted when they went fishing, but so far I haven’t found anything.

    • The Hebridean, or Eriskay Gansey probably originated in the 1930’s & is distinct because it has 2 different pattern areas, ie the belly & the chest. The chest motifs are usually in the form of possibly symmetrical panels, separated by eg cable, featuring motifs such as Tree of Life, or Saltair. There’s a horizontal row dividing this from the belly, which is patterned with more vertical elements which may include Scottish Flags, which invests the whole thing with a delightful pleat affect. The ones I’ve seen have all been cream & they don’t strike me as workwear (check archival photos of old fishermen). Some west coast fishermen used to get jobs on board flash yachts out of Glasgow; they were often issued with Ganseys, plain except for the vessel’s name sewn on. Sometimes they forgot to give them back.

      • Thanks for this – my family emigrated to Victoria in 1839, so sadly well before the Eriskay Gansey, and much in the way of photography, either. Maybe I’ll just knit a plain one :-)

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  13. Beyond fascinated and intrigued by all of this! Thank you for the research and interview!! Such rich history to tap into here in the world of gansey-lore.

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