The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Gansey knitting

 

The making of knitwear using the Gansey technique and traditionally worn by worn by fishermen (see also knitting).

 

Status Endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance East coast small fishing ports in England and Scotland, also Devon, Cornwall, Guernsey and the Hebrides.
Area currently practised Sheringham, Orkney, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Northumberland
Origin in the UK 18th century
Current no. of professionals (main income) 6-10
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
1-5
Current no. of trainees 1-5
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

The craft is said to have begun in Guernsey but the etymology of this link has been questioned. It was developed by hand knitters around the coast, and the garments have textured patterns unlike the plain Guernsey ones. Ganseys were largely synonymous with fishermen (although garments of this type did appear inland, e.g. the Yorkshire Dales) and were built as working gear. Patterns flourished around the herring fleet, it being the only one where thousands of women spent most of the year travelling from the Orkneys to Great Yarmouth gutting and packing and knitting. The demise of the British fishing industry has helped dislodge Ganseys from this traditional bedrock and consign them to the open waters of adventurous knitters/stylists everywhere, wherein some things are lost and some live on.

 

Techniques

Garments are knitting in the round with no seams, using straight double-pointed pins and fine, worsted spun yarn that’s quite hard to find. Wool garments retain warmth when wet and the use of long fibres and narrow gauge needles, e.g. 2mm, make for a taut fabric which gives the Gansey its ability to turn water.

Unlike Fair Isle and other Northern European knitting traditions only one colour is used, the pattern deriving from skilful manipulation of the basic stitches.

Most Gansey patterns were transmitted directly from one person to another rather than being written down. Patterns are worked out to fit the requirements of each individual garment, knitters manipulating motifs and designs as a matter of course.

One of the most important features of the gansey is the diamond-shaped gusset knitted in under the armholes. This allowed free use of the arms while hauling nets and ropes and also made the garment much longer-lasting as it disposed of a point of tension between body and sleeves. It cannot truly be called a gansey without the gussets.

Another important and practical feature is that the sleeves were knitted by picking up stitches and working from the armhole to the cuff. This meant that the points which wore fastest (the elbow and the edge of the cuff) could be easily unravelled and re-knit thus saving the rest of the garment for years – you can see the evidence of this in some old photos where the lower half of the sleeves are darker than the rest as the yarn was newer and had not faded with use.

Stitches used were based on knit and purl for texture and in Scotland in particular, simple rope cables also featured in many designs.

 

Local forms

To an extent patterns were tribal and a style would be associated with an area or even an individual but they were also fluid. Sheringham Ganseys are noted for the fineness of the stitches and the intricacy of the tesselated patterns. Channel Island Guernseys have a split welt. Scottish fleet Ganseys usually have a three-button neck and this is also a feature of Whitby Ganseys. Whilst Seafield Mills were in operation many Fife Ganseys were knitted in South Australian Merino wool. Orkney Ganseys are often knitted in a coarser wool more like handspun.

The shoulder straps on some Scottish ganseys involved a great deal of mathematical accuracy as they were knitted in at right angles to the body. Also triangular neck gussets were used in someThe Eriskay gansey featured some simple openwork. This gansey was the most highly decorated style of all in the UK.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Designing and adapting knitting patterns
  • Knitting in the round
  • Production of worsted yarn

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Ganseys were fishermens’ working gear until around the 1970s. At this point many of the last generation for whom Gansey knitting was part of life were too old to continue. Since then working clothing is mass-produced and synthetic; this way of life has largely disappeared and Ganseys have become detached from their original purpose.
  • Most of the existing Gansey knitters are ageing and their output is decreasing either due to loss of memory or physical ageing. The traditional knitters are not automatically natural teachers.
  • Ability to adapt pattern of each individual garment within defined parameters is something connected with Ganseys, it is in itself a bit of an endangered species.
  • The main current issue is that to make a gansey to professional standards requires a high degree of skill in both production of the perfect knitted fabric; the applied mathematical skill to produce the perfect shape and fit, and not least the time required to make the garment. To make a gansey with a degree of textured stitch work will take at least 160 hours. Even at minimum wage this means that the selling price is well beyond what the general public would find affordable.
  • Hand-knitting is not regarded as ‘real’ work. In terms of ganseys being made and used for their original purpose, it is indeed true that garments made with inexpensive synthetic fabric have rendered the time, skill and effort in making ganseys for workers a very difficult proposition.

 

Support organisations

  • The Knitting & Crochet Guild

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Deb Gillanders
  • Rity Taylor
  • Liz Lovick
  • Tina Barrett
  • Gordon Reid
  • Penelope Hemingway
  • Alice Starmore
  • Alf Hildred
  • Doris Rowe
  • Dot Normandale
  • Josie Simms
  • Di Gilpin

Businesses employing two or more makers:

  • Flamborough Marine
  • Cornish Gansey Company
  • Propagansey

 

Other information

There are not enough people to hand on the information, no structures in place to promote organised schemes, alack of commercial viability, and the Gansey’s original purpose has being watered down.

 

References

  • Propagansey
  • Lovick, Elizabeth (2009) A Gansey Workbook
  • Pearson, M, Traditional Knitting
  • Thompson, G, Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans
  • Wright, M, Cornish Guernseys and Knitfrocks
  • Lougher, L, et al, Sheringham Ganseys
  • Domnick, Sabine, Cables, Diamonds, Herringbones: Secrets of Knitting Traditional Fisherman’s Sweaters
  • Compton, R, and Munro, H, (1983) They Lived by the Sea
  • Compton, R, and Harvey, M, Fisherman Knitting (Shire Publications)
  • Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
  • Cromer & Sheringham Museums
  • Filey Museum
  • Johnson collection of photographs, Wick Museum