The most famous ganseys come from the Yorkshire coast: Filey, Scarborough, Whitby, but were also made extensively in East Anglia, especially Sheringham. Frank Meadow Sutcliffe devoted much of his career as a photographer to the fisherfolk of Whitby, and his nineteenth-century images feature a kaleidoscope of ganseys in action. In addition to the many pictures of fishermen at work, Sutcliffe also took some wonderful portraits that offer us some great close-ups of gansey designs. His works are still within copyright, since he died in 1941, so I can’t post any, but several are available elsewhere online (see below).
What makes the gansey so fascinating to knitters (at least to this one) is its construction. Full of challenging and interest-grabbing techniques from the get-go, the gansey begins with the Channel Island cast-on, incorporates side welts, textured pattern blocks, underarm and neck gussets, and shoulder-to-cuff sleeves into an all-in-one knit unit. Most of the features have very practical purposes: cast-on edges are strong, underarm gussets allow much more freedom to move (and haul in nets!), raveled sleeves can be re-knit from the cuff (where they get most wear), and because they are a solid color, there are no fussy ends to darn in. I love the thought that a fisherman could repair his own sleeves (by the way: don’t miss Sarah Orne Jewett’s story, “Along Shore,” from Country of the Pointed Firs; there’s a wonderful scene of an old fisherman knitting a sock—not British, perhaps, but still charming).
My favorite gansey tradition, not suprisingly, is the practice of knitting the wearer’s initials into the otherwise plain area towards the bottom of the sweater. Texture in ganseys is achieved almost entirely through knit-purl combinations or through judicious use of relatively small cables. It is often suggested that particular towns developed very specific and identifiable combinations of textured patterns, so that one could identify a fisherman’s home town simply by looking carefully at what he was wearing.
I’ve only knit one gansey, and it was for my very dear nephew whose name conveniently begins with G. I chose Beth Brown-Reinsel’s pattern, snakes & ladders, as I thought the recipient would appreciate the snaking cables and color, which he certainly did. His little sister, who fits it perfectly now, would prefer pink and ponies, but I can’t quite bring myself to do that. I’d love to make a proper gansey at the fine gauge (9 stitches per inch) and in some of the lovely 5-ply, high-twist gansey yarn that is available now on the market. The yarn knit at that gauge makes all those textured stitches stand up and shout. The problem is that it really hurts my hands, so I’ve never really progressed further than swatching (above). So a child’s sweater at a slightly more manageable 6 stitches per inch is probably the closest I’ll get for some time. Except that, now that I think of it, perhaps the pink princess might be willing to wear lavender hearts...
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
- Biography, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Australian Sutcliffe Gallery
- Official Sutcliffe Gallery
- Hiley, Michael. Frank Sutcliffe: Photographer of Whitby (London, Arts Council, 1974)
Flamborough Marine, Ltd. History of the Gansey
Shetland Museum & Archives (thanks, Ruth!)
Guernsey Yarn’s general directions for knitting a “guernsey” sweater
British Gansey yarn available in US
Beth Brown-Reinsel Gansey workshops
- Brown-Reinsel, Beth. Knitting Ganseys (Interweave Press, 1993)
- Starmore, Alice. Fisherman’s Sweaters (Trafalgar Square, 1993)
- Thompson, Gladys. Patterns for Jerseys, Guernseys, and Arans (Dover, 1971)
- Beth Brown-Reinsel Ganseys, especially “At Sea,” from Knitting in America
- Bosch, Ann, “Lighthouse Gansey” pattern from Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill
- Bunny Hop Gansey (Crystal Palace Yarns)