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Gansey History   [contact us on 01262 850943 for further information]


 

 

Victorian Fisherman

A Victorian Fisherman

A Unique Garment :

 

Old sepia photographs evoke the romance of far-off times. Yet there was little romantic in the life of a North Sea fisherman at the turn of the century when most days involved a struggle against the elements. Life could be just as hard for the womenfolk.


Days were long but, in addition to such essential tasks as baiting the lines, time would be set aside for Gansey knitting, either for members of the immediate family or else for sale to raise a few extra shillings. Great pride was taken in this knitting, especially for the ‘Sunday best’ Gansey (often not in the traditional navy) to be worn at such occasions as the Flamborough sword-dancing or Filey fishermen’s choir, both of which still thrive today.

Ganseys were used at Trafalgar

 

 

 

Flamborough Gansey

Flamborough Gansey

At some time past the custom arose that each fishing community would have its own identifiable pattern based on a selection of motifs related to the sea: nets, ropes, ladders, herringbones, and so on. Although it is now impossible to ascertain precisely when the patterns came into being, this style of knitting originated during the reign of Elizabeth I and the patterns were fixed by the beginning of the nineteenth century. This means that it is possible to tell where a fisherman came from by the pattern on his Gansey; it is also the factor which, more than anything, makes the Gansey unique.

 

Eventually, however, the craft of Gansey knitting went into steady decline as younger people moved out of the fishing villages and was in danger of dying out completely. Each Gansey is a living part of history and we believe it is essential that the craft is maintained and nourished.


Every Gansey tells its own story. This was originally for a very practical, if morbid, reason. As each village fishing community could be identified by the design on its Gansey, if the body of a fisherman was found it could then be returned to his home for burial.
 

Note in the photograph at left that the high collar, a feature of the Ganseys, has been rolled down.


 

 

In larger fishing communities, small alterations to the basic pattern could even allow for the differentiation of families within that village. Indeed, it is perhaps not too great an exaggeration to say that Ganseys helped foster the community spirit.


Today that spirit is alive and well and Ganseys are still being worn, not only by those who work in them, but also by those who appreciate the workmanship, history, and beauty of these remarkable sweaters.

Note that the patterning is the same, back and front. This means that the Gansey is reversible, so that areas which come in for heavier wear, such as the elbows, can be alternated.

 

 

Flamborough Gansey

Flamborough Gansey

Fraserburgh Gansey

 

Above and at right: two vintage Fraserburgh Ganseys

 

 

 

Fraserburgh Gansey

   
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This is our most detailed site, however, we also have two separate sites, one for Flamborough Marine in general, and one for Armor Lux specifically, which have been optimized for viewing on smaller screens

 

 

Detailed information on our various products is available on this site. However, we also have a separate Flamborough Marine web-site, which has been optimized for viewing on smaller screens, and is available by clicking the image above.

 
 

Information on our Armor Lux range is available on this site. However, we also have a dedicated Armor Lux web-site, which has been optimized for viewing on smaller screens, and is available by clicking the image above.

 

 

One of our knitters

One of our knitters

 

THE HISTORY OF THE GANSEY



Few occupations are more at the mercy of the wind and weather than fishing. And it was the practical requirement for warm yet unencumbering clothing that prompted the development of a fascinating tradition in fishermen’s sweaters, variously known as jerseys, Guernseys and Ganseys.

It is likely that the word ‘jersey’, used to describe a knitted garment, owes its derivation to the name of the largest of the Channel Islands, where worsted spinning was once a staple industry. Over a period of time, the close-fitting garments knitted in worsted-spun yarn made in Jersey, and favoured by sailors and fishermen, became known as jerseys.

Similarly, the neighbouring island of Guernsey gave its name to the classic square-shaped wool sweater, which was designed with a straight neck so that it could be reversed. Gansey, a term which crops up in the writings of both Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, is a dialect variation of Guernsey.

Until the coming of the machine age in the nineteenth century, most industries were small-scale and craft-based. As early as 1589, however, the invention of the knitting frame by William Lee, a brilliant Nottinghamshire clergyman, had put into motion the gradual migration of hosiery manufacturing from the domestic setting to the factory. The uptake of machines was uneven, with pockets of the knitting industry, such as the famous knitters of Dent who made small items on short needles, resisting change for many years.


The production of heavier gauge knitwear remained a largely domestic activity until much more recently, with women knitting for entire families well within living memory. Every village shop would have boasted a section devoted to knitting yarn, and the market towns would have had at least one thriving wool shop.
 

The isolated communities along the rugged British coastline were, by necessity, even more self-sufficient than those further inland. In the poor fishing communities, families could ill afford the luxury of goods imported from the outside world. Women knitted for their sweethearts, husbands and children. At a time when resources were scarce, outgrown clothes were passed down and adults’ garments cut down and remade for children.

Visitors to the Yorkshire fishing ports such as Whitby and Filey and tiny villages such as Seahouses on the rugged Northumberland coast, reported seeing women sitting in their doorways busy with their needles. Never wasting a moment that could be used to earn an extra penny, women worked late into the evening by the light of rush lamps, knitting the navy-coloured yarn more by feel than by eye.

Although the classic Guernsey sweater remained plain (some Guernsey parishes did, however, have their own patterns), the stitch patterns used became more complicated the further north the garment spread, with the most complex evolving in the Scottish fishing villages. These elaborate patterns came south with the Scottish herring fleet, as the women folk followed their husbands down the coast to gut the fish. Thus the pattern known as Whitby flag is in fact an interpretation of a Scottish design.

Young women, who had received little formal education, would develop the ability to memorize complicated patterns, which were passed down from mother to daughter, gathering new variations with each generation. The garments were made on five or more needles, often called “wires” or “pins”, so as to be seamless. It was not unusual for men, too, to knit ganseys. Knitting was a natural extension of the familiar tasks of making and mending fishing nets, routine jobs which required considerable dexterity.

Tightly knitted in worsted yarn the fisherman’s Gansey was virtually windproof and waterproof. As these working garments were rarely washed, there is no doubt that a layer of filth would have added to the general protective effect. It is consoling to learn that fishermen had “Sunday best” Ganseys which, being decidedly more fragrant, were worn for church and on high days and holidays.



Many venerable Ganseys appear in the sepia toned photographs taken by the well-known Whitby photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe from 1880 to the turn of the nineteenth century. Prints made from Sutcliffe’s original glass plates provide a fascinating insight into the clothing of ordinary working people.

The characteristic, almost tubular, shape of the fisherman’s Gansey was dictated by practicality. The welt, neck and cuffs were knitted tight so as to keep out winter blasts. According to hearsay, so tight were the Ganseys knitted for the unfortunate children of one fisherman that, when the garments were pulled over their heads, the children’s ear lobes bled.

The cuffs, also made to be close-fitting, generally ended short of the wrist to avoid impeding the hands and becoming soaked with sea water as the men worked. The close fitting design also helped to reduce the chances of the hem or cuffs becoming caught on pieces of equipment or tackle, a mishap which could prove fatal

As time took its toll on the cuffs and elbows, the lower half of the sleeves could be unravelled and re-knitted with new yarn. Garments made in various shades of blue, ranging from deep navy to a hue faded with age, were a common sight.

The upper part of the body was knitted more densely than the lower part to provide extra warmth, and it was on the yoke and upper arms that the knitters had the opportunity to show off their knitting skills and to elaborate on the basic stocking stitch with numerous variations.

For detailed records of the many local interpretations of traditional fishermen’s jerseys, we are indebted to the tireless efforts of Gladys Thompson, who, in the 1950s, pencil and paper in hand, scoured the fishing ports on the east coast—from Sheringham and Cromer in Norfolk as far as Upper Largo in Fife.

Her quest, fired by a determination to preserve for future generations patterns which were seldom written down, took her down the narrow harbour ginnels (passages) and into the cramped fishermen’s cottages, where often a single room served as kitchen, bedroom and living room, with an attic above for storing and mending nets.


 

On one occasion Gladys Thompson describes how, on the track of two knitters who lived on Holy Island, she hired a young lad to drive her across to the island from Berwick. He arrived in a car at least thirty years old and covered with rust and sand. Their journey, made before the causeway linking the island to the mainland was built, entailed driving through the sea which surged into the ancient car through the floor boards.

Many of the stitch motifs used to decorate the Ganseys were inspired by the everyday objects in the lives of fishing families. Some of the best-known designs represent ropes, nets, anchors and herringbone. Other patterns are based on the weather, echoing the shapes made by waves, hail or flashes of lighting. Some patterns had more complex symbolic meanings. One of the traditional Filey patterns, for example, is a zigzag design called “marriage lines” which represents the ups and downs of married life.

It was even possible for fishing families to recognize from the pattern of a Gansey, which fishing village, or even which family, the wearer came from. At a time when the loss of a boat was a frequent occurrence, deliberate mistakes or the wearer’s initials were often incorporated into the design in order to help to identify a body recovered from the sea. As the Gansey was was traditionally worn tight-fitting and close to the skin, and with no seams to come apart, it could not be washed off in the water.

By tradition, the sweaters worn by all kinds of seafarers, whether they be fishermen, naval or retired sea salts, are navy blue—a colour reflecting the sea and sky. Before the advent of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century, blue was obtained by using natural indigo, a plant extract imported from India. However, summer weight Ganseys, knitted in a three- or four-ply yarn rather than the usual five-ply, were sometimes pale grey or fawn.

In a world which is becoming increasingly global in popular culture, the preservation of our traditional craft takes on a fresh urgency.

 

 

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Flamborough Lighthouse

Flamborough Marine Limited

 

Traditional Knitwear & Hand-Knitted Ganseys

 

The Manor House
Flamborough
Bridlington
East Riding of Yorkshire YO15 1PD
United Kingdom

Telephone: 01262 850943

International: +44 1262 850943

 

E-mail:  gm@flamboroughmarine.co.uk

 

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