It’s now February – time to begin a new knitting challenge. The weather’s still pretty cold and dreich up here in the fifty-sixth parallel: we’ve had sleet, snow, rain, heavy frost, snow and high winds in the last week alone. With seven weeks to go until the clocks spring forward again, I’ve got one more good winter project to get under my belt this year.
What better time to begin a gansey? Heavy and large, these dense jerseys have been worn for centuries by fishermen from the Pentland Firth to Yarmouth Roads. In the days before inexpensive mass production, ganseys were knitted at home by the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers of the fishermen who wore them. This will be my challenge for this dark and enervating month: make a one-colour gansey to a traditional pattern.
Where does the word ‘gansey’ come from? It’s used interchangeably with ‘guernsey’, but the two seem to be false friends. The Knitting Genealogist reckons it is the offspring of ‘yarn’: the hard Germanic g softened to a y (as with Montag – Monday and Sonntag – Sunday). The island Guernsey was known for its fine hand-spinning, but the jumper Guernsey is found as far north as Lerwick, without apparent connection to the Channel Islands.
Like January’s Dentdale gloves, ganseys are knitted in the round. Rather than the checkerboard colour work with two yearns, gansey patterns are made from a single thread. Gansey patterns are produced by making different stitches to ‘texture’ the wool. Cables, stocking stitch, garter stitch, moss stitch; they all combine to create patterns unique as the men who wore them and the women who knitted them.
My pattern book is a little pamphlet I picked up at the Scottish Fisheries Museum titled They Lived By The Sea. Printed in 1983, it examines the folklore and ganseys of the Pentland Firth. If you’re not familiar with this remote location, it’s the rough chink of sea connecting the north-eastern tip of Scotland to the Orkney Isles. The waters here are among the most dangerous in Europe, dragging many a man and ship down to Davy Jones’ locker.
Scottish fishing communities have historically been very separate from their inland farming counterparts. Whilst ganseys weren’t just worn by fishermen in the rest of the UK, in Scotland it seems that since at least the nineteenth century they were the sole preserve of this section of society. Dialect, dress and livelihoods of the fisherfolk set them apart. ‘Fisher laddies need fisher lassies’ went the proverb, meaning that the fishing communities tended to marry amongst themselves and not mix with the landlubbers.
I’m looking forward to learning more about the lives of the people who made and wore ganseys in Scotland – though I’ve been warned that it might take me up to three months to finish a gansey, so bear with me…