What a weekend it’s been on the gansey trail. I started in Fife on Friday and took in York, Whitby, Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay before arriving in London late last night. It’s been a fascinating trip – I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I did making it!
There are at least eight places along Yorkshire’s east coast claiming their own eponymous gansey patterns. Whilst gansey designs are not patented or set in stone, there are certain motifs popular across this stretch of coastline. One known as ‘Staithes’ features bands of ‘bird’s eye’, moss stitch dots, alternated with rows of ‘ridge and furrow’ for the gardens kept by the fishermen – also known as ‘seeds and bars’. Three miles south, ‘Runswick Bay’ ribs the yoke, though everything else is plain. A classic ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’ gansey features moss stitch with cables knitted close for warmth, the pattern coming from an ancient local family, the Storms.
Scarborough, the coast’s biggest town, has a more complex gansey history, with its constant influx of fishermen and holiday-makers influencing styles. The oldest ‘Scarborough’ gansey pattern includes a yoke of double moss stitch, known as ‘hit and miss’, step-stitched to the shoulders. A pattern known as ‘Filey’ used the same ‘hit and miss’ pattern, mirroring the pebbles on its seashore, but mixes it with ‘marriage lines’, the zigzags representing what are wryly referred to as ‘the ups and downs of married life’, with diamonds thrown in too.
One ‘Whitby’ style of gansey is ‘rope and ladders’, the ‘ladders’ echoing the one hundred and ninety-nine steps that run from the harbour to the abbey. Another includes triangular Scottish flags with cables, a motif not found elsewhere in England. Whilst there were styles particular to individual villages and families, knitters would season their ganseys accordingly to their own particular taste – a fancy gusset here, an unusual neckline there. Personal tastes, practical necessity and regionally popular designs were combined to make each gansey – as with all traditions, gansey-knitting is adaptable and fluid.
In Whitby I have an appointment with gansey guru Deb Gillanders. My first glimpse of her is of a compact red-haired woman standing in the street and waving V-raised fingers with enthusiasm. It’s not the welcome I was expecting, but it turns out Deb’s having her picture snapped by a local photographer. From fifty feet I can see she’s wearing a navy gansey. The photoshoot finished, we step inside Whitby Wholefoods for a blether.
The shop is hung with ganseys. Arms outstretched, they welcome shoppers with a woolly hug – pale blue, grey, dark blue, red, creamy yellow. The smallest is proudly pinned beside the till: it was knitted on lace-maker’s pins by Rita Taylor and measures only two inches across. A bin-bag full of Shetland fleece is on sale beside a bundle of five-ply worsted ecru hanks, heaped into a wicker basket. Cornish Frangipani gansey wool is ranged in cones, their names a seaside litany: Falmouth Navy, Ocean Deep, Sea Spray.
Deb first fell in love with ganseys at a party, when she saw a man on his knees in the hallway, fag in hand, so amused by the story he was telling that he couldn’t move for laughter. He wore clean jeans and an eye-catching dark blue jumper, burnished with the patina of years. This was Deb’s first meeting with a gansey – and with trawlerman ‘Hippy’ Alf Hildred.
Alf learned to knit ganseys in Whitby from Yorkshirewoman Patty Elders. Like Scottish tartans, ganseys are a tribal garment for those who knit and wear them. Deb was transfixed by Alf’s gansey – but she wasn’t from that tribe that made them. ‘Give me a hundred quid and I’ll knit you one’ said Alf. She handed over the money. Two years passed, and still no sign of a gansey. Eventually Alf gave in. ’21 months of begging and 3 months of capitulation’ Deb says with a grin. Handing over the gansey, Alf called its pattern ‘rope and ladders’. It reminded Deb of ratlines, the thin bars which connect the rigging on ships, making a ‘ladder’ for sailors to climb. But she’d seen the pattern elsewhere- ‘Isn’t it Betty Martin?’ she asked. Alf looked sideways at her, drawing on his dog-end. ‘What do I know?’ he shot back, ‘I only knitted the bloody thing.’
As we talk Deb pulls out gansey after gansey from a bag behind the counter. Smoothing them flat with a careful hand, she introduces me to each like an old friend. Generally speaking, men wore navy blue ganseys for work days, with sometimes grey or another paler colour for best. But necessity has often been the driving force behind a gansey – you knit with what you have to hand.
Deb spreads Steve Locker’s oatmeal-coloured gansey out across the counter. Worn by two generations of Steve Lockers, father and son, it is grubbed a yellowish grey at the neck, pale cream flecked with age and wear. Armpits like sunsets, turning red where 1970s deodorant kept Steve smelling sweet. Another has huge holes ripped under the arm, the wool rubbed thin with daily use. There’s a darn to the gusset, patching old to new.
Although Deb has washed them, these ‘mucky old jumpers’ speak for themselves. They were made for a purpose, useful garments worn to be worked, sweated, ate, drunk and even died in. Deb is proud of this hands-on heritage: her word for it is the neat portmanteau Propagansey. Each September there is a ‘Propagansey’ exhibition in Old St Stephen’s church. High above Robin Hood’s Bay, this church is no longer used for regular worship but welcomes local history pilgrims – and enthusiastic knitters. ‘Classic’ is Deb’s word for historic ganseys, used in place of ‘vintage’ and all that word might imply.
We talk about the gansey myths and traditions. Deb shakes her head at the idea of women ‘knitting shrouds’ for their men as they work patterns into their jumpers. Nonsense, she says – who would want a body returned to the family after six weeks in the sea? Emotional upset aside, burials were an expensive business for families scraping by along the breadline. She has scoured the churchyard of Old St Stephen’s: ‘found drowned’ is noted on only four of eight hundred graves.
The shop bell tinkles cheerfully and in comes Robin for his tea and marmalade. A retired shepherd walking with a crook, Robin settles onto a chair beside the counter and Deb rustles up tea for us all. Robin shepherded on the moors above Goathland, and he grins like Mr Tod as he tells me about his sheep, his smile crooked above his blue woollen sweater. Robin is a Philpott, descended from generations of Yorkshire miners and jet-turners and life-boatmen. He’s a regular at Deb’s, and she chooses his marmalade carefully, wraps his Assam in a paper bag.
The family of ganseys look down from the window, comfortable as crumpets and hot tea. As we chat Deb continues to serve customers – but suddenly runs short on change. ‘Could you pop to the bank for me?’ she asks, thrusting £20 notes into my hands, ‘£20 of £1 coins and the rest fivers’. I’m obedient with surprise, taken aback at her trust in me, a stranger in her shop. But of course, we’re not really strangers at all. We’re part of that strange ‘family’ of gansey-knitting nutters, bound together by our yarns.