Photo Gallery: The amazing story behind the traditional fisherman’s gansey

A Cromer gansey A Cromer gansey

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
3:22 PM

It’s no propagansey, they were the garments that truly were a fisherman’s friend. Stacia Briggs discovers more about the traditional knitted gansey.

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At the mercy of the elements, fishermen have always needed practical, warm clothing to protect them as they work 
the sea.

Before the invention of truly waterproof clothing, their main line of defence was the gansey, a densely-knitted garment which to this day makes a man’s profession instantly recognisable.

The traditional navy blue jumpers, patterned on the top half and part of the sleeves, were found along the east coast from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century with Norfolk ganseys among the most highly-acclaimed, particularly those from Sheringham.

Ganseys were traditionally knitted “in the round” on five or more very fine needles, or wires. Using size 16 or 17 needles with three-ply worsted wool, the stitch count of 13 stitches and 19 rows per inch resulted in a dense, finely patterned fabric which is highly resilient to wind and rain.

In their heyday, each fishing family would have their own gansey pattern which in turn would be inspired by everyday objects.

One Sheringham pattern included an inch column of zigzags alternating with similar columns of fine moss stitch to give the appearance of lightning and hailstones, other patterns represented ropes, nets, anchors, waves and herringbone. And in April, the gansey will be honoured with a special exhibition at Sheringham Museum which will put fishermen’s fashion under the spotlight.

Rita Taylor set up the Gansey Scheme for the Knitting and Crochet Guild and is the author of several knitting books, including A Stitch in Time: Heirloom Knitting Skills. She moved to Norfolk seven years ago, having previously lived in Aberdeen, where she first learned about ganseys.

“I loved the work that went into ganseys and thought they were worth preserving as a separate item. For a while, they seemed to have been neglected a bit and seen as the equivalent of a boiler suit or overalls, just something you wore to work,” said Rita, who lives in Saxthorpe.

“But I loved the wonderful patterns and textures. I have a lot of interest in the sea and to me and have been knitting ganseys for the last 12 or so years. I gathered together some volunteers and devised some patterns and we knitted child-size ganseys for the guild to keep in its collection.

“Since then, I’ve gone on to make adult-sized ganseys and it has left me in awe of the women who used to knit these incredibly dense ganseys over just a few weeks.”

Rita has helped to put together an exhibition for Sheringham Museum which showcases the unique gansey patterns developed along the east coast of the UK.

Shoal of Ganseys: The Knitting Legacy of the Fishing Community is a temporary exhibition which will include Sheringham ganseys and others from the Moray Firth and Yorkshire. The ganseys will be displayed on two of the museum’s heritage lifeboats and preserved local wooden fishing boats.

Examples of work by local textile artists and designers will also be shown to illustrate the continuing influence of gansey patterns – in Rita’s book, there are patterns for gansey-inspired hot water bottle covers and a shopping bag.

“Knitting a gansey is very hard on the fingers because you’re using finer needles than you would usually use for that thickness of yarn. It’s the fine needles and thick yarn that makes the gansey waterproof and so warm,” explained Rita.

“The extra patterning on the yoke means that the fishermen’s chests were kept as warm as possible which was essential when they were out at sea. I suppose you have to think of sheep standing out in all temperatures – they don’t get hypothermia for a reason!”

Some of Rita’s gansey-inspired patterns will be available to buy from Sheringham Museum during the exhibition.

Curator for Great Yarmouth Museums for Norfolk Museums Service, Johanna O’Donoghue, explained that longshore fishermen wore navy-coloured ganseys from around 1850 to 1950 and that the garments were also worn by lifeboatmen.

“They were knitted very tightly to make the garment waterproof and had unique patterns: the home town or village of the wearer could be identified by their jumper and they were symmetrical back and front so could be worn both ways around,” she said.

“There are a number of different styles in the Norfolk Museums Services collection, from Cromer ganseys to a gansey probably from Yorkshire and even machine-knitted ganseys. The Stevenage Knitting Company knitted the ‘Cromer Heavyweight’ exclusively for Stratton Long Marine of Blakeney.

“At the fishing fairs held on the Yorkshire coast, you could tell what part a fisherman had come from by the ‘cut of his jib’. Distinctive patterns were used at Filey, Flamborough and Scarborough and a macabre use for these ‘port’ patterns arose when a fisherman was washed overboard and down the coast.

“When he was found, even if unknown by the finders, they would recognise the pattern on the gansey and know which village he came from and who to inform. In Devon and Cornwall, the ganseys were known as ‘bridal shirts’ – sweethearts knitted ganseys for her future husband to wear on their wedding day.

“Some Winterton and Sheringham gansey patterns like the Larner developed with the number of rings of the pattern on the sleeves denoting the number of children in the fisherman’s family.”

At Cromer Museum, Henry Little’s gansey is on display. Donated by Mrs Little of Sheringham, it is one of two ganseys she owned in 1990: the other she was still wearing while out in the garden! The Little gansey has travelled to Melbourne in Australia to be exhibited and has a repeat of two vertical patterns: coil o’ rope, a two-over-two cable, and a column of stocking stitch decorated with diagonal bars.

“The condition of the gansey tells of a life of hard work – it is thin and shows plenty of signs of wear and physical damage,” said Johanna.

“Despite this, the quality of the garment shines through as the worsted wool becomes quite lustrous through wear. The repairs to neck and cuff indicate the thrift of the fishermen’s wives. By its style, this may be the work of Edith Middleton of Sheringham.

“The two buttons at the neck are a little unusual, but they have been observed on Scottish ganseys as well as Sheringham ones and it is a means of making the neck tight, but also allowing it to be pulled over the head.”

Another gansey in the county’s collection was knitted by Margaret Leeds of Aldborough (while at sea with her husband) who donated a particularly small gansey in 1981, a copy of one originally worn by John Tar Bishop which was made by his wife in the early 1900s.

“Tightly-knitted and snug-fitting, the fisherman’s gansey was virtually windproof and waterproof. The cuffs were very close-fitting so as to keep out the winter winds and ended short of the wrist to avoid being caught on any pieces of equipment or becoming soaked as the fisherman worked at sea,” explained Johanna.

“Cast off at the bottom end, any necessary repairs could be made by unravelling from the cuff and re-knitting. As these working garments were rarely washed, a layer of filth would have given extra protection against the elements.” Delicious.

For more information about Sheringham Museum, visit www.sheringhammuseum.co.uk or call 01263 824482.

For more information about Great Yarmouth Museums, visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk or call 01493 743930.

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