Fish­er­man’s jumpers are now some­thing of a fash­ion item, but these gar­ments were orig­i­nally born of the need for rugged cloth­ing in dan­ger­ous em­ploy­ment. Rosee Wood­land un­picks the his­tory of the hard-wear­ing ‘gansey’, hand-knit­ted by moth­ers, wives and s

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Rosee Wood­land is a free­lance writer who spe­cialises in craft, de­sign, wild swim­ming – and knit­ting her own ganseys. rosee­wood­

These hard-wear­ing, beau­ti­fully knit­ted pullovers kept men alive in fear­some con­di­tions. Dis­cover their his­tory…

Look at any old black-and-white photo of a lifeboat crew or fish­er­man mend­ing crab pots on a shin­gle beach. Be­yond the beards and weather-beaten skin you might just no­tice the in­tri­cately pat­terned sweaters that were worn by British coastal work­ers from the early 19th to the mid-20th cen­tury.

At their core, these navy blue, grey or black jumpers – known var­i­ously as ganseys, guernseys, jer­seys and knit-frocks – were in­tensely prac­ti­cal gar­ments. Yet, the women of Bri­tain’s fish­ing vil­lages, in the sim­ple act of mak­ing cloth­ing to shield their men from the un­for­giv­ing sea, cre­ated a spec­tac­u­lar tex­tile legacy that to­day is gain­ing the recog­ni­tion it has long de­served.

Gansey de­signs in­volved com­plex re­lief pat­terns that sym­bol­ised ‘mar­riage lines’, ca­bled ‘ropes’, an­chors, nets, lad­ders, flags or hearts. The wearer’s ini­tials were some­times knit­ted into the hem and it was said that if you found the body of a drowned sailor, you could tell his port of ori­gin from his jumper.

Of course it wasn’t quite as sim­ple as that. Fish­er­wives of­ten cre­ated their own pat­terns by adapt­ing one learned from a friend or rel­a­tive, so sim­i­lar de­signs would be pop­u­lar in cer­tain vil­lages: the ‘Betty Martin’ lad­der mo­tif was well-known as the sig­na­ture of a knit­ter in Fi­ley, North York­shire.

How­ever, any fish­ing fam­i­lies fol­lowed mi­gra­tory fish­ing routes and “pinch­ing pat­terns” was some­thing of a sport among the Scot­tish her­ring girls who trav­elled with them, so the in­flu­ences over­lapped. And while a dead mariner washed ashore could per­haps be iden­ti­fied by his cloth­ing, bod­ies hauled up in nets at sea were usu­ally thrown straight back into the wa­ter to avoid con­tam­i­nat­ing the catch. Many men, once lost over­board, were gone for good.


Ganseys weren’t uni­ver­sally worn and not ev­ery vil­lage had a tra­di­tion of knit­ting them – many were made by con­tract knit­ters and bought from lo­cal chan­dlers. But they can be traced all along the east coast from Fraser­burgh to Great Yar­mouth; in the in­land wa­ter­ways; Corn­wall; the Chan­nel Is­lands; and even Hol­land. They are widely thought to be de­rived from Guernsey, but some his­to­ri­ans claim their ori­gin lies on the British main­land. Their hum­ble pur­pose means there are few records and the truth is hard to es­tab­lish.

What is clear is that each man would have had at least two ganseys, one for work and an­other for Sun­day best – a se­ri­ous mat­ter in what were very re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. In 19th-cen­tury Culler­coats, Northum­ber­land, a new vicar wrongly as­sumed fish­er­men were wear­ing their work­ing clothes to church and in­sisted they sport a shirt and tie. Rather than give up their ganseys, the en­tire com­mu­nity stopped at­tend­ing the lo­cal church and built their own Fish­er­men’s Mis­sion at the other end of the road.


Some gansey sweaters fea­tured all-over mo­tifs but many were only pat­terned on the up­per sleeves and yoke (the up­per chest, shoul­ders and up­per back), leav­ing the belly and arms plain to make them eas­ier to mend. Front and back were iden­ti­cal, al­low­ing the gar­ment to be worn back to front to slow down wear, and sleeves – kept short to avoid rub­bing or hooks catch­ing – were un­rav­elled and re-knit­ted many times. Usu­ally clos­e­fit­ting, ganseys were worn with noth­ing un­der­neath ex­cept a thin silk scarf tucked into the neck to pre­vent rub­bing and seal in heat, along with but­toned mole­skin trousers, leather boots, and long-knit­ted stock­ings. Over the top would of­ten be a sail­cloth smock, heavy oil­skins and a sou’wester hat. The wool used, dubbed ‘sea­man’s iron’, was worsted – spun to make it dense, smooth, and strong. It was knit­ted on tiny nee­dles, to im­prove wa­ter- and wind-proof­ing. For fish­er­wives, mak­ing a gansey was a lengthy process to fit in around bait­ing lines, scal­ing, gut­ting, pre­serv­ing and sell­ing all the fish brought in.

As boats be­came more mech­a­nised and big­ger in the 20th cen­tury, over­fish­ing led to di­min­ish­ing stocks and trig­gered a de­cline in fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Fam­i­lies left to find new work in­land and the gansey-mak­ing tra­di­tion be­gan to die out by the 1950s.

How­ever, sev­eral knit­ters em­barked on cru­sades to pre­serve the old pat­terns. Gla­dys Thomp­son, au­thor of Pat­terns for Guernseys, Jer­seys and Arans, wrote in 1955: “The search for them is fun – mem­o­ris­ing them off the fish­er­man’s back or front. For­tu­nately, most of the pat­terns are rep­e­ti­tions, and if a sec­tion is mem­o­rised, the rest can be worked out on an old en­ve­lope around the cor­ner.”

Iron­i­cally, the very books that pre­served the tra­di­tion also wa­tered it down, as knit­ters be­gan to cre­ate a va­ri­ety of ganseys, rather than stick­ing to de­signs typ­i­cal to their area. Les­ley Lougher of Sher­ing­ham Mu­seum, which held an ex­hi­bi­tion of Nor­folk and

“Usu­ally close-fit­ting, ganseys were worn with noth­ing un­der­neath”

Dutch ganseys, said: “Ganseys are not be­ing knit­ted now for fish­er­men to wear; but there are lots of peo­ple knit­ting them and lots of peo­ple wear­ing them.”

In­ter­est in ganseys has ex­ploded over the past 10 years, with a se­ries of mod­ern pat­tern col­lec­tions in­spired by gansey de­signs and ex­hi­bi­tions ded­i­cated to their his­tory. Deb Gil­lan­ders be­came fas­ci­nated by ganseys after a chance meet­ing with Robin Hood’s Bay fish­er­man and knit­ter Alf Hil­dred. They be­came friends, and Alf knit­ted her a gansey that, as cus­tom dic­tated, was a snug fit. “I lost the feel­ing in my left hand for the first 10 days be­cause it was so tight,” laughs Deb. “But I didn’t take it off for the first few months. It’s a proper work­ing gar­ment.” Each Septem­ber Deb now or­gan­ises Pro­pa­gansey, an ex­hi­bi­tion of ganseys, gleaned from her own col­lec­tion and those of lo­cal fish­ing fam­i­lies.


Al­though it’s tempt­ing to feel nos­tal­gic for this era of close-knit com­mu­ni­ties, life for fisher-folk was ex­tremely hard. For those fol­low­ing the her­ring mi­gra­tion down the east coast from March to Novem­ber, money earned over the sea­son would be gone by the time they’d fin­ished mend­ing their nets. Crab fish­er­men in Nor­folk might row 20 miles each way to their favoured grounds with no guar­an­tee of a good haul. Among por­traits gath­ered by the ‘gansey hunters’ are many of men and boys who were later lost at sea.

While still a dan­ger­ous pro­fes­sion, fish­ing is far safer these days and the out­fit con­sists of bib waders, hooded wa­ter­proof coats and safety boots, with fleeces pro­vid­ing warmth. In coastal towns ganseys are still worn – some lifeboat sta­tions have their own de­signs – but they are no longer ubiq­ui­tous. Still, their ap­peal en­dures. In 2019, the Blyth Tall Ships project will at­tempt to sail to Antarc­tica to cel­e­brate Cap­tain Wil­liam Smith’s dis­cov­ery of the con­ti­nent 200 years ear­lier. As well as fit­ting out a tall ship to the spec­i­fi­ca­tions of Smith’s orig­i­nal boat, the en­tire crew of 60 will wear ganseys spe­cially de­signed and knit­ted for the ex­pe­di­tion.

Turn the page for five gansey de­signs

TOP A fish­ing crew off Grimsby, circa 1910, kit­ted in their ganseys OP­PO­SITE TOP Thou­sands of women would travel from Scot­land to Great Yar­mouth to process the her­ring catch in the au­tumn sea­son. Here, three Scot­tish her­ring girls knit while wait­ing...

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