Saturday 14 November 2015

Ganseys Catherine Johnson

Hello! I was going to write a piece about the Morant Bay rebellion, a turning point in the history of Jamaica which happened one hundred and fifty years ago in the parish of St Thomas in the East of the island.

But I left everything too late as usual and for the last week I have had the return of the knitting frenzy come upon me. The feeling that means even if I have three writing projects on the go I have to start something NOW. And I've already talked about my first love, Fair Isle, so this month you're getting Ganseys.

A Gansey? Yes The original working fisherman's sweater, knitted on four lethal double ended stainless steel pins made without any seam at all. It's a marvellous thing, in the past each fishing town would have a different pattern, ranging from the serious and intricate Whitby, a mix of cables and texture, to the workaday Staithes, a symphony of simple moss  stitch.

this is a Staithes Jumper - though not one I knitted - courtesy University of St Andrews

The wonder of these jumpers is manifold, the brilliantly tough 5 ply wool, the double thickness on the sleeve welts,  the way the sleeves are knitted down from the shoulder so they can be re knitted should any kind of fishing accident occur, honestly if you can avoid moths these jumpers will last forever.

I've only ever made two and both of these have been Staithes. My bible for any Gansey is this wonderful little book by Gladys Thompson, first published in 1969. It's not only a selection of patterns, but there's something about the old traditional crafts that do open doors to the past. The ordinary pasts of working men and women, hard scrabble lives at that . Women who spent every scrap of time their hands were free, whether walking to and from work knitting, sitting by the fire rocking the cradle with their foot knitting. Knitting for husbands or sons or brothers who would spend weeks or months away in danger and in freezing temperatures and who might not come home.

If you are any sort of knitter, even an aspirational one I can't recommend this book enough. It has a variety of patterns and some lovely photographs including this chap with a Staithes under his cork life jacket.

Traditionally they were always knitted in dark blue, but the fishermen of the East Coast of Scotland had theirs knitted up in black.

Of course you can get 5 ply in any colour under the sun, but I think nothing beats the navy blue. And there is something extremely satisfying about seeing a jumper growing out from your four needles, like some adult version of a knitting Nancy.

I thought I would start another one, maybe a Whitby this time, but I saw a design by one of my current favourite designers, Marie Wallin, so I've started that instead.


My latest book is The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, published by Corgi books


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I was amazed to find, when I researched Between Two Seas, that jumpers were the fishermen's main protection against the elements. Wool that hasn't been washed in modern detergents is pretty waterproof. I wish I was an accomplished enough knitter to attempt these!

Joan Lennon said...

Ooo you do stir some long-dormant lusts in me, Catherine! Love the photos -

Joan Lennon said...

Er, like, you know, for knitting.

Susan Price said...

Catherine, I am never going to knit or sew. I've resisted attempts to teach me knitting and sewing all my life. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this insight into the craft, and its history.

Also loved the title: 'Gansey.' My mother, while trying to get three small children ready for school, would often say things like, "Shut up and put your gansey on!" Ending a chat or a sit-down, she would say, "This woe buy the babby a new gansey!"
I understood it to mean something like: any loose garment, such as a vest, shirt or smock. I never knew that it could mean a fisherman's pullover.

Leslie Wilson said...

Lovely post. Did the 'Staithes' evolve in the Yorkshire town? I guess it must have done, since there's a 'Whitby.' We had a holiday there once, and your post has made me see the fishermen going out from there with their ganseys on. It's still very much evocative of its maritime past.I don't know why, but I used to think jumpers were modern, so silly.. Did agricultural workers used to wear jumpers under their smocks, I wonder?

Catherine Johnson said...

Joan! Get out your pins! Lovely to stir lusts for textiles, and thanks for all your comments. There is lovely history in words and in the stuff we all take for granted.
Don't know about what farmers wore under their smocks though Leslie!

Lydia Syson said...

Now there's an interesting question. So full of admiration for anyone with the patience to go the whole gansay in their knitting I must say.