In the Channel Islands, Guernsey relied on fishing. Fishing relies on fishermen. And fishermen rely on durable, easily-repaired, stain-resistant, warm clothing. Hence: the Guernsey, or Gansey, sweater!
First, the name. I’ve read several articles on Ganseys/Guernseys but the entire time, I was wondering if there was a subtle difference, if one was more genuine, or older, or actually highly politically-incorrect. Turns out, Gansey is just a dialect variation of Guernsey. Phew.
The Gansey is designed to be practical, with neck and underarm gussets for a full range of movement and an extremely tight knit. The neck and cuffs are very tight to keep out winter winds, and the sleeves ended short of the wrist to keep the sweater out of the way while the fishermen worked. The lower sleeves took on the most wear, so they were left plain. The worn parts can be unraveled and redone with new wool, while preserving the intricate patterning that both displays knitting prowess and provides extra insulation across the chest and shoulders.
Ganseys are traditionally knit in the round with tightly-spun 5-ply worsted wool popularly known as “Seamen’s Iron.” The hard twist of the tightly-packed wool fibers, as well as the protective oils in the wool, help to repel the drizzle and spray of the sea. Fishermen wore their Ganseys off the boats too. They had their “Sunday Best” Ganseys to wear to Church and on special occasions.
Knitting is mentioned in Guernsey as early as the 15th century, and a cottage industry of woolen stockings and waistcoats thrived through most of the 17th and 18th centuries. Trade relations meant that the Gansey sweaters spread quickly around the British Isles in the 17th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Gansey was adopted as part of the Royal Navy’s uniform and were worn at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
As the patterns worked their way north, designs grew more intricate and detailed, so that by the time they hit Irish and Scottish fishing islands, they morphed into a new form of sweater entirely. Stay tuned!
Flamborough Marine Ltd. has a gallery of patterns, as well as a history of the craft. They also have tantalizing kits for those who want to make their own, but they only deliver to the UK.
Gansey Nation is a blog by Gordon Reid who, as far as this knitter can tell, is absolutely obsessed with Ganseys. He’s an archivist and writer who also knits and bakes baguettes. Living the dream!
Churchmouse Yarns sells traditional Gansey wool spun in Yorkshire and imported from Penzance. They have a whole range of colors, though traditional Ganseys were in navy or cream.