Ganseys are fishermen’s guernseys – maybe you know them as jerseys or sweaters, knitted woollen tops, lovely and warm! While we were on holiday we visited the museum in Sheringham where they were preparing an exhibition of ganseys, called as you might guess ‘A Shoal of Ganseys’. As well as local exhibits there were other woollies from a travelling exhibition from the Moray Firth Gansey Project and Hull Maritime Museum.
Ganseys were hand-knitted by the wives of fishermen, although I have a feeling there is some place where the men also knitted when they weren’t out on the boats. I shall have to research this, but all around the British Isles ganseys would be knitted, and woven in would be particular patterns associated with the local or the family. They were open to new ideas; for example if a family moved to a different location, or if women herring packers would follow the fleet down the coast to different places they would bring their own designs with them. These patterns are very distinctive and there was a story that each one was different in order to recognize the body of a drowned fisherman, however, this doesn’t seem to be true, but it would mean it was easy to find your own woolly in a pile of others!
I’m not a knitter, but I can knit, with two needles. These ganseys were knitted in a particular way so a tube of wool was produced; this was done in a variety of ways, sometimes with five needles with points at each end, sometimes with one piece of wire which just went round and round… I think! The wool was quite heavy because it was a very close knit to be warm and wind-proof, so sometimes the knitters had a contraption which they held under their arm to support the weight of the jumper if they were standing up to knit, or walking about (knitting and walking? I have trouble sitting still and doing it!) The gansey is made differently from a normal sweater, it has a gusset set under the arms so the men could move easily in their work; they would have a scarf which they would wear round their necks to stop chaffing from the wool.
If you are in Norfolk, do go and have a look – it’s a great museum, and such an interesting exhibition with some amazing photos: