Ganseys (Guernseys), Jerseys, Aran and Fair Isle are names given to fishermen’s knitted pullovers that were universally popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Each fishing village had its own pattern and within the local pattern there were small variations, and sometimes names, that identified the family and individual. Though it may sound macabre today, the garment served as a means of identifying a body washed up on shore – often many days or weeks after the initial loss of life. Following identification of the individual, the family could then perform the funeral service and bring the painful experience of the loss of a loved one to some form of closure.
Richard Emerson of Flamborough, North
Yorkshire, aboard the "Prosperity".
The term gansey seems to have been generally accepted as the generic term for these garments, and there have been various accounts of their development and history.
Michael Harvey and Rae Compton tell us that
The Coptic Christians brought knitting from the Mediterranean region to
Europe and to England, from where it spread round the coast to Scotland,
Wales and Ireland,...(n.d., page 3).
In the British Isles knitting was carried out in the home in its early days, but in
the later middle ages it became an industry organised by guilds, whose master
knitters controlled quality and levels of production.
No doubt the many guilds and confraternities in fishing communities adopted particular patterns to consolidate their identity, and the custom continued. Following the religious turmoil of the 15th century, fishing villages continued the practice not least because of the functional nature of the garments. Despite competition from the newly developed knitting machines, strong local traditions ensured the survival of these hand-knitted garments.
The Flamborough Gansey Pattern
In a more recent book, Rae Compton says:
The fisherman’s gansey may be related to knitted shirt-like garments made in
the Channel Islands for export as early as the 15th and 16th centuries and this
is usually quoted as being the source of the name - from the island of
Of the differences between the various forms of knitware, Gladys Thompson has referred to an article that appeared in the Times:
Dr Rex Binning seeks an explanation of the difference between the two
garments (Jerseys and Guernseys) which took their names from the two
baliwicks of the Channel Islands. Almost invariably Guernseys are in thick dark blue wool, whilst jerseys are thinner, and of various colours. Jerseys
became better known owing to the very large number of Jersey men who entered the Newfoundland enterprises about 1600, and gave rise to local shipbuilding, and the supply of woollen garments for the mariners.
Gansey skills and patterns were handed on from mother to daughter, and herring fishergirls (who followed the herring fleet around the coast of Britain and worked at salting, gutting and packing herring) could be seen knitting for their families well into the 1950s. Nothing was written down until researchers like Gladys Thompson and Rae Compton began collecting examples of the patterns.
The two garments are really identical in shape, but differ by reason of the jersey knit, which is unlike any English, French or Guernsey type, but it would take an expert in wool-craft to tell the difference (1969/71:5)
The fisherman's daughter would build upon the basic design adding her own distinctive pattern and texture. With movement between communities, travelling with the herring fishers, marriage to a fisherman in another port, the fishergirl would adapt her pattern to meet local requirements – but would produce a style uniquely her own.
The garments were knitted without seams although gussets were provided under the arms for extra width. Ganseys were knitted for the young boys, and new ones were knitted as the child grew bigger. Normally they would have one for work, one for shore use and one for best. But the hard work at sea no doubt meant that there was a constant need for new ones.
Permission to print this picture has been given by The Wick Society (The Wick Heritage Centre). While the group has not been identified, the patterns on the ganseys suggest that several of the fishermen came from Yorkshire.
Two companies operate in Yorkshire: Bobbins in Whitby, and Flamborough Marine in Flamborough. They can be contacted via the internet as follows:
Bobbins has no website. Address is Bobbins, Wesley Hall, Church Street, Whitby, North Yorkshire, YO22 4DE. Tel 01947-600585. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Flamborough Marine's website can be found at: www.flamboroughmanor.co.uk
There is also a company in Wales:
The Traditional Ganseys Company, Pant Y LLyn, Llandrillo, Corwen, Denbighshire, LL21 0TE.
Compton, Rae, 1983, The complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting ( B.T. Batsford Ltd., London)
Harvey, Michael & Compton, Rae, n.d. Fisherman Knitting (Shire Publications Ltd)
Munro, Henrietta and Compton, Rae, 1983, They Lived by the Sea: Folklore and Ganseys of the Pentland Firth (Printed by The Northern Times Ltd., Golspie,Sutherland, Scotland)
Pearson, Michael, 1984, Traditional Knitting: Aran, Fair Isle and fisher ganseys (Collins, London, Glasgow & Syndey)
Thompson, Gladys, 1955, Guernsey and Jersey Patterns (B.T. Batsford Ltd., London)
Thompson, Gladys, 1969/79, Pattens for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans: fishermen's sweaters from the British Isles (Dover Publications, New York)