The Gansey sweater is one of the most practical garments in the history of knitwear. Every feature of this sweater has been carefully chosen to meet the daily needs of its wearer, yet it is highly attractive too. The Gansey sweater is a hard-wearing, seamless sweater worn by Fishermen who spent their days at sea. It has been a practical knitted garment for hundreds of years.
Sweaters were often knitted by Fishermen's wives (or prospective wives) to protect their husbands from the ruthless conditions at sea. They were also knitted for their children. When outgrown, the garments were either passed down or refashioned to fit smaller members of the family. Likewise, the knitting patterns for these sweaters were also passed down through the generations, purely from memory. Women never had idle hands and would knit during the day when housework was done. Even when they went out for a stroll they took their knitting because time couldn’t be wasted.
The photograph shows from left to right. William Thompson, his wife Elizabeth Thompson, her sister Eliza Snowdon and her husband William Snowdon. They all lived on The Cragg, just a short walk away from their favourite seat. Elizabeth and Eliza are both knitting ganseys and William is wearing a gansey. The photo is taken about 1930, opposite the Harrowing Shipping Office, Whitby, now the Magpie Cafe.
Traditionally, Ganseys were knitted from 5 ply wool in a deep navy colour, naturally dyed from Indigo. This yarn was knitted tightly to ensure that the sweater was not only warm but water and wind resistant too. Sweaters were knitted in the round. In some designs, seam stitches were simulated, however, they were purely aesthetic. The silhouette was boxy with dropped shoulders and a square stand-up collar. Often, gussets were added under the arms for greater ease of movement when working on the boat. For the same reason, some Gansey sweater designs feature split, straight welts at the hem rather than ribs.
Interestingly, the front and back of the sweaters were knitted identically so that they could be reversed in cases of excessive wear at the elbows or elsewhere. Parts of the sweaters were unravelled and mended when needed, meaning that the colour of the indigo could vary wildly in one garment as parts of the fabric aged. Gansey sweaters were cast on and off in "double wool" for a highly durable edge. The trims were designed to be snug in order to keep out the cold, the cuffs were often knitted shorter to stop them being soaked with sea water.
The design of a classic Gansey sweater could vary from a very simple "working" garment to something more elaborate that would be worn for special occasions, such as church. These smarter sweaters featured much more stitch patterning than their working counterparts. These stitch patterns were inspired by everyday objects that the fisherman would observe at sea, such as rope, netting and ladders. Many regions had their own stitch designs which were also incorporated into their sweaters.
In many cases, the fisherman's initials were stitched into the sweater. Whilst this is a charming decorative detail, some say that this was to help identify the body should the fisherman fall victim to the sea.
Source: Val Appleton. The photo is of Val's Great Grandparents and Great Aunt and Uncle.