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Strategic Construction—Traditional Ganseys

Apr 10, 2012

Here we go again! PieceWork’s 4th edition of Knitting Traditions is available.

Photograph of Tom Langlands by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. Whitby, England. Late nineteenth century. Tom was a lifeboatman; he is wearing a traditional knitted gansey. Photograph © Sutcliffe Gallery, Whitby, England.

Because much of knitting’s rich history is shrouded in mystery precisely because so many knitted articles from the past were used until there was nothing left to pass on to later generations, we devoted one section of Knitting Traditions entirely to Useful Articles. Here you’ll find everything from socks, hats, and bags to a counterpane square, a seventeenth-century undershirt, and a nineteenth-century petticoat. While each has a utilitarian purpose—to warm, protect, transport—each also is beautiful and has a compelling story to tell.

One of these stories is about traditional ganseys—sweaters made from tightly spun wool that repel water and wind; ganseys became a staple for English fishermen. I have always been drawn to ganseys. I think that’s due to the fact that every aspect of the construction of a traditional gansey was strategic. Here are some insights on gansey construction from Deb Gillanders’s article, “The Migrations and Evolution of the Gansey.”

Traditional ganseys are knitted in the round, apart from the chest and back, which are knitted back and forth on two needles before being joined at the shoulders. They are a snug fit; a baggy sweater would be a liability on a fishing boat. The fake “side seams,” usually just a row of purl stitches at the sides, serve to keep the knitter on track. They are where adjustments can be made in size, without compromising or interfering with the main pattern. A diamond-shaped underarm gusset facilitates arm movement while as many as four gussets at the neck make it fit smoothly. Sleeves of working ganseys end short of the wrist bones so that they are less likely to get wet.

The hands of Alf Hildred, a retired trawlerman in Whitby, knitting a traditional gansey. Alf has knitted traditional gansey patterns for the past forty years. Photograph by and courtesy of Deb Gillanders.

Although regional variations occur, the welt is usually ribbed; in some cases, the first few rows are knitted with double wool for extra strength. The extent of the plain band above the welt varies; some knitters feel that it’s a waste of time being creative on the belly of a gansey that receives a lot of wear and tear. A high crew neck is most common; some have three buttons on the left side to make the gansey easier to put on and take off and to prevent the neck from being pulled out of shape. Some shoulder straps are simpler than others; in Whitby ganseys, as in East Coast Scottish ones, a row of cable occasionally is knitted to join the upper front and back edges along the shoulder, and may extend along the arm if the pattern requires it.

You’ll also find information on the various patterns used in traditional ganseys. And you’ll meet Alf—definitely worth the price of admission! Alf, a retired trawlerman now living in Whitby, England, has been knitting traditional ganseys for the past forty years.

There are many more intriguing stories, plus more than thirty-five projects, in this edition of Knitting Traditions. It’s sure to feed your passion for traditional knitting!


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on Oct 20, 2014 10:51 AM

the traditionaly constructed gansey sweater is something everyone should try, I made one each for the kids when they were young.  The tight fitting but with the gussets for movement were ideal for children, as was the dense gauge.  It is a good exercise for the brain too, in thinking in three dimensions.  

egozko wrote
on Apr 21, 2012 1:58 PM

Excellent article.

I have knitted several Aran and Celtic sweaters in time. The process is extremely rewarding and enjoyable. Just priceless.

Thank you for the article.

Mrs. C.

Racheltim wrote
on Apr 15, 2012 8:40 AM

Anyone can wear a gansey - it is the perfect sweater for anyone.  The shaping can be easily done if your large busted, and no shaping is needed if you're small busted.    I've done them without the gusset, and you can make the arm length to suit your taste.  They have to be the most comfortable, warm when needed, not too terrible if the day gets warmer, and amazing sweater to knit.  Of course, I love texture more than colorwork.  I'm sure the article will give references to some of the best gansey knitters and teachers (I haven't read the article yet!)

on Apr 10, 2012 10:33 AM

I look forward to reading about Alf...given the fit of a gansey, I'm wondering if a woman with a small bust and slim hips could wear one in perhaps a non-traditional color. In any off to look at Traditions Today!