BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Local history

You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Local history > What's a gansey?

Fishermen wearing Filey gansies

Filey gansies circa 1907

What's a gansey?

If asked to imagine a fisherman, you'll probably conjure up someone in a sou'wester, big boots and a thick jumper. Well, there's more to the jumper or 'gansey' than just keeping warm... Find out about the fascinating history of these sweaters...

A gansey (or guernsey) is a hardwearing, hand knitted, woollen jumper which has been worn by fishermen around the coast of Britian for many years.

A tough weatherproof garment, usually navy blue, its purpose was more than just to keep the fishermen warm and dry.

Each gansey has a unique pattern which varied from village to village and from family to family. If there was a shipwreck or accident the bodies washed up on the shore could be identified by their gansey as being from a particular village and family. In this way the fisherman could be returned to their family for burial.

Gansey patterns

Typical gansey patterns

It takes around six weeks to knit a gansey by hand. They were usually made by mothers, wives and sweethearts and the patterns were passed down the generations via word of mouth - they weren't written down.

The ganseys are knitted without seams, all in one piece on five or more small needles using very fine, hardwearing four or five ply wool. They are knitted very tightly to make them weatherpoof. The tighter the knitting, the more water and weatherproof it is.

Detail from a gansey

Detail from a Filey gansey.

The pattern is concentrated round the upper body for extra warmth and thickness. The stitch patterns, such as anchors, diamonds, cables, lightning, ropes and ladders, symbolised the everyday things in the fisherfolk's lives. Telling of their tools, harvest and the weather. It became traditional for the knitter to put in a number of 'mistakes' so the sweaters were personal to each member of the family.

Gansies were worn next to the skin with nothing underneath. A pure silk scarf was often worn around the neck to stop the wet wool chaffing the skin. Fishermen wore their gansies all the time and even had a 'Sunday best' specially for church. Young women often knitted their intended husband a 'wedding shirt' gansey to get married in.

Although rarely worn by fishermen these days, the art of gansey knitting is alive and well and thriving on the East Coast and they have become something of a fashion item worldwide!

last updated: 28/03/2008 at 14:09
created: 17/09/2007

You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Local history > What's a gansey?

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy