The Origins of Seamless Knitted Garments

For this week’s Blog, we have another extract from Dr Annie Shaw’s thesis Crafting the Technological: Ganseys and Wholegarment© Knitting (2009).

The origins of knitting remain uncertain, but importantly theories have been put forward that its origins can be traced back to fisherman’s net making. The link with fishing is significant to this research.

‘The concept of seamless knitting is as old as knitting itself, as shown by fragments of Egyptian socks dating from the fifth and sixth centuries held in museums. In medieval times, Britain and Spain were two of the foremost producers of hand-knitted seamless stockings’. [Black, S., 2002, p. 118]

The U.K. plays a significant role in the history and development of knitting and this is also important to the direction of the research; for example, the familiar knitting terms Aran, Fair Isle, Argyle Jersey and Guernsey are all attributable to the British Isles. The craft of knitting began as a handcraft, centred on family provision of practical work-related garments. According to Pearson: ‘knitting was essential rather than recreational, an act of survival rather than of fashion’. [Pearson, M., 1984, p. 7].

The garments produced in this way were seamless: caps, socks, gloves and ganseys. The making of the cloth, patterning and garment shaping was a totally integrated process. The gansey is central to this research in that it is an example of a seamless garment which comprises three tubes. As such direct parallels can be drawn with Wholegarment© technology which produces garments by knitting a series of tubes.

Ganseys: What are They?

Ganseys can be described as ‘containing elements of the social, economic and aesthetic’ [Harvey, M. and Compton, R., undated]. A traditional gansey has a discrete form and visual vocabulary; this is influenced by materials, function, practicality, method of construction and tradition. The key feature of this type of garment, in relation to this research is that it is constructed seamlessly.

They have variously been known as ‘Guernseys’, ‘Fishing smocks’, ‘Jerseys’ and ‘Knit-frocks’. The more Northern term Gansey will be used throughout the thesis as it is the term referred to in the areas of North-East England and Scotland, where the majority of the research has been conducted and focused.

Mary Wright goes as far as to say: ‘Guernseys are not exclusive to Cornwall; in fact, their use and wear throughout the British Isles for at least a century and a half almost justifies qualification for a national costume’. [Wright, M., 1979, p. 3]

Dr Annie Shaw, Principal Lecturer Design and Research Degrees Coordinator (Design) at Manchester Metropolitan University

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