Construction and Visual Appearance of a Gansey

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

To knit a gansey can be seen as the pinnacle of the hand knitters’ craft, for it encompasses the making of fabric and garment in one operation, seamlessly.

Alice Starmore captures some of the spirit of knitting ganseys: ‘Of all the different knitting traditions in the world, the technique of knitting fisher ganseys entirely in the round is the most technically and visually sophisticated. It was practiced by equally hard-working largely unlettered women, who combined this practicality with decorative and aesthetic elements to produce garments that, at their best belong to the realm of wearable art’. [Starmore, A., 1993, p. 6]

Ruth Brown-Riensel

The literature search revealed that the clearest, most practical publication, specific to making ganseys was: Brown-Reinsel, R. (1993) Knitting Ganseys.

Brown-Reinsel follows a different approach to Thompson, Pearson and Compton she systematically deconstructs the method of knitting a gansey. Each section takes a specific aspect of the vocabulary of the garment and gives clear instructions of how to do it. She suggests trying out the techniques small scale and works through all the methods and the reader/knitter end up with a doll-size gansey which features all the key details. She gives instructions for various methods of casting on, describes the positioning of lettering, definition ridge and patterning; she goes on to explain the underarm gusset and sleeve construction. Various examples of neck opening are described. This approach was particularly useful for understanding the processes in order to replicate ganseys.

When working using the garter carriage (a sort of halfway stage) some of the traditional ways of working had to be adapted (most specifically adapting from knitting three dimensionally to knitting flat pieces).

These processes had to be further adapted when taking into consideration the technology of the Shima-Seiki machines. Ultimately this staged process revealed the specific vocabulary of a machine knitted seamless garment, which is one of the original stated aims of the research.

Key Design Features of a Gansey

In its generic form a gansey may have some or all of the following design/construction features:

(1) Made of woollen yarn Navy, Grey or Natural in colour Squarish cut
(2) Seamless/side seam stitches
(3) Knitted from bottom up
(4) Specific cast-on/welts/hems
(5) Lettering
(6) Definition ridge
(7) Purl and Plain patterning
(8) Under-arm gusset
(9) Shoulder strapping
(10) Specific neck types

The garment is knitted in a tubular technique using four or five needles up until the halfway point of the underarm gussets. At this point, the front and back are knitted separately and joined or grafted at the shoulders. The armhole and neck stitches are picked up and the sleeves and neck finish knitted tubularly. Brackenbury says the ganzey (sic) knitters ‘cheated’ 29 by splitting the garment above the underarm gussets, but traditional ganseys do not utilise sewn seams and as such can properly be called ‘seamless’ [Brackenbury, T., 1992, p. 75]


Ganseys are made in a highly twisted 5-ply dark navy blue yarn. It is sometimes known as ‘Seaman’s Iron’ which has the ability to ‘turn water’. The typical gauge of 7-9 stitches per inch (28-36 per 10 cm) provides a dense fabric impervious to wind and cold; which was hard-wearing and warm even when wet. [Brown-Reinsel, B., 1993, p. 5]

Traditional ganseys are closely fitted squarish garments with dropped shoulders, the sleeves are short. This silhouette is derived from the garment’s function as occupational costume (a tight fit and short sleeves are safer when fishing). The bottom edge of earlier examples hung straight. Later ganseys were knitted with ribbing. More contemporary garments have a looser fit.

Cast-on Welts, Hemsl Knitted from Bottom up

Casting on:
a gansey is knitted from the hem up. There are several ways of beginning. There are both utilitarian and decorative cast- on techniques. Three traditional cast-on methods are specific to ganseys: The knotted cast on combines function and embellishment, the multi-strand method gives strength and durability, the Channel Island cast-on is worked in pairs of stitches with a bead of doubled yarn between them.
Hems and welts: garter stitch bands at the bottom edge were common in earlier ganseys. The welts were either knitted as a continuous band or split at the sides. Later, ribbed hems were introduced which give a snugger fit and change the boxy silhouette slightly.

Knitting in the Round/Seamless/Side Stitches

An interesting quirk of gansey knitting is that although they are knitted tubularly decorative ‘seam’ stitches of two or three contrast stitches are worked in. These fall where side seam or underarm seams would be if the garment had been knitted flat. As well as being decorative they also help the knitter to position the patterned area symmetrically in the round.


Above the welt is a plain area. The length of this section is usually 25-30 cm ending at the armhole. The initials of the wearer are often worked in a garter stitch or purl pattern into the lower part of the plain area. This is described in detail in part 3 of this chapter in the section drowning and identity.

Definition Ridge

The definition ridge is a term devised Brown-Reinsel (1993) to describe a ridge of texture at the top of the plain area above the hem. It is worked either in garter or seed stitch in a contrasting pattern it defines where the patterning begins.


One of the most recognisable and interesting aspects of the visual vocabulary of a gansey is the purl stitch patterning which usually appears on a chest panel back and front after the definition ridge; and on the upper sleeves. Cables are also used to form pattern. The most technically difficult parts of a gansey to knit are probably the shoulder and the underarm gussets, but it is the patterning and what it is thought to represent which has attracted the most interest from researchers, knitters and other interested parties.

Underarm Gusset

Although made in the round the cut of a gansey is essentially square, this places stress on the underarm area. To reduce this, a diamond-shaped gusset is knitted to add fabric to the underarm area giving more freedom of movement to the wearer. When the gusset has been worked the armhole begins and the knitting no longer continues in the round.


Shoulders can be joined in a number of ways. The most basic traditional method was to use grafting and a knitted bind off. The shoulder construction can demonstrate the skill of a knitter and various methods have been devised which utilise a perpendicular strap. The strap is worked along the shoulder and joins the front to the back, this is often combined with intricate patterns such as North East ‘rig and fur’ or cable designs.

Neck Types

There are several different neck types associated with ganseys which vary depending on location. The neck stitches are picked up, knitted to the desired length and bound off. The styles include ribbing, turtlenecks with buttons and buttonholes rolled neckbands and stockinette stitch bands that ended in welting. Neck gussets in strap, triangle or inverted triangle shapes were sometimes used to make the unshaped neckline fit better.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: