Significance and Symbolism of Gansey Patterning

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

The fact that ganseys emerged during the industrial revolution at a time of high romanticism means that they have much folklore and cuItural status attached to them. This has been broadly written about, but not always rationally researched.

Significance and Symbolism of Patterning

‘Few occupations are more at the mercy of the wind and the weather than fishing. And it was the practical requirement for warm, yet unencumbering clothing that prompted the development of a fascinating tradition in fisherman’s sweaters’. [Buxton, A., undated, p. 1]

The gansey developed from these humble origins into a base for rich decoration, symbolism, craftsmanship and deep cultural meaning. Even though this happened, the basic form remained discrete, self-contained and can provide endless visual variation.

‘Although in Guernsey itself the gansey remained plain the stitch patterns used became more complicated the farther north the garment spread, with the most complex evolving in the fishing villages. These elaborate patterns came south with the Scottish herring fleet, as the women folk followed their husbands down the coast to gut the fish. Thus the pattern Known as ‘Whitby Flag’ is in fact an interpretation of a Scottish design’. [Ibid, p. 1]

The fact that the decoration became more complicated the farther North the garment spread, especially in the fishing villages is important to this research. It is in these areas specifically, the fishing villages of the North East coast of Yorkshire and Scotland that most of the primary research has been carried out.

‘Many of the stitch motifs used to decorate the gansey were inspired by the everyday objects in the lives of fishing families. Some of the best-known designs represent ropes, nets, Anchors and herringbone. Other patterns are based on the weather, echoing shapes made by waves, hail or flashes of lightning. Some patterns had complex symbolic meanings. One of the traditional Filey patterns for example is a zigzag design called ‘marriage lines’ which represents the ups and downs of married life’. [Ibid, p. 4]

The historical perspective is only a small part of the research and the symbolism and variation of gansey patterns only a small part of that. Patterning is developed later in relation to the technology. The next section describes some of the patterns which have proved inspiring or meaningful when developing the practical work.

Seeds and Bars is a simple design recorded in Cornwall and Whitby and shows how the same patterns appear in different locations in the UK.

Anchors/Wick this sequence of patterns has been highlighted because it shows how single motifs were combined to form an all-over pattern. When compared to Seeds and Bars it confirms how patterns became more ornate/complicated the further north they traveled. The more figurative/representational designs are developed further in the practice-based work; when the purl pattern symbols are updated and reworked into motifs which hold meaning for the author/maker.

The road to Duffus. An enjoyable story is re-told by Compton: ‘The subject of names for patterns cropped up in Hopeman, and Mary Moore, then 86 and still able to knit a fine pair of socks, although she claimed they would no longer win prizes, laughed and laughed until she had to wipe her eyes when she heard she was renowned for her pattern called ‘The road to Duffus’. It was sometime before she explained: ‘You’ re like a’ the rest, always wanting to know the names. One day I was asked what the zigzag was called and I just said the road to Duffus because it turns corners this way and that, like the pattern’. [Compton, M., 1985, p. 86]

This story highlights how a false sense of history and tradition has at times been applied to the patterns found in ganseys; sometimes the reality is rather ordinary.


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

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