Economic, Social and Traditional Aspects of Gansey Knitting

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.

Local Traditions

The herring or fisher lassies took their gansey designs with them as they accompanied the fishing fleet; Mary Wright (1979 ) describes how marriages took place which meant women went to live in other communities, and in her highly pragmatic way how the patterns developed in a parallel way because the knitters were subject to similar influences and technical limitations. ‘I have discovered and recorded more than 24 principal patterns. The patterns have been recorded according to the place in which they were first found, duplications are inevitable within the county and the same designs have been noted at Bude and Sennen Cove, Polperro and The Lizard, Boscastle and Porthgwarra. No doubt some of the designs resemble those found in other parts of the country, and I attribute this to two reasons: (A) Fishermen travelled to and from Cornwall throughout their working lives, especially to ports in the North-East; a few settled ‘away’ and a few brought wives from ‘away’ and (B) It is quite probable that a knitter from Cornwall, working in isolation would produce designs similar to those of another knitter because all patterns are combinations of simple plain and purl stitches and ropes, chains, waves, nets and sand-prints would provide visual inspiration’. [Write, M., 1979, p. 3]

Family and Economics

The occupation of fishing relied on participation by all family members. The families were at the mercy of the weather and the supply of fish. Isolated fishing communities were mainly self- sufficient. They could not afford the luxury of goods brought in from outside so women knitted for their families. They also knitted as a source of supplementary income. This work had to be added to the other duties of a fisher-wife. Long hours were worked and the skill was poorly recognised in monetary terms.

The women worked to a contract system. Agents, merchants and wholesalers were involved. The agent brought fresh supplies of yarn. He also inspected, collected and paid for completed work.
Fig 40 (bringing home peat on Stornaway) shows just how harsh life was and how the women knitted at any spare opportunity. Mary Wright recounts: ‘Children became involved as soon as they were old enough to handle the needles , although the weight of the knitting prevented them from being too ambitious. One old lady recalled ‘There were 9 maids in our family: the little ones knitted the trails the bigger maids knitted the plain bits and mother did the pattern’. The trails were the ribs at the beginning of the work and this section was not too cumbersome or heavy for little fingers’. [Wright, M., 1979, p. 21].

Pearson gives some indication of the financial value of skilled knitting at this time: ‘The usual time needed to knit a gansey was about three weeks, working four hours a day. A very experienced knitter could perhaps complete one in a week. The reward for these labours at the turn of the century was the princely sum of 25 6d. In the unlikely event that a woman was able to knit 52 ganseys a year, her income would still amount to only £6 10s. At its best, such payment was only three-quarters that of a domestic servant, who could at least command the addition of roof, bed and board.’ [Pearson, M., 1984, p. 9]

The information Pearson provides can be brought up to date by substituting his turn of the century values with today’s prices.

Costing for Hand Knitting a Gansey

4 hours a day for three weeks = 84 hours
Minimum wage (June 2008) = £5.52
84 hours X £5.52 = £463.68

At the time of writing the cost of a 100g ball of 5-ply gansey yarn was £5.20 an average sized gansey uses 12 balls = £62.40

Cost of Labour: £463.68
Cost of materials: £62.40
Total: £526.08

Costing for Knitting a Gansey Shima-Seiki SWG-IO

(Figures taken from garments knitted for garment experiments for the practice element at William Lee Innovation centre)
To make 20 full size ganseys (each gansey takes approx 32 minutes to knit)

Cost of materials: £90.00
Manufacturing costs: £987.00
Total: £1047.00
Divided by 20: £ 52.35 (each)

When these prices are compared with costings and timings associated with seamless gansey-like garments knitted on the Shima Seiki Whole garment system (£526.08 compared to £52.35) it is not difficult to see the impetus for developing Wholegarment© technology.

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

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