Drowning and Identity

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

The links between drowning/identity and ganseys are one aspect of folklore which most people have heard of and find fascinating, even romantic, for example Alex Buxton writes:

‘It was even possible for fishing families to recognise from the pattern of a gansey which fishing village, or even which family the wearer came from. At a time when the loss of a boat was a frequent occurrence, deliberate mistakes or the wearer’s initials were often incorporated into the design in order to identify a body recovered from the sea.’ [Buxton, A., undated, p. 5]

Rae Compton is wonderfully pragmatic on the subject when she discusses research problems.

‘It is evidently comparatively easy to be read and quoted by everyone, year in and year out, even if you write without verification and on a subject on which you have very little knowledge. On the other hand it seems to be endlessly difficult to correct any of this wrongly reported material. In Caithness today it is still believed by some that Guernseys were patterned for recognition in cases of drowning, particularly ~if they were drooned wi’ their heid aff”. No knitter has ever confirmed that a pattern was designed for this purpose, although all knitters would recognise their own handiwork under any circumstance.’ [Compton, R., 1985, p. 13]

Another story concerning fishermen and their clothes has a similar feel and is also referred to. Many fishermen did not learn to swim, it was believed it helped them to keep safe, prevented them from taking too many risks at called ‘the stones’ where they if they did fall overboard it would bring on a quick death.

There are other ways of ‘knitting identity’ into a gansey. Most pattern books offer lettering charts. Purl stitch letters usually the wearer’s initials or more rarely the name of a fishing vessel are knitted above the hem in the plain section before the patterning begins

Sunday Best, Marriage and Sweethearts

‘A Guernsey although basically a working garment was an acceptable and respectable form of dress for special occasions. At the fishermen ‘ s chapel in Porthleven, men wore guernseys to Sunday services within living memory; seamen wore their best guernseys for family photographs and a bridal shirt was a special one made by the bride for her husband’. [Ibid, p. 32]

Ganseys are essentially occupational costume, their shape and form evolved to meet the physical demands of fishing. This can be seen in the tight fit, short sleeves , underarm gusset to allow freedom of movement and the waterproof properties of the small stitches and oiled yarn. At some point however, the beauty of the craftsmanship and the skills of the knitter began to be acknowledged, treasured and celebrated. Emotional values were associated with ganseys and the act of making them. Some indication of how important ganseys became to fishing communities is by Michael Pearson explaining how Cullercoats Seaman’s Mission Started:

‘Like most other fishing communities their religion is taken seriously and they were looking forward to the arrival of a new vicar. Unfortunately in a surge of enthusiasm for his new job, when he arrived he insisted that the men wear a shirt, tie and jacket, and the women a coat and hat while they attended church. He was unaware of the tradition that the community wore their traditional Sunday best to church – the men their ganseys and the women their shawls and pleated skirts.

The vicar unmindful of their custom was offended that they should worship in what he considered work clothes. The community, as unbending in attitude as the vicar, refused even consider it and to a man stopped attending church. Both sides did not change their attitude. The vicar had to turn to the new community arriving into the housing estates from the city of Newcastle, while the fishing community built their own church. To this day the atmosphere remains – the church at one end of the street – the mission at the other.’ [Pearson, M., 1984, p. 49]

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

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