Marriage Lines and Heapies: A Life in Ganseys

For this week’s blog, Gordon Reid shares his first experience of gansey knitting, and the inspiration behind sharing his passion for ganseys to the worldwide knitting community.

I first discovered ganseys in the early 1980s. Back then I listened to a lot of music (and cricket on the radio) and Margaret, my wife-to-be, an experienced knitter, suggested I take up knitting to help me relax and keep me occupied while I listened.

I’ve always been a jumper kind of guy, so optimistically I thought I’d try to knit one straight off. We were staying on Cape Cod at the time, and Margaret took me to the nearest craft emporium where I could browse through a selection of patterns. I found one I liked, which turned out to be a chunkier version of the classic moss stitch banded gansey most commonly associated with Henry Freeman of Whitby. We bought both pattern and yarn, and when I got home I cast on for the first time.

It turned out a disaster, of course: too big, too uneven, too everything. But I was hooked. And I discovered an important lesson about knitting: that for me it’s as much about the process as the finished garment. The act of knitting is an end in itself, it’s a form of meditation, it stills the mind as it busies the hands; and if a jumper drops off the needles every few months that’s an added bonus. As for all the errors I’d made, so what? I’d get better.

But what should I knit next? It was then that Margaret uttered the words that sealed my doom. She told me the jumper I’d knitted was based on a traditional design in a much finer gauge, and there were many others to choose from. She gave me her copy of Gladys Thompson’s Patterns of Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans. It opened on the photograph of the Patrington and Withernsea gansey which instantly became imprinted on my brain, the way a baby duckling bonds with its mother. By the time I discovered that no sewing was involved, reader, I was lost.

Margaret also had Rae Compton’s The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting, and it was about this time that Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting came out. These books became my holy trinity, and I read and re-read them till the covers fell off.

The basic gansey stitch is either a knit stitch or a purl. Yes, you can knit cables, or introduce Hebridean lace motifs; but fundamentally gansey knitting is very simple. And yet, what an astonishing variety of patterns can be created from such simple beginnings! The fine gauge allows for really intricate pattern combinations, so that the overall effect is not unlike a monochrome Persian carpet, or a medieval book of hours, an orderly riot of detail.

Just over ten years ago we had the idea of creating a website to celebrate all things gansey-related. This has gradually evolved into Gansey Nation, a focal point for gansey enthusiasts all over the world. Terry Pratchett once described writing as the most fun you can have by yourself, but I think knitting ganseys and blogging about it comes a close second.

In 2011 we moved to Wick, near John o’Groats – about as far north in Scotland as you can go without learning to swim. Caithness was once the centre of the northern herring fishing (Wick used to be known as “Herringopolis”). I learned some fascinating gansey lore – for example, that Caithness fishermen wore sheets of newspaper under their ganseys for insulation. But apart from a very few photographs there seemed to be no records of the ganseys the fishermen wore.

Then we discovered the Johnston Collection, a staggering collection of some 50,000 glass plate negatives taken over three generations by a family of Wick photographers, and held by the Wick Society. To our wonder and delight it turned out that there were many images of fishermen in their ganseys – many so sharply defined you could count every stitch.

I now think of Caithness ganseys as a sort of “missing link” between the marvellous patterns photographed by Francis Meadow Sutcliffe in Whitby and the wonderfully ornate Hebridean designs. The lower body tends to be plain or ribbed, while the yokes are richly patterned with a larger central panel of trees or diamonds flanked by cables and other narrower designs.

Like an archaeologist who thinks he’s fully explored a tomb only to discover a hidden chamber full of treasures, my gansey horizons expanded dramatically when I encountered the Johnston Collection. The Wick Society has done us all a very great service by digitising the plates and making them available online, and I’ve tried to partially repay the debt by replicating some of the ganseys and donating them to the Society for display.

Every gansey we knit today helps keep the tradition alive. But more than that, it honours the memory not only of the fishermen who wore them, but of all the amazing women who created the patterns in the first place, who knit them up and shared the patterns and handed them down from generation to generation. Behind every gansey in the photographs was a woman and her “pins”.

TS Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons; in my case it’s been ganseys. I still listen to music and cricket on the radio, and more than thirty years of gansey knitting later I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface. And that’s one of the great things about ganseys – the pattern combinations are almost infinite. There’s always something new to learn and something new to try.

Discover more of Gordon’s writing at the wonderful: Gansey Nation (ganseys.com)

One thought on “Marriage Lines and Heapies: A Life in Ganseys

  1. Hello Gordon and many thanks for your Gansey CV!
    Behind every man there is a woman and behind every pattern there is a woman as you said. But behind the best ganseys there is a man, namely You!
    I have the privilege to be able to follow your blog and to enjoy not only the fantastic ganseys you knit but the language you use. Every blog is a travel to the wonderland of the English language for me being a native speaker of Hungarian.
    I knitted my first gansey in 1985 and my son still uses it. Ganseys are not products of the cheap textile industry to wear them for one season, they are for lifelong use. And the patterns created by the wives of the fishermen are living from centuries to centuries.
    Many thanks for the blog, for the stories, jokes and poems. And last but not least for the ganseys!
    Wishing you and your wife merry Christmas and a healthy new year.
    Judit Mäkinen /Finland

    Like

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