Gansey Patterns: Their Meanings, Significance and Relation to the Fishing Industry

For this week’s blog, Chelsea Marina West shares another extract from her thesis: The Needles have Dropped: An Investigation of Fishermen’s Ganseys and Intangible Cultural Heritage in the United Kingdom (2021). We return to look at the significance and symbolism of gansey patterns in fishing communities, this time with a focus on Northern Scotland.

Within the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s collection of ganseys, and the Knitting the Herring exhibition, you may notice that many of the jerseys have quite elaborate patterns, adorned with cascading diamonds, cables, zigzags and ladders. However, you may also notice that others are relatively plain. These patterns are more than just an aesthetic choice of the knitter chosen at random, but rather, they hold great significance and meaning to the wearer, and they are often deeply rooted to the grander fishing trade.

Gansey patterns hold aesthetic, symbolic and utilitarian properties. Select combinations of pattern designs are associated with various regions, communities and even families. For example, many Peterhead ganseys are decorated with diamonds and ropes, Newbiggin patterns have marriage lines and a buttoned neck, and Eriskay ganseys are known for either their diamonds in boxes or trees and ropes (Pearson, 1980, p. 51). It is reported that the higher north in Scotland (and the more isolated the community), the more intricate the patterns, with knit stitches in Fraserburgh recorded as the most ornate (Gordon, 2010, p. 105). Many of the leading academics and researchers of gansey knitting (Gladys Thompson, Michael Harvey, Rae Compton, Michael Pearson, Mary Wright and Beth Brown-Reinsel), agree that specific patterns were historically linked to various regions, and a local from the 1920s, Peter Anson, states that communities could determine where a fisherman was from just by his gansey pattern (Logan, 2011, p.24).

These patterns were oftentimes symbolic, focusing on maritime themes, motifs and tools, such as flags, anchors, herringbone, waves, shells, ropes and lightening. Michael Harvey and Rae Compton claim that regions and knitters selected combinations of knit stitches and designs to convey significant elements of the fisherman’s life (Harvey and Compton, 1978, p. 6). For example, in many communities, when a fisherman was wed, his wife would knit a gansey with marriage lines, or zigzags, to depict the highs and lows of married life. Ethel Reid claims that this design communicated to others that the wearer was married whilst he was away from home (‘Episode 5’, Landward, 2012).

Particular knit stitches represented the tools and imagery of fishing, such as the double moss stitch which resembles sand (Gordon, p. 104). Furthermore, Michael Pearson claims that elaborate patterns afforded utilitarian advantages, as the pockets of heat trapped air, creating insulating properties – an essential tenet for a fisherman working in the harshest of elements (Michael Pearson in Gordon, p. 106).

Moreover, ganseys are intrinsically linked to the fishing trade, as the patterns were directly associated with folklore within small tightknit fishing communities. The dangers of the fishing industry combined with the historical segregation of fishing communities created an environment where superstition influenced cultural practices and beliefs. For example, if a sailor drowned, the pattern on his gansey would not be reknit as it was considered bad luck. In fact, one of the largest myths within fishing communities is that a drowned sailor could be identified by his jersey pattern. However, while it is true that any knitter can recognise her own work, it was very rare for men lost at sea to be found, and there are no such reports of this occurrence (Campsie, 2015).

Chelsea Marina West, MSc Art, Law & Business (Christie’s Education)

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