Intangible Cultural Heritage and Gansey Knitting

For this week’s blog, Chelsea Marina West examines ganseys as example of intangible cultural heritage. This is another extract from her MSc thesis: The Needles have Dropped: An Investigation of Fishermen’s Ganseys and Intangible Cultural Heritage in the United Kingdom (2021).

Gansey knitting has been added to the Red List of Endangered Crafts by the Heritage Crafts Association with the objective of protecting intangible cultural heritage facing erasure. Ganseys are not only cherished knitwear worn by fishermen at sea, they are also considered an element of intangible cultural heritage.

So, what is intangible cultural heritage?

Intangible cultural heritage is transmitted through the teachings, imitations, and full absorption of practices of a community. Intangible cultural heritage does not require material objects; it is considered to be a living heritage that encompasses languages, practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities or individuals believe to contribute to their cultural heritage (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2011). As such, intangible cultural heritage is transmitted orally from the past and it is involved in the performativity and negotiation of identities within a community, shaping their beliefs and sense of place in the present (Smith and Akagawa, 2009, p. 292). If the Antoine Wall, the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge are examples of World Heritage sites; the Burns Supper, the First Footing, the Aberlour Highland Games, Fair Isle Knitting Patterns and Fisherman’s Ganseys are examples of intangible cultural heritage (Museum Galleries Scotland, 2021).

The gansey is a tangible knitted object; however, its creation is the direct result of intangible cultural heritage. The knowledge, skills, techniques and patterns of gansey knitting have been passed down generation after generation by fisherwomen, forming a large part of the fishing community’s identity and acting as a signifier of fishermen throughout the 19th-21st centuries. Gansey patterns were transmitted orally; they were not written down in pattern books until the 1950s and as thus, are a prime example of an intangible craft. During an interview with Mary Lewis, Endangered Crafts Officer for the Heritage Crafts Association, she highlighted the significance of ganseys as an intangible craft, claiming that it is uncommon for the association to award a form of knitting a separate entry on the Red List of Endangered Crafts, as knitting is not endangered. However, due to the oral handing down of skills, it was divergent enough from mainstream knitting and deserving of special recognition. The gansey has evolved throughout the centuries as communities have adapted to the changes in the fishing trade and grander environmental, social and cultural influences. Adaptation must be encouraged as intangible cultural heritage must not be fixed in the past, as this could lead to cultural ossification.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther plays an active role in safeguarding ganseys and in February 2021, Knitting the Herring, a national gansey network, was released to create a national gansey collection for Scotland. In conjunction with the project, a festival of ganseys was proposed, and a new gansey pattern was designed by Di Gilpin and Uist Wool; however, many of the activities and events have been cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.

The curator of the project, Federica Papiccio, spoke to the author stating that the initiative was created to emphasise Scotland’s rich heritage. The museum recognises the importance of a single portal to access information and engage with the community through a range of online events and talks. Papiccio states that the Scottish Fisheries Museum is primarily focused on documenting traditional ganseys, but that there may be room in the future to document contemporary ganseys, claiming that the continued practice of knitting ganseys will “keep this unique form of art alive and topical.”

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

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