The Curious Case of Documenting Gansey Patterns

For this week’s blog, we look at some historical challenges that might affect our ability to document gansey patterns and knitting traditions in the present day.


In 1955, Gladys Thompson published Patterns for Guernsey, Jerseys & Arans, bringing these patterns to pen and paper for use outside of knitting communities for the first time. In previous blog posts, we have seen how gansey patterning is intrinsically tied to the localised traditions of fishing communities. However, naming and framing the origins of gansey patterns has not always been so clear cut for numerous reasons.

Gansey Patterns and the Oral Tradition

Knitting patterns were primarily passed down through oral tradition. The skill of the knitters and the low lighting conditions in which they worked would’ve also likely given them little use for writing their patterns down (Pearson, 1984, p. 13).

A further problem in documenting gansey patterns is that the number of surviving ganseys is relatively few. One reason for this is that wool was rationed during the war (Logan, 2013, p. 6). Rather than producing new ganseys, garments were repeatedly repaired until completely worn through. When passed their wear, the fabric would often be repurposed for other uses, such as cleaning rags.

As industrialisation led to machine-made textiles dominating the market, there became less need for lasses to continue passing down their patterns or even devote as much time to knitting (Harvey and Compton, 1978, p. 12).

Regional Variations

While patterns were traditionally passed down through maternal family lines, the nature of the fishing industry complicates how confidently we can ascribe some of them to the places in which they are found.

The demand of the Herring Boom led to fisherlasses following the fishing trade by land to carry out tasks, such as gutting and curing the fish and baiting lines. As they travelled from port to port, so would their knitting, providing opportunity for lasses from different communities to trade patterns (Gilpin and Greenwell, 2021, p. 9). The publication of pattern books may have also contributed to a decline in the regional exclusivity of some patterns (Logan, p. 8).

Supporting this idea, in This Golden Fleece (2019, p. 51), Esther Rutter remarks on a photograph of brothers at the Scottish Fisheries Museum wearing ganseys with different patterns, noting how you would not have been able to tell that there was any familial connection between them from their dress.

How Can We Deconstruct Ganseys?

Without enough written sources, we can learn more about ganseys and gansey knitting by physically analysing individual garments, similarly to how an archaeologist would approach an artefact. Through a forensic method known as analogy, comparisons can be drawn between features seen on other ganseys as well as modern knitting techniques to interpret the intentions of the knitter. By cataloguing ganseys in this way, we can better identify localised knitting traditions and patterns (Logan, p. 29). Experts in the craft have the experience to identify smaller details that would otherwise go unnoticed by the average viewer, which can provide more information about the knit.

The video below shows Di Gilpin and Sheila Greenwell investigating a gansey. Their knowledge of ganseys allows them to infer the skill and personality of the knitter, as well as the locality of the pattern.

Recording Ganseys

The Scottish Gansey Project aims to document ganseys in private and public collections. By increasing the catalogue of documented ganseys, we can learn more about the traditions of these fascinating knits.

Do you have an undocumented gansey? Contact us to add it to the gansey database!

Kathy Donaldson, Learning and Engagement Officer

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