Fishermen’s Ganseys and Sustainability

For this week’s blog, Chelsea Marina West reflects on the gansey tradition through the lens of sustainability. Inspiration for this blog is drawn from Chelsea’s MSc these: The Needles have Dropped An Investigation of Fishermen’s Ganseys and Intangible Cultural Heritage in the United Kingdom (2021).

As we enter the last remaining weeks of the Knitting the Herring exhibition at the Scottish Fisheries Museum, the importance of ganseys is once again being established in Anstruther. Without the context of the exhibition, one might disregard ganseys as simple fishermen’s jumpers worn to protect the wearer during the harshest of weathers, and as such, the gansey’s significance is lost.

Ganseys are not only a traditional garment for fishermen, they continue to be a valid element of living history for many knitters today, and their significance is currently being rediscovered in an attempt to reiterate sustainable living. Traditional gansey knitters were innovative, they created a garment so durable that it could withstand the most volatile climates imaginable. Knitters were also resourceful, evolving their practices based on socio-cultural changes in their communities. One such example was witnessed during WWII when women from St Columb and Millbrook knitted with bike and umbrella spokes when metal was scarce (Wright, 1979, 19.).

At the Scottish Fisheries Museum, it is evident that many of the ganseys have been reknit from the shoulder down due to the change in colour from the sleeve to the bodice. This illuminates the utilitarian nature of ganseys, as damaged areas could easily be reknit due to the composition of the garment, thus reducing waste. Old disintegrating ganseys were not thrown away but worn during dirtier jobs such as scrubbing the boats and tarring the ropes. Once the gansey was completely destroyed, the wool was taken apart and reused for other purposes; Annie Shaw contends that many were turned into bothy blankets (Gordon, 2010, 107.). Important exhibitions such as Seamless: The Digital in Design (2013) and Units of Possibility: The Reknit Revolution (2017) have commended ganseys for their reknit technologies – in particular, the replacement cuff which promotes sustainability, and the gansey’s relation to the slow movement.

Although ganseys are no longer worn by fishermen, or even knit with the same wool, knitters are creating modern ganseys inspired by their environment that are altered for urban living. Recently, issue 82 of The Knitter featured a gansey inspired by London, including knit stitches which represented manhole covers, brickwork and the Gherkin, all knit with softer wools. Modern gansey patterns are examples of communities adapting to their environments, much like fisherwomen once did.

However, for ganseys to remain viable and sustainable for modern knitters, the garment must have the capacity to evolve to provide meaning to communities in the present and future; if not, a craft bound by tradition could result in cultural stagnation. During an interview with the owner of the Gansey Nation website, Gordon Reid, he stated that to determine what is authentic and in line with tradition is not up to one person:

“The tradition is any tradition. If it’s going to live, it has to evolve, or it becomes a re- enactment society… If it’s going to continue into the year 2200, it needs to have fresh life coming into it, and that’s people making up their own designs.” (Reid, 2021.)

Ultimately, ganseys continue to play an important role in the knitting technologies of the 21st century. We could learn a thing or two from traditional gansey knitters such as mending our garments instead of buying new or frogging our unworn knitting projects and re-using the yarn. Whilst many of these gansey knitters were making ends meet, using any wool or wire implement they could get their hands on in times of hardship, their technical innovations have evolved into a garment that is widely appreciated and celebrated for its sustainability, durability and viability.

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

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