Where do ganseys come from?
There are several contrasting theories surrounding the origins of ganseys. One belief that persisted for some time in histories of these knitted garments was that they have evolved from the un-patterned, knit-in-the-round wool jumpers historically associated with the Island of Guernsey in the English Channel, renowned for its influential knitting industry. Others claim that the construction of seamless ganseys resembles – in many ways – knitted and patterned silk garments imported into Britain from Italy in the 17th century. A further theory considered in recent research suggests that the term gansey may have evolved from the Old Norse garn (Old English guern) or ‘yarn’, thus highlighting potential Scandinavian connections. Known as jerseys or jersey-frocks in some parts of Britain, ganseys became increasingly popular amongst fishing communities based along the coast of England, all the way to the north of Scotland.
Ganseys were worn by fishermen, but also lifeboat, ferry crews and merchant seamen, from approximately mid 19th century (some sources suggest even earlier) to mid 20th century. These jumpers were seamless and tightly-knit, designed with a practical purpose in mind. The absence of buttons on the front, for example, made them particularly suitable for working with herring nets, whilst their distinctive patterning across the chest was believed to increase ganseys’ insulating properties. Similarly, the lack of seams contributed to making these garments resistant to the elements, with the underarm gussets allowing freedom of movement. Another interesting feature of this garment is that Scottish ganseys were knitted all in one piece, as opposed to Guernsey jumpers which were produced in separate parts that would then be stitched together.
The knitting and wearing of traditional ganseys began to die out after the Second World War, when the growing availability of resources enabled people to buy clothes rather than having to make and mend, and new synthetic materials offered better insulation and waterproofing properties. However, the knitting skills required to create these garments, combined with their unique appearance, has contributed to the growing appreciation of ganseys and gansey knitting, an interest in which remains to this day.