Portrait of Four Men Onboard 'Mystical Rose', CN245, Campbeltown, c.1937.
Portrait of four men onboard ringnetter ‘Mystical Rose’, CN245, Campbeltown, c.1937.

As de facto uniform of British fishermen from the early nineteenth century, ganseys were always quite robust and snug-fitting.

Given their versatility, they soon became an indispensable tool of the fisherman’s trade, providing warmth and protection from the elements while allowing the freedom of movement required when performing physically demanding tasks on board.

Ganseys were an integral part of fisherfolk’s everyday life and were worn by members of the fishing community from a very young age. Up until the late 19th century, the gansey would be hidden underneath an inner and outer sea-waistcoat. Later, ganseys became the main item of clothing fishermen would wear as work gear. They were traditionally short at the waist and the sleeve, to keep the hands free and reduce the chance of fabric catching on to lines and hooks. Most men owned up to six ganseys at one time, with one kept for Sunday best and special occasions.

Generally, these garments were never washed, so that they would get greasy and more water-resistant with wear; they would also be worn for as long as possible, constantly re-knit and mended until really worn-out. Generally featuring the same patterning on the front and the back, these jumpers were reversible, so that areas more susceptible to wear (e.g., elbows) could be alternated. Often, the fishermen themselves had to mend their ganseys at sea. Old, worn ganseys would then be kept for filthy jobs, such as tarring the ropes, or used as cleaning rags.

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