One of the most fascinating aspects of ganseys and gansey knitting is the wide variety of patterns and motifs used as surface decorations.
Apart from increasing the fabric’s insulating properties by thickening the material, the patterning on ganseys was used to reflect a fisherman’s daily life. For this reason, patterns were generally named after items found at sea, such as ‘net’, ‘herring bone’ and ‘anchor’, amongst others. Similarly, some patterns echoed key characteristics of the sea and the weather, whilst other motifs (e.g., the ‘marriage lines’ zigzagged design, symbolising the ups and downs of married life) bore more complex symbolic meanings. Many believe that each village or family on the East Coast had its own distinctive design; occasionally, ganseys would feature a unique combination of patterns, which meant something special to both the knitter and the wearer.
Before some of the patterns were recorded by folk historians, gansey designs were almost never written down; yet they were shared and spread by the fisherwomen who created them, to be taught by mothers to daughters. Patterns were mostly produced from a combination of simple plain and purl stitches, with added cables of different sorts.
Some of the most fascinating and elegantly styled patterns and motifs originate from the Isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. Eriskay ganseys are commonly associated with ornate, symbolic and open work motifs, and they represent the working lifestyles, special traditions and culture of the Hebridean fisherfolk who knitted them. This guide by Uist Yarn Studio describes some of the most common Eriskay motifs and charts. Please click the download button below to learn more about the Eriskay tradition of gansey knitting.