Ganseys. Guernseys. Jerseys. Whatever name they’re given, the seaman’s sweaters of the British Isles are iconic. Knit to wear like iron and to shield their wearers from bitter onslaughts of wind and seawater, cleverly engineered with innovative features that maximized their durability and comfort, and patterned to sing proudly of love and skill, these garments number among the great achievements of knitting history.
Myths about ganseys abound — photographic evidence doesn’t support the romantic notion that towns and families had their own exclusive patterns, for instance. Fishermen were among the most mobile people in Europe, always in and out of ports all over the North Sea, which gave knitters plenty of opportunity to admire and copy distinctive patterns. And it wasn’t just men who followed the herring migrations. Girls who gutted and packed the fish wore ganseys, too, with short sleeves to bare their arms for the messy work. The lasses often skipped the familiar navy and black yarn in favor of macaron hues of peach, raspberry, lemon, and pistachio. Knitters didn’t just make ganseys for themselves or for family members, either. A cottage industry that endured until the 1930s sprang up, and women could earn much-needed supplemental income by hand-knitting ganseys for sale.
Most ganseys shared a set of common features. They were knit in the round to the underarms, and then the squared-off fronts and backs were completed working flat to create a drop shoulder. They were made of sturdy 5-ply wool and knit at a gauge of 8 stitches per inch to achieve the densest possible fabric. Ganseys seem to have begun as plain warm underwear, but they were often exposed to view as hardworking wearers stripped off outergarments, and by the mid-19th century knitters were beginning to add texture and design by incorporating purl stitches. Diamonds, stars, welts, and other geometric forms often embellished the upper torso and sometimes the upper sleeves. Simple rope cables and pictorial anchors, hearts, crosses, and Tree of Life motifs imbued the ganseys with symbolism. The most beautiful sweaters were worn for Sunday best.
Ganseys were also marked by novel construction that maximized their lifespan as working garments. Diamond-shaped underarm gussets allowed greater freedom of movement and reduced stress on the fabric. Many ganseys had shoulder straps worked in ribbing for further elasticity. A variety of inventive cast-ons reinforced wear-prone hems and cuffs. This attention to quality and lasting sturdiness has allowed a great many historical ganseys to survive in excellent condition. Although few knitters today are willing to invest the time and effort required to produce an authentic gansey, we are all fortunate to be able to learn from the innovations and high standards established in these garments.
Our recent collection — Brooklyn Tweed Ganseys — pays homage to the gansey tradition in five sweaters and three accessories that may not take you to sea, but will inject trim nautical style into your wardrobe. We took them to a lonely stretch of Oregon coast for a photoshoot to hark back to their origins, but their clean, contemporary shapes will make them equally at home in the city if your working environment is a desk rather than a dock. Like the originals, these new designs bespeak knitterly pride in a smart detail or a well-chosen technique. We hope you’ll enjoy the challenge of shaping an unusual neckline or trying a new cable as you make these garments your own.