Also known as a guernsey jumper, the gansey is easily recognisable as a sailors sweater. The term probably comes from Old Norse 'garn' which means wool so a gansey is a thing made of woollen yarn. The island of Guernsey became a centre of spinning so the terms gansey and guernsey became interchangeable. The term gansey can be found from around 1820 referring to a canvas garment similar to a farmer's frock and to a knitted garment in 1851.
There is no evidence prior to the 19th century of knitted ganseys. Documentary evidence from 1773 of clothing needed for Royal Naval ships doesn't mention knitted sweaters and the excavation of the 1785 shipwreck of the Whitby based ship the General Carleton is similarly short of ganseys. The wreck still had intact sailor's slop chests which contained a full range of sailor's clothing including gloves, mittens and stockings but no knitted jumpers. By 1850 however, there is photographic evidence of many and varied ganseys.
A gansey is knitted tightly in fine, oiled wool so that it is warm, windproof and waterproof. A gansey would be knitted in the round so that it has no seams to let in the cold, with gussets under the arms to aid movement and a tight neck. it is commonly believed that stitch patterns and designs were local to specific areas and that they were personalised so that sailors could be recognised if their bodies were washed ashore after a shipwreck.
Appealing as this sounds, it just isn't true. Ganseys were personalised with initials and patterns, not for recognition of corpses but rather to prove ownership of the garment. In her book, River Ganseys, Penelope Lister Hemingway could only find two references to bodies being recognised by clothing and then not necessarily by their initials. A knitter would recognise her own handiwork but the chances of a body coming ashore in its home town was remote. When a body did wash up it was usually buried in a pauper's grave with very little attempt at identification. Clothing of drowned mariners was often described in newspaper articles but tattoos were more often used for identification. Bodies found at sea were usually left there as sailors were superstitious about having dead bodies aboard and also wanted to avoid red tape.
Another commonly perpetuated myth is that stitch patterns belonged to different villages. While patterns were broadly geographic it is unlikely that they were specific. Most patterns became universal so quickly that it can't be said where they came from and patterns were only named 'Whitby' 'Filey' etc after books were written about them. Photographs of family groups show wildly different patterns and there are photographs of the same mariner in different patterns. Patterns travelled around the country with the girls who went from port to port gutting herrings so designs were shared all round the country just as we share patterns today. Part of the reason that patterns became identified with particular towns is the paucity of surviving ganseys so a garment preserved in Whitby for example became known as the Whitby gansey.
It is interesting to know that Ganseys were not just knitted and worn by families in fishing communities. Children in charity schools were expected to knit prolifically and female prisoners were given knitting as hard labour. Convicts on prison ships awaiting transportation were given ganseys to wear and there are newspaper reports of burglars wearing them. They were also knitted for road and rail labourers and by the late 19th century ganseys were being knitted for cyclists.
So there is more to a gansey than you might think. If you would like to knit a gansey yourself, there is a gansey style kit as another of our perks or you could select a one-to-one class to learn the skills to make your own.