Posted 22nd Aug 2012
Once almost lost forever, one Whitby knitter had made it her mission to revive the tradition of gansey-making
As their battered boats lurched through the waves and winds of the unforgiving North Sea, the Victorian fishermen of Yorkshire must have been thankful for one simple reminder of home - their thick woollen gansies.
Knitted so tightly that even the perishing elements of a stormy winter couldn't penetrate the wool, these heavy jumpers were an essential part of the seafarer's ‘wardrobe' and a poignant reminder of home. For the gansey was much more than a practical all-weather garment designed to withstand the ravages of a lifetime at sea.
Each patterned pullover was knitted in a style specific to their particular coastal village, with local stories and traditions woven lovingly into the thick cabling so that someone could tell at a glance where a fisherman hailed from - even the family they belonged to. No two gansies were the same.
Each work of art - knitted completely ‘in the round', without seams, on five steel needles - was as unique as an original painting and lasting testimony to the skills of the women who made them.
But the ancient craft of gansey knitting was in danger of being lost forever as young people moved away from the coast. The knitting patterns that were passed down the generations by word of mouth went unrecorded, leaving the craft literally hanging by a thread as a handful of women struggled to keep the tradition alive.
But the gansey is now enjoying an unexpected revival thanks to a handful of dedicated East Yorkshire knitters, and one woman in particular, who is determined to give the seafaring jumper a fashionable new lease of life.
Pam Hoyle, who runs Bobbins wool outlet in the heart of Whitby's old town, has become one of the UK's leading experts in the ancient art of gansey knitting and has recorded for posterity dozens of knitting patterns which, until recently, had only been handed down the generations by word of mouth.
‘The patterns are beautiful and such an important part of East Yorkshire's heritage,' said Pam. ‘I didn't want to think of them being lost forever so I started to write them down. There are hundreds of variations because it wasn't just villages that had their own patterns, but individual families too.'
Pam's fascination for gansies began almost 30 years ago when she launched Bobbins, specialising in a wide variety of wools, in the old Wesleyan chapel in one of Whitby's busiest tourist streets. When a replica of the Endeavour came to the coastal town in 1997 Pam was asked to take part in an exhibition at the Captain Cook museum by finding someone who could knit a gansey on site - the Whitby variety of steps, flags and ropes being one of the oldest pattern available.
‘I started to research the history of the gansey and discovered that they originated in Scotland, coming down the East Coast to Whitby when Scottish fishermen followed the herring shoals south to the Yorkshire coastline,' said Pam.
Contrary to some schools of thought, Pam thinks the name ‘gansey' has no historical connection to the isle of Guernsey, believing instead that they were named after the Norwegian word for ‘sweater'.
‘All the research I've done points that way,' she says. ‘The more complicated the pattern, the more northern they are. For example the Hebridean gansey is a very complex, 5-ply worsted wool pattern which includes the tree of life and diamonds representing netting.'
Those along the East Yorkshire coastline include the Filey pattern, which features a vertical zig-zag stitch representing the ups and downs of married life, and the distinctive Humber Star representing the wheel which opens the lock gates.
Unlike most knitted jumpers, gansies are seamless and knitted in one piece on five or more double-ended needles, or ‘wires'. The famous Sutcliffe Gallery in Whitby has photographs of women standing in the harbour or in doorways as they knitted. When the sweaters became too heavy to hold on the needles alone, they would wear belts and pouches to support the heavy garments.
Read the rest of this feature on p.96 of the September/October 2012 issue...
By Heather Dixon