Fingers flying, needles clicking, the fishermen’s best friends – their ganseys – took shape; warm, weatherproof pullovers with distinctive patterns that, should the worst happen, might well help bring them home.
For generations, the traditional hand-knitted sweater was the herring fisherman’s uniform. Knitted in fine yet deceptively tough navy blue, grey, dark red or cream fine 5-ply wool to defend against the biting wind and the sting of the sea spray, their elaborate patterns were not mere decoration.
The lines of twisted cables reflected the ropes that hauled their nets, moss stitch added thickness, rows of ladders, herring bones, stars, tree branches, even zig-zags to reflect the ups and downs of the waves or, perhaps, married life; the gansey’s patterns told their own stories.
Should the wearer be lost at sea, so the story goes, his distinctive one-of-a-kind gansey would be as identifiable as a soldier’s dog tag and help to send him home.
But like fleets of herring boats, their hardy crews and the herring girls who followed them, ganseys eventually faded from view.
Now, a year-long nationwide project has revived interest in the unique items and helped to ensure gansey heritage is preserved and celebrated for future generations.
Launched by the Scottish Fisheries Museum, based in Anstruther, the nationwide Knitting the Herring project has delved into the stories behind the gansey – from the intricate patterns which were passed from mothers to daughters, to the labour of love that went into making them, the herring fishermen who wore them and their long lost way of life.
The project has also shone light on the common threads that connected hard-working fishing communities the length and breadth of the land, with motifs and patterns that told stories of their homes which sometimes found their way into ganseys made hundreds of miles apart.
It’s hoped Knitting the Herrings will provide the foundation for a national gansey database incorporating ganseys, patterns and motifs from fishing communities across Scotland and connect collections held in other museums and archives.
According to Carolyn Cluness, the museum’s learning and engagement officer, the project has also inspired new knitters to discover the unique garments.
“It takes a long time to knit a full-size gansey. So, we provided patterns for gansey herring, a pennant and little squares to give people the chance to try the knitting technique in an easier template than a full gansey.
“We’ve had incredible feedback. So many people have said it helped them during lockdown, it was something new to knit and that it may spur them on to knitting a real gansey in the future.”
Ganseys were traditionally worn by herring fishermen in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
They were typically handknitted by fishermen’s wives, daughters and girlfriends who incorporated their own patterns and designs, some to reflect the business of fishing for herring, others sweet reminders of home or symbols of love and affection.
To make them, the knitters use double-ended and very thin 2.25mm needles – or a more modern circular needle – which meant there was no need for seams or joins and less chance of the garment unravelling.
Created using Guernsey worsted 5-ply yarn, the combination of small, tight stitches and added bulk from motifs and patterns gave ganseys almost a ‘chainmail’ mesh effect, making them particularly effective at keeping the wearer warm and dry.
Ganseys also feature distinctive underarm gussets which meant the wearer could raise their arms without the body of the pullover creeping up. Because the front and back of each garment is identical, if one side became worn the wearer simply had to switch it around and wear it back to front.
Fishermen would have had at least two ganseys, adds Carolyn. “They were like a uniform, and they would take pride in wearing a gansey that marked their identity.
“They would have their Sunday best gansey for church and visiting family members, one for going out to dance halls on their nights off and another for workwear.
“They were very soft and very fine – almost delicate. They were tight-fitted to match their measurements and they were really strong – which is why they became known as ‘seamen’s iron’.”
Girls from fishing families learned to knit from a young age, eventually graduating from socks to ganseys. Patterns were not written down, and instead were committed to memory with motifs and designs copied from earlier garments and personalised to reflect the wearer’s own life.
However, making one can take 160 hours to make. The arrival of cheap mass-produced clothing and the decline of the herring fishing industry meant gansey knitting is now on the Heritage Crafts Association’s red list of endangered crafts.
Gordon Reid became hooked on the meditative and relaxing process of knitting and the heritage surrounding the ganseys after attempting his first one in the 1980s.
Since then, he’s shared his knowledge and gansey creations through his website, Gansey Nation, and has recreated ganseys worn by fishermen captured in photographs included in the Johnston Collection of 50,000 glass negatives held by the Wick Society.
He says ganseys are “not unlike a monochrome Persian carpet, or a medieval book of hours, an orderly riot of detail.”
“One of the things that makes gansey so amazing is that fine detail and incredible richness of the pattern, but what you’re doing is very simple. It’s just knit and purl, but these knits and purls create texture, light and shadow, and the contours as you move around the pattern capture the light in different ways.”
The designs had specific meanings, helping to identify the wearer’s roots: Eriskay-made ganseys often include a horse’s hoof pattern, while others made in Caithness would incorporate a Caithness cross.
However, as fishing fleets and the herring girls who followed them moved around the country, motifs and designs from other fishing communities were adopted to create new patterns.
“I’m sure in the early stages ganseys were very plain,” adds Gordon, who lives in Wick.
“But you can see how these people took the concept, expressed themselves and turned it into a statement.
“It tells you something about them, their communities, the work they were involved in and it’s done in incredibly elaborate detail.
“They could have just made plain pullovers,” he adds. “But they took the simple building blocks of knit and purl and created these wonderful ganseys.”
Find out more at https://scottishgansey.org.uk