I have been a knitwear designer for nearly fifteen years now. Over these years, I have worked across a broad area of the industry, designing for yarn companies, craft publications and, in addition, writing seven craft books. My work has included womenswear, childrenswear, menswear, accessories and homewares and has always been creative, fun and fulfilling. However, I have long harboured more than a passing interest in the humble navy blue fisherman's Guernsey sweater and, in particular, the Cornish Gansey or Knitfrocks as they were locally known. In fact, the second pattern I ever had published way back at the beginning of the millenium, was a child's Guernsey sweater with the Polperro Seed and bars across the chest.
Living in Cornwall and only a stone's throw away from Polperro, one of Cornwall's major contract knitting hubs back in the last century, I would be drawn again and again to the little fishing harbour and its yarn filled social history. If you ever have the chance to visit Polperro, I would strongly recommend it. The Polperro Heritage Museum has a wonderful Cornish Gansey Exhibition. From the early wet collodion plate photographs taken by Lewis Harding at the turn of the 20th century you can see that remarkably little has changed in this small harbourside village.
The photo above, is my attempt at a modern recreation of the front cover of Mary Wright's remarkable book; Cornish Guernseys and Knitfrocks. I am standing close to the same spot as Jane Jolliff and can clearly imagine her fingers working industriously as she watches for pilchard shoals out to sea. My knitting belt or Makkin Belt, as it is known in Shetland, helps with speed and ease of movement. The growing weight of the man sized Gansey is offset by tucking it over the belt. One end of the working needle is secured into the horsehair leather pad of my belt ensuring economy of finger movement and added speed. Jane Jolliff would likely have used a knitting stick, perhaps made for her by her husband as a love token. In this way, women could walk, talk, work and continue to knit. Speed was key when one was contract knitting and relying on the income. The whole family was involved in knitting various parts of the sweater with young children knitting the ribs and plain part, often leaving the pattern part to mother who knew it by heart.
A few years ago, it was my great pleasure to make acquaintance with Mary Wright herself, spending a very fascinating afternoon in her company and picking her brains on all things Gansey. A Cornish maid through and through, Mary explained how she came to write her book which, in my opinion, is a remarkable record of knitting's social history. Mary was asked to knit a Guernsey sweater for a Womens Institute display. She had little working knowledge of the sweater at that time and soon found there was scant record of patterns. Subsequently, she launched a county wide mission to find and record anyone who had memory, knowledge or actual gansey sweaters she could research. When I asked how she got word out, she merely gave me a look and said, 'My dear, I belong to the Womens Institute!'
When I started designing Ganseys, I began with this book, using the pattern charts Mary has recorded. She took them painstakingly from actual Gansey sweaters that had been loaned to her and also from Lewis Harding's remarkable photos which she had enlarged. Over time, she recreated these patterns with yarn and needles until they were accurate copies. She points out that the charts she has recorded have been the ones that came up time and time again within Cornwall but that they may well not be exclusive to the county. Guernsey sweaters are common across the UK and the Channel Islands and many of the recorded chest and armstrap patterns do correspond. I like to think that maybe the Herring Girls who worked in the processing of the herrings and pilchards and who would have travelled around the country following the fleet might have taken their knitting and their patterns with them. Therefore, we may well have a mix of our own local patterns and also more popular ones shared by women within the fishing industry.
From the starting point of the book and after completing a few sweaters for my family, I have learnt a lot about this navy blue treasure. For a start, I have tweaked very slightly the shaping of the arm gusset, standardised the measurements for every size and added a step by step guide to every Classic Gansey Knitting Kit. The very small needle size ie: 2.25mm and the weight of the sweater as it grows plus of course the addition of knit and purl stitched motifs can make a Gansey sweater a challenge to knit. But, I hope my Classic Gansey Kits acheive two things. Firstly, to keep the tradition and skill of Guernsey knitting alive and in the consciousness of the knitting community and secondly, to make the knit itself acheivable, enjoyable and satisfying.
For those who feel a whole Gansey sweater is too much of a commitment, I have designed a range of accessories using the 5ply Guernsey wool, double knit and 4ply weights which still incorporate some of the traditional techniques and patterns.
Finally, and this is the designer in me (always fiddling), I have moved the Gansey onwards, re-interpreting it for the modern age. The Contemporary Knitting Kits are worked on larger needles but retain a nod towards the traditional. I sincerely hope my fore-fathers and sisters would approve.
All the kits and patterns can be worked in any of the gorgeous 28 shades of 100% British Worsted 5ply Guernsey Wool which has been sourced here in Cornwall, thus keeping our eco-footprint as small as possible.
I really hope you enjoy browsing our site and that you might feel encouraged to try your needles at a Gansey knit whether a sweater, hat or cushion cover. Whatever you choose, remember that whilst your needles are in action you are knitting part of our yarny heritage and sharing very good company with the knitting community from centuries past.