Review of the Fishing and History Project at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon

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Yesterday, August 12th, I travelled upwards across the border to Barnstaple in Devon together with Mary Wright, author of Cornish Guernseys and Knit Frocks. The weather was very hot but we were both looking forward to an interesting afternoon spent at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon. Even though I am based a little way down in Cornwall, I confess I had never visited the museum or Barnstaple either. We had been invited to an afternoon of knitting talk plus tea and cake. Deb Gilanders of Propagansey was giving the talk together with Josephine Sims, part of the team and principal knitter involved in researching and putting together the Appledore Jersey pattern and co-author of Prangs, Tacks and Frocks. 


I was very interested in getting my hands on Prangs, Tacks and Frocks because I had never read it (and my gansey library is extensive and growing) plus, I have never come across a Tack which is neither a knitting stick not a knitting belt but a tool adapted by the locals in this area which consists of a square of leather tied at the waist by a belt which would take the sharp end of the needle. Happily, there were actual tacks inside a glass case inside the museum. Hard squares of leather worn smooth by work with holes in to take the needle end. These were attached to crude belts designed to be tied to the waist. I took lots of pictures of the tacks but sadly the lighting was awful inside the room and the glare off the glass made it impossible to photograph clearly. Also, with the event attracting lots of visitors, I was unable to ask Anita the curator to take them out of the cabinet to photograph properly. However, I will be asking her to send some clear pictures so I can put them up here for those of you who are unfamiliar with this natty little tool as I was.

Mary and I had a little time to browse the exhibition before the talk began. The museum, an historical building itself, was literally hung from ceiling to floor with ganseys in all sizes, colours, condition and patterns from all over the UK. They really werea feast for the eyes. Inside the cafe, they hung from poles around the walls. The spiral stairs were lined and there was much for the pattern hunter to take in and digest. One room focused in on the Appledore gansey itself. For those unfamiliar with this gansey, it was knitted originally in 4ply yarn and was totally plain apart from the moss stitch shoulder strap. There is debate about whether poverty had a part to play in the very small area of purl on this gansey. Purl stitches take a little more yarn and with tight purse strings perhaps this is reflected in the spare design. However, the clean lines of this jersey make it very beautiful in my eyes. Never boastful or showy with eye popping cables or fancy moss stitch diamonds or herringbone, this is a gansey in it's purest form. The moss stitch shoulder say, I am a gansey. That's enough for me.

appledore gansey strap

The exhibition features several examples of the Appledore gansey hanging on poles. Some have deep roll necks, some just a plain crew neck. I loved the fact that all were worn and loved and came from local knitters and wearers. There is an accompanying film beside the jerseys which gives history of the fishing and the sweaters in this area.

The talk was held in the library and was filmed. Anita, the curator will be providing me with a link to the recording shortly which I will post here so all of you who couldn't make it can share in our afternoon. 

In a room shared with Debs Gilanders from Propagansey, Jan and Russ Stanland from Frangipani yarn, Mary Wright plus Josephine Sims, John Whitlock and contract knitter Anne Bowden I can say with hand on heart that it was definitely an afternoon spent with the great and the good and a priviledge to meet everyone in the flesh who I had only talked to on the interwebs or the telephone.

thegreat and the good

From Left to right: Anne Bowden (contract knitter), Josephine Sims, Deb Gilanders (Propagansey), Jan Stanland (Frangipani), Mary Wright

Josephine began the talk, explaining how as a local lass, she had been taught how to knit a gansey by her auntie and had completed her first aged 17 years for her sweetheart as a love token. It had certainly worked as they had been married ever since and he still wears it to this day which is testiment to the longevity of the garment. I loved the way she described the gansey as 'not difficult to knit. Just a plain jersey with some purl in it.' A real truth.

She gave the stage to Deb Gilanders who had brought a very large assortment of ganseys of her own and also from families in the Yorkshire area who had kindly donated them to her collection. She related the 'yarns behind the yarn' and reminded us that it is the stories behind the ganseys that are often the most interesting part. She took us through her own gansey story beginning with the the first, knitted by Alf which is clearly well worn and mended but now beautiful for the history in it. Alf has continued to be part of her own knitting yarn, knitting her many different pattern versions over the time she has known him. She displays her lovely collection annually inside a church at Robin Hoods Bay. This year it is being held at Old St Stephen’s Church Robin Hoods Bay, 12-20th September. No tickets, no shuttle bus (the X93 stops right outside), no gimmicks - just the best opportunity to get as close as you like to Ganseys old & new in this fantastic old church. Bring knitting, notebook, camera, thermos. If you live locally, then I strongly urge you to go along. It is both fascinating and inspiring at the same time.

 heap of ganseys

The hour slipped by very quickly indeed. I met EJ the author of the new Appledore Jersey publication due out in September of this year. He came with the costume curator from the National Trust who is based in Arlington Court. I would have loved to have chatted longer with both but suffice to say, when the new book is published, I will be selling it here. EJ tells me he spent a lot of time sifting through archived fishing photos and has enjoyed charting the social history which is such a large part of the gansey story. I will give a shout out when the book is in the shop.

Finally, we finished with cake and cute shortcake biscuits. It was heavenly and Mary was surrounded by fans and very overwhelmed that people wanted to meet her. She was very touched that so many told her how her book had inspired them to knit their first gansey. As a lady who does not 'do the internet', she had no idea how many gansey knitters still read her books and continue to knit this humble sweater. She was tired but happy as we headed home as was I.

Deb Gilanders was headed downwards into Cornwall to Polperro where she was hoping to have a fascinating time the Polperro Heritage Museum. 

A big thanks to Anita and her team from The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon who organised the event. We had a great time.

Note: I am now stocking Prangs, Tacks and Frocks in my shop, so head over if you'd like to purchase it. Also, I will be stocking The Appledore Jersey knitting kit very soon, It has been produced by the museum team alongside Josephine Sims and I for one, definitely want to knit one. I will give a shout out as soon as it is in stock.

If you are local, do head over to the exhibition. It is well worth a look and is a real rare event in the southern area of the UK so catch it while you can.

Meanwhile, happy knitting

Tina B xx