There can be few garments with more stories to tell than a gansey – a tightly knitted, intricately decorated, dark navy sweater traditionally worn by fishermen. Thought to originate from Elizabethan times, ganseys are part of British maritime and coastal history, with different patterns representing fishing towns and villages across the UK. Most patterns hail from Yorkshire and the North-East of England, but others come from Cornwall, East Anglia and Scotland. The patterning is the same front and back and ganseys can be worn both ways, so the areas that wear first, such as the elbows, can be alternated.
“Even in the villages, there are different family patterns,” says Lesley Berry, of Flamborough, who has been supplying ganseys for more than three decades.
Most of the symbols allude to the sea and fishing. “The cables are the ropes and the diamonds are the nets and you’ve got sand and shingle and anchors and ladders. The Filey one has herringbones. A Flamborough one would never have herringbones because the herring fleet didn’t come as far south as Flamborough.”
One traditional Filey pattern has a zigzag design called “marriage lines”, to represent the ups and downs of married life. The Humber Keel patterns have a star, although nobody can remember why.
Lesley lives and works at the Manor House in Flamborough with her husband, Geoffrey Miller, a bookseller and author. She bought it in 1979 and she and Geoffrey also run it as a B&B, with Lesley’s antiques shop in the old stable block. This is also the base for Flamborough Marine, Lesley’s business supplying authentic hand-knitted ganseys and gansey knitting kits alongside Armor Lux striped cotton Breton shirts and traditional knitwear from Le Tricoteur (the original Guernseys). Lesley has customers across the UK and across the world, especially in Japan and the US.
“Because we sold antiques, people asked if we could do ganseys and that’s how it started,” she says. “And so we got Nora Woodhouse to knit prototypes.”
Nora, a long-time resident of Flamborough who died in 2011, had been taught to knit by her fisherman father after her mother had drowned at Robin Hood’s Bay. From memory, she knitted several North-East coast patterns of gansey. Charts were made of these patterns (previously, these would have been passed on by word of mouth only), and Lesley recruited experienced knitters who fancied the challenge of knitting the ganseys on five fine steel needles.
For those in peril on the sea, a gansey provided a useful method of identification, should they drown. Lesley says: “That’s the favourite interpretation of it all, and it did work, because they are knitted all in one piece. There’s no sewing up at all, and once you’ve cast it off, you can put it on, so there’s nothing to come undone in the water.”
Worsted wool, spun in Yorkshire, is used. “They are long strands spun very tight so they can’t unravel, they can’t come undone,” Lesley says. When ganseys wear, she says, they go shiny like an old wool suit, but they never pill up. “Because they are working garments, after all, they were meant to last. They were so sensibly designed and thought about all that time ago. The sleeves are knitted downwards, so if you wear your elbow out or your cuff out, they can be pulled back and reknitted.”
The actor Daniel Day-Lewis has two ganseys from Flamborough Marine. Lesley says: “He said he’d found his father’s gansey in a cupboard – his father was the poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis – and it had holes in it, so he asked if we could knit him another one exactly like it.”
He also wanted one in a Filey pattern. “It was different knitters and he wrote each of them a handwritten thank-you letter when he got them,” says Lesley.
He let her keep his father’s original gansey but borrowed it back three years ago to wear for the film Phantom Thread, much of which was shot on the North Yorkshire coast. He returned it to her and she has it still.
Lesley has an established team of knitters across the UK, but no youngsters have stuck with it so far. In 20 years, there may well be nowhere left to buy authentic ganseys, she says. Using fine wool and fine needles, it usually takes a good knitter at least six weeks to make a gansey, although star knitter, North Yorkshire-based Marion Adamson, pictured here, has just finished one in a record four weeks.
On the harbour in Bridlington, there is a bronze statue called Gansey Girl, depicting a young woman knitting a gansey (Lesley took an example to the artist Steve Carvill to help make sure the knitting looked authentic). It’s a striking, touching memorial to a traditional craft – some say art – that continues to this day, thanks to Flamborough Marine. But for how long?
Flamborough Marine is at the Manor House, Flamborough, 01262 850943, www.flamboroughmanor.co.uk/flamboroughmarine/
Ganseys in a range of colours cost between £390 and £480, and hand-knitted gansey beanie hats in a range of colours start at £48. Gansey knitting kits cost from £80.70 and contain five-ply worsted Guernsey wool, a set of five double-ended 2.5mm steel needles, individual body and sleeve charts, and full instructions for the pattern. The gansey beanie hat kits are £25.
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