I have fisherman sweaters on the brain—ganseys or guernseys or jerseys or Cornish knit-frocks or whatever regional name you give these sweaters made with twinelike wool, often dark blue.
This yarn I’m using for my pullover has me thinking about ganseys. It’s true, English 5-ply Guernsey Wool. Made up north in Yorkshire, as in the 19th century when the textile mills were concentrated there, and marketed by a company in Cornwall, Frangipani, way down in the southwesternmost corner of England. Where the Cornish knitters knitted.
Knitting used to be so different. I mean: not a hobby. Nineteenth-century knitters weren’t sitting around Starbucks stitching and bitching. They were sitting on rocks by the sea, knitting in the daylight because their cottages were too dark at night to see their work. In the British Isles in particular, the production knitting industry of the 19th century was a big deal, one of the true cottage industries in the sense that women and children would take in knitting as a means of income. They were knitting for cash, and there was nothing leisurely about it. Patterns were not written down; they were passed along by word of mouth and demonstration. Speed was everything—200 stitches a minute. A gansey finished every week.
Tom of Holland made a Cornish knit-frock. It took more than a year, and reading about the making of it is the kind of reportage that makes my day. Not only do we get a grand look at his Cornish knit-frock, he shares the lessons he learned for the next time he makes a sweater using size 1 needles. The optimism in that statement cannot be overstated.
Oh, Tom of Holland, you led me down the rabbit hole of Mary Wright’s 1979 book, Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks, just one click from the ether into my brain.
There are some seriously beautiful stitch patterns captured in this book. The knits and purls and cables are simple to make but create a dense, beautiful fabric when worked at such tiny scale. The 19th-century photographs are a window into a lost time.
Cornwall circa 1883 or Brooklyn circa 2015?
More recently, Beth Brown-Reinsel‘s Knitting Ganseys studies the elements of a gansey as well as a baby-sized practice gansey to get the hang of gansey weirdness such as the underarm gusset. Who else has underarm gusset on the knitterly bucket list?
A Gansey for the 21st Century
Leave it to Bonne Marie Burns to create a thoroughly modern cardigan that shows complete understanding of what a gansey is.
This is Fisher Lassie.
Typically for Bonne Marie, she makes it stinkin’ cute and fun to knit in a way that a traditional gansey might not necessarily be.
The shawl collar in particular makes me all twingly—so tidy and neat that a person just wants to make one.
That headline above is from M. A. Courtney, in Cornish Folk-lore. The Cornish really were ferocious knitsters, such a fascinating combination of need and art coming together.
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