What The Gansey Sweater Can Teach You About Utility Knitting

Have you ever knitted something only to find that it is not very practical? Then, you'll know how disappointing it feels.

When you knit your own clothing, you have a fantastic opportunity to customise them to your own personal requirements. If you don't take practicality into account when starting a knitting project, you are doing yourself (and your wardrobe!) a big disservice.

The Gansey sweater is one of the most practical garments in the history of knitwear. Every feature of this sweater has been carefully chosen to meet the daily needs of its wearer, yet it is highly attractive too.

In today's article, I will be sharing more about the history of the Gansey sweater to inspire you to knit garments that are both beautiful and practical.


The History of the Gansey Sweater

The Gansey (or Guernsey) sweater is a hard-wearing, seamless sweater worn by Fishermen who spent their days at sea. It originates from the Island of Guernsey, where it was developed over 400 years ago.

Many of the fishing communities lived in isolated areas, meaning that they had no choice but to be self-sufficient. Sweaters were often knitted by Fishermen's wives (or prospective wives) to protect their husbands from the ruthless conditions at sea. They were also knitted for their children. When outgrown, the garments were either passed down or refashioned to fit smaller members of the family. Likewise, the knitting patterns for these sweaters were also passed down through the generations, purely from memory.

Image Source: Donna Wilson

Utilitarian Sweater Construction

Traditionally, Ganseys are knitted from 5 ply wool in a deep navy colour, naturally dyed from Indigo. This yarn was knitted tightly to ensure that the sweater was not only warm but water and wind resistant too.

Sweaters were knitted in the round. In some designs, seam stitches were simulated, however, they were purely aesthetic. The silhouette was boxy with dropped shoulders and a square stand-up collar. Often, gussets were added under the arms for greater ease of movement when working on the boat. For the same reason, some Gansey sweater designs feature split, straight welts at the hem rather than ribs.

Interestingly, the front and back of the sweaters were knitted identically so that they could be reversed in cases of excessive wear at the elbows or elsewhere. Parts of the sweaters were unravelled and mended when needed meaning that the colour of the indigo could vary wildly in one garment as parts of the fabric aged. Visible mending at it's finest!

Guernsey sweaters were cast on and off in "double wool" for a rather bulky, but highly durable edge. The trims were designed to be very snug in order to keep out the winter cold, whilst the cuffs were knitted shorter than usual to stop them being soaked with sea water.

My first attempt at a traditional Gansey stitch layout. I tried the "double wool" cast on, but find the way that it spreads unsightly. I think I need a bit of practice to get the balance right on the panelling too! Here, I used: double moss stitch, diamonds, ladder stitch and moss stitch.

Gansey Sweater Stitch Designs

The design of a classic gansey sweater could vary from a very simple "working" garment to something more elaborate that would be worn for special occasions, such as church. These smarter sweaters featured much more stitch patterning than their working counterparts.

These stitch patterns were inspired by everyday objects that the fisherman would observe at sea, such as rope, netting and ladders. Many regions had their own stitch designs which were also incorporated into their sweaters.

In many cases, the fisherman's initials were stitched into the sweater. Whilst this is a charming decorative detail, some say that this was to help identify the body should the fisherman fall victim to the sea.


Learning Practicality From The Gansey Sweater

I'm fascinated by the history of the gansey sweater because it exemplifies exactly how I feel about knitting a more wearable wardrobe. The Gansey knitters carefully considered how they could knit these sweaters into high-performing pieces of workwear. The end results were extremely successful and have stood the test of time. As a hand knitter, you have the incredible opportunity to tailor your garments to your own requirements too.

Do you hate the feeling of the cold air up your sleeves? Make your sweaters cuffs more fitted.

Does your wardrobe mainly comprise of high-waisted skirts and trousers? Make your knits slightly cropped to flatter this silhouette.

Do you find pure wool itchy? Stop knitting with it and choose something that you feel comfortable wearing.

This is your chance to create the perfect garment for your own unique needs.

How do you make your garments more practical?

I'd love to hear about ways that you make your own knitted garments more practical. Please share them in the comments section below! And if you're interested in learning more about knitting traditional Gansey sweaters from various regions, Gladys Thompson's Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans is extremely interesting.

P.S. I'm fascinated by the concept of designing stitches based on the mundane objects we encounter in our everyday lives! What would your stitches look like?