Women and Worsted

My Norfolk Horn obsession is taking me to places I didn’t know I wanted to go but now I’m there I am loving it.  I have followed the Norfolks trail to Norfolks medieval and early modern textile industry.

England dominated the international textile trade, booms and busts notwithstanding, and Norfolk was the world centre for Worsted textiles. Textiles that were only possible to make due the production of vast amounts of yarn produced on what must have been an epic scale.

This is an extraordinary feat when you consider that until the introduction of powered spinning machines in the 1750’s, all yarn was spun by hand either on a spindle or on a wheel. And spun almost exclusively by women.

In the early medieval period spinning with a spindle and distaff was a ubiquitous activity of all women that transcended all classes.  For many women it the only way for them to provide their households with textiles. Spinning was so prevalent that it was not thought of as a skill or a craft that could be mastered but as some kind of natural ability inherent her gender. The spear side and the distaff side were terms to distinguish male inheritance from female inheritance. Spinster is still used today to describe an unmarried women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath cites a proverb that holds that the natural endowments of women as ‘Deceit, weeping, spinning, God hath given to women kindly, while they may live.’

There are many contemporary images showing women spinning, or carrying her equipment, spindle and distaff visibly prominent as she carries out her other tasks, as a visual representation of her productiveness and positive wifely attributes.

My favourite is The Lutrell Psalter,an 14thC manuscript with illuminations showing depictions of everyday life on a manor through the year. Its wonderful, go take a look here. In it most of the depictions of women show them either directly engaged in spinning or undertaking other activities with distaff and spindle visible ready to whip out at a moments notice.

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Spinning on a great wheel and carding wool (source: Lutrell Psalter folio British Museum)
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a women attending her chickens, spindle and distaff tucked in her arm.

 

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In this image a women looms above a cowering man brandishing her distaff  with her spindle flying like a flail. I can’t help but wonder what his crime was.  Depictions of irate women brandishing distaff and spindle occurs alot.  Misericords in Malvern and Westminster also show husbands being chased by irate wives with raised distaffs.

 

 

And one of my personal favourites:

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Jousting.  Just another alternative use for a distaff  (source: National Library of France)

Women must have had their spindles and distaffs about them at all times, ready to whip out and put to use at every opportunity. It must have been an incessant unrelenting and all pervasive activity.

In Norfolk, doing different seems to have been a consistent thread through time. Whilst the spinning wheel was widely adopted elsewhere, in Norfolk, spinning ‘on the rock’ (as spindle spinning was known) persisted more or less until mechanisation replaced hand-spinning from the mid 1700’s on.

The simple reason for this technical.  A great wheel cannot spin a worsted yarn (I wont bore you with the technicalities of worsted and woollen – that is whole chapter all on its own). As a consequence, in Norfolk all the worsted yarn, for which its spinners were famed, used in the worsted textile industry were spun on the rock.

Yes, on a weighted stick.

By hand.

Whilst she got on with doing everything else as well. Hmm.

This got me curious about the time it might have taken and the quantities involved. So I did a very rough back of the envelope calculation. And please note this took about 10 minutes and I have very limited weaving knowledge. I would be really interested if anyone out there would like to put this to the test and work up some real data.

It’s easy for us to underestimate just how good the quality of English textiles being produced at that time were. We don’t have museum archives stuffed with bolts of cloth or clothing or household draperies to examine. But we are lucky that a few precious fragments have survived. These range in quality from coarse rough cloth woven from uneven yarns to very fine worsted that must have looked like silk.

So, M’lady wants a new dress.

Assuming she’s a bit of dandy and wants a reasonably priced good quality cloth and this cloth had an even number of warp and wefts [2]. Analysis of contemporary textile fragments show that the numbers of threads ranged from approximately 8 – 28 threads per cm[1].

So let’s assume our worsted cloth had a count of 20 threads for every cm. So, 1cm2 would need: 20 + 20 = 40cm of yarn. If our fabric was 1m wide, each meter of woven cloth would need: 0.40 x 10,000 = 4km of thread.

A women’s dress may have required between 3 -5 m of fabric, depending upon her status, size and cut. There would also have been wastage from the weaving process and shrinkage.

So if we assume 5m of cloth. This would require at least: 4 x 5 = 20km of yarn.

Geez! How long would that take to spin?

It is impossible to say how productive a medieval spinner was. She was likely to be very well practised and competent at her craft. I’m not a well-practiced spindler so I can’t really use my output for this. I do know that a competent spindler can spin between 35 – 50 m in 15 minutes competitively. I don’t think we’ve evolved much since the 12th Century so I think it is safe to assume this is a good match for your average medieval spinster. This output equates to between 140 to 200m an hour.

It would take over 20hours to make enough yarn to weave a single meter of fabric.

Therefore, to spin enough for m’ladies dress would take over 100 hours.

100 hours.

This is in addition to the time taken to wash and prepare the fleece before spinning.

In addition to all the other tasks the household required.

This goes some considerable way to understanding just how precious textiles were, given the amount of labour it took to produce them.

So there may well be a grain of truth in the  statement I keep coming across that it took seven spinners to keep one Worsted weaver going.  Without them Norfolks wealth and power would not have been possible. But these women made it happen. Sadly though, these women remain unrecorded, unrecognised and, mostly, invisible.

[1] Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., & Staniland, K. (1992). Textiles and Clothing c. 1150—1450 [Volume 4 in Medieval Finds from Excavations in London].

[2] Warp threads are the threads the loom is dressed with and run vertically.  Weft threads are the threads the weaver inserts horizontally running over and under the warps)

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Knit mission update

SeansGansey2017I’m being very remiss with this blogy thing.  I said I would keep you updated on the Knit mission impossible Birthday Gansey.  Well here it is. If you follow the Instagram you will have seen its progress.

I did not make the birthday deadline – well that was not really a surprise was it now.

But it was finished with minutes to spare – the photo was taken whilst our lift was waiting to take us to the bus to the airport for a trip to New Zealand to see my folks in what I think of as my second home.  Quickly snapping some photos, Sean decided he was going to wear it on the journey.

Its not strictly a gansey as such, the construction is not using traditional technique.  Does this matter? The body was knit bottom up in the round and then dividing for front and back bib knitted flat.  Ganseys don’t use steeks.  The yarn is too slippery and the construction not strong enough for the rigours that work would have demanded.  The sleeves probably wouldn’t have lasted longer than five minutes on a fishermans back before coming adrift. In traditional gansey technique the sleeves were knitted straight of the the body by picking up stitches from the front and back after joining at the shoulder. For Seans jumper, the sleeves are set in for a more modern fit.  With the armhole shaping I also didn’t need to use an underarm gusset for ease of movement.   I am a bit niggly about the sleeve head.  I think its a bit pointy.  I’m hoping its going to settle down if not my obsessive angel that sits on my should will make me rip it and re-knit it till its right.  I can’t help it…knowing somethings not right disturbs me … I have to make it right or it will drive me nuts…

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Motifs on front bib

I stuck with diamond motifs – I really like the shape and how it could be worked with different textures.  So many variations just by knitting and purling stitches.  All those little bumps making negatives and positives. I find textured knitting not only really pleasing to knit, but also to look at and to feel them running under your fingers.  Lovely.

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back showing the patterned band, plain knit bib and sleeve shaping

I started the patterning just under the arms in a continuous band but, cheated time by only continuing the patterning all the way up the front bib  and plain stocking stitch up the back after separating the torso tube.

The yarn was not the easiest to work with, its very tightly spun and is quite sturdy. I knit english, holding the yarn and throwing it with my right hand whilst the left hand feeds the stitches to be worked. I found that my left hand forefinger does most of the work of feeding really felt it.  It got a bit calloused.  Hopefully, it will be incredibly hard wearing and last a lifetime if not more before I, or my descendants, have to mend it.

 

#GiveaKnit about christmas jumpers

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Let’s talk about those Christmas jumpers.

At the moment I am getting very exercised by the Christmas jumper phenomena. Aren’t they fun? Aren’t they festive? Isn’t it jolly to see all the great and good come out for the photo op on Christmas Jumper Day with their big cheques attired in a suitably cheesy/tacky acrylic/polyester jumper that was purchased only the day before by the PR office intern.It will probably the same intern that will be charged with taking said jolly jumpers to the charity shop the following day.

A survey by the HUBBUB foundation  found 1 in 4 Christmas jumpers were worn just the once. Further, 1 in 3 under 35’s reported buying a new one every year.  That’s appalling. I don’t think you could find a better example to highlight the issue of fast fashion and the devastating impact our take – make – dispose attitude to clothing has on the environment.

It’s absurd that vast amounts of non-renewable resources (oil!) are used to produce clothing that is quickly discarded. Resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year. Clothing that is little worn before being discarded.

According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation over 73% of this new clothing and textiles will end up either in landfill or incinerated[i].

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I love infograms, probably more than spreadsheets…

But, and this is what I find the most disturbing, most of these clothes will be made from synthetics including acrylic and polyester. These materials are plastics. Plastics do not biodegrade unlike natural fibres.  Plastics gradually shred into every smaller particles. Every time a synthetic garment is washed or worn tiny fibres (microplastics) are shed and washed out with the waste water. For an average wash load of 6 kg, over 700,000 fibres could be released per wash[ii].

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Acrylic fibres washed out from textiles under electron microscope. Source:University of Plymouth

These microplastics are washed out to sea. Textile fibres such as acrylic are denser than seawater so they sink and accumulate in the deep sea[iii]. A recent study took marine sediment samples taken from the Mediterranean, SW Indian Ocean and NE Atlantic Ocean. The study found abundant microplastics in all the samples. Reporting 57% Rayon, 23% Polyester and 5% acrylic microfibres in a colourful rainbow of blues, greens, reds and vibrant pinks, purples and turquoises.  The same study also found microplastics on corals in shallow seas. The story of Stuff has a nice little video explaining this process if you want to know more.

More worrying still these microplastics are now so prevalent in our oceans that they have entered the marine food chain.

We are quite literally plasticising our planet.

I don’t know about you but this terrifies me.

We are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution. Our attitude to clothing and the materials we use needs to change.

Wool is a fundamental part of this solution. It’s renewable, sustainable, biodegradable. Needs little resource inputs and has low emissions. You can wear a sheep, milk a sheep and eat a sheep!  Sheep are beautiful, miraculous, marvellous and under-estimated creatures.

Going back to the Christmas Jumper. I can’t help thinking that politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon and her team on Christmas Jumper Day 2017 would have made more of an impact if they had turned out in a wool sweater produced from Scottish fibre that they had worn last year and the year before and the year before that and given the cash that they avoided spending on the disposable version direct to charity.

I have decided that I need to join in with the jollity and get myself a festive jumper. I’m not one for the full Rudolf  – and there are some seriously jawdroppingly godawful patterns available if that is your thing. I really like The Perfect Christmas Jumper by Susan Crawford, Boreal by Kate Davies and Northshore by Tincan knits.

It’s too late for this year but then that’s not what it’s about. It will take me all year but then it will be there for every year thereafter.

So, remember A jumper is for life not just for Christmas!

I wish you all a very happy festive season, mine starts on Thursday, can’t wait, and a very happy new year.

[i] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf

[ii] Napper, I. E., & Thompson, R. C. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Marine pollution bulletin112(1), 39-45.

[iii] Woodall, L. C., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G. L., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., … & Thompson, R. C. (2014). The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. Royal Society Open Science1(4), 140317.

 

Norfolk Goes to the Mill

IMG_20171013_165925So, would you like to know what I did this weekend? I am so excited I can hardly contain myself.

You will probably have picked up that I have a bit of a thing about Norfolk Horns. Well I have decided to do something with it and have a wee project. And on Friday I took a whole load of fleece to the mill to be spun into yarn.

All summer I have been tracking down flocks of Norfolk Horn with the aim of sourcing fleece from small local producers.  I’ve been hunting up and down byways and highways, chasing leads. I’ve met some really grand folks who couldn’t have been more helpful and others who were less so. All were passionate about their sheep. I have to give thanks to them.

This has seen me spending a few days at Gressenhall Farm during shearing. Where I was privileged to watch and learning about shearing with Richard, the farm manager. He even let me have a go at shearing. I’ve never actually handled a sheep before. The closest I have ever got is petting some on the head. It’s no wonder she has a mad terrified look in her eyes. Junior is a wee bit curious…

The clippers were surprisingly heavy and vibrated strongly, nothing like the ones I use to clip Sean. I was a bit of a jessy and did a terrible job. I don’t think I will make a shearer!

The flocks tend to be tiny. In general their fleeces are in such small quantities that they do not send them to the BWMB. It’s too complicated and doesn’t earn any money. The price for Norfolk Horn at last check was about 80 pence a kilo. The average fleece weight for a Norfolk Horn fleece is about 1.5kg so thats less than £1.50 a fleece.  Selling via the BWMB won’t even cover half the cost of shearing. Other markets are hand spinners or selling on line. Here the price is better, £5 – £8 per fleece. But this is time consuming, reliant on word of mouth and networks and there are only so many hand spinners to go round.

I wanted to do something about this. Can I source local fleece, pay a fair price and produce a yarn that is economically sustainable? This is very much a pilot project. We will see what the answer to these questions are in the coming months.

On Friday the 13th October (an auspicious date) I packed all the fleece up into the back of the van and drove them to the Natural Fibre Company in Launceston, Cornwall for the next stage in the adventure.

The Natural Fibre Company is a specialist in processing rare breed fibre. Its also the sister company to Blacker Yarns.  I think it might be the largest small mill in the UK that spins both wool and worsted yarns under the same roof! Most importantly for me, in addition to a wealth of experience of spinning single breed yarns, they have tip top sustainability ethics and environmental credentials including a licence for organic production. The mill has been in Launceston, Cornwall since 2005. Though the company has a longer pedigree. It was started by Myra Mortlock in Methyr Tydfil in 1991 with her husband Phillip. In 2004 the business was taken over by Sue Blacker, one of their customers, and moved to Cornwall.  In 2008 the company installed a dye plant and launched Blacker Yarns. Quite a heritage.

So on a wet windy Friday we pitched up with our three bags full and were met by Cyd.  The mill itself is not what you would expect from the outside. As you pull of the A30 onto the Penygillam Trading estate you think this can’t be the right place but there it is at the end of the line. A very modest non-descript typical trading estate building that gives nothing away of the magic that is happening inside!

We took our bags and put them on the scales with fingers crossed.  The minimum quantity was 20kgs. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the scales tipped in at 30kg.

Cyd was wonderful, despite being ill and looking like death warmed up, she gave us a quick tour of the mill where Sean snapped away. I was so overwhelmed I forgot to take any pictures!  We started up on the Mezzanine where the incoming batches of fleece were stored.

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Quite a load!

After sorting, the first thing that happens is the scouring where the fleece is cleaned. It’s then carded into lovely fat fluffy rovings.

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After this the production line is split in to either woollen or worsted.

The woollen spinning takes the carded fibre, which contains fibres of different lengths and arranged in all directions, and teases it out into the thinnest ‘sheet’ of fibre I have ever seen.

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Scouring on the right and carding on the left

This is then drawn into rovings. Which is then spun and plied.

The worsted spinning takes the carded fibre and combs it a number of times to remove all the short fibres and aligns the remaining fibres in the same direction. This is what gives worsted yarn that sheen and density. The resulting tops are coiled like soft coiling snakes into drums. I love the beautiful symmetry of the coils.

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The tops are then spun and plied into lovely luscious yarn. The yarn is then finished as either skeins or balls on the amazing balling machine.

You can take your own virtual tour of the mill if you like.

Sssh don’t tell anyone but I had a good old squish of some of the beautiful Blacker Yarns. Oh my goodness, you should see what they have planned for next year! I could tell you but I think they would have to kill me. And the Samite!!

I can’t wait to see those fleeces back as yarn. I will keep you posted.

 

Knit Mission Impossible

IMG_20170912_145154200.jpgMe: its your birthday in soon, what would you like?

Sean, looks into the distance for a few moments: You know those fishermans jumpers in that exhibition.  One of those.

He is referring to a gansey and the exhibition was The Dutch Gansey exhibition at Sheringham Museum.

I blink and do a quick calendar roll in my head. That’s four weeks. To order the yarn and knit a mansize gansey. I sort of physically recoil. Blink. Gulp. And say in a quakey small voice: Ok.

I give him the Stella Ruhe book and tell him to show me what he likes. And then in a mad panic get myself online and order 2 cones of Frangipani yarn in traditional blue. Which thankfully arrived the next day. Thank you Gorgeous Yarns!

It’s not the first time I’ve done this. Setting myself a seemingly knit mission impossible. I do it all the time. If there is a special event I will always want a knit up the perfect shawl, wrap, cardigan, and jumper whatever. In the least time possible. Sometimes I pull it off. More often than not this will involve working later into the night that I ought to or getting up stupid early. On the bright side it’s about the only time when I’m grateful if I am having an insomniatic episode. I find myself getting a bit stressy with those I live with. And tears. Yes there are usually tears and tantrums.

It’s not just spinning and knitting projects, I do it to myself all the time. Inventing a huge list of chores that need to be completed, or decorating/DIY project to be finished in time for a visitor or some other deadline. None of these things are actually important or even necessary. The world will not end. The sun will still rise and set. No one will think badly of me. No one will judge me a failure. Only me.

Does this sound familiar?

I don’t think I am alone here.

There are times when setting and accomplishing small stupid tasks can seem just as overwhelming. When the black dog dogs me getting dressed, leaving the house, making a phone call or sending an email can seem to be too big to deal with.

But by setting a seemingly unachievable goal – even the trivial ones – will stretch me. And this is, generally, a good thing. Just trying to achieve that one thing can, if you pull it off, bring such a good feeling that is more positive than the self-defeating one of not even trying. Even if it does not go according to plan.

I won’t mention those over achievers that make the rest of us feel bad. They are just ridiculous.

Goals that stretch are good. Failure to reach them is OK. Not trying is not OK.  Why are we afraid to fail? How do we learn or grow ourselves if we are so afraid to fail that we don’t even try.

But I’m only talking about knitting. How silly. Or am I?

This is the progress after day 5:

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I have set myself a completely unachievable mission. A knit mission impossible. But I will give it my best shot. And if it’s not finished in time then so be it. I will be posting updates through September on my Instagram if you want to follow my progress.  And please give me encouragement. I think I am going to need it…

#knitmissionimpossible

 

The Norfolk Horn: Part 2

As promised, a second post on the Norfolk Horn. In this post I want to tell you a bit about its wonderful woolly fleece.

Facts first. Todays Norfolk horn is a medium sized, hardy sheep. With its distinctive black face, alert bright eyes, with magnificent strong open spiral horns.  Both rams and ewes have horns. Long black legs and a belly that is free from fleece. It is intelligent, inquisitive and friendly, and, relative to its ancestors, fairly docile.  Its docility is thought to be owed to the Suffolk part of the modern Norfolks genetic heritage.

If you can get your hands on a Norfolk horn fleece you will find it is a creamy coloured, down land type, with flecks of dark fibres, the amount of dark fibre will vary between fleeces.

The British Wool Marketing Board classifies its fibre as fine, with a given micron range of 32 – 34.  So not so fine.  But bear with me. It does have a soft to medium handle. It has a staple length of 7 – 10 cm. The lock structure varies from a longish pointed staple in Shearling fleeces to a short thick more blocky staple in older sheep.

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Shearling locks

The fleeces are quite small weighing in between 1.25 – 2.25 kg.  But the belly and legs are not fleeced. I have found that their fleeces tend to need little skirting so don’t generate too much waste. But they are greasy.  Very greasy.

Another factor in their favour, it is incredibly reluctant to felt.  So best avoided if you want a woollen yarn to full if you’re a weaver or felter. But great if you are a bit on the heavy/careless side with your finishing and washing. That’s not say they are impossible to felt…Here’s something from my research into the Norfolk breeds history: The poor felting of the Norfolk breed was one of the reasons why Norfolk developed a thriving Worsted yarn and cloth industry during the middle ages.

Surprisingly the lovely soft chocolatey brown fleece in this photo is Norfolk Horn.  The Lambs are born with dark fleece and this gradually grows through to white with time. If you are lucky enough to get lambswool like this, the fleeces are a beautiful, short stapled but very fine and wonderfully soft. You’ll find shades ranging from salt and pepper grey through to dark rich chocolatey brown/black.  The black fades out over time but some adults keep some dark fibres which gives an interesting colouring when it’s spun.

It is a great fibre to spin giving a bouncy lively yarn. The medium staple length and crimpiness make it a very tolerant fibre perfect for new spinners. It is not slick and slippery like over processed merino. It sort of sticks together and lets the spinner focus on keeping the wheel/spindle turning, whilst drafting the fibre and letting it feed in without having to concentrate too hard on keeping the drafted fibre.

I have found it spins up much softer than its fibres suggest it ought.  But it is definitely a tickly sheepy yarn with bounce and life.  The yarn seems to carry the character of the breed it comes from.

In general I card Norfolk horn on a drum carder. I used to painstakingly comb locks before feeding on.  Took for ever.  My hands raw, sore and blistering from combing.  I don’t do this now.  Now I pick up the locks, pull out any offending neps, noils, second cuts and other reject bits.  Lay the lock perpendicular to the licker in and then feed it onto the drum sideways.  Yes sideways.  No.  Not tip first.  Not butt first.  Sideways.  Brilliant.  I promise you try this once and you will be amazed at how speedier this whole boring slow boring and tedious process becomes.  I will then split these once carded batts and then card them another couple of times.  Picking out nasty bits as I go.

In general a woollen or semi-woollen spinning suits the fine character of the Norfolk the most.

 

This swatch was spun longdraw from the batt as strips that I’ve pulled into slivers.  Its about 15 wpi and knitted on 3mm needles.

I’m useless at hand carding rolags, always seems to be full of neps and lumps and bumps. The yarn is light,airy and bouncy.  It has a much softer hand than expected but is definitely tickly.  Don’t mock the quality of my spinning, I can never seem to get enough ply twist!

The longer staples make a great worsted yarn. Unlike the sample in this picture, which is not my best. It spun denser than the woollen sample, at about 13 – 14 wpi and is knitted on 3mm needles.

 

When combed and spun worsted the resulting yarn has a lovely lustre and an amazing memory. Although it has a crisper handle the stuff is like elastic! It just keeps springing back to shape. It makes a perfect sock yarn. I’ve wondered about adding blending in some mohair for a harder wearing sock yarn. Haven’t got around to it yet. Although you will also lose a lot of fibre through combing but this can be carded and spun into a lovely textured woollen yarn. This swatch is spun worsted short draw.  Sort of. I may have drifted of at points and forgot to keep with the inch worm…its firmer and a little harder hand that the woollen spun.

This cardigan is Norfolk horn.

I was in a silk phase so everything was being blended with silk.  Didn’t need it.  The brown pattern work is Alpaca.  Despite being light its incredibly warm.

Heres another example.  These are socks are Norfolk horn.  I knitted them from a two ply worsted yarn spun from combed top and then dyed. They never, ever sag or bag. And I really like the lustre and good stitch definition. They have also more than a few trips through the washing machine at regular 40oC cycle.  Did not felt. Amazing.  The pattern, if you are wondering is Sunshine by Cookie A.  Love love love her socks….

To sum up, its sheepy, bouncy, a full of life, versatile, dyes well and is virtually a natural superwash  fibre.

Hopefully that’s what you need to know. Go find some if you can and give it a go. I would love to know how you find it.

Dutch Ganseys at the Sheringham Museum

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I took myself of the The Stella Ruhe Dutch Gansey Exhibition at the Sheringham Museum yesterday.

The exhibition is the result of research by Stella Ruhe in to the heritage and history of Dutch fishing communities and the ganseys worn by these men. It’s a travelling exhibition of over 60 ganseys reproducing old patterns in modern yarns. The exhibition also includes a few Sheringham Ganseys.

What is a gansey? It’s a close fitting, usually seamless, sweater traditionally worn by fishermen along much of the North Sea coastline of Britain and the Netherlands. Designed to be a very practical item of work wear. Hardwearing, windproof, waterproof. Tough. A tough garment for a tough environment worn by people who had tough lives. I think you get the point.  Ganseys were the work horses of knitwear. Hardcore knitwear.

Everything about them was practical and honed to achieve a windproof, waterproof, hard wearing easily mended long lived garment. From a technical point of view Ganseys were perfect for their function. A simple construction. A basic T shape. Knitted seamless in the round on fine 5 double pointed needles (14 – 17 imperial or less than 2mm) to create a dense windproof textile. Tight fitting, with little ease, often with an underarm gusset for movement. The sleeves a little on the short side to keep the hands and lower arms free. Cuffs knitted after thought to make repairs easy.

Traditionally knitted in dark blue in 5-ply worsted yarn. Although research is turning up all sorts of colours, greys, pale blues, black and red. Decorated with textured patterns round the upper torso, possibly to increase thickness for extra warmth.

Working ganseys were also rarely, if ever, washed and were worn next to the skin. The oils, dirt and grime all adding to the weatherproofing. I can’t help wondering what they would have felt and smelt like. Savoury?

What I find fascinating about ganseys is that despite the practicality of the gansey as work wear space was found for the knitter to express her art and craft in the decoration.  Ganseys were, by and large, knitted by women for their menfolk. Their sons, husbands and fathers.  The stitch patterns (all in simple combinations of knit and purl) were passed along by word of mouth down generations from mother to daughter and transmitted around the coastal communities of the North Sea. Each community developing its own unique pattern and stitch ‘library’. Rich in traditions and heritage, the stitch patterns symbolised everyday life: tools, harvest, landscape and weather. Stitch patterns include ridges and furrows, waves, anchors, diamonds, cables, lightening, ropes and ladders. The textural patterns are clean, linear, abstract and look modern.

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This is a wonderful example knitted by Esther Nurse of Sheringham in 1950. Its the Norfolk II Sheringham in Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Ganseys by Gladys Thompson. It used a 4-ply yarn knitted to a tension of 12 stitches and 20 rows to the inch. Her father died wearing a gansey of this pattern, it apparently fitted so snugly that it had to be cut off. The pattern shows the 3 ridges around the chest common to most Norfolk ganseys. What I really like is the unrepaired hole. I am wondering if its wear and tear of if moths may have been the culprit.

A gansey was much more than just a practical uniform for work. Fishermen wore their ganseys at all times, even having a Sunday best Gansey for Church, weddings high days and holidays. And it is thanks to this that we have some scanty records of these beautifully crafted garments.

As an item of workwear produced by women and worn by working men ganseys are overlooked and largely unrecorded. There are surviving records of boys and men posing in their best ganseys in rare (and expensive) studio photographs or documented at their work by photographers such as Olive Edis.

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Just how fine is this knitting? I love fine knitting. I assumed it was hand knit. It was so beautifully even, crisp and precise and fine. I can appreciate the time this garment took to make, if it was by hand and not machine. It’s truly amazing. A testament to the art and craft of the knitter. I wish I knew the women that made this.

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Mending and repairs. Definitely not a disposable item these were precious garments to be mended and maintained. Or just worn to destruction. There is a lovely picture in the Fishermans Heritage Centre , just around the corner from the Sheringham Mo, showing a lifeboat man at work in a much worn and frayed gansey. The yarn curling and unravelling out from a hole at the cuff. I didn’t note the name of the gentleman pictured, and excuse to go back…

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Pompoms and tassels. These confused me. Would having cord around your neck with fluffy balls on the end not be something of an accident waiting to happen on a working fishing boat? This is a question I hope I can get answered at the 2 day Symposium being held at the end of September.

I ended the visit with chips on the beach watching the world and his dog go by and trying to imagine quieter days before ‘holidays’ were invented.

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You can visit the exhibition from now until the end of September. The Gansey Symposium 2017 is from 29th September to Sunday 1st October.