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.

 

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