Fisherman’s wife by Olive Edis, courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service

International Women’s Day 2023: the women behind the Ganseys 

For this International Women’s Day, I’d like to celebrate the skills of the women who knitted the original Norfolk Gansey jumpers by sharing their story with you. 

Little is known about the lives of the Norfolk fishermen, even less about the women who knitted their jumpers. No one really knows why the Ganseys jumpers became such an important part of the Norfolk finishing communities in the 19th century, but they developed within the large fishing families of Sheringham, Caister and Winterton, with each clan inventing their own version. Family seems to have been an important factor and the women were the matriarchs of the family who held the purse strings and kept everyone in tow. 

I know that several of the women would get together to knit them ganseys… you see if an older woman like my grandmother … she would teach them the way she was doing it… they all got together and the older women taught the younger women so they taught them their way.

Hazel Chaney in conversation with Martin Warren. 

The patterns were rarely written down, probably because they could knit better than they could write. Certainly, there are no original patterns left today. Like recipes and songs, they were learnt through doing. 

I’ve noticed through reading the transcripts of interviews with the knitters, transcribed by the curator of the local museum in the 1980’s, that some families had very strict rules about the patterns with every man requiring an identical knit, perhaps to show they were part of the clan with a reluctance to stand out from the crowd. However, other knitters did have more creative freedom adapting stitches that they saw other people wearing and incorporating them into their own patterns: 

“They used to make lovely ganseys and she used to go and look at the patterns from the “fishergirls” and she used to look at photographs, old photographs. Sometimes she would draw a pattern out.” 

Hazel Chaney in conversation with Martin Warren. 

Fishergirls knitting courtessy of the Knitwear and Crochet Guild / sampler of Norfolk Gansey stitches. 

The “fisher girls” were Scottish women and girls who would travel around the British coast line in the early oart of the 20th Century processing the herring which were caught by the trawler boats. They worked outside on the sea front in all weather, gutting and packing the fish into wooden barrels. The women would knit Ganseys whilst they waited for the fishing boats to come in.  

Great craftsmanship always comes with an enormous sense of pride. When you see these Gasnseys in photograohs or in real life, you can appreciate the skill and expertise that went into creating them. They have a timeless quality that has stood the test of time. 

“… you know what the older people were in those days, whatever they did they did well. It didn’t matter whether she was baking cakes or knitting ganseys or singing in the Chapel Choir, she did it well.” 

Hazel Chaney in conversation with Martin Warren. 

@piagrace wears the Esther scarf with the “Craske” Gansey in Heather Pink / flat images of the “Esther” scarf, back in stock this week in Oatmeal and Heather Pink. 

Every piece in the Charl collection is named after a fisherman or a Gansey knitter. I like to try and find out as much as I can about each character. Esther Nurse was one of the most talented knitters in Sheringham, she knitted for her brothers, husband and sons. She knitted some of the finest, most detailed jumpers, one of which still exists to this day and is held in the collections of the Sheringham Museum (“The Mo”). 

Sally Middleton outside her cottage / the “Middleton” nautical knit in Navy with Cream stripes. 

Sally Middleton was another great Gansey knitter; she is pictured here in her cottage garden wearing her version of a Gansey adapted for herself. It’s a knitted gilet with a front opening and buttons, completely different in shape to a Gansey, but it incorporates some of the same stitches. This is the only known version of a Gansey designed for a woman. 

To find out more please head over to my Journal page and read the article about Women and Knitting https://charlknitwear.co.uk/journal/women-and-knitting