le Tour de Gansey, part deux: Intermediate Sprint #2

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From the Tour de France Knitalong Blog, Sprint #2 is the Regional Challenge:
Every region and town in France seems to have its very own specialty wine, cheese, or produce that it is particularly well known for. One of the joys of the Tour de France is to discover the flavours which characterise each region. This week’s intermediate sprint is all about regions:

  • Knitting Option: Is your project inspired by or traditional to a particular region (whether French or not?) Investigate the origins of a technique or pattern you’re using and tell us all about it! Note: entries need not let pesky facts get in the way of a good story!

I sort of inadvertently participated in Intermediate Sprint #2 by way of point #2 in my first Intermediate Sprint post, but I’ll try to go more in depth here.

You may remember that my cast on had a name that very directly tied it to a particular region: The Channel Island Cast-On. This cast-on is both decorative and functional; the doubled yarns give it strength (doubled-yarn cast-ons of all sorts are very typical of Ganseys), but the particular cast-on gives a picot-like edge to garter stitch, because of the extra twist which produces a sort of bobble on the bottom of every other cast-on stitch. But enough about the cast-on…what about the Channel Islands? What do they have to do with Ganseys?

Well, it turns out, not as much as you might think! At least, not specifically; the traditional gansey-construction spread very quickly throughout all of the coastal areas of the UK and even the coastal areas of Denmark, and Holland, and (from what I can surmise) was most popular in the northerly regions like the Hebrides, though they were also knit in the Channel Islands. Below is a map from Beth Brown-Reinsel’s book “Knitting Ganseys”, with a dot marking locations where gansey features have been found in knitted garments:

Map from "Knitting Ganseys"

You might recognize some of the place-names on that map (click on it and go to the full size if it’s hard to read)…many of them made it into the names of ganseys and other sweaters designed by Alice Starmore and others. It’s hardly surprising that such a useful and good looking garment, ideally designed for the hard work of fishing, would be so popular throughout coastal regions. What makes it so ideal for fishing? With its close fit, tight water- and wind-proof gauge, and underarm gussets for free movement, it could withstand the often cold, almost always wet conditions with which fishermen had to contend, without too much extra material to get in the way or get caught in nets or such (baggy sweaters, a la Starmore, would not be the best for actual fishermen!)

What the Channel Islands did uniquely contribute to this traditional garment (in addition to the eponymous cast-on) came from the names of the two largest Channel Islands; Guernsey and Jersey. As I mentioned in my Sprint #1 post, in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I established industries for the production of knitted hosiery (that is, stockings and such) in the Channel Islands. The stockinette-based fabric came to be known as “jersey” (as it still is, today…think of the jersey-knit fabrics you can buy at the store) or “guernsey” after the names of the islands on which they were produced. The word “guernsey” in particular came to be the name of the fisherman’s sweaters that were primarily made from stockinette-based fabric, and this name is still used alternately with “gansey” for this traditional form of sweater. It is thought that ganseys began as undergarments, just like the stockings produced on the Channel Islands, but as they were often exposed when the fishermen took off their top layers, knitters began to embellish them with the decorative pattern motifs we see on traditional ganseys (with the most elaborate embellishments appearing on Hebridean Ganseys). Fishermen saved their nicest, most decorative ganseys for special occasions, and wore less elaborate ganseys as their normal work-wear.

Well, that pretty much covers the tie between the Channel Islands region and the gansey (and particularly its cast-on), but what about the Channel Islands themselves? They’re located in the English Channel, much closer to the coast of France than to the coast of England. Culturally and linguistically, they have strong ties to Normandy (but also to England, especially in the last century), having been settled by Normans (aka “Norse Men”, aka “Vikings”, who adopted the language of the French-speaking peoples they conquered in coastal France, just as they adopted the English language of those they conquered in the Danelaw), though geopolitically speaking, Guernsey and Jersey are self-governing bailiwicks that are British Crown Dependencies, but not part of the UK (and I have to admit, I totally do not understand how these things work; the (Great) Britain/UK/England/Crown-Dependency distinctions confuse me!). During World War II, they were the only part of the British Commonwealth that was occupied by Germany (and they suffered greatly under this occupation). The Channel Islands look like they’d be a beautiful place to visit; a search on guernsey at flickr yields a number of gorgeous photos. Absolutely stunning!

Well, that wraps up my exploration of the Channel Islands and their link to the history of the traditional gansey. I hope y’all enjoyed it! And now it’s time for me to go back to Sleeve Island (I’ve reached the elbow!). Expect a post on Stage 8 in a day or so!

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7 thoughts on “le Tour de Gansey, part deux: Intermediate Sprint #2

  1. Lovely Whitney, I studied Ganseys whilst at university when I did my dissertation on “Christian Symbolism in Knitwear” and learned about all the different symbols that were used.

    Keep knitting!

  2. Another chapter in the thesis – done! I had an art history professor at uni who once said Normans “were Vikings with French accents”!

  3. CathyAnn

    If I hadn’t bought (and read) “Knitting in the Old Way” by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, I’d have no idea what you’re talking about. But it is very informative.

    As an aside, the only thing I’ve swapped for on Ravelry was some handspun from a woman in Guernsey. I don’t think the roving was from there, but it was quite lovely and made a beautiful scarf (or should I say it will be beautiful once I block it).

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