NORFOLK Museums Service
Fisherman Belcher Johnson

Fishermen's Ganseys

A fisherman's gansey was once his most distinctive feature. A navy blue jumper, patterned on the top half and part of the sleeves was a proud possession. It was likely to be knitted by a loved one and carried a pattern characteristic of the fishing port or the family. Ganseys could be found all around the North Sea and the British coasts from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century and the tradition lives on with a few Norfolk fishermen today. Theirs were perhaps the most finely knitted of them all, especially those from Sheringham.

The technique of knitting ganseys is not especially difficult, in theory. They are knitted 'in the round' on five or more needles. First comes the casting on, which is often done in double wool for strength and then a welt in rib or ridges. Knitting continues in the round in stocking stitch, with a false seam created by a column of purl stitches down each side. Half way up the body the pattern begins, usually divided from the plain part by three ridges. When it reaches the bottom of the arm holes it divides into identical 'front' and back' and the ends of each row are held temporarily on spare needles or a loop of yarn. The patterned yoke is knitted back and forth until the shoulders are reached. Here the shoulder strap is created from a series of ridges and back and front are grafted together. The stitches are picked up around the arm-hole and the sleeve knitted down to the cuff. There is often a gusset under the arm and another feature is that the false side-seam is continued down the underside of the arm to the cuff. The cuffs are cast off at their bottom end, which gives the opportunity if need be for repairs to be made by unravelling from the cuff and re-knitting it. The gansey is finished by picking up the stitches around the neck and knitting a short stand-up collar in rib and casting off at the top.

Sheringham Patterns

Of all the Norfolk fishing ports, Sheringham is particularly noted for its ganseys. They are extremely fine, being knitted in size 16 or even size 17 needles with three-ply worsted wool. This gives a stitch count of 13 stitches and 19 rows per inch. The result is a fabric that is difficult to believe is hand-knitted, with extremely crisp and delicate patterns. These are usually oriented vertically, alternating between two pattern element A-B-A-B-A.. etc. across the width of the chest. For example one inch columns of zigzags alternate with similar columns of fine moss stitch to give 'lightning and hailstones'. Several dozen patterns are known from Sheringham so far - which quashes the oft-repeated remark, that 'each port has its own pattern'. There may be a typical style and a few popular patterns but there is an enormous variety created by the many knitters of Sheringham over the years.