Fisherman’s ganseys (or guernseys) are knitted garments usually produced by the wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of fishermen. Common to fishing ports throughout the British Isles, they were most prolific on the east coast, but also indigenous to the Netherlands.
Ganseys are knit in the round on circular or double pointed needles and are transferred to two needles when the body reaches the arm, at which point the back and front are knit separately. Arms are also knit in the round. Ganseys are essentially seamless, though many will include a mock seam at either side of the body and along the inside of the arms. Gansey patterns are vernacular and there are many. Whilst each gansey has its own distinct pattern for example The Filey or The Flamborough, patterns often share similar motifs, including marriage lines, cables, diamonds, anchors, hearts and pennants.Ganseys often include the initials of the wearer above the front welt and popular myth holds that the patterning of the gansey could identify the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea.
Mission Gallery was formerly a Seaman’s Mission and Swansea has a strong seafaring tradition. Interestingly ganseys are absent from Welsh cultural heritage. What this discovery enabled was the opportunity to create a gansey and I choose to do this for the gallery to acknowledge its past and to celebrate the gallery’s on-going contribution to Swansea’s contemporary culture.
Mission Gansey is concerned as much with communicating the language of knitting as it is with fostering a sense of locale. It seems that some craft traditions, like knit, have the vernacular materially embedded within them and thus potentially contribute to a sense of place or belonging. Within the Mission Gansey project is an attempt to explore how I might articulate the idea of belonging through the design and fabrication of a garment, a long-term ambition is to create a Swansea Gansey in collaboration with the City’s fishing community.
The whole process meant I needed to learn how to chart a knitting pattern, essential to the design of a gansey with its rich and complex combinations of knit and purl. I cannot measure with any accuracy how long it took me to develop a design that was true to the gallery and also ‘worked’. The process was overwhelmingly characterized by a troublesome engagement with maths, which was never my favorite occupation.
If we identify a pattern we assume it has some significance and make an effort to decode it. This is true for gansey designs particularly and explains some of my internal negotiation over the patterns in the Mission Gansey, should they relate to the fabric of the building, or what it stood for? In the end, it features both. Code breakers will spot the three windows of the apse, but also the signs of celebration with which the gallery is also associated. I am hopeful that gallery staff and visitors will contribute to the knitting of the gansey, that you will add your loops and turns to its fabric and contribute to its making.
Angela Maddock designed the gansey pattern for the Co-respondents exhibition at Mission Gallery in March and now you are invited to help Angela knit it up. She needs help with reading the pattern and is also keen for you to share your tales of the sea… bring along objects and photographs to contribute to her on going project and even knit a few stitches into our gansey.
Angela will be in the gallery at certain dates throughout the year following her successful knitting day on Bank Holiday Monday in May. These dates are yet to be confirmed so please check Mission Gallery’s Events page for details in the coming weeks.