Archive for the ‘ganseys’ Category

“The Yorkshire Mary Rose”

The Grand Turk, Whitby

The Grand Turk, Whitby

Few scholars, costume historians or keen students of knitting history seriously believe for a minute that ganseys (or any knitted jumpers for seamen) existed prior to the 19thC.  But the myth does get promulgated, occasionally on places like ‘Ravelry’,  and neophytes may get taken in. And I like to think of myself as a kind of iconoclast. Sacred cows are for exploding. Let’s do some more…

Apparently, the “reason” we have no earlier evidence of mariner ganseys is due to the slop chests – even of abandoned ships – being plundered. Clothes were valuable, etc etc. Plus, of course, the conditions on a sunken vessel are not conducive to textile preservation, archaeologically speaking.  Sounds logical, right?

Until you’ve heard of The General Carleton.

A couple of months ago, we visited the Captain Cook Memorial  Museum in Whitby. By some total fluke – ’twas an impulse visit – there, on the top floor, was a temporary exhibition. And in that exhibition were… some knitted artefacts from a vessel, The General Carleton of Whitby, which sank in the port at Gdansk, Poland, in 1785. They are on temporary display at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum – and well worth a visit before they return to Gdansk!

The General Carleton artefacts can normally be found at the Polish Maritime Museum, in Gdansk.

We couldn’t photo the artefacts for yous with no permissions in place – but look out for a future ‘Knitting Genealogist’ article in ‘Yarn Forward’, where we hope to share some with you, if we can get the permissions we need!

The story of The General Carleton and the rescue archaeology that brought the Yorkshire ship’s artefacts to the Polish Maritime Museum is best told on his website, or in his book “The Yorkshire Mary Rose”,  by Yorkshire born and bred writer, Stephen Baines.

Mr Baines’ ancestors were Whitby mariners in the 18thC and 19thC –  who better to tell the story!

Suffice to say here, the ship’s contents (around 775 artefacts) were saved by a weird and wonderful chance.  The day it sank, The General Carleton had a cargo of pine tar, which mixed with the Baltic seawater and sand, formed a matrix which acted as a protective barrier, preserving even the contents of maybe 9 or 10 slop chests.

Aboard the vessel were the Captain, William Hustler; John Pearson, carpenter; John Swan, second mate; 6 new seamen – Nicholas Theaker;  George Taylor;  John Purvis; Andrew Gibson; Andrew Noble and Thomas Edes; and the apprentices, James Hart, John Thompson, John Noble, John Fraiser, Richard Neale, John Johnson and Richard Trueman.  Only Hustler and Theaker perished during the storm – local tradition has it that the other mariners made it to shore.

Several of the knitted artefacts (excavated in 1995 and previously only on display in Gdansk), are on loan to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. These include stockings, mittens, gloves and, most glorious of all, a colourwork thrummed cap.

Amongst the retrieved body of artefacts are gloves, mittens, stockings, waistcoats, sailors’ serge jackets, shoes, – basically almost the entire and intact contents of the crew’s slop chests.  Some of the items look to be traded – most obviously, some very Latvian style mittens.  Others – notably the stockings, and the beautiful Shetland patterned hat with a thrummed border, look to be Yorkshire knit. The hat is a natural white, with orangey and browny/green forming the patterns. I suspect it is locally knit because I have found an image of ‘whalebone scrapers’ in the 1814 ‘Costume of Yorkshire’ (George Walker), which are almost identical – white knitted caps, patterned with bright orange and green.  The repro pattern has a tension of 20 st to 10cm.  I will try and get up there to study and document it accurately before it leaves Yorkshire, but Appendix 4 of Stephen’s lovely book, ‘The Yorkshire Mary Rose’ has a pattern already worked out for a repro of the hat and I am sure it is accurate!

There is a photo in Stephen Baines’ book of some of the clothing, as it was excavated, still neatly folded with a felt hat on top – exactly as it was left in the slop chest (which must have rotted away from around it).

Mr. Baines writes:

“A sailor’s most valuable possessions were his clothes, which might include a jacket or two, a waistcoat or two, three shirts, a pair of trousers and a pair of breeches, two pairs of drawers, two or three pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, a couple of handkerchiefs, a pair of mittens, a hat and a cap….  The surviving clothes were all from the stern section of the ship, and so are likely to have comprised the contents of the sea-chests of the master, mate, and the servants – possibly the carpenter – in all nine or ten people…”

From “The Yorkshire Mary Rose”, Stephen Baines,  Blackthorn Press, 2010

This book is a cracking read, and has good images of some of the knitted artefacts.

The sailors were of course, wearing clothes when the ship went down (all hands survived) and so, given the fairly liberal amounts of clothing found on the wreck, from this we can imagine they were pretty well provided with clothing.  Do I need to add – there is not a shred or trace of a gansey or anything that could be a fragment of one?  And I doubt pine tar discriminates.  There is a serge jacket in a remarkable state of preservation – as are the knitted items currently on display at Whitby.

So there we have it. A perfect time capsule of a Yorkshire vessel with a named crew (the original muster rolls for every voyage survive) out of a Yorkshire port in the 1780s – no ganseys. Only woven waistcoats, and woven jackets. 15 jackets/jacket parts survive  and 27 stockings/stocking parts. [Pg 67]. Mr Baines remarks that less than half of the extant stockings were machine knitted. Looking at Whitby businesses of the time, and extant clothiers’ records,  he concludes the mariners’ clothing was probably a complex mix of shop bought, commercially made clothing and home-made.

Experienced sailors would buy their clothing from specialist slop-shops that could be found near docks in most ports. Young mentions that in 1816 Whitby had six slop-shops and there would certainly be some in 1777, with the proprietors of such establishments appearing in the parish records as shop keepers…


I stumbled on this exhibition the very week I’d been at York Reference Library, researching the York charity schools – hotbed of stocking knitting in 1780s’ Yorkshire.  So very odd to have held Catharine Cappe’s 1799 book in my actual hands and then, within days, see some actual 1780s’ Yorkshire stockings!  The hat is what really grabbed me, though.  Look out for a future ‘Knitting Genealogist’  feature in ‘Yarn Forward’ – I’ll try and share it with yous!


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Fancy Sheath from Dales Countryside Museum. Photo Credit: Belinda May

Wondering about the discussion elsewhere re. fancy sheaths, I had a quick trawl of the 19thC Newspapers archive from the British Library.

And I found this, for Darlington (Teeside, bit further North of Yorkshire) about an agricultural show and its prize categories, several times in the 1870s:

Middleton-in-Teesdale Floral, Horticultural, and Industrial Society held its fifteenth annual exhibition on Saturday afternoon….

One category is

Ornamental Knitting Stick

The winner was Thos. Anderson of Harwood.

That ‘ornamental’ suggests some indeed were just made for show.

Meanwhile, The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Nov 1871, describes a Hospital Bazaar at Rotherham (South Yorkshire) where offered for prizes are “German silver knitting sheaths”.

Only ten years later, in 1881, London’s Morning Post describes a meeting of the British Archaeological Society, where members were producing Byzantine coins, bits of Neolithic flint, etc:

… Mr Ferguson, F.S.A., produced a large collection of knitting sheaths from the Wigton district, Cumberland. These archaic-looking instruments were much commented on, and the chairman pointed out the resemblance of sum of the form of knife on the mithraic scultpure at Newcastle; while Mr. G. Wright., F.S.A., drew attention to their analogy to the Persian creases….

These sheaths sound workaday and probably wooden. Clearly what the academics thought as crazy curiosities were still in use though, as finally, an ad from 4.1.1888’s London ‘Morning Post’:

LOST , on Saturday, between Seymour-place, Bryanstone-square and Sloane-street, an Old silver KNITTING SHEATH. Whoever returns it to Humphries, 52 Seymour Place will be REWARDED

What’s interesting about this is it’s 7 years AFTER the archaeologists have already decided sheaths are ‘archaic’ and also – the fact it’s silver and owned by someone wealthy enough to live near Sloane St – means it’s probably been used as an everyday thing, despite the fact it’s silver (bearing in mind people at this date still willed silver teaspoons to eachother, and/or got hard labour for stealing comparatively small bits of silver!)

Ah just gone to check on FindMyPast as you can search the census by street names alone. This Seymour Place is in Marylebone. In 1881 no 52 is occupied by Robert and Mary Ann Humphris sic, ages 40 and 38, born in Plymouth, Devon and London respectively. And Robert is….. “Silversmith employing 3 Men and 2 Boys”. They live with a brother in law, nephew and one servant. Assuming you wouldn’t let a servant loose on the streets with a silver knitting sheath, we can probably guess the lady of the house lost it! And Robert Humphries must have made a few silver sheaths (If there were not plate silver they’d be hallmarked and have the London assay mark). Robert Humphries’ mark can be seen here:


Just to make life more complex, I just checked 1891 to see if the Humphries were still at 52 Seymour Place.

I found:

Robert Humphries, 49, Silversmith , born Plymouth, Devonshire

and… new wife:

Flora Humphries, 18, born Colchester Essex

They live with a nephew, neice and servant. Free BMD tells me Mary Ann Humphries of the right age, died in Marylebone in the last quarter of 1889. So it looks like Robert was newlywed close to the date of the 1891 Census.

She died within a year of the ad was placed in the Morning Post – so it must have been Mary Ann, not Flora, who lost the silver sheath!  Given Mary Ann’s address and status, the inference is fancy sheahs were not only treasured – but used (notice it’s ‘old’) and also, better still, puts paid to the idea that sheaths were seen as somehow ‘lower class’ and not be used in public by middle class women…

A Robert Humphries married Flora Gillies in Marylebone district, in the last quarter of 1890.

You’ll be relieved to know, that’s my sleuthing done for today!

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Filey, yesterday.  This time we parked up at the country reserve and walked down, which meant crossing the Ravine on the lovely Church Bridge.  Nice because this brings you in to the town via the old fishermen’s cottages:

Filey Old Town

From there, it’s a short walk to the Museum. Passing this:


I did spare a thought for these lovely gents, photographed at the Cliff Top – although I’m not sure exactly where this is, as apparently much of the older buildings in Filey were demolished in the 1960s.

Filey Fishermen at Cliff Top, courtesy Filey Museum

I photo’d all the ganseys on display in the museum (many of the pics too shaky to share here, but good enough for me to chart from!)

"Bert lost the gig modelling for 'GQ Magazine' because they said he was too 'wooden'..."

And there does seem to be emerging a generic Filey-esque gansey pattern but with some variations, of course. More of which at a future date, after I’ve charted and documented all I can!

I have a feeling that is another gansey myth, that broad assertion that you could tell which village a man was from, by his gansey.  Because knitters get bored. Knitters riff. Knitters evolve paterns. Knitters nick things they like from other knitters who may have worked seasonally, in their area, etc etc.  The gansey on the dummy in the museum (‘Bert’, above) was, on close examination, very refined in terms of the patterns used – moreso than many in the Filey old photos – and yet had some weird and interesting things going on at the shoulder saddle, and a slightly different front to back that spoke to me of a freethinking knitter.  More of that in a future post as I need some time to digest and figure it all out…

We spent the day on the beach after I’d ‘done’ the museum, and saw what has been a common sight in Filey since the middle of the last Century – the cobles being pulled in by tractor:

Since around WW2, this has been done by tractors. Used to be horses.

And finally, back to the car up the Ravine, and a slight detour to St Oswald’s church to search out mariners’ gravestones.  (Morbid I know but it appeals to the genealogist in me).  Monumental masons in coastal areas do seem to have had a more…pictrial approach than some of those inland, that’s for sure. I hope descendents of these mariners don’t mind me doing this but I like to document what I find and better still, share… Here’s a couple.  We found a efw ‘Lost At Sea’ memorial inscriptions and some where they appear to have died in old age or on dry land, but have an achor or sextant carved on the stone to record the fact they were mariners.

John W. Cowling

Peter Tindall

John Cowling was more elusive to find than his father, Edward, who according to the inscription died 189-, aged 6-? Looking at the 1891 Census, for Ocean Place, Filey, I found:

“Edward Cowling, Head, Married, 69, Fisherman , WHERE BORN: Filey, Yorkshire”.  We can be reasonably confident this might be the man in the inscription, as the headstone records “ELIZABETH HIS WIFE” who died aged ? in 1902. This Edward Cowling of Ocean Place is living with:

“Elizabeth Cowling, Wife, Married, 60, WHERE BORN : Filey, Yorkshire.”

It looks like Edward and Elizabeth were predeceased by their son, John W., and the inscription of a date for him is too worn to read, but it appears to say he was 22 years old.

Moving back through time, in 1881, Elizabeth can be found without Edward, in Filey, recorded as ‘Married’ and with ‘Fisherman’s Wife’ written and then crossed out, by her name. Her age is given as 50. This looks likely to be the same Elizabeth. She is living with her children; Jane, aged 13; Sarah, 11; and son, 6 year old Edmund Sayers Cowling. All the children were born in Filey.  Her mother in law (‘Bertha Sayers’ in 1891) is here down as ‘Bothia Sayers’, a ‘Fisherman’s Widow’.  They live at Reynolds’ Yard. (‘Yard’ usually denotes tenements).  Sayers appears to be Elizabeth’s maiden name.

Meanwhile in 1871, Edward was onboard ‘The George Peabody’, a 40 tonne cod fishing ‘Dandy’ out of Hull.  On the Census night, it was docked at Grimsby and crewed by five Filey men.

The Census has given us a birthdate for Edward around 1833, and sure enough, IGI confirms an “Edward Cooling” was baptised 4.2.1833, in Filey, son of John and Helen.

Certainly 1871 saw Edward on a vessel – the ‘Sarah’, out of Scarborough, listed as a ‘yawl in the fishing trade’ and docked at Albert Docks, Hull on the night of the Census. Edward was listed as  married, a ‘Mate’ and age given as 28, birthplace Filey.  The crew of 5 are all from Filey.

Travel back another decade in time to 1861, and Edward is at home in King St, Filey. He is 28, married and born in Filey so this is our man. But… wife is Margaret also 28, also born Filey.  They have only one child, Elizabeth A., who is 2.  This suggests our John W., may not have been born yet and may be a child of the first or the second marriage.

Realising Edward had remarried at some point between 1861 and 1881, I had to go look for the wife in 1871.  For this date, I couldn’t find a Margaret but did find Elizabeth, 38, married and living at Mariners’ Place – another tenement (the enumerator had written ‘Yard’ then crossed it out). Along with Bothia Sayers (born Staithes), step-daughter Elizabeth aged 12,  daughters Mary Jane, 3; and Sarah, 6 months….. and son John, 4.  All born Filey.  It looks likely that this is ‘our’ John buried at St Oswald’s. He must have been born in 1867 0r 8. Meaning Margaret died between 1861 and 1867.

I have no marriages for Edward, either to Margaret or Elizabeth on the IGI.  Not too surprising, as post around 1840, it gets more patchy and erratic.  Plus it’s more than possible they were non conformists anyway – if churchgoers at all.  I drew a blank for his marriages on Free BMD as well.

Free BMD gave me a John Cowling born in Scarborough district, in the second quarter of 1868.

(I will check out the Bishops’ Transcripts of the Filey parish records when I get a chance).  If John died aged 22, he must have died around 1890.  The date on the gravestone is hard to make out, but certainly it could well be 1890.

Bothia Sayers would have taught her daughter Staithes patterns, so we can guess Edward and John may have had ganseys showing this influence.

I wanted to find Elizabeth Sayers in 1861, when Edward was still married to Margaret.  Sure enough she was at Moon Place, Filey, with her parents, John Fisherman, and Bothia. Interestingly, her surname was Elizabeth Lane, – she was a widow.  So it was a second marriage for both Edward and Elizabeth and John was the child of that second marriage.  She had a son, Robert Lane, aged 5, so she had been widowed in the past 5 years presumably, in 1861.

In the 1851 Census, Elizabeth is only 18, not married yet and living with her parents, on Queen Street.

Edward’s parents are still alive in 1851 and the 18 year old Edward lives with them  – John and Ellen Cowling (assuming that ‘Ellen’ is interchangeable with ‘Helen). He is a 42 year old fisherman, living at Stephensons’  Lane.

I can’t find a maritime disaster reported in the British Library’s 19thC  Newspapers Online for a John Cowling (or variant name) in 1890.  But I did find a John Cowling and his son, the vessel’s ‘boy’, being drowned when their boat was capsized in 1844 at the same time a Scarborough boat was lost:

“… the yawl, ‘Jerome’, of Filey, Anderson Cammish, Master, was coming in for the harbour , when struck  by heavy seas, which capsized them… the crews, ten in number, were all instantly drowned… the names of those in the Filey boat are: Anderson Cammish, Thomas Pashby, Thomas Wiseman, John Cowling and his son (a boy)…”

If ‘our’ John Cowling died at sea in 1890, it looks remarkably like a great uncle, also John Cowling, and an uncle, died in 1844.  Proof – not that it’s needed – of the terrible risks these men took, and their absolute bravery.

[The Hull Packet, 1.3.1844].

Knowing this, I couldn’t resist having one last look, for the Cowlings, John Sr and Jr, in 1841. On Stephensons’ Lane still, there they were.  John and Ellen (Here ‘Eleanor’ which suggests the IGI’s ‘Helen’ is inaccurate). With 8 year old Edward.   The IGI gives us a  1.5.1808 birthdate for ‘John Couling’ of Filey – parents William and Dorothy (which means the John that died in 1844 is most likely John Sr’s brother).  A William Cowling is born in 1778, to a Thomas Cowling of Filey. and a John Cowling born in 1772 in Filey also to a Thomas Cowling.  It looks likely they were brothers, and the William who was the great grandfather of John Cowling who died in 1890, is the brother of the John Cowling who lost his life in the harbour at Scarborough, in 1844.  The words ‘DROWNED AT SEA’ are just legible on John’s gravestone.  It looks like he shared the same fate as a great uncle, and uncle.

Sadly, my own inland mariner ancestors have no surviving memorials. Which is what impelled me to uncover just a little more of the story behind this weatherbeaten stone – before its story is as lost to the salt air as John was lost to the sea.

And finally, what a brilliant weathervane on the church:

St Oswald's Filey, weathervane.

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Knitting Sheath From the Hull Maritime Museum

The myths around traditional knitting are worth exploring.  One new one seems to be the idea that Tudor, even medieval, sailors or fishermen wore a forerunner of the gansey.  I’m going to explode a few myths in a forthcoming book, so should keep my powder dry  – but here’s a few thoughts and woolgatherings that are accruing alongside the tumbleweed that is generally between my ears.

Years ago, when we ran Foxe’s in The English Civil War Society, we had a couple of new members we called ‘The Leicester Lads’. The Leicester Lads were not your usual 1980s Foxe’s re-enactor – not historians, not archaeologists… they were Leicester Lads.  And when we were helping them kit themselves out, as we did with all the new recruits, their constant refrain was:

“Why didn’t they have jumpers in the 17thC?”

To which our stock reply was:

“They didn’t.”

“Well why not?  They could knit, couldn’t they?  They could knit tubes couldn’t they?  They could join tubes together, couldn’t they?  Why couldn’t they knit jumpers?”

“They just didn’t, OK?”

“But how do you know they didn’t?”

“They just didn’t.  Alright?”

And no, they didn’t.  And here I am 30 years on still having this dialogue.

The danger with reconstructing historical costume is – we have the benefit of hindsight.  The trouble is, we expect clothes to perform and to be weatherproof.  Fishermen in the past? They didn’t need a gansey to be equivalent to Superman’s high tech outfit.  They wanted waterproof… the put an oilskin over it.  There is a danger with all the myths flying around, we’re turning the gansey into some super-garment that it never was.  It’d be great if it was this paragon of wind-cheating, water-turning, preternatural super-powers. But what we see as ‘great’ is again, with the benefit of 20/20 vision in hindsight.

If they had jumpers in the 17thC – so by inference, earlier than that date, too –  there’d be at least one scrap of evidence for them. Somewhere.  Not an entire garment maybe but a hard to ascribe fragment of knitting.  A portrait. A reference in one, just one of the millions of Wills and Probate Inventories. I’ve read many hundreds of these on Microfilm, even coming from these villages along the river here, where there were always fishermen. Nope. No such thing as a 16thC, 17thC or even 18thC jumper.  Nil. Zero. Zilch. Pas un sausage.

Medieval Spinlde Whorls, from PH's collection

And I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever for knitting in England prior to the 1460s.  No hard evidence.  Which means – no evidence.  Which is not the same as saying – no jumpers.  But as good as.

OK…Certain things it would be nice to find. It would confirm what we like to think.  But the hard truth is, you can only reconstruct what is provably there.  And we can look at the entire period of history right up til the 15thC to say, we can’t prove knitting was even here in these islands. Post that kind of date, it was done here but only specific items of clothing – caps, hose, scoggers (sleeves), and at the high end, ecclesastical adornments like fancy silk and metal thread cushions. No jumpers.

Alright, what about the archaeology then?  Let’s find some hard evidence of knitting in England prior to the 1460s.

Look at the textiles found in digs. Let’s look here. In the anaerobic muck of York. Wheer there’s muck there’s brass . And maybe some fragmentary textiles. I bet if they knitted jumpers in Viking times, say – there’d be fragments of knitted fabric. Let’s see if there are.

I have in front of me ‘Anglo-Scandinavian Finds From Lloyds Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites’ (Arthur McGregor, Council for British Archaeology, 1982).  32 fragments of textile were found at the Anglo Scandinavian levels of the Lloyds Bank site due to our “exceptional soil conditions”; 13 pieces of textile from 5, Coppergate and 21 more from Lloyds Bank in 1974.

Most textiles from this period survive on the back of metal artefacts in graves.   Many of the fragments were light brown, sophisticated twills, remarkably like those found at Birka. The twills vary in sophistication but let’s just say we know the vikings had weaving down to a fine art. Witness the silk coif in The Yorkshire Museum. Two of the fragments were fine worsted (wools) and one, mulberry silk.  It is thought that they have “professional homogeneity” (ie: look manufactured). All the fabrics are woven. No knitting.

Fragments of fabric survive – even when comparatively discrete sites are dug. No fragments of knitting, though. Given that the wool used to knit with is identical chemically to the wool used to weave with – had large, knitted upper body garments existed – we’d have a square inch of one.  We have a sprang Roman stocking, after all.

The fabrics from 5, Coppergate were also broadly the same kind of thing – “woolly medium coarse repp twill”. [124]. Woven.   There was also a piece of plain woven golden coloured silk.

I venture so far back as a thousand years to prove that fragments of textile can and do survive in our mud.  It has been said they would be as rare as ‘finding a Rolls Royce’ in the mud. Tell that to the archaeologists who found this, equivalent to maybe a fleet of Rollers a few miles from here. In the mud.

If 1000-1300 year old fragments of textile are there…

How about going into medieval times, now?  Let’s sample the mud for the later period.  How about a quick look at ‘Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds From Medieval York’, [YAT, pub. Council for British Archaeology, 2002, Patrick Ottaway and Nicola Rogers].

We turn to the Textile Production section, written by the foremost expert, Penelope Walton Rogers.

This book has a very useful summary of the hard evidence for the introduction of knitting to England.  Why?  Because amongst the finds, were 3 copper alloy rods, two of 2.6mm and one of 1.9mm diameter.  They have been designated ‘knitting needles’ but no-one’s entirely sure what they are.

The two larger ones were found in the floor of 2, Aldwark.  The other one which is thought to be post-medieval, was found  at the Foundary site. At first that looks like an early date – but in all probability, the needles were deposited at some later date. Not everything found on the floor of a lost building, is contemporaneous with the day that building was raised.

The earliest samples of knitting in England are of a similar date – late 14thC. London, and early 15thC Newcastle.  Penelope Walton Rogers points out both are port towns and, for this kind of date, “there are records of knitted garments being imported in Italian galleys...” She cites Crowfoot.  Analysis of the Newcastle fragment did indeed prove it to be not English at all – but using woo and a dye from Southern Europe.

Penelope Walton Rogers cites Kirsty Buckland’s citation of the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first HARD evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465.  Until that date, there is no hard evidence for knitting.  No doubt it existed.  But the earliest evidence we have is 1465 and that is for a cap knitter.  Which is in line with everything else we know about the history of knitting in England – caps, hose, and ecclesiastical fripperies came first.

We have sumptuary laws for this kind of date and no mention of a knitted body garment ever appears in 15thC sumptuary laws.  Again – had jumpers or something analogous existed – we’d find documentary evidence of it even if we lacked archaeological/ visual arts recording it. And as you can see, we have no reason to lack the archaeological samples.  Old textile fragments survive.

Tellingly, almost as soon as we get the first reference to a knitter here, the references start to come thick and fast – knitting spread fast as references to cap knitters and hose knitters start to appear.  Yorkshire was always at the centre of this industry, so no surprise maybe the first reference to it is from here and that within 100 years or so of Marjory Clayton, references to it become numerous.  All of those references, however, are to caps, hats, hose, and later, petticoats.  Which is in  line with the archaeological finds.  Had something like a jumper existed – there would be one painting showing it, one woodcut, one find, and – easiest of all these things to find – a myriad of written sources referring to it.  We have port records of imports and exports.  We have personal journals.  We have estate records – often detailing things like the selling of a wool clip, getting things woven up/dyed by journeymen, etc. We have, of course, the literary sources. I remember seeing the Concordances for Shakespeare’s works alone in my University stacks.  They were vast.  Let alone all the surviving other literary stuff – endless writers but not one reference.

Something we do find in the muck with monotonous regularity are spindle whorls.  These can be hard to date. But most of those in my collection are, broadly speaking, ‘medieval’ or not a lot post medieval (the exceptions being some Roman ones and 17thC Bellarmine ones).  Years ago we weighed a random sample of them, well over 100.  Many of them had provenances if not dates and came from all over England – London as well as here in the North East and pretty well everywhere inbetween.  They had a surprising consistency – around 1oz in weight.  To knit a gansey you need worsted spun wool, not woollen spun.  This is made from long, fine fibres (the best of which were only developed post 1750 – another argument for no ganseys prior to Industrial/Agrarian Revolution dates!)  You also need a minimum of 3 plies to make it more perfectly circular in cross section, so giving you the crisp stitch defintition. No point in elaborate patterns from fuzzy wool!  Of course longwools existed prior to this date – Cotswold, for example, was developed from a Roman type of sheep. But ever tried to ply on a spindle?  Ever tried to 3 ply or more on a spindle? (Pre Navajo plying which was only known in England in the 20thC). You’d quickly realise that you’d need a wider variety of whorl weights if you were making ‘gansey’ style yarn at a time in history when we only had spindles. We don’t see that variety.

17thC Bellarmine spindle whorls, from PH's collection.

Back to those 3 putative ‘knitting needles’ in York…. That still leaves us with what are possibly knitting needles in a late 14thC context, but no proof of knitting for another 60 years or so.  And all of that of course, leaves us with no ganseys/jumpers/knit frocks, call em what you will. (These needles are the equivalent in size to standard sock needles, so look like they’d most likely be used for hosiery – and finer caps, possibly.

All the textile fragments from medieval York are of woven, not knitted, cloth.

There is no evidence for a sleeved upper body garment til the 17thC knitted silk damask undershirts (that’s vests) for adults, and the child’s vest from the 17thC in the Museum of London I think it is.  And no evidence that undergarment migrated to becoming an outer garment til the 19thC.  The liklihood being, therefore, it made that transition – in England – at some point in the 18thC.  There are high status knitted silk waistcoats from the 18thC.  No jumpers.  And no record of them as a woolly, lower status garment, even here in the fishing community along the river for any 18thC date.


The lovely Polperro Press allowed us to use some of these iconic photos in an article in Yarn Forward 18, last year – Harding’s images thought to be the first ever of ganseys – taken by Lewis Harding in Polperro, Cornwall, around 1850.  Mary Wright’s classic little book, Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks is back in print, thanks to them.  Well worth buying for you gansey fans!

Yorkshire Inland Waterways Museum, Goole

The earliest printed pattern for a gansey is as late as the 1880s. A survey of the 19thC newspapers picks up nothing for ‘knit shirt’ or ‘knitted shirt’, but a few references for ‘knit frock’ concentrated around the 1850s onwards, and that word yields to ‘gansey’ by around the 1870s.  Curiously, the word gansey even then often appears in inverted commas, as if they thought it was a vulgar word.  The gansey is very firmly post Industrial Revolution – the crisp stitch definition etc only an option once most gansey worsted can be machine spun and, post 1860, chemically dyed, if necessary.  It is a product of the mechanised age even when it is handmade, so sadly, no spinning ladies in the picturesque doorways of cottages with roses round them. It’s an occupational costume, maybe ground out as often by Dales contract knitters doing generic garments, as made by loved ones for loved ones.  It cannot predate the 18thC and very likely does not predate say the 1790s.  By the time Lewis Harding took the first photos of ganseys in Polperro,  Cornwall in 1850 – it is clearly an evolved art.  But that’s an evolution that may only have taken one or two generations.

So whilst it would be lovely to give the Leicester Lads their fantasy and say yes there were Tudor/17thC jumpers – hard truth is – sorry lads.  There just weren’t.

To see images of earlier knitting, look at the V & A Collection,  here.

Museum of London Collections here.

Shetland Museum (Gunnister and others) here.

Also, some old links but maybe you’ll find something here.

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Here’s the pattern for Sunk Island, the gansey from Yarn Forward,  Issue 18.  Enjoy!

Sunk Island Gansey How To

(PDFs for charts, below).  Pattern as written is for gansey on the right – only difference between v.1 and v.2 being the less cluttered sleeves on v.2.

You could, of course, knit the sleeves plainer or fancier or however you like ’em.

NB: Chart B needs to be put together Sheet 1, 2 and 3 in that order, so moss st panels either side of Humber Star are next to side seam stitches.

Sunk Island




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I’m not sure what it is about graffiti that I love so much.

Here’s some photos we took at Brougham Castle, Cumbria, when we went up to Woolfest.

Graffiti was so stylish in the 19thC....

Graffiti was so stylish in the 19thC....

And what about this?

Did this man do gravestones as a day job?

Did this man do gravestones as a day job?

And rather incredibly, from a sheltered spot, in pencil from almost exactly 110 years ago:

Pencil marks under window lintel

Pencil marks under window lintel

The genealogist in me wants to look for ‘J. Slade’. Could he be the John Slade, born Whitehaven, Cumberland in 1823?  According to the 1881 Census, he was a ship’s carpenter (there’s a bloke who could carve accurately!) Or maybe his brother, James Slade, born Whitehaven, 1829, according to 1871 Census, ‘hosier and draper’..? Surely not their brother, Joseph Slade, born 1825, who according to the 1871 Census, was the rather grandly titled “Superintendent Circulation Dept, General Post Office”..?  Nah.  It’s not the sock selling J Slade or the postal one.  Got to be ship’s carpenter!

These are the J Slades I can find for Cumberland on the IGI for a date that looks about right (mid 19thC) for that graffiti.  Who knows!  I have researched many people – some of whom have had hundreds of acres, even owned entire villages – and not had a monument, gravestone, nothing left behind to say they ever lived.  These olden day Banksies – they have left their mark.

And then there is ‘W. Waterson’.  Again, working on the assumption he is mid 19thC and Cumbrian (and he could be earlier, and from anywhere), the IGI gives us two William Watersons. One born Whitehaven, in 1828. T’other born Carlisle, 1834.  According to the 1851 Census, the first was a coal miner. On the same Census, the second is a ‘Mariner’s son’. In 1841, I found him as a child with his parents and father was also William, and still a mariner, so it is possible the graffiti is his, also.  I can’t find the second William Waterson in subsequent Censuses – could be he follwoed his dad’s trade and went to sea. If my money was anywhere – it would be on the mariner or son.

As for Pencilwoman, Ada Graves, 1899… working on the assumption you might be quite young to want to have a good old vandalise… I looked for Cumbrian Ada Graves assuming it was a maiden name, around the 1870s. I found one in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses, living at Rickergate, Carlisle with her father, William Graves, a stone quarry owner (makes you wonder what her interest was in that pile of old stones, eh!) Ada would have been 21 in 1899, when the graffiti was written. According to the 1901 Census, Ada was born in Lazonby. In the 1891 and 1901 Census she was motherless but in 1881, her father was still in Lazonby, a ‘farmer and stone merchant’ and Ada’s mother, Annie, was still alive. We can’t be sure if she is our lady of the pencil graffiti but it is an intriguing possibility.

The gansey equivalent of carving a name is, of course, this:

Name Writ In Wool

Gansey of Pinknesss tag.

Gansey of Pinkness's 'tag'.

Re. leaving a mark…

This weekend we spent Saturday at Haworth. (Or ‘Bronte Land’ to give it its Tourist Board title).  My eldest suggested we should sex up the Brontes by making a video game (“How Many Siblings Can You Infect With TB Before Dying Yourself….”)  Can you tell he has a lot of siblings?

I never get bored of that little house, and the fascinating (to me) exhibits which some prat in the early 20thC described as a heap of ‘junk’. But in a sense the Brontes are amongst the early ‘clebs’ of Eng Lit.  Byron woke up to find himself famous, the day after he published ‘Childe Harold’.  They didn’t wake up to find themselves anything much, except for Charlotte, who outlived them all and did live long enough to realise her fame.

I never get bored of Haworth, never will. We went quite late in the afternoon, on impulse (we had meant to go to Wetherby but for some reason decided to detour to Haworth instead).  The old West Riding has a grim sort of grandeur. I have no pics for you as we go so often we forgot the camera.

The 9 year old was deeply impressed by the current exhibition about Branwell,  ‘Sex, Drugs and Literature’ – that made him think literature may even be a little bit cool. Well done, Branwell, mate.   I have always felt an affinity for poor Branwell.  Not just because of his spectacular failure in life (going to London to sign up at the Royal Academy but getting sidetracked in Holborn by sawdust n spit pubs, bare knuckle fighting, boozing, and betting always seemed perfectly understandable to me). But also as he died on Sunday Sept 24th, 1848. And I was born on a Sunday September 24th. Although not quite 1848. I have been distracted myself  by similar before now. It is easily done.

Branwell was also up in Cumbria for a time and I have chased his putative offspring in the 1841 Census which was interesting. It is an annoying fact of life that anyone you really want to track down in the 19thC will ONLY be on the 1841 Census (or miss being on it by a week). And that is the rubbish census that just tells you if they’re born in county, Y or N.

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Sunk Island

I had to keep this quiet, til it ‘came out’, so – at last – I can put it up here!   I’m reliably informed it is in the current ‘Yarn Forward’ (No 18).  Although I won’t see it for myself til I get down the shops tomorrow or Weds.

For some time, on Ravelry this gansey was pictureless (although we toyed with pixellating a photo!) and called ‘The Mysterious Gansey of Mystery’.  A v.2 came out, and that became ‘The Even More Mysterious Gansey of Mystery’.  Now both can be given their real name, Sunk Island.

Sunk Island Vs. 1 and 2

Sunk Island Vs. 1 and 2

As you see, the difference is in the arms.  V1 I favoured my usual band of pattern at elbow, bi-sected by the coninuous rope run down from neck.  This latetr is more a Scottish feature than a Yorkshire one, but is my favourite way of finishing a shoulder. I do a cast on provisionally, and work down.  I took it to it’s logical destination, this time, continuing even through the wrist ribbing.  But…  in V.1 I was unhappy with the pattern – it seemed fussy and lacked unity. So…  v.2. Sometimes simpler is better.

V.1 uses Winghams gansey 5 ply; v2 Frangipani.

I named it Sunk Island after the place on the Humber Estuary, close by where one  line of ancestors came from. Sunk Island was reclaimed from the sea, it seems, in the 19thC. I felt I reclaimed this piece of my own family history, so it was apt.  There are also already a plethora of ‘Patrington’ ganseys out there anyway!  A couple of gansey books open with a Patrington, but few stay to linger around the inland ganseys, heading straight out to sea to play with the coastal ones.

My grt, grt, grt grt grandfather was William Richardson, who was a Keyingham born (Humber Estuary) fisherman. Sometime in the 1840s he moved further inland to Wistow, and remained a fisherman on the River Ouse.  There have been some huge salmon hauls in the past, at the right time of year.  I have speculated that the weird way I knit may well come from my Humber estuary ancestors.

In the 1851 Census, then in Ottringham, William gave Keyingham as his birthplace.  At his marriage in Wistow in 1828, he said he was ‘of Patrington’.  I am still trying to figure out whether he was the same William Richardson baptised at nearby Hedon in 1794, as this would roughly tally with his reported age on the censuses. Yet I can’t pin him down for sure. Yet.

William’s wife was Ann Ablett, who lived in Ottringham.  William and Ann had two illegitimate daughters, one of whom, Rose, born in 1825, was my grt grt grt grandmother.    Rose Ann (as she seems to have called herself) married farmer Joseph Golton in Wistow in 1848.  And so my direct line passes back to farmers not fishermen.

The Humber Star is the most famous of the inland gansey patterns.  It’s big and bold but it has its challenges in terms of design. The trasitional pattern (waves) was a bit of serendipity as I have used it before on sleeves but never on the body of a gansey. It was very characteristic of inland ganseys though and the unintentional effect is of stars over waves – in this case, the waves of the tidal river.



Take the pattern repeats, for example. You can’t break them. You couldn’t have half a star. And it’s a big old repeat, a fair few rows.  I looked at old photos etc and decided to go for the (apparently) standard 2 repeats. One would be too shallow. Three too deep.  But then, sizing it up and down from the original 28″ version… For the largest size, I couldn’t add a repeat. For a tiny size, I only had the option of a shorter section of plain, beneath. At the same time, I wanted to keep the transitional pattern (zig zags), between the plain section and the stars as this seems to me to be a key design element specifically in the inland ganseys.

I fast started to realise it would have been far easier to work with an allover vertical pattern!  Trouble with the inland ones is – they appear to be more often than not, an horizontal banded pattern  and plain for the first third.

Knitting one lone Humber star gansey would have presented no problems. The difficulty came in having to size it up and down, bearing in mind that everything had to stay proportional in every other direction – so, in a bigger version, the pattern would start higher up the body, but the armhole depth might be elsewhere…  Etc ad infinitum! I ahd to take standardised measurements for the different sizes, and alter each size accordingly, whilst still having this constant depth of pattern at the top. Easier said than done!  With vertical pattern panels, you can just add a pattern panel on either side, make sure you have everything centred – and away you go. This proved a bit more of a puzzle and I keep everything crossed, I cracked it.  The sizes as shown are 28″ and 30″.  The smaller was v.1.

I decided to make the pattern adaptable with a section of moss either side. And used the double rope … which I have never done before – Aaron over at ‘A Fisherman Knits’ recommended I separate then with a couple of purl stitches as I wasn’t sure whether to go with purls or moss st.  Good advice, as it worked. I wanted the double ropes to ‘pop’ out, and frame the more figurative stars, almost like a picture frame but to have nothing noticeable going on between the 2 ropes.

I looked at the Patrington patterns in Gladys Thompson’s classic gansey book, also Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting.  I don’t understand why this is out of print, as it is a book treasured by those lucky enough to have it. It is the only book with a section on the inland ganseys. I took it as my starting point.

But I also incorporated elements of design not found in Yorkshire ganseys so much – most obviously, the shoulder knitted down sideways. I decided not to mirror ropes, but to stick with the tradition of knitting them all the same orientation. And I upped the needle size from my preferred 2.5mm to a 2.75mm which would not please the purists but I felt made the pattern more accessible. I stuck with the traditional 2 X 2 rib, and the entire construction techniques were the usual gansey suspects – knit in the round, seam stitches, udnerarm gussets, initials knitted in.  So no compromise and anyone who makes this as a ‘first’ gansey will have had a go at every single technique they might conceivably need.

With a dearth of info re. the inland ganseys, I decided to at least set them in the context of the coastal – to define what they wre not as well as what they were. Research-wise, I had already had a head start, visiting the gansey exhibition at Robin Hood’s Bay last year, held in a small church with sheep grazing between the gravestones – unusual in that the vicar got bored of it and locked it up at some point in the mid 19thC, leaving it like a little time capsule, unlocked in the 20thC. Amongst the ganseys, we were distracted by these ghostly garlands, like something from Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbrvilles’.  All the vegetal dyed colours faded except for one spectacular blue ribbon, that had to be dyed with woad or indigo.  Reminded me of the woad dyed mitten I once lost under a metre deep Colorado snow drift. Found it in the spring, itnact and the colour unaffected.  Down the week I will put up some of our old gansey photos, to show their only slightly faded blue glory.

Ribbons, from May garland of mid 19thC left in RHB church

Ribbons, from May garland of mid 19thC left in RHB church

We added to this Whitby Museum which has only the odd Sutcliffe photo – and several ganseys on display and the rather more useful Filey Museum, where I studied the beautiful largely unpublished I think, photos of Walter Fisher who deserves to be up there with Sutcliffe as a photographer:

Photo by Walter Fisher, Filey Museum

Photo by Walter Fisher, Filey Museum

And, my personal favourite:

Walter Fisher Colelction , Filey Museum

Walter Fisher Collection , Filey Museum

I began to sense the stark austerity of the inland ganseys – and maybe a different influence at work. And I thought of John Wesley, around the 1790s, making his voyage up the Ouse, preaching along the way at riversides, in farmhouses, etc, and wondered if there isn’t some of that influence, as the ganseys were working their way from the coast inland, around the same date, in all probability.

I was given permission by the lovely and generous Polperro Press,  to use some of the earlier known (1850) gansey images – the Polperro photos of Lewis Harding.  Although a world away from Yorkshire, all ganseys share some common characteristics and I felt very privileged to be allowed to share some of Lewis Harding’s famous images:

Panel of Lewis Hardings Photos, Polperro, 1850

Panel of Lewis Harding's Photos, Polperro, 1850

Sunk Island came together quickly as a design, but we had spent months looking at old coastal ganseys – and maybe something coalesced, slowly, during all that time without me consciously realising it.  I like to think my Humber Estuary fisherman’s wife, Ann Ablett Richardson, brought a Humber Star gansey or two along the Ouse, when she came here.  And the pattern lay waiting for me, somehow, to find it again.

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