Dressed for Chill: The Appledore Gansey

Knitter Eva Annie Evans with William ‘Paddy’ Cox and Alfred ‘Giley’ Evans. © Appledore Maritime Museum

At university in the early 2000s, I took up a new hobby – knitting. Knitting was having a bit of a moment around that time, reclaimed as a feminist activity, celebrated as an important social and historical craft, not just something irrelevant your gran did because Primark didn’t exist yet. On new internet forums knitters from around the world chatted together, developing a lingo and folklore: KAL (knit-a-long), frogging (undoing work), KIP (knit in progress). But it was the curse of the love sweater I remember discussing, a belief that if a knitter gives a hand-knitted sweater to a loved one the relationship would come to an end. In a 2005 survey by Knitter’s Review, 41% of respondents believed in the curse, and 15% claimed to have experienced it. I was a sceptic: I started knitting a sweater for my boyfriend.

This bit of millennial folklore is a strange inversion of far longer lived knitting traditions, from the days when knitting was a necessity to clothe the members of your family, to keep them warm and dry. If you didn’t knit a garment for your loved one, what would they wear?

Appledore Gansey. © MBND

'...you could tell a knitter from their blue fingers as the wool stained them'.

In the coastal communities up and down Britain fishermen wore “ganseys” knitted for them by their womenfolk (although some men were knitters too). Each coastal community, and sometimes even each fishing family, might have its own traditional pattern. These patterns weren’t written down, but passed on from one knitter to another, which means many gansey variations that once existed have been lost from memory. No matter how long you pore over fading photographs of turn of the century fishermen it is impossible to pick out the detailing of their knitwear. Here in North Devon, the fishing community of Appledore had their “frock” – the word is typically used for the gansey in south west England – which remains just within living memory, and now drafted as a pattern by Josephine Sims.

The Appledore frock was knitted with dark blue wool, and you could tell a knitter from their blue fingers as the wool stained them during their work. It was knitted in the round – think of how you could construct a jersey out of tubes and you’ve got the basic construction – on double pointed needles, called “prangs”, using a very fine hardwearing 4 or 5ply wool. This construction makes a very taut knit, and the tighter the knitting the more weather and waterproof it will be. A practical feature of knitting in the round is that the sleeves can easily be unravelled and re-knit at the points that wear fastest (the elbows and cuffs) to increase longevity of the garment. Knitting an adult sized garment of this density means lugging around a heavy burden – up to 3kg if using 10 balls of worsted wool for an adult – and the knitters wore a “tack”, a piece of thick leather tied to the knitter’s waist to take some of the strain.

Since it was knit in just one colour, the pattern of the frock came from varying the stitches. The frock was a simple style compared to some other gansey patterns, with a ribbed waistband and cuffs, and a broad moss stitch pattern along the shoulders. This bit of the frock probably took a fair bit of wear and tear from carrying loads, and the moss stitch made for a durable knit. A diamond shaped gusset under the arms allowed easier movement than a standard seamed jersey. The frock was deliberately tightfitting, so that it was less likely to catch on anything.  Knitting with just one colour and with limited variation of pattern was practical, speeding up production of the gansey, and making repairs simple.

Knitting in progress © MBND

Knitters ‘Tack’ designed to take the weight of the wool © MBND

'...my mother knitted that one and if you look inside...you will find a lock of her hair'.

Famously, the regional variation in gansey patterns was to enable the wearer to be identified should he drown at sea. This is a really enduring bit of legend, catching at people’s imagination with its macabre romance. Imagine knitting a gansey for your loved one knowing that it could serve as identification for his drowned body! However, despite comprehensive searches in archives, nobody has been able to find conclusive proof that identification of a drowned seaman ever took place based on his gansey. In fact we have more evidence to the contrary, that shows that while there were strong regional associations with particular patterns of ganseys, these were not set in stone.

While fishing communities were often isolated locations by land, the sea brought them into communication with each other. For example, thousands of women followed the herring fleets each year from the Western Isles of Scotland right down to East Anglia, taking their knitting with them. It seems most likely that in this mingling knitters would adapt and adopt other knacks and styles to improve their own product. This movement also makes it less likely that a gansey could be a practical identification tool, as it seems unlikely that communities would be able to identify a fisherman from a village hundreds of miles away by his gansey.

Some personal adaptations did take place too. One fisherman, William “Tokey” Evans had Turks heads worked into his shoulder straps, and a man’s initials might often be sewn in. There is one story of an Appledore boy who joined the Royal Navy, and accused another sailor of having stolen his jersey. The Captain asked how he could know it was his jersey, when one jersey looked just like another. “Oh, no sir” said the boy, “my mother knitted that one and if you look inside the neck you will find a lock of her hair knitted into the shoulder”.

Gansey shoulder seams © MBND

Example of hair knitted into a gansey © MBND

How long it took to knit a gansey depending on the speed and skill of the knitter, and the amount of time she had to devote to it – knitting was often squeezed into the odd moments when there were no other domestic duties necessary. It must have required great skill to knit in the evenings, with only a faint light to pick out the hundreds of tiny dark blue stitches that needed manipulating. We know that some knitters didn’t only make ganseys for their families, but would knit frocks for commercial sale as well. It was a useful way for elderly women to stay economically active.

One renowned Appledore knitter was Miss Ross, who knitted a frock for the local writer Vernon Boyle: he recorded it took her 84 hours to knit. He didn’t mention how much she charged for this frock, but another Appledore knitter, Ada Reveley, charged 3s 6d, to include both wool and labour. If you were to take 84 hours to knit an Appledore frock, and charge your customer the 2020 National Living Wage for your time, you would be asking for £748 – excluding wool.

I broke up with my university boyfriend about a year after I had knitted him that jersey. I don’t know what happened to it. But I remain both a sceptic and a romantic: I’ve just cast on an Appledore frock for my husband. I know that the women of Appledore didn’t knit for fun, or sentiment, or love – although these things will have been part of the knitting experience for some knitters, some of the time – but out of practical need. But what a joy to be able to hand craft my own piece of living local history.

Fishermen Joseph T Bennet (1865-1949) and young Curtis © Appledore Maritime Museum

The Appledore Gansey's are displayed in the museum’s North Devon in the 20th Century gallery. The Appledore Gansey pattern is 
available to buy from the museum shop.
Written by Anna Stopes
Editor Adam Murray

Receive news about exhibitions, events and family workshops.