Has anybody ever made a fisherman's gansey? They're sometimes called Guernseys, from the island of the same name off the coast of Britain, and there are other islands and coastal communities where they are made. The pattern is often traditional and locally unique. They used to identify bodies that washed up on shore because they knew the pattern of each community. The old women who stayed home when the ships went out fishing were the main people who made them, but the men often did as well, since the knitting skills were very similar to net-mending and other things they did as part of their fishing lifestyle.

I'd be interested in making one of these, but it looks a bit intimidating. Love any advice or stories.



Bill's picture

Urban legend...
afraid the washed up bodies story is not true...but a colourful legend...
do a bit more reading about the sweaters..

MMario's picture

Gioven the number of times and the prominant names that have debunked this, you would think the true story would be more well known - but I guess the Urban Myth is just more fun....

MMario - I'm not divorced from reality - we're having a trial separation

mrhugzzz's picture

Micheal, here's the 411 on the dead bodies stories. Unbelievably, there wasno real conventional way of communicating patterns before the early '00s. As a result, difficult aran patterns were passed down in the family from mother to daughter through multiple generations. This meant that most families became synonymous with a particular pattern as this was usually one of a very few each person knew how to knit. It simply took too long to watch another knitter and copy their pattern. With the advent of a written language for patterns, this quickly changed and soon people were exchanging patterns all over the place. You can still do a search online to find a family pattern - sorta like a crest - if you have a traditional Irish name.
As for the guernsey - I suggest you do one in Aran weight yarn first, and just at the top instead of an all over pattern. Once you've done one of those and are happy with it, then you can move on to doing one in sport/fingering weight yarn in the true traditional style. Make sure you have a lot of time though - but they are worth it in the end. I designed and knit one of the former ones recently - you can see a copy of it on my blog ( or on my Facebook page (Ittakesballstoknit). Good luck.

Hugzzz 8-)

albert's picture

I think gansies are less intimidating than arans as the patterns are usually just knit/purl and a few cables. The shoulder straps and underarm gussets are interesting aspects. There are several books available on the subject if you visit I like Hugzzz idea of knitting one in aran weight for the first experience. Have fun and keep us posted!

paulhenry's picture

I've only ever knitted one gansey, a long time ago, and no photos remain, it was fairly fine hard wool, with garter stitches pieces instead of hte bottom rib, and was composed of a lot of stocking stitch with decorative border and yoke , and the tops of the sleeves,~it was a lovely jumper.
and if we all manage to debunk the dead body story , perahps one day it will be believed!

albert's picture

Then we can work on the "Three on a Match" story.

paulhenry's picture

this was the book I used, it's a great volume with lots and lots of info whihc I;ve used in other projects

Buck Strong's picture

Michael: I just finished my first gansey about a month ago. I used a pattern from "Cables, Diamonds, Herringbone: Secrets of Knitting Traditional Fishermen's Sweaters." It was really straight forward and was a great learning experience. The only spot that was a bit difficult was doing the shoulder strap. With a bit of work I got it figured out and even took notes on how to do it. I'd be happy to share them with you if you like. Personally, I think that this is a great sweater to start with.


To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring-it was peace.
~Milan Kundera

To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring-it was peace.
~Milan Kundera

michaelpthompson's picture

Well, I never quite believed the story that the different patterns were actually intended as identifiers, that's a bit too morbid for most people. But it does seem reasonable that mothers would teach daughters how to knit, and thus pass along traditional patterns in the process, which could be recognized. Besides, I often like a good story better than the truth. Part of my Irish heritage and being a storyteller, I guess.

A lot of the ganseys I've seen online mostly had the pattern on the top. Is this common? And can anybody tell me the basic difference between the gansey and the Aran sweater?

"All knitting is just one stitch at a time."

paulhenry's picture

I'm not sure there is an absolute definitive answer, but my thoughts are:

Gansey yarn is usually finer than aran, and Gansey use finer needles, so generally a harder/closer/firmer fabric
Aran usually has cables , Gansey knits less so
Aran is often decorative all over Gansey usually only the top third or so and top of shoulders
Ganseys often have a split at the bottom on either side , allowing easier fitting, and the ones I've seen are a bit longer in the body
It might also be regional

jsut a few thoughts!

Joe-in Wyoming's picture

Mrs. Thompson's book is a great resource and very inexpensive, thanks to the Dover reprint. Ganseys are a nice tradition and I have always toyed with the idea of knitting one. Somewhere, I even have a box full of English wool fine enough to count as gansey weight. I hope you enjoy knitting it, remembering that you can go with worsted [or sport] and a larger needle size if you want. After all, it is your sweater. -- Books, knitting, cats, fountain pens...Life is Good.

Books, knitting, cats, fountain pens...Life is Good.