Some of my Christmas holiday this year was spent repairing a sweater. Not any old sweater, a traditional navy Guernsey (or gansey) sweater. I knit it for my husband some forty odd years ago, when he was still my boyfriend. Received wisdom states that you should never knit a boyfriend sweater. It’s the kiss of death. Before you know it your dreams have been cast aside, all those hours of work and every bit of love that you wove carefully into the stitches has evaporated. As for the sweater, it finds itself tossed into the bottom of a closet, or unceremoniously parceled off to some thrift store. Not this sweater though, this sweater was a keeper.
I no longer remember whatever possessed me to knit a gansey, except that back in the 1970s there was definitely an interest in revisiting “traditional” crafts and techniques. Originally, ganseys were worn by fishermen all along the coast of the UK. Tightly knit, they were incredibly hard wearing and almost weatherproof, keeping the men warm and dry at sea. As I soon found out, knitting on tiny needles — and pulling each stitch taut to achieve a fabric that is wind and water resistant — is really hard on your hands.
When I was a girl I spent every Easter holiday in a small fishing village on the Cornish coast of the UK. Mornings were spent hanging out on the quay watching the boats going out to sea or, depending on the tide, coming in and landing their catch. When I could escape my family the afternoons were also spent hanging around the quay, fascinated by watching the fishermen sitting on the harbour wall repairing their nets, and sometimes knitting their own sweaters. It was satisfying to cast on the hundreds of stitches needed to recreate work I had witnessed years previously, carried out by men with leathery faces and equally weather beaten hands.
I came to learn that each fishing village up and down the coast from Scotland to Cornwall had their own gansey patterns (sometimes each family in a village), handed down from generation to generation. According to grim folklore, the distinct patterns meant the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea could be readily identified. It wasn’t just the men out on the fishing trawlers that wore ganseys though. Groups of women travelled up and down the east coast of the UK following the migrating shoals of herring throughout the year. They gutted and salted the fish as they were landed to preserve them, working up to their elbows in fish guts and brine. So the ganseys they knit for themselves were often short-sleeved, and of various colours. The ganseys they knit for their boyfriends or “lovies” working the boats were navy blue, and in my imagination carried all their hopes and dreams for a future together. It may have been that romantic notion that had me sitting up nights squinting at the tiny dark stitches. Or maybe there was a collective nostalgia in the air. Around the same time that I knit my gansey the herring fishery collapsed, with a visceral threat to the fishing industry, the workers and their traditions.
The sweater I knit has needed repairing for a while, but it wasn’t that easy a task to start. The neck was badly frayed so needed re-knitting. I searched through my not insubstantial yarn stash, thinking I might have left overs from the original (yes I do keep yarn that long), but sadly I must have had a tidy fit at some point. The yarn is quite particular, five strands plied together very tightly, and no longer easily found. It was spun by Thomas B. Ramsden, of Bradford and Wakefield (UK), which now seems eerily appropriate. Fortunately, I ordered the yarn early last year, as the mill closed down in April, after 120 years of spinning the fleece of sheep that graze the Yorkshire moorland. I know those sheep, well, not personally, of course, but they have often accompanied my hikes across the hills and dales. They are a hardy bunch, much like the fishermen, surviving out in wet and wind of the moors. Another time I’ll tell you more about the sheep, but I need to get back to my knitting.
As I started to pull out the stitches a mini dust cloud bloomed over the yarn. The sweater has been washed, I swear, but even so, years of accumulated particles released into the air. That sweater has climbed mountains, soaked up spray from the ocean, absorbed no end of baby sick and children’s tears. When my sister-in-law was dying, the sweater and a pair of moccasins were a constant presence in the palliative care unit. It has been to markets, to pubs, to fancy restaurants. It has watched films, plays and endless dance performances. In short, that sweater has had quite the life. Not surprisingly, the stitches were not keen to let go of each other. The yarn that had been held in place for forty years kept a tight grip on those memories.
You could say that the gansey had seen better days; my husband was afraid to keep wearing it, in case it disintegrated. Quite apart from the frayed neck, I found a couple of small holes; maybe moths, maybe just an old cat whose claws could no longer retract. All of it was easy to fix. As I did so, I thought about the herring girls and the trawler men, and their skill at keeping the threads of their lives running. And It did occur to me as I picked up the stitches and re-knit the neck, that had I not married my boyfriend, the gansey might now be rotting in a landfill and would likely not have survived to tell its tale.