Those of you who enjoy the history of fishermen's sweaters may be
interested in a book I recently acquired: "Knitting from the
Netherlands" by Henriette van der Klift-Tellegen. I've put a little
"book review" of sorts on my site if you are inerested:
suspect it's not easy to come across (mine is second hand) but ifthis is your sort of thing it's probably something to keep an eye outfor.
In the many years that i was lucky to recieve `Ariadne` , published by
my Great Uncle Elias Cohen . I read many articles about Dutch Knitting
as well as Dutch embroidery.
They were like their Neighbours over the Channel always a sea
traveling nation ,,, with all the NEEDED clothing items.
Has anybody ever hear of "fisherman's sweaters" that were knit large, and
felted to size? I know of traditions of socks that were felted; and,
traditions of mittens that were felted and worn wet, but whole sweaters that
were knit large and felted?
The fellow who proposed this was a curator at a museum. The museum does not
have any examples, and when I look at photos of fishermen from the same
period that sailed out of a port only 100 miles from the subject port, I do
not see ANY evidence of felting. Knitters and knitting shop owners in the
area do not seem to be aware of such a tradition, but such traditions die
Why am i NOT surprised that a fellow proposed it ,,,,, ?
reaoning of life ways,,,, would be that some woolen items [sweaters
socks etc,,,,,, were `felted` by the many years of use and washing
,,,, i don`t think any 'Dutch Person" knitttig will on purpose knit
Bigger than needed, when materials were scarce ,,,,,
van der Klift-Tellegen claims that fishermen from Bunschoten and
"owned two kinds of sweaters: a heavy one to wear at sea and a thinner
one for onshore wear: the Sunday sweater. The sea sweaters were
"felted," treated in a special way to make them wind-and-water-proof.
An oversized sweater was knit with heavy sajet, a sweater at least
twice the desired size. The sweater was then submerged in a tub of hot
water and rubbed and punched until it shrank to half its original
size. The result was a piece of clothing heavy as lead, water and
windproof." (pages 39-40)
A photo on page 36 shows a man whose sweater "strongly resembles
I also note that she claims that sea sweaters were never worn on shore
and may of the photos in her book show men posing for a professional
photographer - clearly you wouldn't pose for a photo in your sea
sweater but rather your sunday best. Maybe little photographic
evidence exists for this reason.
Many people that see my gansey have to be convinced that it is not felted.
They just assume that anything that tight MUST have been felted.
Much of a seaman's / fisherman's duties involved heavy labor with the arms -
rowing, hauling, furling sails.... One virtue of knitting is that it can
accommodate motion. I wonder if felted material could accommodate the
motion? I feel an experiment coming on!
However, I have found that historians, especially of the male
persuasion, truly have no idea what women did when making clothing.
Technology historians have come up with, and printed in their
scholarly books, some really bad howlers. Like the one who thinks
that, on a hand-loom, the shuttle traveled in front of the reed and
beater. Like the many who have stated that cloth more than 30 inches
wide required two weavers. Like the one who says that hats from
Urumchi are proven to be knitted because they are made of short
lengths of yarn. Like the many who believe that Arans, which of
course have been made for centuries, were identifiable because the
stitch patterns went by county or village.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, among others, has stated that women's work
of past centuries was not documented. As a result, the male historian
is at a disadvantage when he stares at a machine, or even the product,
to determine exactly what was done. Heaven forfend that he should ask
an expert, even a man currently in the textile business!
Think of a fisherman's gansey as a capital investment in survival gear to
keep a worker alive while he works a high risk - high profit job in an
extreme environment. The amount that they were willing to invest depended
on their valuation of the worker's life.
A certain amount of wool was needed to keep a fisherman warm. It could be
knit small and tight, or it could be knit large and felted small. The amount
of wool would be the same, all that changes is the manner of fabrication.
If the only job your husband and son could get was fishing, how much effort
would you put into providing them with garments that were warm enough to
keep them alive? Their shares from fishing might be most of the family's
income. If they freeze in their fishing dory, the family at home gets
nothing. Then, how much effort does a wife and mother then put into the
knitting that keeps her men alive? against a man's life, and years of
income, a few ounces of wool and a few extra hours of knitting effort (or
felting effort) are a worth while investment.
At Louisburg, they have 3/4 of a million pages of documentation that they
use for the details of the enactors lives. However, in that documentation
there is more about the lace made by a few ladies to show that they had
leisure time, than there is about all the knitting that kept the populace
warm. (That is a cold and windy place. I mean really windy! They lived in
drafty stone buildings. They wore wooden shoes. Do not try to tell me that
they did not knit a lot of socks and mittens. Sure there is no wool on the
ship's manifest, but there was a settlement around the corner that had an
abundance of sheep, and fishing boats went out of Louisburg every day? They
were French. Avoiding taxes is the French national hobby. They smuggled
wool. Smugglers do not send reports of their activates to the King.)
The time of the enactment was set in 1744. At that time, knitting sheaths
were common in France and Britain. ( Louisburg was French, but many of the
fishermen employed in the town had Scotch- Irish origins. But none of the
enactors that were knitting the day I was there had ever touched an actual
knitting sheath. Moreover, the artifact collection had never been reviewed
by competent knitters for evidence of knitting implements. Later this
summer, the collection of artifacts will be reviewed by the members of a
Nova Scotia knitters guild for additional evidence of knitting implements.
Given the fact that none of that guild's members actually use knitting
sheaths on a regular basis, I do not think that they are adequately
prepared to recognize all knitting implements.
The felted sweaters in "Knitting from the Netherlands" don't look
tight, they look felted. They look very thick and stiff. All of the
studio photos show men in fine "fishermen's sweaters" that would have
never seen a boat in their lives - these sweaters were for Sunday
best. No one would have worn their work jersey for a formal portrait.
The photos that show fishermen at work (of which there are many less
for obvious reasons) show men in grubby, thick, chunky jerseys.
van der Klift-Tellegen seems to have consulted local people in each
area and asked for their recollections and photos. Although this can't
be considered 100% reliable she does seem to avoid falling into the
trap of repeating "mainstream" history and clearly attempted to
discover the history herself from the practitioners (or their nearest
to look knitted or felted?
It was knitted, but most knitters that touch and feel it, make a comment
that it must be felted. It is not - yet!
That gansey is now navy blue. I wore it as I chatted with enactors on the
ramparts of Louisburg. In their replicas of 1744 French Army uniforms with
BOILED wool coats, the enactors' finger tips were blue and their teeth were
chattering. My wife was wearing two layers of Patagonia pile under a
mountain parka and was also warm enough. I was wearing the gansey over a
jersey. I was warm and had more freedom of motion than either the enactors
or my wife. (We were actually out in the wind longer than any of the
enactors.) The wind on the walls of Louisburg did inspire me to knit a
warmer hat for myself in preparation for my cod fishing trip.
That gansey has now been cod fishing on the banks off PEI and sailing on the
Bluenose II. I wore it hiking in the rain and mist as we looked for moose,
and as we sat on the headlands of Cape Breton watching pilot whales in the
white capped waters below. The coldest place I wore it was on the beach
where Cabot is said to have first landed in the New World. The warmest
place that I wore it was drinking beer at a sidewalk pub in Halifax.
The firmness of the gansey fabric along with the loose sleeves allows it to
vent through the large neck opening in warmer (60F) conditions. This
venting is dramatically reduced by wearing a garment under the gansey, or
carrying a backpack. (Note however that the gansey, fits snugger than many
modern "fishermen's sweaters".) Otherwise, I have never owned a garment
that was so comfortable in such a variety of different weather. If I had not
knitted it myself, I would say it was magic. It was worth every hour of its
knitting. It gets worn a lot!
I cannot knit that tight with circular needles. (At least not without
eventually ruining my wrists.) Gansey needles and knitting sheaths are still
a marvel of technology.
I bought a fist full of DPN as I geared up for the trip. Wooden needles
are good for not dropping stitches while knitting on the go, but steel
needles are faster. Air security did not take my needles away from me - not
even the 7" steel DPN, but on the plane, I ended up knitting with wooden
needles. (I did check the gansey needles.)
Oh, and the little bands that they put around lobster claws are perfect for
keeping stitches on your needles. Lets see, for 4 needles you will need 8
bands - as if we needed another reason for eating lobster!
It is possible. In fact, it would solve the question how Europeans could
have been fishing the Newfoundland banks long before knitting arrived in
However, my guess is that felt is not as durable as a gansey knit from
worsted yarn spun from a long staple wool. That is OK if you are a coastal
fisherman. But, if you are far at sea and your upper garment starts to fall
apart, then you will die and your family will starve. I once wore a pair of
wool pants up into the hills. It turned rainy, and after a few days those
pants just disintegrated. I would have froze, if I had not also been
wearing a wonderful old Canadian army officer's wool shirt. While my pants
fell apart, that shirt never even lost its crisp creases. My point is: that
not all wool fabrics have the same durability. So, instead of a fisherman
taking one knit gansey for a season of fishing, he would end up taking 2 or
3 or .?. felted garments. So then he has a larger duffel bag and less space
in his berth. Ever (try to) sleep in a fisherman's berth with your duffel
Fishermen slept in their ganseys. I've slept in my gansey. Would a felt
sweater be comfortable enough to sleep in?
I think we need to make up a swatch of felt as directed by Klift-Tellegen
and see how it stands up to flexing and abrasion while being drenched with
salt water for a few weeks. Then, we test to see if the swatch of felt is
as warm as a swatch of gansey material. If the felt has reasonable
durability and warmth, then we make up a felt garment and see how it works.
My guess is that if Klift-Tellegen's felting produced a warmer, more
comfortable, more durable garment than knitting, then we would have seen
more felting and less knitting.
Belfast mills has a really neat felting machine It can convert a bat of
wool into felt in 15 minutes.