The Woolly World of Gansey Knitting: Set Sail with Us!

By Mary Claire Phillips

If you’re like me and are drawn to all things knitstoric, Ganseys, or Guernseys, have probably come up on your radar. These sweaters came out of the 19th-20th century fishing industry, knit up in one color of sport weight yarn at a tight 8-9 stitches per inch, and designed to keep its wearer warm and dry on the stormiest of seas. It features certain design elements like a fake seam and gussets at the underarm as well as a textured pattern in the front ranging from cables to seed stitch. There’s so much to dive into on this subject so we hope this is a good starting point! And if you’re already a pro, maybe you'll learn a few fun facts to share at your next knitting circle!


The origins of where Gansey or Guernsey got their name are muddled but there are a few theories. The first is that they’re named after Guernsey Island in the English Channel. The other is that the name stems from the Norwegian word for yarn or sweater - garn and genser.

While many regions have distinct stitch patterns, you’ll see common motifs found across the UK and elsewhere. Why these commonalities you ask? You can thank the “Herring Girls” – women who left their homes and worked in all sorts of conditions along the coast, gutting fishermen’s catches and putting it out to market. This was rough but lucrative work and led to the transfer of ideas such as knitting patterns and stitch motifs. There’s even a memorial in Bridlington in the UK commemorating these wool & water workers… 

To tie this into one of our favorite yarn brands, I recently learned from Ella Gordon’s interview on Show and Tell Knitting that Shetlandic herring girls helped bring J&S to mainland Scotland. It was common for Shetland women to travel to the mainland to do gutting work for the fishermen, and so many of them missed their favorite yarn that Jamieson and Smith launched a mail-order business.


Traditionally, Ganseys are made with a 5ply sport weight wool yarn that’s dense enough to help keep out the outside weather. Paired with smaller needles, this creates a dense fabric that allows water to bead up on the sweater and then drip or evaporate away. Mind you, if you pour a bucket of water on your knit - it’ll end up soaking wet as nothing is that waterproof.

At the Woolly Thistle, we have two fabulous options - 

Frangipani’s 5ply Guernsey cones are made of 100% British wool and are spun specifically for ganseys! With almost 1,200 yards per cone, you can find a range of traditional colors including ‘Herring Girl Pink’. This color was developed after a historic gansey in the Scottish Fisheries Museum, the pattern for which is on Ravelry, showing that ganseys were knit for all genders and not just the fishermen on the sea. We have over 30 colors in stock, so you are bound to find your favorite color!

The newer gansey yarn we have in stock made its debut last year at Shetland Wool Week – Jamieson & Smith’s 5ply! This yarn was designed with traditional Shetlandic Ganseys in mind, such as their Yoal Gansey pattern (pictured above), with colors inspired by the Shetlandic landscape. We love the hues in this line as many of them are on a white base and several are on a grey base, producing moodier shades aptly named “Twilight”. This is a great yarn to combine your love of Shetland and guernsey knitting! 

Gansey Knitspiration 

If you want to dive into the world of Ganseys, be sure to pick up a copy of  Beth Brown-Reinsel’s Knitting Ganseys. Originally published in 1993, this book is full of history, patterns, and instructions on how to do different collars and the distinct underarm gusset. 


If you want to stick your toes into this tradition without embarking on a sweater-sized journey, the Gansey Herring by Nita Bruce  is a free pattern for small knit fish with traditional gansey motifs. Perfect to hang in your window or even on your Christmas tree - these are simply darling!

For more modern takes on these storied sweaters, check out Amy Christoffers' ‘New Berlin Gansey’ or Rocquaine by Christina Danaee for PomPom Magazine… 

A Little Song to End it on…

To wrap it up, I wanted to do something a little different and fun. It’s no secret that AI is an interesting new tool that’s arrived in the last year, and here at TWT we’ve been curious how to use it in our woolly world. I decided to ask it to come up with a sea shanty inspired by these nautical knits, and was quite entertained at the result and just had to share!

Verse 1 

In a coastal town where the waves do roar,
Lies a knitting tale from times of yore,
With needles sharp and wool so fine,
They crafted sweaters, a true design


Oh, the Guernsey sweaters, hearty and warm,
Woven with tales of the sea’s great storm,
Stitch by stitch, they told their lore
In every thread, the ocean’s roar.

Verse 2 

From Guernsey’s shores, the knitters set sail,
With patterns bold, they’d never fail,
Cables and ribs, a sailor’s delight,
These sweaters gleamed in morning light.


Oh, the Guernsey sweaters, symbols of might,
Wrapped sailors tight through tempest’s night,
A garment true, in salt and spray,
It kept them warm on their watery way.

Verse 3 

Through rain and wind, and salty air,
The Guernsey’s tales they all would bear,
Of brave hearts bold and fishermen’s hands,
Who faced the sea and its endless sands.


Oh, the Guernsey sweaters, stitches and brine,
A timeless tradition, a story’s sign,
Bound by threads of the island’s soul,
In every stitch, its history’s role.

Verse 4 

Now, generations on, the tradition lives,
With knitting needles and dreams to give,
In cozy homes and by the fire’s gleam,
The Guernsey’s spirit continues to stream.

So sing the song of the Guernsey’s thread,
A knitting tale that has long been spready,
From ocean’s embrace to the knitter’s hand,
A sea shanty of woolen strands.


Should you or a loved one be in a shanty choir, please feel free to share and sing along - it’d be fabulous to see this brought to life! We’d love to hear from you, so comment back on this blog post with your favorite gansey patterns, advice for knitting one if you’ve made one before, or interesting reads or books you’ve seen on the topic.

Thanks for reading and have a woolly day!


  • Shades of “The Wellerman!” What a fantastic use for AI – well done, Mary Claire! Even though I suspect the result is closer to a ballad than an actual working chantey – can you imagine trying to spit out all those words while hauling a yard or pumping up an anchor? – I also suspect I’m going to be singing it a lot :) I’m just about to the gussets on my very first gansey in Frangipani’s ‘Cornish Gold’ with Beth Brown-Reinsel’s book at my side.

  • Hi – I love the sea chanty!! Is there a tune/melody that goes with it?

  • I’m a huge fan of ganseys! I’ve made a few of Alice Starmore’s and am now working on an Aran weight gansey style for my son. I’d love to make one on Herring girl pink❤️. Have to put in my queue!

  • Three people in our small knitting group have made gansey/guernsey-patterned afghans. They are a delight to knit- so satisfying to see the patterns emerge! No one can knit just one.

  • Loved seeing Beth’ gansey bible recommended. Have a copy of the original and the revised version both autographed by the Queen of Gansey knitting. Have taken Beth’s gansey class as well. She teaches as well as knits. Have made two – 1 adult and 1 child size sweater. Frangiapani cones are the way to go. Thanks for providing the best yarn and info on traditional knitting… the very soul of our craft.

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