While knitters don't seem to have a secret handshake, traditional gansey knitters might. "Show me your gussets!" one could ask, to which the other would raise her arms in reply. No gussets? Not a gansey.
A Gander at Ganseys
The gansey is a type of knitted sweater that originated in the British Isles. The local fishermen needed something to protect them from the harsh North Sea winds. It needed to be tight and form-fitting, so as not to get in the way of the ropes—while also flexible enough to allow full movement with their arms.
The resulting design was knit from a firm, tightly twisted five-ply yarn—and usually in navy blue. The sweater was extremely tight, with just two inches (5cm) of ease. But under each arm was a diamond-shaped gusset that allowed them that vital freedom of arm movement.
As much as the gansey was about form following function, it also had plenty of room for creativity. A large area in the front and back could be customized with all sorts of textural patterning, subtle knit and purl motifs, and even simple cables if so desired—as well as the wearer's initials.
Each gansey was so unique that, according to legend, it could be used to identify the bodies of drowned fishermen when they washed up on shore.
Getting the Gansey
Beth Brown-Reinsel loves the gansey. She's made a career out of traveling the country—this one and others—teaching knitters all about the clever tricks and techniques that are used in this style of sweater. She even wrote a comprehensive book on the subject.
But we can't always get away for a workshop, and we don't always learn best by reading a book. This video comes to the rescue, detailing everything you need to know about ganseys in order to knit one of your very own.
The Guts of the Video
Beth begins by explaining—slowly, patiently, and with the extraordinary clarity of someone who's been explaining this very same thing for years—the history, construction, and overall allure of the gansey. She details each step of its construction both in terms of structure and aesthetics.
My favorite part is her quick tutorial about the unique yarn that's traditionally used for gansey sweaters. She even cards and spins locks of Wensleydale and Shetland to demonstrate the difference between woolen and worsted spinning. You really need a certain type of yarn for these sweaters, and her reasons are clear and compelling.
Next, Beth walks you through the process of knitting your very own gansey sweater. Don't panic, the whole thing is knit in miniature. When you're done, you've practiced each step—from the cast-on to the gusset to the neckline—and have a sweater that would make any teddy bear proud.
Beth has also added a full-sized adult gansey pattern (Susan's Eriskay Gansey) to the DVD. If so inclined, you can take your new skills to the next level and knit yourself one of these sweaters.
A Specific Style
The shape and style of ganseys is fairly traditional and may not be for everyone. I confess I've never been drawn to them because I know that their shape doesn't always flatter my body type. But even so, the myriad tricks and techniques in these sweaters are well worth learning.
Beth also reminds us that ganseys provide a great introduction to the knitting traditions of Northern Europe. Once you have gussets and welts and shoulder straps in your proverbial toolkit, you can pull them out and use them in all sorts of surprising and helpful ways.
Friends in High Places
The DVD's production quality is very high. Everything appears clean and effortless, from the sound and lighting to the way each shot is framed.
Then again, the DVD was produced by Essanay Film and Television, whose other clients include Disney, PBS, HBO, The Discovery Channel, and the NFL. As a nice personal—yet still quite professional—touch, the piano music was composed and performed by Beth's son Terran.