Knitting myths and superstitions

I recently spent a wonderful weekend at the Lossiemouth Folk Weekend. Lossiemouth, a town in Moray, Scotland, was the port of Elgin and used to have a thriving fishing industry. On Saturday morning, before the music started for the day, we wandered down to the harbour and visited the museum. What a delight! As well as lots of information about the fishing industry and a very moving memorial room, there was some exquisite ganseys on display.

A gansey is a knitted, seamless, woollen sweater, traditionally worn by sea fishermen in the UK (and in some other countries). These ganseys often feature intricate patterns and these pattern combinations vary from region to region. Whilst at the museum, I bought ‘Fishing for Ganseys’ a booklet that outlines the Moray Firth Gansey Project (www.gansey-MF.co.uk) which has been recording different Gansey patterns from the area.

The individual and intricate patterns of ganseys

The individual and intricate patterns of ganseys

I had always believed that the patterns were knitted into ganseys so that, in the tragic event that a fisherman was drowned, the body could be identified. However, according to the booklet, there is no written evidence that this is the case and, although a gansey could have been used for identification, this was not its main purpose.

The booklet gives a lot of information about knitting ganseys and the tools that were used (including bicycle spokes instead of needles in some cases!). It also introduced me to some superstitions associated with knitting ganseys. The first is that, if a gansey was not fully knitted by midnight on New Year’s Eve, it was bad luck and would not be completed as the devil could be in it. If I follow this superstition then I’ve got rather a lot of unfinished projects that will have to stay that way!

Another superstition was that if a gansey was still on the needles when the person it was being made for passed on, it would not be completed but would be unravelled and the wool kept aside for at least a year before being reused. A superstition my Mum told me is that knitters always put one deliberate mistake in a gansey pattern.

Knitting ganseys

Knitting ganseys

Please share any other knitting superstitions that you know.

A new exhibition, ‘Close Knit: the Art of the Gansey’ runs from August 3rd to November 24th at the Hull Maritime Museum. You can find out more at http://www.hullcc.gov.uk. I, for one, will definitely be going.

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About knitncaboodle

Passionate knitter and on-line retailer specialising in sock yarns. I love going to folk evenings and open mic nights - at the moment I just sing but am learning the ukelele so that I can accompany myself on simple tunes. I'm a member of a reading group but, apart from the group's monthly choice, I read mainly crime fiction.
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2 Responses to Knitting myths and superstitions

  1. Sarah Carr says:

    I had a knit odyssey in Scotland last year, and so it was lovely to read about yours. I can’t belive that the myth about individual Gansey designs is untrue, although entirely possible that it is unrecorded. Surely a woman investing so much time into the production of a garment for a loved one would wish to make it unique to the intended wearer. Heinz Edgar Kiewe in his ‘Sacred history of knitting’ (Oxford 1967) stated that this was the case in Aran knitting garments were intended as means of individual identification in the event of tragedy.

    I shall be visiting the Hull exhibition too, which was actually what I was researching when I found your blog!

    Sarah Carr

    • Thanks for your comment and the very helpful reference to Kiewe’s book. I haven’t come across that before but it sounds very interesting so I’ll try to track down a copy. Hope you enjoy the Hull exhibition.

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