Continuing my series highlighting wonderful craft kits for our Christmas gift list I am delighted to introduce you to The Cornish Gansey Company and Tina Barrett, the designer behind the company.
I first became aware of the Cornish Gansey Company earlier this year. I am a big fan of the gansey; I have written about it before on here, and was lucky enough to see the Moray Firth Gansey exhibit last year. What I really love about TCGC is that Tina has really struck a balance with classic designs and also in contemporary patterns too.
With designs by Tina, Liz Lovick & Rita Taylor there are gansey inspired kits from sweaters – of course – to socks, mitts, cowls and homewares. Prices start at £15 and rise up to £100 and I was really blown away by the range available.
Ganseys have such strong connections between maker and wearer and I am also fascinated with how patterns travelled around the country with the herring girls and been transmitted in ways like this. Tina is keeping those connections alive and keeping the traditional stitch patterns evolving and so I was really eager to ask her a few questions about where her gansey inspiration comes from.
Make yourself a brew and join us for a chat – there is a tantalising prize at the end of this post!
Hi, TIna! First of all can you tell Knit British readers a little bit about yourself?
I am a Devon girl, married to a Cornishman and we have four children. I was originally a children’s author and have had books published by Hodder and Stoughton and also Paragon Press. Throughout my early life, knitting was my hobby. At some point, about 15 years ago, the hobby became my career and the fiction writing turned into my hobby.
Who taught you to knit, and when did that hobby become a career in designing?
When I was a child, both my parents worked, which was unusual in the 1970s but it meant I spent holidays between two grandmothers. One was a seamstress who made all our clothes and the other was an avid knitter. They both taught me their own particular crafts, but I actually loathed knitting as a child. Compared to my gran, I was slow, clumsy and impatient. She would knit a whole sleeve whilst I struggled with an inch. However, I must have persevered because I remember knitting at school (yes, I was geeky even then) but nothing ever got finished. Period.
My first foray into design was as a teenager. I would cut up sheets, tie dye them and cobble them together into what I thought was fashionable. Pennies were tight and I couldn’t afford Topshop! My first knit design was purely practical. Like all teens, I would be ensconced in my bedroom being anti-social. We had no central heating and I would sit in bed wrapped in a dressing gown and hat to keep warm. My nose would be freezing so I designed and knit a nose warmer which was a square piece of knitting with side ties. My mum just raised one eyebrow when she caught sight of me and I am not sure Prada will ever be sending them down the runway!
The gansey is truly a fascinating item – there is the construction, the huge spectrum of patterns, its incredible social history, to name just a few. How were you first introduced to it?
I live in Cornwall very close to the harbour village of Polperro. As I child, I visited often but only took in the pretty scenery and the good ice cream on offer. As an adult, I borrowed Mary Wright’s book, Cornish Guernseys and Knit Frocks from our local library with a view to designing a Cornish gansey for a magazine commission.
The photos intrigued me and as I read through the chapters I became immersed the social history surrounding the sweater. It was such a tough life living in the fishing community at that time and having visited Polperro so often, it was suddenly easy to imagine the women there working alongside their husbands when the catch came in, raising families and knitting every spare moment to raise extra income. As a result, when I did design and knit my first gansey design (for a child), I felt I was knitting a bit of our Cornish history into every stitch. It became a very personal piece of knitting and I still have that gansey now even though my youngest has long grown out of it.
The connections of knitting through the ages are so important to many knitters – do you think it was in your blood to explore the gansey tradition?
Possibly not, actually. I am from Devon and not Cornwall so I can’t even claim to be Cornish – although my husband definitely is, so that makes me Cornish by default perhaps! And although all the maternal members of my family knit, they always used the cheapest yarn (sorry mum!) and easily sourced commercial patterns. Even now, I am teaching my mum who has knit for years, traditional knitting techniques she has never attempted to explore. She is just attempting her first gansey sweater in Herring Girl Pink and phoned last night to tell me proudly that she has managed twelve inches. Even knitting in the round is a big thing for her and she is a seasoned knitter.
No, I think perhaps it is the romantic in me that has led me down this path.Of course being a writer helps and I always loved the research part of that job. It was almost always more fascinating than the writing itself.
It is funny because my own mum is knitting her first sweater in about 30 years and encountering the same things!
The history of gansey knitting is very interesting, isn’t it?
I also volunteer in Liskeard Museum and am an avid history buff. It is not so much the ‘dead’ objects that fascinate me but the people who owned them and the story of their lives. Someone once told me the Gansey was a simple sweater ‘just a knitted sweater with some purl in it.’- unfortunately recipes were never recorded. Who on earth wanted to record a knitting pattern for a working fisherman’s sweater? Unlike the Fair Isle sweater, they were not worn by Royalty and decidedly unfashionable. They were common workman’s clothing and deemed unimportant. Even so, hundreds of women around the British Isles were part of the contract knitting industry trying to keep up with the huge demand for these sweaters between 1850-1930. All of the patterns were kept in their heads and passed down through the generations. Every member of the family was involved in knitting the gansey with the wee children knitting the rib (or traces), the middle ones knitting the plain with mother knitting the fancy bit on the chest and sleeve.
Every fisherman would have had two sweaters, one for chapel and one for work and many had their initials worked into the design. Although patterns were shared (or stolen from each other, as Mary Wright tells me wickedly) each sweater was individual, personal and many knitted with the wearer in mind. Has there ever been a knitted garment where so much thought was given to the wearer and then knitted into each stitch? It is the yarns behind the yarn that gets under my skin and always will do.
I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think knitted articles have a lot of stories to tell us and unlocking those like falling into a rabbit hole for me. I find the meaning in our stitches very powerful.
The Cornish Gansey Company truly embraces the “traditional” but you have managed to also re-interpret gansey patterns in fresh and contemporary designs too. Can you tell us a little bit about how the gansey has inspired your design work?
At first, I used Mary Wright’s book as my bible and knitted two Polperro ganseys; one for an adult and one for a child. It was then my pleasure to meet and subsequently become friends with Mary Wright herself and I was anxious to check that my designs and sweaters were ‘correct’. When I nervously produced them and asked the question, she shrugged and said, ‘What is right? They look great, so yes, they are right and you have knitted them your way, just as the women did back then.’
I was very focused on being correct initially but Mary made me see that there is no right or wrong way with a gansey. Even the stitch patterns cannot be pinned down specifically to one particular village or area of the UK or even Holland. The fleet travelled, so did the Herring girls and so patterns travelled too. Her book was merely a record of the stitch patterns that she recorded from local photographs and she had named them according to the person or place in that photo but no one person or place can be credited with complete ownership. Even so, I was intent on using the traditional 2.25mm needles, the correct yarn and only double pointed needles just as our ancestors did and there are many gansey knitters all over the world including America, Canada, Holland, New Zealand and the UK who only work in the traditional way.
However, for many, the small needles, the heavy sweater and dense fabric can seem daunting even though they love the stitch patterns. So, my design work lately has become more contemporary using bigger needles and developing smaller projects such as hats, cowls, mittens and shawls. In this way, I hope to keep the stitch patterns alive and also to re-ignite the modern knitter’s interest into re-working this very humble classic.
Are there any stitch patterns that you keep on returning to?
Personally, I love the Polperro Seeds and Bars pattern and for several reasons. Firstly, it is the most commonly recorded pattern from Cornwall and Polperro, which kind of makes it almost ours (even though it is commonly seen in Whitby) plus it is the first design I ever re-created and knit so it’s personal too. It’s simple repeat (recreating sandbars and waves) makes it a wonderful entry knit for those new to Gansey knitting and I can highly recommend it.
You are using a very traditional yarn in your kits – can you talk a little about the wool you use and why it is so great for ganseys
I only stock Frangipani 100% British spun worsted 5ply Guernsey wool because it is the absolute best quality Guernsey wool on the market without a shadow of a doubt. It has the British Wool Marketing Board Platinum award which backs this up further. Owners, Russ and Jan Stanland have spent 18 years building their brand and they pride themselves on offering quality of service and product. They have experimented over the years with the spinning technique- settling on Worsted, the sheep breed – mainly Texel and also the colour palette- there are 28 scrummy shades on offer and it is stocked all over the world, including the tiny local store on Eriskay. I recently watched a wonderful programme on the Alba channel about an Eriskay lady who used their yarn to knit a gansey for the Pope and subsequently met him and presented it to him. So it is true to say that our yarn is ‘as worn by the Pope!’
That was an incredibly moving documentary, which not only showed the revitalisation of knitting a traditional island gansey pattern, but again the meaning and the power in our stitches. Marybell’s gansey was knit in a plain cream – perhaps suitable for a pope – but you are also experimenting with colours aren’t you?
Traditionally, guernsey yarn is supplied on 500g cones and comes in solid colours. There is very good reason for this, namely that there are less joins in your knitting when tackling a sweater plus textured stitches are often ‘lost’ within a variegated yarn. However, many folk love the rich assortment of gansey stitch patterns but feel a gansey might be too much for them to tackle. For this reason I have spent some time designing smaller accessories such as The Crumplehorn Snood, which is a sampler of traditional gansey stitch patterns and also the Polperro Snakes and Ladders Beanie which really shows off the texture stitches to the full, but are more portable and worked on slightly bigger needles than a traditional gansey sweater.
In this way, I hope to move things forward and interest the modern knitter into exploring further the history and techniques involved in this little modest working man’s sweater.
Controversially, I have also decided to introduce some gradient dyed skeins to the yarn store (coming very soon) which I feel may lend themselves beautifully to shawls and wraps. Purists may not approve but I think the dip-dyed effect will still show off the stitch patterns and provide a modern more contemporary edge.
What else is included in your kits?
Each gansey sweater kit comes complete with yarn on the cone, 5 x 40cm long 2.25mm steel double pointed needles plus a comprehensive step by step guide to knitting the sweater. It is in full colour and walks the knitter through each stage. In addition, I also provide three laminated charts for the patterned chest and sleeve straps. The kits come complete in a sturdy carrier which can also be used as a project bag.
The accessory kits come with yarn, usually in a ball plus a full colour pattern booklet and additional photo tutorials of techniques. These kits also come in a sturdy carrier.
We also stock a great range of yarn, historical books, DVDs, needles, patterns, shawl pins and traditional knitting sticks and a range of kits from top designers and gansey specialists, Liz Lovick and Rita Taylor.
Do you teach any workshops, or will you be appearing at any wool events?
At present, I seem to be popular with our local branches of the Women’s Institute, many of whom are avid knitters and crafters themselves. I am always happy to host workshops and to give talks on this most fascinating of subjects so please get in touch via the contact page of my website if interested.
Thank you so much, Tina, for dropping along to talk about the incredible gansey and all of its forms. I think I will always be fascinated by the multitudes of patterns and the incredible history of the garment.
It is really wonderful that you are helping the gansey tradition keep on going and evolving with these beautiful kits – whether you are buying a kit for yourself or a loved one, or buying it to make for a loved one that idea of “passing on” traditions and emotional ties are still present.
Ahh Thank you 🙂
| Amazing Give-Away
Now, I know you were all reading that and thinking that there is a gansey kit out there for you. or for the knitter in your life. With the selection at The Cornish Gansey Company there most certainly is – and I think the prices of the kits and the quality of the items included are exceptionally good value and they should get on to your gift list pronto. HOWEVER, Tina has been incredibly generous and has donated a kit as a give-away prize.
To be in with a chance to win this lovely prize this Kitsmas, please visit The Cornish Gansey Company shop and tell me which other items might make their way onto your gift list – kits, patterns, yarn, books, dvds? Just leave a comment here and tell me which! You have until the 20th December (til 12pm UK to enter and I will post out the prize in the New Year. The very best of luck and so many thanks to Tina.
UPDATE 23-12-15: I did the random.org draw today and the winner is comment 15 – well done, Linda Rumsey!