You know I thought I had a good grasp of historical Irish knitting, but this summer I got a surprise!
A local knitter, Jean Long, came into our studio during our 15th birthday celebration with a very special sweater. It was a knit like I had never seen before from Ireland.
Most traditional Irish knits I’ve encountered have been worked in pieces and seamed together. From the 1950s these were produced for sale, primarily on the Aran Islands with heavy, all over cabling and textures. This style of knitwear is too elaborate and complex for everyday wear, but it was produced for sale and not worn as work wear on the islands.
But what Jean brought in to the studio to show us was something different.
The Cape Clear Geansaí Chléire
What Jean had was a garment that was discovered in her neighbour’s attic-historian Diarmuid O’Driscoll from 120 years ago knitted by Catherine Cadogan!
I had encountered nothing like it knitted historically in Ireland. In fact, its origins lie in the British gansey (or guernsey) sweaters that were knit for fishermen.
This Geansaí Chléire sweater is knit in a dense, 5-ply worsted spun yarn. Usually in a darker colour for functionality. This is a more commercially made yarn than you would have found at the time in Ireland, which had mainly woollen spun yarn.
In addition to the yarn type, there are some other distinctive features. The first is the fact that the garment is knit seamlessly from the bottom up with a 3-needle bind-off at the shoulder. I was shocked, we all think we’ve reinvented how to knit but there was the proof:
Seamless knits are much older than the current generation of knitters realised!
For functionality, the sweater was knit very tight to the body to prevent snagging. To ensure that there is still good mobility of the arms, there is a triangular underarm gusset added under the sleeve on the body that is then decreased at the top of the sleeve.
The sweater is also knit at a very tight gauge. This creates a very dense, heavy fabric that is going to be more weather proof, warm, and durable. Following on from this functional theme is the fact that knitting the sleeve from the top down allows them to be easily mended. If the cuff snags or tears, you can just undo and re-knit it again.
Cape Clear Geansaí or Geansaí Chléire
Once I got over my surprise at discovering such an unexpected knit in Ireland, I started to ask why it was there and where it had come from!
Diarmuid said that the knitter, Catherine, was someone who knitted sweaters for the islanders. The style she used was a seamless, bottom-up style, in a dense 5-ply yarn with underarm gussets. This style was most likely imported with the ‘herring girls’ who traveled with the British fishermen around the coast. They cleaned and gutted the fish and also knitted this sweater style.
While the primary details are very much the British style of gansey, there are a few differences. This style is much longer than the traditional British version. In fact, in photos you can see that the length was used to create a pocket, folding the bottom up to store tobacco and other items.
In addition to this, the use of cables in the upper part of the body is unusual, according to Di Gilpin and Sheila Greenwell authors of the Gansey Knitting Sourcebook. They said that this is only found in the Cornwall version. Traditionally, in a gansey, you would only find knit and purl stitch patterns, but when knitters were also knitting Aran knits, the cables began to sneak in over time.
Gansey / Geansaí Chléire
As you may have noticed through this post, the English word Gansey and the Irish geansaí. In Britain the word gansey is the term for this sweater style generally in use but in Ireland ‘geansaí’ is the Irish or Gaelic word that is used for a sweater. The island of Cape Clear is a Gaeltacht area, meaning that Irish as a language is spoken there natively. To help differentiate the two types we will refer to the general gansey style as ‘gansey’ but will use Geansaí Chléire when we talk about the sweater knit on the island of Cape Clear.
Live Gansey Discussion from Cork, Ireland.
I’ve become so interested in this topic that I really want to dig a bit deeper and keep learning. We have set up a Zoom chat with Di Gilpin and Sheila Greenwell to talk about gansey design, its origin, and how they are working on keeping the tradition alive.
Meeting time: Nov 9, 2023 04:00 PM Dublin
A recording will be available after the event.
If you would like to come and join us, you can buy your ticket here: