Friday, December 01, 2006

Ganseys as Social Rebellion

I just bought my first issue of Interweave Knits magazine. So many ideas, so little knitting time (and, er, ability/experience).

In the magazine was an article about the "fishing lasses" of Scotland's coasts, who would leave home for months each year to travel with the fishing boats gutting the catches. They wore large oilskin aprons and hand-knitted fishing ganseys. (I wish I could include a photo, but don't have a scanner, and I can only find images of mens' ganseys online.)

I found the article quite poignant, as the author explained the care and worksmanship of these knitted sweaters, which had elbow-length sleeves. She described how the women would work different stitch patterns--presumably for warmth as well as fun--and even incorporated details of the fashions of the day, such as slightly puffed sleeves.

It made me humble to think of these women, whose jobs were a thousand times more demanding than mine, working and working to create clothing that approached being stylish. (Because you know these gals weren't exactly getting off the boat and going to the tea party at Lady Whozit's.) Lovely as the detailing was, it only underscored the social distance between their lives wading in fish guts and the lives of the aristocracy. What would be the modern-day parallel? Inner city girl wearing Payless knockoff shoes?

Now, knitting pretty much exists as a middle class hobby. Like sewing one's own clothing, knitting's really more expensive than purchasing readymade, especially if you use good yarn. It's a crying shame that our crafts, our arts, are no longer financially accessible to the masses. Now that they are "hip," not everyone can do them.

Craft must become elevated to become art, to become respected, to be reclaimed from the dustbin of "work", of "women's work", of necessity. I get that. And I bow in admiration of the gansey-knitters, making beauty out of fish guts. Makes me wonder why I've taken up this hobby.

Ultimately, a hobby like knitting, quilting, or even, hey, blogging provides the ever-elusive room of one's own. Those women knitting the ganseys weren't doing it to submit the patterns to knitty. They did it to find themselves, to challenge their minds, to impress their friends, to create something beautiful out of a long string.

And, fundamentally, to have something warm to wear on the deck of a fishing boat off the coast of Scotland so they could earn a living.

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