Thursday, December 10, 2015


Some say that in the study of knitting, the study of fishing and its history is a red herring.

Fishermen and sailors supported many thousands of professional knitters for hundreds of years. And, fishermen and sailors consumed the products of many millions of hours of  knitting by wives, mothers, and sisters.  In return for those millions of hours of knitting by family, the sailors and fishermen contributed to the cash flow of the family. If the knitters knit poorly, then fisherman or sailor died and did not bring home his wages. This put a premium on good knitting, and both the professional knitting and the home knitting was labor of large economic value. The economic value of knitting is very germane to the study knitting and its history.

Fishing was for food and oil.  The products of fishing were essential to medieval civilization.

Hand knitting was essential to industrial fishing from the 13th century until the invention of the knitting frame circa 1590.  We know that sailors did wear knit clothing from various sources including Chaucer.  We know where they were fishing from Kurlansky.  Cross referencing with modern paleoclimatology and the nature of wooden square rigged ships, we can estimate the required warmth of the clothing used.

Unless we can offer a suitable  alternative clothing, then we have to accept knit objects as the clothing of sailors.  Furs pelts, and leather are warmer, but need to be fully dried every few days. Thus furs and pelts were not an option for the longer fishing voyages as on shore fish were fished out in the 12th century. Woven fabrics are denser but not as thick and hence not as warm.  Quilted objects are warm, but are bulky and do not allow the freedom of movement for working the rigging of a square rigged ship. Quilted objects are very well suited to junks where the sails can be handled from deck.  What else is left? -- Well knit wool!

The requirements imposed by realities of the sailing and fishing industries tell us the knitting standards met by generations of  both professional and home knitters.  Those standards were very high indeed.

Mostly, modern knitters do not use knitting technologies that allow the production of very warm knit fabrics required by sailors and fishermen on wooden ships without engines .  The knitting technologies currently in use do not affect or diminish the effectiveness of the old knitting sheath system.

Five years ago, I pointed out that modern yarns do not produce fabrics as warm  and durable as yarns widely used in the past, but which are no longer in fashion.  For example, the old Lion Brand Fisherman's Wool could be easily knit into fabrics that are warmer than modern  5-ply "gansey " yarns. Then production of LB Fisherman's Wool Production was moved to China, and the new  LB Fisherman's Wool is not nearly as suited for knitting warm fabrics.  I have knit objects from MacAusland's wool that are warmer than comparable objects knit from "5-ply gansey yarns."  And, my hand spun can be easily knit into fabrics that are warmer than what I believe can be reasonably   knit from either the old LB Fisherman's Wool or the MacAusland's.

Very warm knit fabrics evolved under the economic stimulus of money and need by the sailing and fishing industries.  Without the influence of the sailing and fishing  industries, recreational knitting has lost the technical skills to produce the very warm fabrics produced in the past by hand knitters for the sailing and fishing industries.

I do not care what knitting technology any particular modern knitter uses.   However a knitter that thinks 5-ply gansey yarn knit on circular needles produces the warmest possible fabric has a very shallow knowledge of their craft. And, in particular, a very shallow knowledge of the needs of the clients that shaped medieval knitting.

I suspect that they do  not like my views because I compare various aspects of modern knitting to the best of  traditional knitting which was supported by huge economic flows from the sailing and fishing industries.  They think, I am saying that they should knit like that.  I am not,  I am only saying that such knitting was done and is possible.

Some days, I think that no amateur can can be as competent as a professional. On these days, I do not think that modern amateurs can ever match the knitting of  long dead, talented and trained professionals.  On the other hand, I know amateur wood turners that produce better bowls than professionals, because the amateurs can lavish more time and resources on the their objects, while the professionals must control costs to meet a sales price point. On such days, I feel that the modern recreational knitters, freed from a need to control costs and limit labor can brilliantly exceed the best knitting of the past.


Stoverider Vintage said...

I think most of humanity wouldn't like your views because you present them in an arrogant,condescending manner that would suck the joy out of a basket full of kittens.

Aaron said...

Yes, most knitters prefer myths and half truths presented in a friendly, folksy and heart warming style.

People who grew up reading hard science, prefer facts, reasonably hypothesis, and interesting conjecture presented concisely.

People that are not accustomed to the concise recitals of facts consider them arrogant and condescending. It is not. It is only a concise and sometimes terse recital.

If you want a dialog, then you need to already be fully aware of the content, and have astute analysis to present. At this time, I can number those folks on one hand. I write for those people. Mostly, I feel like a research professor addressing a class of freshmen that were the best and brightest in their high schools, but who have not done any real critical thinking leading to research on the topic.

As far as I am concerned, a lie will kill a basket of kittens faster than a fact.

purplespirit1 said...

Since we're dwelling on "facts"... you say:

"And, fishermen and sailors consumed the products of many millions of hours of knitting by wives, mothers, and sisters."

In actuality, more often than not it was the fishermen who knit their own ganseys that were worn on their boats. Granted, their wives and mothers and sisters probably did knit - so you're not wrong there - but statistically, the ganseys that men wore were knit by the fishermen themselves. I know this for a fact because I come from a long line of fishermen, many of whom are generations of fishermen who lived in Northern Canada and Northern Europe - and my great grandfathers and the fishermen before him were prolific knitters who made their own ganseys. Also, in case you're interested - the origins of crocheting can be traced back to fishermen as well, as many were known to crochet their own fishing nets.

"If the knitters knit poorly, then fisherman or sailor died and did not bring home his wages."

A good hypothetical idea - I'm guessing you're working on the assumption that fishermen were dumber than a bag of bricks, and were too dumb to dress themselves, therefore wore substandard clothing when going out into the sea, and froze to death? Without it ever crossing their feeble man brains to put on something warmer?

I'd be interested to know where you got that fact, that there's a number of dead fishermen as a result of poor knitting. Prove that, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm wrong.

Aaron said...


In the middle of the night, a storm hits, and all hands are called on deck to shorten sail. There is no light below decks, so, you go on deck and aloft in what your were sleeping in your -- gansey. You may be in the storm repairing rigging for hours. Try it.

If sailing is such an easy life, why did the British Admiralty establish a depot in Hong Kong that made and sold knit goods to all British ships serving India, China, and the Spice Islands?

purplespirit1 said...

Aaron, darling, it makes for a very romanticized story, and if history was entirely romanticized (as you have written it) then yes, I suppose you're right, by a far stretch of the imagination.

Since you keep writing about this crazy thing called FACTS, where do you have the facts to back up any of this? Where did you get your info that fishermen died from hypothermia due to their wives' ineptitude from knitting?

Aaron said...

Did youread Nancy Bush and look at all of her references?

Actually, I had found ALL of her references before I got to Nancy Bush.

: )

purplespirit1 said...

I have read Nancy Bush. I have also read other knitting sources. Aside from your blog, I've yet to come across any info about fishermen casualties as a result of poor knitting. I've no idea where you're getting this from, which is why I'm asking for your source for this information. I've already asked twice, you've responded twice, both times without a source.

Have you ever watched the show Drunk History? Your blog reminds me of that. You write a lot about your version of history, which in part may be accurate, but half of what you write is what you THINK may have happened rather than what is statistically documented.