Yarn Review: Traditional Five-Ply Gansey Wools

In searching for the perfect gansey yarn, the type of yarn traditionally used in these hardy fishermen’s sweaters is relatively rare. Used in coastal England (and also in some countries across the North Sea) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gansey wool is a worsted-spun, high-twist sportweight yarn constructed of five plies. Yes, that is very specific. Knitted very densely on size 1 or 2 needles (2.25 or 2.75 mm), this yarn makes for a warm, wind- and water-resistant sweater that is highly functional but that also, because of the high twist of the yarn and the gauge, allows for rich texture patterning. You’re probably familiar with the iconic gansey, with its knit and purl nautical motifs, rope cables, and panels of low-relief texture. A few manufacturers are still making gansey yarn; we present three in brief below. The two British yarns can be purchased online and shipped to the United States.

Made in West Yorkshire, England, this wool is hardy, with a slight, toothy halo of short hairs, which makes it warm and inviting. Even with the high twist, it doesn’t kink up as you knit. Because of its high twist and dense body, this yarn doesn’t bloom or fill out (at least not without washing), so it works best on small needles in a firm gauge, to keep stitches even looking, to avoid gaps between knits and purls, and to really create a raised texture in purl patterning. The color range is limited, but does include the classic fisherman palette: navy, medium blue, red, and cream.
Available online at www.loveknitting.com.

This English yarn comes in twenty-six colors and is sold by the cone—which means far fewer ends to weave in, especially if you work your gansey in the round (the traditional way). In the hands and on the needles, it is a fairly fine sportweight; size 1 (2.25 mm) needles really seem most suitable for it. It makes a dense but handsome fabric that shows texture beautifully. Skeining the yarn and washing it does cause it to bloom quite a bit, in which case you might want to go up a needle size.
Available online at www.guernseywool.co.uk.

Made with wool from New England sheep by a real gansey-donning seawoman, this yarn has a unique story—read about Sarah Lake Upton and her mission to make the perfect gansey wool here. Her Coopworth 5-Ply is lustrous, rugged, and makes a rich fabric that belies its utilitarian nature. The undyed yarn is a natural heathered gray; the yarn is also available in natural dyes. After the yarn is dyed, the resulting color has lovely depth and retains some of the heathered quality. This yarn does well on a range of needle sizes. Quantities are limited and released a couple of times a year—-Sarah also takes custom dye orders.
Available online at www.uptonyarns.com.

Other yarns to consider: These sportweights are not five-ply, but do work well in texture patterns and are generally softer and more widely available than the above yarns:
Quince & Co. ChickadeeFilatura Di Crosa Zarina, distributed by Tahki-Stacy Charles Inc.Louet Gems Sport

The featured image is the Narragansett Gansey, designed by Kathy Zimmerman for Interweave Knits Spring 2017.

Give Gansey a Go!


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