The Long Thread: Stella Ruhe

Stella Ruhe, Knitwear Designer and Author

Piecework Editorial Staff Nov 5, 2021 - 10 min read

The Long Thread: Stella Ruhe Primary Image

Stella Ruhe with two of her gansey books, Traditional Dutch Ganseys for Children and More Traditional Dutch Ganseys. Photos courtesy of Stella Ruhe

How did you become a knitter?

As a little girl of three or four years old, I saw my mother knitting all kinds of underwear, sweaters, and cardigans for me and my little brother. The fact that from two needles and some woolen thread a whole garment could be produced was so intriguing that I wanted to be able to do that, too—at least for my doll. So my mother taught me how to knit on two steel needles with some cotton thread—the most awful combination you can imagine. But after a lot of angry crying and fallen stitches, I managed to produce a little, straight piece of knitting that I could wrap around my doll. After high school, I received a textile arts degree, and I taught textile arts for 10 years. I became an editor and publisher of textile books with Cantecleer publishers in 1983.

How did you become interested in Dutch ganseys?

On my first day at Cantecleer, I found a manuscript on my desk on Dutch ganseys by Henriette van der Klift. There was a note clipped on the cover from my boss asking me to return the manuscript to her, but when I looked at it, I got very excited. I had never heard of ganseys, and within the manuscript, there were beautiful old photographs and stories about the fishermen and their ganseys. I wondered why it should be sent back. My boss said that there were no instructions in the manuscript, and we didn’t publish history books.

I gave the manuscript some thought and asked the author if she would be able to make knitting charts for the ganseys based on the photographs. It took her a while to answer (and now I know why, for it’s a big job), but she agreed. That year, the book was published; it was a success and was translated into English.

I didn’t think about that gansey book again until 2012 when my friend Els Neele at Forte Publications asked me to research the Dutch ganseys that were worn between 1865 and 1945. I hesitated, but then I discovered, after calling a few smaller fishing villages that weren’t in the earlier book by van der Klift, that knowledge about ganseys had almost completely disappeared and people even denied that they were worn there. So I gave it a go. I felt I had a mission to preserve this beautiful female heritage.


I started contacting museums and archives all over the Netherlands and explained that I was looking for photographs of fishermen wearing ganseys as outerwear. A lot of unseen photographs began to pop up. In a very short time, I found photographs of 45 ganseys from about 40 villages for my first book, Visserstruien/Dutch Traditional Ganseys, which was published in 2013.

I had the ganseys that I found knitted up by 40 volunteers in woolen yarns and in the original color palette of blues, grays, black, and natural colors. I thought it was important to put the ganseys in their social, cultural, and historical context and to explain what fishing and living was like in those days because fishing almost vanished in the Netherlands. I felt that I had to preserve not only the ganseys but all the wonderful stories I read and heard about the fishermen, their families, their hardworking wives and children.

The book was translated into English and sold well. I got invited to do talks and workshops, and the knitted ganseys were exhibited in several museums in the Netherlands and abroad. Currently, the children’s ganseys from my third book are on display in the Sheringham Museum in England.


Left: Young boy from Middelharnis, Netherlands. Center: Spakenburg Gansey 4. Photo by Gerhard Witteveen Right: Boys and girls in the port of Spakenburg, Netherlands, circa 1940–1945.

Can you tell us a little about how you research gansey patterns?

First, I enlarge the old photographs on my computer. The photographs from around 1900 are small, but the glass plate negatives that were used produce sharp photographs. Enlarged, I can almost count every stitch and have developed an eye for the patterns, which are sometimes only based on shadows seen in the photographs.

Historically, the women knitted what they liked, and there were no strict rules for ganseys, except that there were no seams or hems made by needle and thread for there were none in the shirt of Jesus. Even when the women lived in remote communities and only saw work from others in the same village, they made their own variations, distinguishing themselves from the others. All the motifs that were used in the ganseys had a specific meaning (?) meant to protect the men at sea to make sure they would come home safely because about 50 percent of the fishermen never returned after going out to sea.

I worked countless swatches to see if what I knitted looked similar to what I saw in the photographs. When I found the stitch pattern I was looking for, I made a sketch and a chart.

Swatches are the key to knitting ganseys, which in the past were knitted in the round on four or five needles; they allow me to test different needle-size and yarn-weight combinations. I provide charts instead of written patterns because I find written patterns too limiting, but in my books, I give a full explanation of how to knit without the written pattern.

To date, I’ve found 180 different ganseys in about 70 fishing villages out of 240 at the time! There is still plenty of research to do, but one difficulty has been that the photographs are sometimes hard to find because they were costly at the time for the poor fishermen, and many photographs have been thrown away because of lack of storage in archives.


Waves Gansey designed by Stella Ruhe.

Are there many extant ganseys in museums?

Ganseys were workwear worn by fishermen who fished the North Sea and inland waters and rivers. Only a few original ganseys remain in a handful of museums in the Netherlands, and most of them are from a later period and unworn. A fisherman usually only had one working gansey, which he wore day and night, and a Sunday-best gansey, which was placed into service as workwear when the former was completely broken down. Ganseys were repaired until there was nothing left to repair, and when they were beyond repair, they ended up as deck mops.

Tell us about your books and recent publications.

When my first book received attention, people started to send me photographs from their family albums, and some museums and archives sent gansey images, too. There were so many that I wrote a second book with more stories and background information, and I was able to revise some of my conclusions published in the first book. The second book was released in English by Search Press as More Traditional Dutch Ganseys. My publisher is making a compilation of my first two Dutch books, including 12 new ganseys.

During my research, I found many photographs of herring logger crew members (herring loggers—or luggers—are seagoing sailing ships), and I noticed in these photographs that very young boys were part of the crew. Sometimes, there were four or five boys in a crew, and I wondered why. I went searching for their stories and found that the young boys had to work as hard as the men. Boys as young as seven years old worked as fully trained fishermen on the boats of their fathers, while boys of eleven and twelve fished on the herring loggers on the North Sea. The stories I read and heard about these young boys were heartbreaking but need to be told. And all these boys wore ganseys that were sometimes different from those of the men. My third book, Traditional Dutch Ganseys for Children, is based on this research.

How do historical ganseys influence your work?

For almost 10 years, researching ganseys has been my main occupation. During our first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, I saw a black hole in front of me and decided to fill that hole by knitting ganseys based on the ones that I’d recently discovered instead of sending them to my wonderful knitters, who’ve knitted about 170 unique ganseys for my three books. In a period of 10 months, I knitted 7 ganseys. Some of them are my own design and knitted in locally produced and naturally colored wool.

Stella Ruhe is the author of Dutch Traditional Ganseys, More Traditional Dutch Ganseys and Traditional Dutch Ganseys for Children.

This article was published in the Fall 2021 issue of PieceWork.