They were inspired by traditional fishermen's ganseys. While designing the pattern I did some reading around the history and traditions of the gansey, and they tell some interesting tales.
The origin of the gansey itself is hard to find. It is popularly believed that the word "gansey" is a corruption of the word Guernsey, and indeed such sweaters have been popular in the Channel Islands for over 200 years. However, they have also been around in fishing communities all over the British Isles from Cornwall to Scotland for just as long and it seems more likely that the name alone came from the island of Guernsey rather than the garment itself. Alternatively, the name gansey may have been derived from the word yarn.
The traditional gansey sweater was knitted in the round in one piece. A seamless sweater was stronger and more weatherproof. Knitters might add a "false seam", by working a pattern stitch up the sides.
The sweaters would be made using 4-ply or 5-ply wool and small needles to make a firm fabric which would repel water. The neck and cuffs were tight to keep out the wind. The sleeves were knitted downwards from the shoulders, which had two advantages. Firstly, the lack of seam as mentioned, and secondly it meant, that if the cuffs or elbows became worn, the sleeve could be unravelled and re-made.
Another construction aspect which helped to lengthen the life of the sweater was making the front and back identical. Being able to wear the garment either way around meant that areas of heaviest wear (like elbows) could be made to last longer by alternating the garment and reducing the wear on those areas.
The traditional Channel Islands gansey is plain stocking stitch, but other communities around Britain are associated with more heavily textured and patterned gansey styles, with Scotland seeing the most highly decorated sweaters.
The patterns on ganseys had practical as well as aesthetic appeal. Adding texture to the chest and upper arms of the garment increased the warmth. Since the garments were made in one colour (unlike Fair Isle or similar work), adding a texture pattern made the sweaters more distinctive and more interesting to knit. Traditionally, ganseys were blue, grey or cream. The original gansey patterns were passed on from knitter to knitter by word of mouth and families or communities might have had their "own" motifs or designs.
The motifs themselves tend to be based upon fishing itself (anchors, diamonds representing fishing nets, and ropes) or upon zigzags, waves, crosses and columns. A specific design for each village appears unlikely though. Some fishermen in the 19th century were itinerant workers, following the fish, and the patterns and motifs would have been shared by the womenfolk who travelled with them. It does seem that some designs were more popular in some areas than others, but the idea that a fisherman washed overboard could be identified by the individual pattern on his sweater appears more a romantic myth than historic fact.
And so to my socks..
When designing SOCK gansey socks I wanted to take some of the traditional aspects of the gansey, mix it with the practical differences between a sock and a sweater, and add my own individual ideas. The socks are plain stocking stitch on the foot with the patterning all appearing on the leg, along with a "false seam" of purl columns on the legs.
I used some traditional fishermen's motifs (the cross, zigzag lines, diagonal lines and columns) and added in some of my own (the lozenge, little triangles and the heart). I had read that some men may have had their initials knitted into their sweaters, and that idea became the letters S-O-C-K. After all, what better way of identifying this as a sock pattern than to knit the name of the garment into it?!