Knitting Ganseys

I flit from one enthusiasm to another and my bookshelf charts my crazes for various crafts from long abandoned papier mache and wirework, a brief dalliance with natural dyeing and book binding, an erratic flirtation with calligraphy and printing, through to an enduring love of knitting. Not surprisingly, I have veered from colourful Fair Isle and Icelandic to plain and simple, from tiny baby clothes to enormous blankets with a detour via felted bags and knitting a scarf with two bird perches. And now, ganseys.

In January, when Ruth was planning her printmaking courses for 2020, we did a trial run of her Printing in Progress class, where students choose a topic or theme to explore and so trigger printmaking projects or other creative pursuits. As it turned out, all the printmaking courses were cancelled in 2020, but I ended up with a notebook filled with ideas.

Drawstring bag with print of sheep and field hanging from hook with green cardigan

I chose the theme “Stitch” and printed with samples of knitted plastic bags, wire of different gauges, various yarns and strings. Some prints were more successful than others but one idea was developed to make a Woolly Sheep screenprint and the printed fabric came in very useful for making face masks, even if they did look a bit odd.

The most unexpected outcome was an enthusiasm for knitting ganseys, the traditional hand-knitted jumpers fishermen wore in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the Hebrides down the east coast of Scotland and England to East Anglia and in Cornwall. It started when I was trying to find different stitch patterns to knit the samples to print with and got completely sidetracked. As so often happens.

The construction of a gansey is very simple as they’re knitted in the round up to the armpits, then the front and back are worked separately until they’re joined together by a shoulder strap. The arms are knitted by picking up the stitches from the body and knitting down to the cuffs. The glory of the gansey is the complex motif patterning, created by knit and purl stitches and cables.

The first gansey I tackled was based on Cordova from “Knitting Ganseys” by Beth Brown-Reinsel. In retrospect, this wasn’t the easiest pattern to start with as it has vertical bands of seven motifs, each with a stitch chart of different lengths so that on one chart I was knitting Row 2 and on another chart Row 28! Too confusing. I had several false starts and unravelled the work a few times as I knitted. Part way through, I used a spreadsheet to make a chart pattern that covered the full width, instead of using the individual charts in the book, which made life a lot easier. The gansey is still riddled with mistakes in the motif patterning where I lost my way, including a whole section missed out on the arms but it’s for me and it’s not a smart “going out” piece of clothing. I don’t think anyone is going to examine it and notice the mistakes.

gansey drying on jumper board in garden

I simplified the second gansey by using the same pattern motif across the whole width so that it was easier to knit. It also made a useful scarecrow while it was blocked on the jumper board and left it to dry in the garden. There followed a quick-knit gansey for a teddy bear that’s been so loved and worn away that the only way to stop his arm dropping off was to knit a skin tight (should that be fur tight?) gansey, slip it on and sew up the seams so it couldn’t be removed.

Knitting belt for knitting ganseys

By now, my enthusiasm for knitting ganseys was in full flow. The first two were knitted on an old circular needle I bought decades ago to knit a gansey that was abandoned before I even reached the arm gussets. Ah, those heady days of my early twenties when a full and lively social life left little time for quietly knitting in the evening. The needles were badly bent and the cord had an annoying kink so I decided to invest in a new set of needles. I’d read about the old gansey knitters using double pointed needles with a knitting belt (a horse hair stuffed leather pad on a belt that the right hand needle is pushed into to keep it anchored as you knit) and it dawned on me that there had been one of these in my father-in-law’s collection of vintage machinery and domestic objects. I have no idea why he had a knitting belt, but his collection was very eclectic, so it wasn’t surprising. Fortuitously, I’d kept it back when we’d cleared out the sheds as I’d thought it Might Be Useful One Day even though I had no idea what it was. Hallelujah! That day had come. Even more amazing, I knew where the belt was and hoiked it out.

I ordered my next batch of yarn and added a set of stainless steel, 40cm long 2.25mm knitting needles. The yarn and needles duly arrived and fearsome weapons they were: pleasantly weighty, sharp and very long. I strapped on the belt and pushed the needle into one of the holes in the belt. It barely went in. I pushed harder and it went through the pad and out the other side. Into my side. Perhaps sitting in a shed hadn’t done the leather any good. After a few attempts, I worked it out and found a comfortable position. It was a revelation! It makes knitting so much easier. Without having to hold the right hand needle, it’s easy to cast the yarn around the needle with minimal hand movements and the weight of the knitting is supported by the needle pushed into the belt. Best of all, instead of sitting hunched over a circular needle, I sit upright and (if I were so minded) could even walk around while I knit. I’m converted.

The gansey was knitted in record time with a simple motif design of seed stitch, ridges and furrows for my farmer with a W at the waist above a ribbed welt (to keep out the draught). Ganseys are the ideal work jumper with their diamond underarm gusset that gives freedom of movement, the cuffs that can be reknitted when they start to fray by unravelling and picking up the stitches as they’re knitted from shoulder to wrist and a gansey is dense enough to protect the wearer from the wind. Unfortunately, I had to use a different dye lot for the sleeves (because I had some yarn left over from the last gansey and was too mean to buy more) but the colour mismatch only shows in a certain light and it’s only a work jumper.

The next gansey is already being planned; a project for the cold, dark evenings in January. This time, I shall knit the whole thing in the round with steeks instead of knitting the front and back separately. Something to look forward to in 2021.

If you’d like to knit a gansey, these might help:

9 thoughts on “Knitting Ganseys

  1. The art of knitting ganseys in the Outer Hebrides is still going strong and helping to preserve the old patterns, particularly from Eriskay. We also have a mill on the island of Grimsay which produces yarn from local fleeces for knitting and weaving.

    1. That’s good news that the old patterns will be preserved. I think we’re beginning to appreciate that these things matter and that it’s not always about new, new, new. Just looked at the Uist Wool website and very taken with their wool.

  2. Just the post I’ve been looking for as I’ve been asked to knit a gansey! Alas, I don’t have a stash of father-in-law’s old tools, but the rest of what you’ve written here fills me with enthusiasm for a new project for the new year. Thank you! – and please remember to show us the gansey you’re knitting at the moment. 🙂

  3. Lovely Anne, I love the gansey that is doubling as a scarecrow! It looks warm and snug and a perfect colour. I admire all knitting as I can barely sew on a button, much less knit anything! The knitting belt is fascinating and looks like it has been carefully looked after. It is so nice to give these pieces a new life. I am imagining that there are other interesting pieces in that collection! Merry Christmas, I hope you are safe and well x

    1. Knitting is way easier than sewing Jane! There were lots of very interesting pieces in the collection, but we didn’t know what some of them were. Thank goodness for the internet. Merry Christmas.

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