Monday, November 26, 2012

knitting angst

In yet another of those cart before the horse moments in my life, i decided that i wanted to knit a gansey sweater. Gansey, guernsey, or jersey as they've been called were knitted sweaters or jumpers which fishermen wore. The yarn was multi-ply, either 4- or 5-ply and quite thin in diameter. The needles used to knit these sweaters were also small in diameter (size 2 US/11 or 12 English/2.75 or 3 mm) with a tension or gauge of 9 or 10 stitches to the inch (~2.5 cm). Given the 4- or 5-ply woollen yarn used, and the small stitches, they were an incredibly warm, tightly knit garment.

Buoyed by the success of my mittens that i can now say actually look like a pair and not mismatched ones that share the same colourway, and knitting a few hats that actually fit the heads of real humans (there were a few false starts, but that did not deter me from making something that actually could be worn), i somehow figured that i could now step up to a big-time garment.

I've pored over a few books containing gansey patterns, and there's a wonderful website i found,, where they have lots of helpful info. I also tried knitting the sampler gansey in Beth Brown-Reinsel's book, Knitting Ganseys, thinking that i could learn the basic technique on the sampler that can fit a teddy bear, then move on to one for me.

I had high, high hopes, so high in fact my put the cart before the horse moment was to order the yarn i wanted for my sweater. It's beautiful yarn, and my plan was to have it be my winter project.

And so, in the halcyon days of summer, as i was working the sampler tra-la-la, i was fine until about Row 21, where i got good and stuck on the chart. For the nonknitter, charts lay out the pattern on graph paper, and there's sometimes a key, which can be helpful. In the books i've been using as models for the one i want to make, a filled in or dark circle means a knit stitch and a white or unfilled one means purl. There's also an oblong circle that's not really a squiggle that means a cable, but i thought it best to keep to just knitting and purling.

For people like Himself who are right brained, these charts are wonderful. They show at a glance an approximation of the pattern. I say approximation because graph paper presents the pattern as square, and in real life knitting will be more rectangular as stitches tend to work wider than they do tall--or maybe it's the other way round--at any rate, it's more rectangular.

Now, i understand all that, and i have thus explained it to you, gentle readers. But when i look at those charts, i see dots upon dots, and my mind simply swirls. I have ripped out that sampler gansey at least four times after Row 21 because i cannot seem to count the white or dark dots or oblong circles for cables correctly and either lose a stitch or pick something up along the way. After the last frustating attempt, i decided to make something i knew i could work all right, and before i knew it, i had two pairs of mittens done.

Emboldened by my success, i returned to the land of the charted gansey, and got stuck fast. The sampler, while charming, is a bit busier than the pattern i'd like to make for myself, and finally, that little voice inside of me that's always right said, "Megan, why don't you simply work the pattern you'd like to make? Just try it out with some scrap yarn, see if you can do it, and see if you'll like it when you see it in real life."

I thought this a most sensible suggestion and have been doing just that. I started with scrap yarn that was a bit larger in diameter than my gansey yarn. I cast on 24 stitches and ran through some of the patterns. I used  US 2/UK 11 or 12/ 2.75 or 3mm double pointed needles (UK knitters call these 'cable needles' or so says a book i read), which was a first for me using such skinny ones and knitted 10 rows or so of each of the patterns a) i thought i could do and b) i thought i could do without losing my mind either from frustration or boredom. While they were all right, there was one more i wanted to try, but i ran out of that bit of scrap yarn, and looked through my stash for something else that would be suitable.

Knitters have a yarn stash the way quilters do bits of fabric. It just sort of happens somehow.

At any rate, i found a yarn that was a bit smaller in diameter and closer in diameter size to the 'real' yarn i want to use but not waste on putzing around with different patterns, and decided i'd look at the chart for it once again. Yep, same dot swirling sort of is-it-a-migraine-or-was-there-dope-in-those-brownies sensation, so i decided to give in to my left brain, and i wrote out the pattern in a way that made sense to me, namely, Row 1, K2 P2, K2 P2, K4 P1, etc. This pattern has four rows before it repeats--rows 1 and 2 are the same as each other then 3 and 4 are the same as each other, back to 1 and 2. Repeat this sequence any number of times depending upon the size of the panel you wish to create.

You see, so many of these patterns weren't written down but handed down from one to another. Some of these authors have looked at the extant sweaters and have painstakingly counted the stitches and then give us the pattern of what they found. Some say things such as, "I saw this on a fisherman and then knitted up a sample."

I must say, i stand in awe of those people. I can usually tell you if it's knitted or purled, i might even be correct on whether it's wool or a blend, but to look at something and go home and create it without a pattern? Um no, that's in an echelon of knitting where i doubt i'll ever be a member.

And i found that it was these sorts of thoughts that were choking me and my feeble attempts. I decided i needed to follow my gansey path in baby steps, so baby step one after writing out what the chart told me to do was to do just the chart: 39 stitches, and 40 rows. Period. If it created the look i liked, fine, then i could say, yes, this is going into my sweater.

See, the sampler book also shows you how to design your own. And when i saw a picture of a lone lifeboat survivor in his gansey, i realised that was the pattern i wanted, only i haven't found directions for that specific one, only one that's similar. And the bloody chart. That's why i had to find other samples to work that were also similar and ones that i could understand in case i couldn't resolve this chart thing.

Using this thinner yarn with the small needles, i cast on the 39 stitches. Jim, who had been quietly watching me found the ball of yarn too tempting, and had to help me. After he realised i really meant it when i said he wasn't helping in the least, he consoled himself by curling up on my lap and poking only now and again at the needles.

That was last night.

Tonight at my knitting group, i ripped it all out and had to start over. I also lost a dpn, somewhere, most likely in the couch when Jim tried to help me put the knitting away.


I have two skeins of yarn wound into easy-to-use balls thanks to a friend's swift and ball winder, and shall start another pair of mittens. For a present and sanity.

The gansey project is an extremely high bar for me, and i want to get it right.

Yes, yes perhaps starting with an easier sweater would make more sense, or one for an infant as it could be done a bit sooner, but i'm not known for taking the easy way when i can find the most labourious, painful way right next to it.

We have long winters here, so there is hope that i can get the project on the needles, and get it finished before i'm an old woman. And, make it a size that will fit me all right even if lose or gain ten pounds.

************an update***************
When i saw the link to Gansey nation on this entry wasn't working and fixed it, i took some time looking around there once again, and i found the pattern of the Whitby life boat man! I don't know how i didn't see it before; perhaps i wasn't ready to find it until now. I am a very happy girl at the moment, and if you'd like to see the look of a finished sample of the pattern, click here. I hope mine can look as lovely.


  1. My late mother knitted me a beautiful white Arran sweater (much the same style methinks). Unfortunately she made it for someone 7 ft tall and weighing 30 stone. It was HUGE, and reluctantly I eventually gave it to a charity shop. All that work.......

  2. I enjoy knitting ganseys, and mittens in that style too-knitting up from the hem and then out to the cuffs....NO SEAMS!!!!

  3. You probably have been advised to death, can buy big silver clips at the fabric store. They help mark hems and hold them in place while fitting skirts. You can slip them on the page and use them like a ruler, line by line. They do not slip, and they block the other rows from view.

    It is so good to see the pattern establish and then build. Good luck!

  4. Cro, yes Arran sweaters are very similar to ganseys. And yes, i wish to avoid making something that takes so much work only to find that it fits no one i know.

    gz, a friend at knitting last night suggested that i make a pair of mittens using the gansey style. So, maybe both of you are onto something there.

    Joanne, i've had many suggestions, but no one has suggested thos big silver clips that mark hems. That's brillant!

  5. You did make me smile, Megan. The joys of being creative when everything is going alright, then the frustration when things go wrong, as they frequently do. But it looks like you persevere, so I am sure that you will manage to make that gansey sweater eventually. I would find it hard to read a chart as well. I would have to write it out before I would understand it!

  6. There is a book, "Traditional Knitting in the British Isles" has a very good mitten pattern amongst its manypatterns