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Denim 15: 14-20 July


The Ravelled Sleeve of Care


Bertie Wooster once complained of Jeeves that “Round about the beginning of July each year he downs tools, the slacker, and goes off to Bognor Regis for the shrimping.”

It’s exactly like that with Margaret, only instead of Bognor she heads for the south of France, and rather than shrimping she lazes around the pool with other members of the beau monde, sipping cocktails and eyeing up the bar staff before hazarding the mortgage at the roulette tables. (Possibly. Or, on the other hand, possibly not.)Sleeve

The biggest challenge when this happens is remembering that I’m cooking for one. So I unconsciously put twice as much coffee as I need in the cafetiere, and am left with eyes as wide as Bugs Bunny’s and a tendency to finish other people’s sentences; I also seriously underestimate pasta, with its remarkable capacity to expand like an inflatable life raft, and I end up so full I find myself bouncing down the stairs like a beach ball, or a very happy elephant seal who’s found a canister of helium washed up on the beach.

Anyway, Margaret’s absence explains the sudden drop in quality of the photographs—my technique is not so much point-and-click as point-an-iPhone-and-hope.

My daily commute

The daily commute

I’m about 12 inches down re-knitting the first sleeve, and so making good progress, though it does feel a bit like being kept in for detention after school; or the modern equivalent of forcing prisoners to pick oakum. I’m decreasing this time at 2 stitches every 4th row, a far more realistic rate than before. (I may take a short break after this sleeve is finished and start laying the foundations of my next project, just for a change; diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but trust me, after knitting so many, they do rather lose some of their lustre.)

Oh, and come January, when I’m snapping icicles out of my beard and using orphan street children to stop the wind whistling through the cracks round the windows, and the eternal hyperborean darkness means that the sun pops out and vanishes again like a cuckoo in a clock, remind me of this week: for the south of England’s been suffering a heatwave, temperatures a sticky and enervating 30+ºC; while here in Wick it’s been breezy, damp and cool, just 16ºC or so, with only a spot of sea fog (or “haar”), rain and a funfair to worry about. Grey skies have never been so welcome…

Wick Marina on an overcast Sunday

An overcast Wick Marina


Judit’s Gansey

Finally this week, Judit has sent a picture of the recipient of the green gansey we featured the other week modelling the garment, the orthopaedic surgeon who operated on her foot. (Finland, the country where even the surgeons look like models. And you thought rugged, blue-eyed Dr House was just fiction.) What makes Judit’s work even more impressive is that she sizes her ganseys by eye—no measuring involved. Remarkable.

Denim 14: 7 – 13 July

D140713aI’ve got some good news and bad news this week. The good news—I finished the other sleeve of the denim gansey, sewed in all the loose ends and Margaret blocked it out to dry. The bad news? The sleeves are too big and I’ve got to rip ’em out and knit ’em again.

D’, as Homer Simpson might say, ’oh.

You see, it was always going to be a size too large; knowing the winters we get up here, I wanted something big enough to fit over a thermal vest, a flannel shirt and an under-jumper, and possibly a layer of lard, a bearskin and a Persian rug as well. And the body is fine, just what I wanted. But the sleeves…

D140713bLet’s put it this way. They’re so big that if I jumped off the top of a giant redwood, or maybe a poplar, supposing for the moment there were trees in Caithness instead of the desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland I see from my window, I could spread my arms and coast for up to half a mile with a following wind, like an overweight bespectacled flying squirrel with a fondness for Scots tablet. If I was buried wearing it archaeologists of the future would assume they’d found the missing link between birds and portly archivists.

Sherlock Holmes would no doubt describe the mistake as elementary, just before I punched him on the nose. As you may recall, I’ve been trying to knit more loosely, lowering my stitch gauge from 9.25 to about 8 stitches per inch. Like Tiger Woods changing his golf swing after years of winning majors I’m having to rebuild parts of my technique, and calculations, from scratch. If I’d been knitting with the old gauge I’d probably have been fine.


Back to square one . . .

How does it feel? You remember the time when NASA lost a £78 million space probe after it travelled 400 space miles because they forgot to convert the calculations from imperial to metric? Well, this is worse.

Oh, well. It’s not all bad. Reasons to be cheerful, number one: the Commonwealth Games are being held in Glasgow this month and, just like the Olympic torch, the baton is travelling all over Scotland. This week it came to Caithness and, like so many tourists, it dropped into Wick on its way south from Orkney via John O’Groats, where it had stopped for an ice cream and a selfie in front of the famous signpost.

140713batonIt passed the end of our road, and it passed the library where I work, and it passed the bloody great articulated lorry that the police had forgotten to stop earlier and which now had to squeeze into the bus stop in front of the hospital to let the baton runners past, blocking the view of the staff and the patients who’d been waiting for over half an hour just for that moment…

Reasons to be cheerful, number two: Judit’s sent another great gansey photo, this one knitted for a friend in Oulu. And if the picture doesn’t make everyone want to move to Finland I don’t know what will; really, Judit should be on commission from the Finnish Tourist Board. It’s another great gansey, too.

Reasons to be cheerful, number three: er—I don’t have to buy any more yarn for a few weeks while I re-knit the sleeves..?

Denim 13: 30 June – 6 July

D140706a If you’ve ever wondered what working in the Caithness Archives is like, picture the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf goes looking for an ancient text among the Minas Tirith records. It’s exactly like that, except that occasionally—once a month, say—we have a bath and comb our beards, unlike certain wizards I could mention.

Archives work is not always as glamorous as the movies would have you believe; most of the time, to be honest, we deal with the equivalent of Victorian supermarket receipts. But this week I’ve been handling some genuine crinkly-crackly parchment deeds dating from the 1550s, touching history with my own hands.


A rare photo of Gordon at work

Parchment is stretched cow skin. Like your own skin, it has a rough, dark outside (the hair side), and a smooth side which never usually sees the light of day while the animal has a pulse. It’s such amazing stuff that the words really do read as fresh and clear as if they’d been written last week.

Courtesy of Highland Archives

And unlike modern paper, parchment lasts for centuries. Which brings us to my favourite fact about the medium: it’s so durable that the nuclear industry is putting some of its most vital information onto parchment, because they know it’s going to last. So one day the Gandalfs of the future will be searching for records of radioactive waste by candlelight, not rings – though I suppose it’s all about power in the end.

D140706cDespite some heroic knitting this week, I didn’t quite finish the gansey. (Disclosure: summer caressed Caithness with light fingers on Sunday, so we went for a walk on Dunnet beach. It was stunningly beautiful, but since the summer breeze didn’t so much make me feel fine by blowing through the jasmine of my mind, as make it hard to keep upright while it stripped the bark from trees, we didn’t linger.)

I’ve an inch and a half to go on the cuff, and then all I have to do is darn in the ends and wait for autumn to arrive. (About a fortnight, on current evidence.) I’ve deliberately made this one a nice, roomy fit, so that if I ever fall from an airplane I have an emergency parachute handy.

Finally this week, commiserations and congratulations to Judit from this parish – commiserations because she’s recovering from an operation to her foot, and congratulations because she’s finished another stunning gansey, in violet, which you can see here. The pattern is from Rae Compton’s book, page 56, George Mainprize’s gansey.

Denim 12: 24 – 29 June

D140629a One of the side-effects of the kind of migraines I get is that I find myself doing really dumb things. Incredibly stupid ideas suddenly seem not only sensible, but imperative. It’s a bit like being drunk, only much cheaper, and you don’t have to queue so long at the bar.

I’ve mentioned the time a few years ago when I decided to explore the depths of a light fitting using a screwdriver without turning off the electricity first. I was blown across the room, and spent the next several minutes wondering if I was dead, and my brain just hadn’t realised it yet, like a decapitated chicken. (Sometimes I wonder if I’m still lying there, and this is all just a dying hallucination.)

D140629bThis weekend’s migraine-induced stupidity was nowhere near as dramatic as that. I decided to try on the gansey, needles and all, just to reassure myself that I’d got the fit right. Apart from looking like I’d come from an explosion in an acupuncture clinic, there were no alarms until I turned my head to see how the shoulder looked and got a double-pointed needle up the nose.

Two thoughts came to me then. The first was, For God’s sake, don’t sneeze. And the second was, would this be the most humiliatingly stupid death since Hans Steininger of Austria, who died when he tripped over his own beard in 1567 and broke his neck?


Orkney from near John o’Groats

Very slowly I drew my head back and freed myself. I managed to extricate myself from the gansey, struggling like a man fighting off a swarm of invisible bees and, possessed for a minute by the ghost of Buster Keaton, in the process managed to stab myself in the ear. When I’d got it off I discovered that one of the needles had fallen out, dropping all its stitches. In some ways a screwdriver in the light socket would have been simpler.

Moving on. Usually by the time I get to this stage of a gansey I just want to get it finished, and this time it’s no different. So I’ve got my head down, knitting when I would otherwise be reading, or writing, or honing my celebrated impersonation of a narcoleptic trying to cocoon himself in his own drool.

Duncansby Stacks

Duncansby Stacks

I’m about halfway down the arm, the hard yards behind me, and enough stitches decreased to complete a row in less than 10 minutes. Next weekend I expect to reach the cuff, and then it will be, as Private Hudson from Aliens would say, Game over, man, game over. So long as I don’t get any more migraines.

I got an email from Ben yesterday telling me this site is a Googlewhack. I looked it up, assuming it was something illegal in Texas involving rubber goods, but apparently it’s a real thing. I’m not sure we count, but it’s a fun idea.

Denim 11: 16 – 22 June

D140622aI’ve got a new gansey.  Or rather, not a new one, exactly: an old one I’d forgotten I had. You see, we’re still slowly sorting out our stuff and unpacking, and Margaret found it buried in a suitcase (and in the process inventing the science of gansey archaeology). I must have knit it back in the eighties or nineties, in the innocent days before blood pressure, hip-hop, or reality TV had been invented.

D140622eLord, I feel old: can you imagine, I’m approaching the end of my third decade knitting ganseys? This jumper is probably older than most of the England cricket team. It’s like finding a photograph album in the attic, all the ghosts of your past waiting behind the door of memory to jump out waving party streamers, clutching a bottle of Theakston’s Old Peculier and shouting “Surprise!”

D140622fThe “I” who knit it—bless me, so tightly it could probably stand upright on its own—is trapped in the aspic of time along with the gansey itself, long ago. But one thing I do know: it’s not my size, and could never have fitted me, unless I planned to use it as a corset. (Although, now I come to think of it—gansey lingerie; could it catch on, do you think? Possible marketing slogan: “The Rough With The Smooth…” Really, it sells itself.)


The Icehouse, John o’Groats

Ahem. Turning our attention away from transvestite fishermen for a moment, my current, present-day, loosely knit gansey for the chap with the comfortable figure, is finally entering the end-game. I’ve finished the first sleeve and have embarked on the second. I ended up with 108 stitches just before the cuff which I decreased down to 100 stitches, comprising 25 ribs. (I like to be able to push my sleeves up, and that number of stitches with the turned-over cuff keeps a nice grip on my wrists without being too tight.)


Harbour entrance, Wick

In other news, we’ve just passed the summer solstice, the longest day. (Time to start thinking about that Christmas list now the nights are drawing in…) Caithness has largely escaped the mini heat-wave the rest of Britain is basking in just now—we’ve got grey skies, cool winds and that sort of persistent mizzle that makes your windscreen wipers howl like a wookie who’s just hit his thumb with a hammer.

And I’ve got to decide what to do with this new/old gansey. I feel a bit like Viktor Frankenstein if he opened a chest and found a cadaver he’d been working on decades ago—do I put it back in its suitcase? Unravel it and knit something else with the yarn? Start dieting? Or else bury it in the garden in the dead of night with a 2.25mm needle through its heart…?