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Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 9: 24 July

I am not, let’s be honest, one of nature’s travellers. I get carsick, seasick and airsick, and even going up in an elevator leaves me shaken like a cocktail. (When I read that the sailors on the Mayflower called the pilgrims “pukestockings” I felt a stab of fellow-feeling—you and me both, Miles, I thought grimly.) And yet I managed a new low last week on the train from Birmingham to Northampton.

Sunday was a hot, sticky day—well, hot for Caithness, around 25ºc—and I’d flown down from Inverness. I was stupidly dehydrated to start with, then the plane was delayed so I had to dash to catch my train, which was also hot and sticky, and pretty crowded. After a while sitting there I began to feel a little faint, then I realised with alarm that I was about to actually black out. I leaned forward to rest my forehead on the seat back in front of me, and tried hard to stay conscious. I began to sweat profusely, my whole body apparently curious to see what would happen if the 97% of me that is water was on the outside of my skin for a change. In a sort of stupor I watched station after station glide past, until it dawned on me that there was a chance I’d be unable to get up from my seat when my time came.

Well, luckily after 20 minutes or so I was able to sit up, and finally stagger off the train, though God knows what I must have looked like: I was so sodden by this time I could have wrung out my socks and saved myself the price of a bottle of mineral water. I admit I am occasionally—just occasionally—guilty of exaggerating slightly for effect; when on a management course some years back we took a personality test, while others were rated “completer-finisher”, say, or “debater”, mine came back “drama queen”. But this really was pretty ghastly. The moral of the story is, I think, to drink lots of water when I travel in future: no, scratch that: the moral is, don’t travel.

Sarclet Harbour

In gansey news, as I mentioned last week I didn’t take my navy gansey down with me, but I managed to finish the first sleeve once I got back. Hopefully another fortnight will see the whole thing done: already the nights are drawing in and I need a light to knit after about 9pm. The nights, alas, are drawing in, and it’s not even August: I would say the leaves will soon be falling from the trees, but it’s been so windy most of the trees have been stripped bare already. Oh, well—soon be Christmas…


I picked up 68 stitches along one side of the armhole, then the 24 stitches of the shoulder strap with its cable (which I cabled on the pick-up row) and then another 68 stitches down the other side. I knit the sleeve for 18 inches, pick-up row to cuff, and decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 5 rows. My row gauge was 11.44 rows per inch. The cuff consists of 92 stitches in a knit 2/ purl 2 rib, and was knit for 6 inches so it can be rolled back to suit.

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 8: 17 July

It was the Caithness County Show last weekend, which alternates between Thurso and Wick: this year it was Wick’s turn. Huge white marquees like giant spider webs sprang up in the field across the road from us like some great medieval fair, only instead of jousting and tourneys we had vintage farm machinery and a dog agility display.

I’m not much of a lad for agricultural shows, as a rule – when you’ve seen one best-dressed sheep, you’ve seen ’em all, I think. But the tannoy was loud enough that I didn’t feel I was missing out: I could hear it so clearly from my living room it was like listening to the audiobook version.

The great Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly once quipped that if rival team Everton were playing at the bottom of his garden he wouldn’t bother to open his curtains to watch them. This was literally my sentiment this weekend. But I do feel obscurely privileged to live in a place where everything stops for a day, and people gather and buy candy floss, and look at vintage tractors and watch sheep dogs jump hurdles, and greet old friends; and where a fun fair is still something of a novelty.

Vintage Tractors

I’m off down to London for a few days this week, a business trip to the National Archives. I’m flying down from Inverness, travelling light, so there’s no room for about 750 grams of navy pullover in my carry-on bag. Instead I’m going to make a start on my next project, a gansey for a friend. (By the time I get to the end of a project I’m always keen to start the next one. Casting on and knitting a few rows well in advance works a treat as it gets all the calculations and stuff out of the way, and I have something I can just pick up and run with.)

Meanwhile, I’ve picked up the stitches around the armhole and am about a third of the way down the first sleeve. I’ll say a bit more about this next time; after last week’s maths lesson I think we all need a break to recover.

In parish news, Margaret has now turned the previous gansey into a cardigan, and the operation appears to have been a success: yes, we have besteekening! Here she is to tell you all about it.

The Technical Stuff

1. Machine stitching either side of the centre. The red thread is there to mark the centre line, and will be removed.2. Both sides of the centre line have been stitched to secure the edges. My machine has a fancy stitch, but a three-stitch zigzag or a couple of rows of plain zigzag would also work. Gordon does the honours and cuts up the middle.
3. The steek, she is cut.4. I decided to take a belt & braces approach and really secure the edges. To do this, I applied a strip of organza bias binding in a 'Hong Kong binding seam finish'. The strip is then folded over to the back and stitched again. There are loads of tutorials on the web which explain it in more detail.
5. This is the finished binding.6. Next, the front edges are folded under and basted together, carefully aligning the pattern.
7. Basting finished, ready to install the zipper.8. The zipper pinned in, and . . .
9. . . . basted. Pinning just isn't enough to keep the layers from shifting.10. The zipper being sewing in with backstitch, with matching yarn and a tapestry needle. I could have installed the zipper by machine, but this would have broken up the pattern with two lines of stitches. Sewing by hand means you have more control over the process, and the stitches aren't as obvious.
11. The finished cardi

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 7: 10 July

It’s that time of year again, as the event that brings together a divided nation and uplifts the spirits of a people is finally here. No, I’m not talking about Wimbledon, or the first cricket test of the summer; nor even about the arrival of the funfair at the bottom of our garden for the county show. No, it’s time to rejoice in the annual Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year.

This year’s shortlist reminds me that the universe is far more strange and disturbing place than I’d supposed: An Ape’s View of Evolution competes with titles such as The Commuter Pig-Keeper, Love Your Lady Landscape, and Renniks Australian Pre-Decimal and Decimal Coin Errors. (The bookies’ favourite, Nipples on My Knee, a memoir of keeping sheep, I dismiss as simply trying too hard).

Every now and then, when I feel oppressed by the existential burden of modern life, I cheer myself up by flicking through the list of previous winners. My two all-time favourites remain The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2000) and Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978), though I do have a soft spot for Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996).

In gansey news I can at last reveal what I’ve done with the shoulder straps: I’ve opted for the fancy knit-a-cable-at-right-angles-along-the-shoulder-and-down-the-sleeve approach. It works stunningly well with this pattern—I plan to try it on a Flamborough gansey too one of these days, since the principle is the same—even though it can be a bit fiddly, feeling at times rather like performing an intimate act on an octopus with the giggles.

I’m not exactly firing on all cylinders just now—today I got dressed, felt something wasn’t quite right, looked down and discovered I’d put on two pairs of underwear, so you can see I’m not exaggerating—so it’s with something of relief that next week we turn to simpler matters, like sleeves.


A couple of inches up the shoulder

These shoulder straps are the business, but to achieve the desired effect you do have to plan ahead.

First of all, you need to remember that you get more rows per inch than you do stitches: I knit about 11 rows per inch vertically, and 8 stitches per inch horizontally. So if you’re going to knit this sort of shoulder strap you need to decrease the number of stitches you’ll be picking up, or else your finished shoulder strap will buckle like a switchback. I know of two ways of doing this: either decrease the number of stitches for the shoulder on your last row on the yoke, or else decrease as you work down the shoulder casting off. (There are pros and cons to each method; in this case I decreased on my final row, by 11 stitches, from 63 to 52 for the shoulder).

Further progress up the shoulder

Secondly, because this pattern features a cable which is crossed every 7th row, I want to end each shoulder with a cable 6/7 completed—so that when I pick up stitches around the armhole for the sleeve it will be this cable’s 7th row, meaning that I can cross the cable and so complete the sequence. The whole point of this, of course, is that all the other cables on the sleeve will start on the row after the pick-up row—this ensures that my central cable is aligned with all the others, and the next cable sequence for the centre cable will start the row after as well.

Now, you have to remember that each row of your shoulder strap knits together/casts off one stitch from one needle only. So, the first row (which goes right side up from right to left) reaches the end and casts off one stitch from, say, the the needle holding the back shoulder. The next row (working on the reverse side) casts off one stitch from the other needle. And so on. To calculate how many rows you have to knit for your shoulder, therefore, you have to add together the stitches on both needles. I have 52 stitches on each side—that means that my shoulder will consist of 104 rows.

Ready to knit the two stitches (shoulder strap and yoke/shoulder) together on a reverse row…

By a happy coincidence 104 rows gives me 14 cables (each cable = 7 rows) plus 6 rows left over. (OK, it took me the best part of an hour’s calculation to get this to work. I did the calculation before I decided how many stitches to decrease by at the very beginning.)

Now we’re ready to start.

…and knitting the two stitches together on a right-side-up row

The process is simple enough. First of all, place your yoke/shoulder stitches on two needles, as if you were going to do a 3-needle bind-off. Cast on the requisite number of stitches for the shoulder strap. I cast on 24 (22 for the central cable and flanking pattern, plus a border stitch at each side). It’s easiest to do this using just the two needles you already have lined up with shoulder stitches on—trying to knit the strap with a third needle at right angles is like trying to play two deflated sets of bagpipes simultaneously.

Finished shoulder strap

Then, working back and forth, one row right side up, the next working on the reverse, knit the shoulder strap at right angles to the shoulders, and at the end of every row, knit together the last stitch of the shoulder strap and the next stitch from the yoke/shoulder. As you work down the shoulder you will gradually cast off all the stitches on each needle—the effect is not unlike doing up a zipper.

It’s not something you can dash off quickly. If you think about it, I was knitting 104 rows of 24 stitches each—that’s a total of just under 2,500 stitches. It’s the equivalent of 6 or 7 full rows of the body per shoulder (out of curiosity I weighed the yarn I used—it came to 28 grams per shoulder).

Anyway, it’s totally worth it, as you can see. And yes, there is slight switchback effect on the shoulder even now; but the gansey hasn’t been blocked yet, and part of that is due to the cables on the body pulling it in. It will look better blocked—everything always does.

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 6: 3 July

I had root canal work on my first premolar bicuspid last week and, you know, it could have been worse. Although this might come as a surprise to people who know me, the hardest part was actually keeping my mouth open that long; in fact, coming in at about 40 minutes, the procedure was both shorter and less painful than my last performance appraisal. I’m not saying it was fun—there are few more disconcerting sights than a dentist fitting the sort of drill bit you’d use to countersink a screw—but nothing lasts for ever. (Besides, with my upper lip completely numb from the anaesthetic I had a golden opportunity to hone my impersonation of Jack Nicholson playing The Joker; always a bonus.)

Hill o’ Many Stanes, nr Mid-Clyth

For many years I was afraid of dentists. This wasn’t an irrational fear: one of my earliest memories is of a school dentist whose drill slipped and ripped into my lower gum. When my father came to pick me up from school I was still visibly upset, but for some reason, humiliated and ashamed, I couldn’t tell him the truth about what had happened. Instead I stupidly made up a story about being bullied, which of course only made things worse: for my father, fiercely protective of us, immediately stormed me back into school to confront this bully and sort it out.

Ruined cottage near Mid-Clyth

I can’t remember now how it all ended, which probably means that nothing really bad happened (I suspect my father soon realised the truth and tactfully let it drop). But I do feel mildly aggrieved that the many happy hours I must have spent as a child have vanished from my memory like breath off a mirror, while stuff like this is always there—most vividly around four in the morning. (Well, that and questions such as what happens to elderly vampires who’ve lost their incisors, and where could they go to get dentures fitted? But mostly the bad memory stuff.)

Anyway, I took a couple of days off work for the procedure, and for some quality gansey time. And lo, great was the knitting thereof: I’ve finished the back and am well embarked on the front. I’m keeping my powder dry for now regarding what shoulder straps I’ll employ, but at the rate I’m going I should get to them next weekend. As I mentioned last week, the pattern is one of the very best. There’s something almost organic about the texture; it strikes me as the kind of thing the creature from Alien would wear, supposing it was short of a few bob and decided to have a try at the herring fishing for a change…

(Navy) Week 5: 26 June

Britain has been basking in unusually hot weather for the time of year. All over the country records have been tumbling—ice creams melting in the cone, unshorn sheep fainting in the fields, people not bothering to turn on the cooker but instead cooking dinner on the doorstep—and I’m pleased to report that Wick has been no exception. Last weekend, we set a new record temperature for June: a whopping 21ºC (or 69.8ºF). This really tells you all you need to know about life in Caithness.

Flecks of foam on the river

We’re paying for it now, of course. The winds are gusting up to 45 mph, we’re getting the sort of rainfall that would have had Noah tapping his barometer and looking thoughtful, and it’s a brisk 13ºC. The grass is standing high in the fields and the wind ripples through it as though armies of tiny pixies (such as Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Nac Mac Feegles) are on the march. Sometimes when I look up I see a crow exactly balanced against a fulcrum of opposite forces, perfectly motionless against the wind, as though the Creator had pinned it there while He got on with something more challenging, such as the questions of free will or why men have nipples, and simply forgot all about it.

Peony seedhead

Meanwhile in gansey news I have reached the momentous stage of dividing front and back, with the gussets completed to the halfway stage and safely tucked on holders. And I can now reveal that the pattern is the wonderful Mrs Laidler’s of Whitby, a real classic and possibly my very favourite gansey pattern of all. It’s not especially difficult, so long as you can remember which row you’re on, but it knits up a treat. Navy yarn seems to suit it particularly, too—when the light catches it just so it shines like a monochrome persian carpet, or illuminated manuscript. I am, you can probably guess, a fan.


There will be 6 cables panels of 20 stitches on the front and back, with 5 flags of 13 stitches in between (an 11-stitch flag with a plain stitch either side).

To give me the right number of stitches I increased by 6 stitches per side on the first row of the cable pattern. This is the first time I’ve done this to any extent: it’s to compensate for the way the cables tend to pull in the pattern in and make the gansey  narrower. The more cables you have, the narrower your yoke will be, and an increase of one stitch per cable is a way of counteracting this effect. And as I was going to have 6 cables, I thought I’d better do something about it or else lose weight fast. (On reflection, the extra stitches seemed easier…)