Wick II: 25 January

2W150125aHave you ever heard of Operation Outward? I’ve just come across it, and it’s so bizarre I thought I’d share it with you.

It dates from the Second World War, and was one of those cunning, strange, left-field ideas the British came up with to disrupt the Nazi war effort. The inspiration came out of the Blitz: one night during the German bombing of London a number of barrage balloons got loose in a gale and drifted away, and next day reports came in of chaos over Sweden.


Barrage Balloon
Imperial War Museum

Inspired by this, the military had the bright idea of sending small-airship-sized hydrogen balloons to float over occupied Europe, trailing long cables in the hopes of snagging power lines and causing outages, or with incendiary devices attached to the wires to start forest fires.

Well, you might think, fair enough: but how many did the British send – a few hundred? A thousand? Well, by August 1942 over a thousand of these balloons were being launched each day. All in all almost a hundred thousand were despatched, stopping only with the D-day landings; trains were disrupted and forests set ablaze, and finally the Luftwaffe had to divert their planes to shoot the damn things down.


Operation Outward balloon launch, Felixstowe
National Archive

It’s strange to think that you could be standing on the south coast of England, and look up and see an armada of airborne jellyfish floating on the breeze, trailing long stings, disappearing towards the Continent, bringing destruction and chaos in their wake. (Actually, this is probably a policy commitment in UKIP’s manifesto, now I come to think of it.)


Happy Burns Night – 25 January

I am now eight inches into the body of the gansey, and I notice my knitting is tightening up as I go, now that the pernicious influence of all that Lopi knitting is wearing off. Another week or so and I’ll have to think seriously about the pattern: I’ve factored in the width, but I need to count rows to make sure I start at the right point so the pattern fits vertically.

In parish notices, Tina has sent us a photo of her new gansey.

Meanwhile the weather is continuing in much the same way as usual for this winter—one day the birds are cheerfully building their nests and dreaming of spring, the next they’re bitterly shovelling out several inches of hail and snow—but as none of it is very dramatic just now I thought I’d end this week by sending our best wishes to all of you living along the east coast of North America for the coming snowstorms. Wrap up warm and stay safe, and we’ll see you on the other side…


Wick II: 18 January

2W150118aSo, this must be that winter thingy, which I’ve heard so much about—sub-zero temperatures, snow, sleet, hail, gales, ice and hordes of emaciated Frenchmen stumbling through the drifts, harried by wolves and Cossacks as they make their desperate retreat from Moscow.

This week the winds reached 70 miles per hour, and it says a lot about the year so far that this came as something of a relief after the 90-mile winds of last Friday. It’s rather disconcerting to look up and see a seagull drifting sedately backwards past the window, as though God had just pressed “rewind” on his remote control because he wanted to watch the last few seconds over again.

It was not without its compensations, though. I walked to work last Friday down by the river, just as a mini-blizzard struck. The sun rises around 8.45am this time of year, but the clouds came over so thickly that everything was still dark, in a sort of eerie grey twilight: the wind got up, coming from behind me, and then it 2W150118cbegan to snow. Soon the wind was whipping the snow past me horizontally. Then I caught a sudden movement on the river and when I turned my head I saw a black bird like a heron flying past, beating into the wind and snow like a Chinese print come to life, before it disappeared again into the darkness. My daily commute, I thought.

When I got to work I found that although my front was perfectly dry, my back was white with a crust of snow which broke off in chunks, melting in pools on the floor. (Luckily the cleaner comes in after I’ve gone home…)

In gansey news, my fingers seem to have rediscovered how to knit with 2.25mm needles and yarn that requires an electron microscope to see, and as a result I’m past the ribbing and on to the body, which will be knit plain up to the yoke. As I said before, I plan to donate the gansey to Wick Museum, as the pattern 2W150118bwill be another Wick pattern. It’s taken from the same photograph in Michael Pearson’s book, Fisher-Gansey Patterns of Scotland and the Scottish Fleet as the previous Wick pattern, the one on page 29. I’ll chart it out when I actually start the yoke.

Meanwhile, I cast on 268 stitches and have now increased to 296. I thought I’d aim for a 40-inch chest size, but since it’s going to be given to the museum I don’t have to be too exact, for once!

Finally, by popular demand, we’ve included a picture of me modelling the Lopi sweater down by the river. As this took place in a piercing wind straight from the Arctic Circle I am now in a position to confirm that a Lopi is about as wind-resistant as a string vest; several passers-by assumed it was a desperate suicide attempt when I took my coat off and rushed to help but I told them I was practicing the new sport of extreme ornithology, in which you combine birdwatching with hypothermia, (which now I come to think of it is something of a tautology in a Caithness winter).

Lopi 2: 11 January

L150111a During the early hours of Friday morning wind speeds of 93 miles per hour were recorded in Wick as the storm front passed through. We’d lain awake most of the night, feeling the house shake under us and listening to sleet rattle against the windows. Every now and again there’d be a deafening “Whumpf!”, as though God had left the gas burner on slightly too long before lighting it, followed by a shudder like an African elephant head-butting the bedroom wall.

L150111bTesco’s garage just up the road had part of its roof blown off, trees and branches littered the roads and even by Sunday evening there were still hundreds of homes up here without power. I feared the worst, but luckily we survived more or less unscathed (here a slate missing, there a gate blown over); not that we’re entirely out of the woods yet—more lows are heading our way, rolling across the Atlantic like bowling balls, with us as the pins.

In times like this it’s good to have something to keep you occupied, and I finished the Lopi sweater on Thursday night—just over a fortnight since I started. (You can knit a jumper in two weeks—why didn’t anyone tell me? Did I miss a meeting or something?)

2W150111bSo, what have I learned? First of all, old habits die hard and I struggled to knit as loosely as the pattern called for; as a result, it’s more of a large than an extra large (but that’s fine, as I’m somewhere between the two, depending on how much tablet I got my hands on over Christmas.) Next time I might use a size bigger needles.

I also discovered it really plays havoc with your stitch gauge when you go back to knitting ganseys. First came a certain amount of hilarious confusion when I picked up the ribbing I’d started for my next gansey project (“you mean I used to knit with this? No, seriously, where’s the real yarn?”); followed by stitches so big they looked like I was making a fishing net. Two days on the weirdness is just wearing off.

2W150111aBut, of course, despite everything, the main lesson was, yes, I can knit with two colours, which I have to say is a pretty big deal for me. (The pattern forced me to occasionally knit with three colours on one row, a dirty trick if ever I saw one—but I’d be lying if I said I mastered that, given the hours I spent disentangling balls of yarn that looked like they’d spent an hour in the tumble drier with a family of playful kittens.)

Flushed with success I plan to alternate ganseys with Icelandic and other types of sweater in future, and see how it goes; if the forecast’s anything to go by, as well as more gales and depressions heading our way—as if things weren’t depressing enough already—we have some days of ice and snow to look forward to. So, the more warm jumpers up our sleeves, as it were, the better…

Lopi 1: 4 January 2015

L150104a OK, well, I guess this one isn’t going to detain us long…

First of all, I’d like to wish everyone a happy New Year, and a belated welcome to 2015. I hope you had a happy Christmas, that Santa was generous, and that any oranges in the bottom of your stockings were chocolate.

My cold pretty much wiped me out over the festive season, so that knitting was just about all I was up for. As a result I got rather a lot done; a staggering amount, in fact, since I only cast on the first row on Christmas Eve.

L150104bNow, if you remember, I said I was going to take a short break from ganseys to try something different. But why a Lopi pullover? Well, as I said last year, I’ve been thinking for some time of learning how to knit more than one colour, and one day would like to try my hand at Fair isle (ganseys’ technicolour brethren). But I’ve always liked the look of Scandinavian jumpers.

The turning point came a few months back when Margaret knitted me an Icelandic pullover in Lopi wool based on a design I’d seen online. This was a revelation: I’d no idea they were so warm, and soft.

You see, I’ve always associated “proper” wool with being a bit, well, scratchy. But the Lopi yarn, which consists of two strands loosely entwined like a drawing of the double spiral of DNA, is hardly spun at all, and feels almost as soft as cotton wool. (I like to think of the finished jumper as hunting down your favourite childhood teddy bear, killing him and wearing his skin.)

It’s also knit on big, chunky needles—6 mm, as opposed to the 2.25 mm I’m used to. So, as many of you pointed out, and as I’ve just discovered, it really doesn’t take a lot of time to knit compared to a gansey.

Well—put all this together, since the principle of knitting with more than one colour at a time is the same as Fair Isle, and it seemed like a perfect learning opportunity. I got a kit from the good people at Shop Icelandic for Christmas, which came with a pattern, needles and yarn, and got stuck in.

L150104cFor those of you not familiar with how this sort of jumper is constructed, this is what I’ve learned. You start at the bottom, and knit the body as a tube, just like you do with a gansey. But when you reach the armpits, you set the body aside. You then cast on the first sleeve, starting with the cuff, and knit the sleeve up as another tube, increasing as you go; then you set that aside and do the same for the other sleeve. (This was a bit disconcerting, reminding me of Frankenstein’s laboratory with cloned body parts draped over the back of the sofa.)

L150104dThen you knit the truncated body and sleeves together by just knitting a new row in the round, and knitting over the sleeves when you come to them, and so attaching them in the process. (You leave a few stitches from both the sleeves and the body in the armpits on holders, where a gusset would be on a gansey, so you can join them together later.) You then keep knitting up the yoke, body and shoulders together, to the neck.

It’s been a huge amount of fun. (You must remember, this is the first time I’ve ever knit anything other than ganseys, and the first time I’ve followed a printed pattern.) I don’t think I’ll quite finish it this week—alas, I have to go back to work—but I won’t be far short. I plan to knit another couple of Lopi jumpers in the course of this year, but as promised my next project will be a gansey, based on a Wick pattern.

Finally this week, I’ve been reading children’s books, as I often do when I’m feeling poorly. This time it’s been Tove Jansson’s marvellous Moomin stories, an integral part of my childhood, and is a third reason to be grateful to Finland (along with the music of Jean Sibelius and of course our very own Judit).

In one exchange, Jansson perfectly anticipates the lot of the blogger. Moomintroll is explaining to the Snork Maiden how his father spends his time:

“Mostly he writes in a book called “Memoirs”. It’s all about what he has done in his life, and as soon as he does something else he writes that down too.”
“Then surely he hasn’t got time to do very much?” said the Snork maiden.
“Oh, well,’ said Moomintroll. “He makes sure of doing things now and again, even if it’s only to give himself something to write about.”

Vicar of Morwenstow 11: 28 December

M141228a As promised, here are some photos of the finished heather gansey based on the pattern worn by Stephen Hawker, the quondam vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall. (I was unable to recreate the pose from the rev’s celebrated photograph, as every time I stood outside a church and stretched out my arm a parishioner would appear, look pitying on me, press a shilling into my palm, call me his good man and tell me not to spend it all on drink.)


A Taste of Things to Come

I hope you had a happy Christmas, and that Santa was kind. Alas for me my cold developed rapidly, so that I spent quite a bit of the festive period in bed with my brain taking the sensible decision to go somewhere else and hibernate like a bad-tempered bear. Well—it’s mostly passed now, except for a lingering cough which starts out innocently like a cat sneezing but ends up rumbling more like an underground rock slide.


The “Purple Emperor”

I’ve been doing plenty of knitting, though, much of it lying on my back, and having a ball with the Lopi jumper kit I got for Christmas, which is the ideal kind of present (even if, as they say, your present may require some assembly). But I’ll say more about that next week.

M141228dIn the meantime, I’ve cast on my next gansey project (another Wick pattern, as it happens) and set it aside—casting on isn’t my favourite occupation, and this will make it easy for me to pick up again when I’ve finished playing around with colours on chunky needles and am back in the stern and earnest world of single-colour ganseys.

janetamBy way of encouragement and inspiration, Jane has sent me this picture of a splendid tam hat she knitted in delicate pastel colours. Just the thing for a cold winter’s day! (And jolly useful for the more folliclely-challenged among us…)

And now it only remains for Margaret and me to wish you all a very happy New Year, and here’s to a warm and colourful 2015 – and whatever’s on your needles, may it bring you, if not tidings, then at least comfort and joy!