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Seed Panel Gansey: Week 6 – 30 November

Life”, Philip Larkin wrote in one of his sunnier moods, “is mostly boredom, then fear”; then age, “and then the only end of age”. (You can see in retrospect why he had to quit his job writing jokes for Christmas crackers.) But I can’t help thinking, hold hard, Phil old chum, you’ve missed a step, much as I did so spectacularly last week. You left out what I now think of as the “warranty expired” stage of life. The part where a hitherto unnoticed light on your body’s dashboard has started flashing, and you’re frantically leafing through the manual to find out if you really need an oil change before Monday.

Fishing net lines

Well, my sprained ankle is on the mend (and many thanks for all the good wishes received on and offline) and my foot no longer looks quite so much like something you’d see sticking out from under a sheet in a morgue. It still hurts, but that’s mostly the bruising. I’ve been resting it as much as possible, working from home a couple of days; yet still managed to—and you’ll laugh when you read this—strain my back as I leant to pick a laptop off the floor. (Lift with your legs, people, not your seventh vertebra!) As a result my feet seem to have receded, well beyond the reach of my arms; my current technique for donning socks is to hop desperately on the good foot while vaguely waving a sock in the general direction of my toes, and hope the two connect at some point. I stagger about like an actor rehearsing Richard III, or an athlete limbering up for the 100-metre lurch. It’s times like these I think, if I had a time machine, I’d go back to the moment the first fish crawled onto land; and quietly pick the little chap up, turn him round, drop him back in the water and quietly advise him not to bother…

Curlew on the rocks

Sprained ankle notwithstanding, this is the moment when the gansey suddenly comes together: the back and front are finished, the shoulders joined with a 3-needle bind-off, and the collar begun. All that remains are the sleeves; I may even get my wish and finish it by Christmas. I do like these simple uniform pattern bands, they always remind me of islamic geometric patterns—well, that and a cheese grater; but then I always said ganseys were practical garments.

Finally this week, it’s time for the Bookseller/ Diagram prize for the year’s oddest book title. Regular readers will be aware that this is a source of endless delight—after all, who can forget 1978’s wonderful Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, or 2003’s The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories? The winner this year was an academic work on the use of metaphor by an indigenous tribe in Timor (sensitive readers look away now), A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path. The only problem I have with it is that it feels too deliberately quirky to win the award, too knowing. I always feel the best ones are inadvertently odd, like this year’s runners-up, Introducing the Medieval Ass and Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music. Alas, I feel the glory days of odd titles are behind us; for who can hope to match the majesty of 1996’s Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, or 1995’s Reusing Old Graves…?

Seed Panel Gansey: Week 5 – 23 November

It’s about thirty years since I last sprained my ankle so this week, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, I decided to find out if it hurt as much as I remembered. (Spoiler alert: it did.) I was coming downstairs; near the bottom I missed a step, skidded over two more and slammed down hard at ground level; at the same time clutching desperately for the banister, so my body twisted in one plane while my foot remained anchored in another. For a few moments my whole lower body seemed to ring like a bell with the shock. I remember reading years ago that Roman forts were surrounded by a steep-sided ditch with a small groove running along at the bottom like a drain; the idea being that if your enemy fell into the ditch, their foot might slip into the groove and twist, snap, or sprain—just the sort of sneaky trick you’d expect from a people whose nouns take five declensions—and I thought, ah, okay, now I get it.

Skeletal remains of flowers

I balanced against a handy radiator and manipulated my foot to make sure nothing was broken, like an ex-ballet dancer addicted to macaroni cheese pies limbering up at the barre. Nothing was broken, but I began to feel unpleasantly faint. A minute later I was flat on my back, more or less unplugged from the rest of the world. I didn’t quite black out, though I’d have been hard pressed to, say, name all the various members of Fairport Convention after 1969. I sweated immoderately, too, all the way through assorted over- and underclothing, as well as the carpet; if we had a cellar, I expect I’d have dripped in there too. As an experience I can’t honestly say I recommend it. And yet, now the shock is over, considered as a sprain it’s not too bad: bit of swelling, bit of pain, lots of bruises (fascinating to observe them slowly spread all the way to my toenails—I expect a time-lapse montage would look like a rather disappointing cuttlefish mating display). It could on the whole, I feel, be worse.

Mid-day shadows on Williamson Street

Still, having to rest one’s ankle and keep it elevated is the perfect excuse to sit and knit. I’ve finished the back of the gansey and have set up base camp on the front. It’s early days, but so far my cunning wheeze of adding cables to prevent “yoke creep” seems to be paying off. Though it was, I realise, a schoolboy error to start a project in navy in the depths of winter, suckered in as I was by a solitary day of sunshine. Last week I dropped a stitch which slipped a few rows down. By the time I’d fixed it I somehow managed to end up with the wrong side facing and had knit the best part of a row backwards before I noticed. Still, I’m past the halfway point, and shall soldier on.

Odd One Out

Finally, to cheer ourselves up, let me end with a Scottish joke—an old one, but it was new to me and made me lol, as young people say nowadays, which adds a whole new meaning to lolling about. An English professor was invited to give a talk at a Scottish university. He thought, I’ll teach them about nationalism, and finished his talk with the words, “I was born an Englishman, I have lived as an Englishman and I will die an Englishman”. Whereupon a voice from the back called out, “God man, have you nae ambition…?”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Seed Panel Gansey: Week 4 – 16 November

It wasn’t raining, so we decided to visit another Caithness broch, the splendidly-named Thing’s Va near Thurso. To reach it you park in a lay-by on the main road, take a dirt track up Hill of Forss and then cross some fields; it is, one website boasted cheerfully, just a mile from the road. Being young and innocent, it never occurred to me to consider how much heavy lifting the word “just” was doing in that sentence. Well, I would learn.

At first all was well. We found the lay-by and parked, and started up the hill. Now, I don’t know what the words “dirt track” mean to you; I had images of the sort of road the Dukes of Hazard would go bombing down in the General Lee, trailing clouds of dust and whooping in boyish enthusiasm. This was more of a mudslide. We did not whoop. Eventually we saw the unmistakable lumped silhouette of the broch on our left, perhaps a quarter of a mile distant. There were no signs, but we found an open gate into the field.

Broch remains with Thurso, Dunnet Head, and Orkney in the distance

The field turned out to be waterlogged and within a few yards the path had become a drainage ditch, the first of many. We doggedly kept on, hopping from tussock to tussock like a crazy game of hopscotch through a minefield. Finally we reached a line of gorse, beyond which the broch lay tantalisingly close. In front of the gorse was a ditch with a stream running through it. Somehow we scrambled across and up the other side—and ran into a barbed wire fence which had been concealed by the gorse. There were no gaps or gates, so I laid my coat on the barbs and we climbed over. Finally! We had reached the broch and the end of our tether simultaneously. It’s a stunning location, with broad views of the sea from Dounreay to Dunnet Head. There’s not much left of the broch, but you can clearly make out the walls. The name is interesting: a thing was the Old Norse word for an assembly, and there’s a theory that this was where the Caithness Vikings held their equivalent of a parliament (hence my new line of tea towels with the slogan, Democracy: it’s a Thing). Good luck getting your longboats up here, lads, I thought.

And while we pause at the summit to catch our breath, Nigel has sent me photos of a cracking blue gansey he’s made. It is, by a happy coincidence, the same pattern as the one I’m currently knitting. I do like these geometric patterns, they’re so elegant, as Nigel’s demonstrates. Many congratulations to Nigel, a fellow traveller since the early days of this blog, and I’m sure you’ll agree he wears it well.

My own gansey is coming on: I’ve finished the half-gussets and started on the back. As I said the other day, I’m adding cables to prevent “yoke creep”, and you’ll note that the first section of purl dividers runs across the whole length of the yoke; the others will only go as far as the cables. My only tip is to arrange the division of front and back so that every row you knit with the front facing is a plain knit row, and all the alternating (pattern) rows are knit with the back facing.

Fishing boats in the harbour

As we stood atop the broch we noticed a footbridge on the north side, crossing the stream. Aha, we thought, that must be the way to go. Alas, it proved—like so many things in this material world—an illusion, leading us into several emphatically-ploughed fields. In five minutes we had so much mud clagging our boots we were reduced to lurching, like a pair of Frankenstein’s monsters newly-arisen from the slab. After a time—it might have been minutes, it might have been days, I rather lost track—we emerged back onto the road. We checked our phones: sure enough, the distance from the broch really was just over a mile. “Just”, I thought grimly; yeah, right…

Seed Panel Gansey: Week 3 – 9 November

It’s baby seal time—as, let’s be honest, when is it not?—and as this is the birthing season we popped down to Sarclet Harbour to see what we could see. Sarclet features often in these pages, and has many natural advantages: it’s only five miles south of Wick, is beautiful in a rugged, understated, Scottish sort of way, and has so far escaped the notice of drivers of the lesser-spotted camper van. Plus it’s got seals.

A year or so back, you may remember, we encountered some fifty of the wee beasties here—seals that is, not campers—waddling on the beach or frolicking in the billowing foam; this time there were only five—three pups and two adults. But it’s early in the season, and hopefully these are just the advance guard, arriving early to nab the best spots. We stayed high on the path overlooking the harbour, not wishing to get too close and disturb them. It was lucky we did, for when we raised our gaze to the offing we were perfectly placed to see six or seven black fins knifing through the water, submerging and then, a few seconds later, reappearing a little further on. We think they were a pod of orca heading south, the first time we’ve seen them there. Seals and whales, I thought: what next? I held up a finger, and was disappointed a blue bird didn’t alight on it and start singing; but then I suppose you can’t have everything.

Just as we were going some kayakers paddled into the bay. I was expecting them to check out the seals from the water and keep going, following the dolphins southwards. But they kept on coming, grounding their canoes on the shingle and climbing out. The adult seals retreated in panic to the water; the pups just squirmed helplessly. The kayakers ignored them and, to our mounting horror, split up and, each finding a different hollow, yanked down their pants, hunkered in a crouch and let nature take its course. Sorry about your nursery Mr and Mrs Seal, I thought, anthropomorphising terribly, but that’s humanity in a nutshell. We didn’t linger but, pausing only to wave and catch the kayakers’ eye, take a photograph and shout, “We’re sending this to National Geographic!” we took our leave.



Later that day . . . otter in Wick river

I’ve made good progress up the body this week, to the extent that it’s pattern and gusset time. These days I knit a pre-gusset additional purl stitch on the fake seam (effectively turning the seam into two purl stitches). I usually start this four rows from the start the gusset proper. Then, when it’s time to make the first increase that will be the very beginning of the gusset, it already has two purl stitches to nestle between. Essential—no; rather neat—I think so.

Cordova with Deep Violet and Turquoise

Finally, I took delivery of 2 cones of Frangipani Cordova shade yarn, courtesy of Deb Gillanders of Propagansey. It’s my sort of colour—a blue-grey-green, inspired by the seas off Cordova Alaska, dyed for the Net Loft. I plan to use it for another of the superb Caithness patterns from the Johnston Collection, which I will ultimately donate to Wick Museum. But that will have to wait till next spring; something to look forward to. Meanwhile, many thanks to Deb; it’s a great shade and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Seed Panel Gansey: Week 2 – 2 November

It’s been a weekend of gales and rain here in Wick (which, if Iceland was what the Greeks called “Ultima Thule”, I guess makes Caithness “Penultima Thule”). The wind has shredded the trees in much the same way an overexcited terrier worrits a newspaper, stripping them bare of leaves and littering the ground with twigs and broken branches. Autumn has arrived good and hard this year, as if the seasons are as sick of 2020 as the rest of us, and just want to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

There’s a great Bob Dylan song, “Mississippi”, one of his later ones, and it’s a masterpiece; of course I appreciate that his voice is an acquired taste, and even twenty years ago he sounded like more like an asthmatic bullfrog gargling mouthwash than what you might call a singer (my favourite description of his voice is “like an alsatian snagged on a barbed wire fence”). Where was I? Oh yes, Mississippi. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a stanza in the song that runs, Walking through the leaves/ Falling from the trees/ Feeling like a stranger/ Nobody sees. I hear those lines in my head this time of year, every time I kick my way through piles of dead leaves. There’s freedom in those words, even if it’s illusory; even if in Caithness the leaves “fall” in much the same way a feather caught in the slipstream of a fighter jet does.

Gull on the harbour wall

Normally at this time of year, as summer recedes into the rearview mirror of history and daylight diminishes by a few minutes each day, Christmas gleams dimly ahead in the darkness like Aladdin’s lamp, promising riches. Of course, this isn’t a normal year. But even though I’m not really an optimist by nature—my reaction to the question, “Are you a glass half full or half empty sort of person?” is to exclaim, “Glass? What glass?”—this year I’m going to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness; or at least I would if a naked flame wouldn’t set off the smoke detector. So instead I’ll light a candle of the mind, one for each of the 54 sleeps my phone tells me there are till Christmas. Then I’ll make a wish; I won’t have to blow the candle out, though: all I have to do is set it outside and wait for the wind to come.

At the end of the path



Very warm congratulations to Judit and Nicola this week. Judit has sent pictures of a very natty gansey-design-inspired Christmas present, which just goes to show how versatile the patterns are (and Judit too, of course).

And Nicola has sent in pictures of a gansey, which by a happy coincidence is knit in Wendy’s navy yarn. It’s taken from the Polperro patterns in Mary Wright’s ‘Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks’, and very splendid it looks too. Many congratulations to Judit and Nicola!


As this is occasionally very chunky wool (see the picture; at times it’s like knitting a gansey with hairy caterpillars, and you can see how dropping a needle size for the yoke isn’t really an option), I’ve decided to have fewer stitches than usual. My normal gansey is 23 inches wide. (I’m a 42-inch chest, just under, so this makes them nicely roomy and comfortable). But I felt like making this one a little narrower anyway, 22.5 inches across; and as the last gansey I knit with this iteration of Wendy yarn came out at 7.6 stitches to the inch, I cast on 320 stitches for the welt, then only increased by 22 stitches for the body. To be honest, I have no idea how this will come out—whether it will be too small or just about right; I doubt it will be too big—but it will be fun finding out.