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Denim 6: 12 – 18 May

D140518aThis week I’d like to share with you two bits of Caithness gansey lore, courtesy of George Bethune of Dunbeath and Harry Gray of Wick, each of whom had fathers who fished the herring and wore ganseys—and what these two gentlemen don’t know about the history of Caithness and the fishing industry could probably fill the space on a postage stamp, but only if you wrote in big, capital letters.

George contributed to the Moray Firth Gansey Project, and his story is recounted in their book, along with a picture of his father in his gansey, on page 37. But it’s so interesting I think it’s worth repeating here. We were talking about ganseys, and the way the Scottish ones had buttons on the neck to keep them tight; and he said that the buttons would always be on the other shoulder to your main hand—in other words, if you were right-handed, the buttons would be on the left side, and vice-versa.

Gordon and Harry

Harry Gray and Gordon

The reason was that when loading the boats the men would heave the nets up onto their shoulder, like men pulling a cart. And if the buttons were on the same shoulder as the nets, they’d run the risk of snagging on them—as indeed George says happened once to one poor fisherman in Dunbeath: when the nets were being loaded, they caught in his buttons and he was pulled violently down and broke his neck against the harbour quay.

Harry is the Chairman of the Wick Society, which runs the Aladdin’s cave-cum-museum in town, and he came in to collect the Caithness-patterned gansey I knitted recently, and which I was donating to the museum.

He said that in the old days the fishermen used to wear their ganseys next to the skin—except for old newspapers, which they’d wrap round their chests as a sort of under-layer to keep the wind out. “It made you crackle when you moved,” Harry said, “but it didn’t half keep you warm.”

0518aMeanwhile, my own project moves on apace, though slower now I’m back at work. I’m seven-eighths of the way up the back, and it’s almost time to get the slide rule out to start calculating how much space to allow for the shoulder strap (which will be 22 stitches wide). Sometime in the next week I’ll hopefully start the front.

In parish notices, many congratulations to Sue Rees for a splendid Staithes gansey, which can be seen here being stylishly modelled by husband Paul. As I’ve always said, this is in many ways still one of the most effective patterns.

So remember: next time you’re thinking of throwing away that old newspaper, spare a thought for those fishermen who used them for keeping more than just their fish and chips warm; and the stories that lie behind even simple things like buttons on the neck…

13 comments to Denim 6: 12 – 18 May

  • Sue Mansfield

    Oops! Put the buttons on my brother’s gansey on the left shoulder because that’s where they seemed to be in most of the old photos of Scottish gansey’s. Shame that he’s lefthanded – will have to tell him to make sure that he hauls the nets in over his right shoulder if he ever finds the need to do so 🙂

    • Hi Sue, well, all I can say is, if it turns out you’ve also taken out a life insurance policy for him and you’re the beneficiary, you may have some explaining to do…

  • =Tamar

    I imagine that putting the buttons opposite the main hand did make it easier to fasten them.
    If the gansey is the kind that is the same front and back, he could just turn it around, couldn’t he?

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar,

      That’s a very fair point (though if you ever saw me trying to knot my tie in the morning you’d know that for some of us it’d be a trial no matter which side they were on!).

  • Sue Mansfield

    Hi Tamar, that would work if I had made it the totally traditional way but I’m afraid that I thought I was being clever and did shape the neck at the front but made it straight across at the back! My excuse is that he favours his left hand but is not totally lefthanded – he writes with his lefthand but uses a knife and fork the standard English way with the knife in the right hand. He bowled lefhanded in cricket but held the bat the right handed way. Go figure!

  • Jane

    What an excellent home for the Caithness gansey! Here’s a thought, you will be able to visit it whenever you feel like it, an all round good thing to be part of!

    Still fine progress on the denim gansey, I like the saddle shoulder on Scottish ganseys, a good feature.

    In the South the tick count is still rising, I might be mentally scarred but I doubt it. Still nine ducklings, but always a sharp intake of breathe before we count. The squelchiness has nearly gone away, but not quite, you can’t keep a good squelch down after all. Glad to see you so much better.

    • Evening Jane,

      Actually … I hate to confess, but I’ve just decided to go with a rig ‘n’ fur shoulder strap after all. You see, looking at the jumper now the back’s done, I think a shoulder strap would just be too “busy”. (It’s all those little diamonds that do it.) I think it needs a relatively plain shoulder for contrast, I think. Sorry to get everyone’s hopes up only to dash them! But yet, how true of life.

      Have you tried any tick repellants? I still think that wrapping your pet in bubble-wrap is the solution, much as it would be for a modern-day fisherman to use in place of newspaper, where they could also serve as flotation devices in the event of accidents.

      • Lynne

        I agree with the rig ‘n’ fur and was thinking it would work well when I saw the progress you had made. Rig ‘n’ fur is always so classic.
        I keep watching for a photo of Nigel’s gansey but haven’t seen him post for a bit.
        Ticks are out in full force in British Columbia, too; we had 27C yesterday.

        • Gordon

          Hi Lynne,

          Today it was about 7-8ºC and windy, with drizzle when it wasn’t actually raining. And it’s nearly June! I feel there should be someone i could write to about this and get it fixed. Dammit, I pay my taxes too. (There may be ticks, but the chances of them finding a square centimetre of bare flesh to fix their slavering jaws into are vanishingly small just now!)


  • Marilyn

    Hi Gordon, work does cut into knitting time, doesn’t it. I have a question about the broken neck accident- would the buttons really have been sewn on so tightly that they’d hold against the pressure of the rope? Was it the action of the rope itself that brought him down? Sorry if that’s gruesome- you started it.

    Non knit- are you aware of John Scalzi’s science fiction? He’s being hailed as the next Robert Heinlein. I’ve enjoyed a number of his works lately and thought you might like him.

    • Hi Marilyn, as I understand it, he was hauling the empty nets to the boat and as they were being winched onboard the mesh snagged on the buttons and he was pulled down with sufficient force to do the damage.

      I haven’t read any Scalzi, though Redshirts has been on my to-read list for a while, if only because the idea sounds great fun. Time to bump him up the list, I think! (I’m currently slowly reading Connie Willis’s “To Say Nothing Of The Dog” and can’t makeup my mind about it. But I keep reading it, which must be a good thing?)

      I read Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land about 150 years ago whenI was at university, and though it’s still on my shelves, I haven’t had the courage to go back to it, if you grok what I mean…

      • =Tamar

        Oh, do bump “Redshirts” up the list. It’s fun with a serious underpinning. I enjoyed “To Say Nothing Of The Dog,” but I find that Connie Willis has a wide range of moods in that universe; the other novels in it are not really to my taste. I also loved her book “Uncharted Territory” and “Bellwether,” but “Remake” was a trifle unsettling now that some of it is coming true.

  • Lisa Mitchell

    Never mind ticks – hubby fed dog a ham bone a week ago. She spent two and a half days at the vet to the tune of $3000 CDN. So much for summer hols… Gansey’s looking great Gordon. I think rig and fur is right choice given the beautiful pattern of the rest of the jumper.

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