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Flamborough II: 18 May


The Gansey of Shame – see below…

I gave a talk to the Family History Society last week, looking at what you can find out about people who lived in Victorian Caithness using some of the less common sources. And while I was thinking about how best to showcase the registers of fishing boats with a Wick (WK) registration I had an idea.

M&M Crew

The crew of the Mary and Maggie in 1910 – Donald Angus centre, holding the cup [image is deliberately small to respect copyright]

Both of the Wick ganseys I’ve knitted have been based on a photograph of Donald Angus’s 1910 prize-winning crew of the Mary and Maggie (WK.29), which appears in both Hetty Munro and Rae Compton’s “They Lived By the Sea” and Michael Pearson’s “Traditional Knitting”.

So I looked the Mary and Maggie up in the register, and this is what I found: the boat was registered in 1899 and one of the joint owners was a Charles Angus of Thurso, whose occupation was fisherman. Now, Angus isn’t a very common name up here, so someone called Charles Angus who was also a fisherman wasn’t hard to find: in fact there was only one, and he lived in Shore Street.

Entry for the "Mary and Maggie" in the register of fishing boats

Entry for the “Mary and Maggie” in the register of fishing boats [image courtesy of Caithness Archive Centre]

I found his death certificate online, and learned he died in 1927, aged 72. This was interesting, because the register says that the Mary and Maggie’s registration was cancelled in November 1928, with the vessel “a total loss” – so the boat only survived its owner by a year.

But when I looked him up in the 1901 census I found something rather sweet. For the name of his wife was Margaret, which the Scots shorten to Maggie; and his two daughters were called Mary and Maggie. He named the boat after the women in his life, the old softy. Isn’t that great? (Donald, who would skipper the boat in 1910 and win the prize cup, was just 17 in 1901 and still living at home.)

1901 Census entry for Charles Angus and family

1901 Census entry for Charles Angus and family

It doesn’t make a lot of difference; but it makes me feel a little closer to the people in that photograph, somehow. One of them, at least, isn’t just a face and a name.

Now, gansey news. As you’ll see, I’ve been making good progress; but there is a problem, which you can see if you look closely at the top couple of diamonds compared with the rest. They look different, don’t they?

You see, after I knitted the Lopi jumper last Christmas, my gansey stitch gauge went all to hell, and ever since I’ve struggled to rein it in. As a result, my last couple of ganseys have bloated and sagged, like a well-fed burgess after a civic function, undoing his trouser buttons with a contented sigh and letting his waist expand like a cottage loaf in the oven. Now I quite like baggy jumpers, so that was fine, but something’s gone wrong with this one. It’s too big, too loose, to the point that the pattern has lost definition.

gansey detail copy

Detail of pattern (it’s not actually pink!) – note sharper diamonds at the top

I put it on a strict diet and exercise regime and deliberately knit the last couple of inches more tightly, and you can see the results for yourselves: the diamond pattern is crisper and clearer, better defined, compared with those that came before.

Clouds Over Outer Harbour

Clouds over Wick Harbour

I’ve tried to persuade myself I can live with it, but I can’t, so I’m going to stop knitting this one and rip it out and start again. It seems drastic, but to be honest it’s a minor nuisance, nothing more. (In fact, if I didn’t have to confess on this blog in front of hundreds of ninja gansey-knitting readers, I’d barely give it a thought – but there’s nothing like a public confession to stop you from getting above yourself, is there?)

There won’t be a blog next week, not because I have to be whipped from one side of the town to the other in punishment for what I’ve done, but because Margaret is away just now (I thought she was just knitting shawls; turns out it was a lace rope ladder to climb down the wall of her turret and escape across the fields) and I’m going to take a break and think about what to do next. See you in a fortnight!

Gansey Nation will return on Monday 1 June.



20 comments to Flamborough II: 18 May

  • Alexander

    I would do the same 🙂
    Have you ever considered knitting with the deadly DPN spider and knititng sheath/pouch/belt?
    Once you conquered the beast it gives so much better stitch definition and tightness of fabric.
    And on top of it you are not wrecking your wrists by trying to knitt tight
    All the best from rainy Ireland

    • Gordon

      Hi Alexander,

      I tried a knitting sheath many years ago, but I couldn’t make the adjustment. The stitches kept dropping off the edges, and it was like trying to shear a paralytically drunken sheep with it sitting in your lap; I quickly gave up! But I have the sort of hand-eye coordination that once I’ve found a method that works, I can’t change it to something else.

      I used to knit very tightly—about 9 stitches to the inch—and have gradually eased up. But I deliberately wanted to experiment with this one: unfortunately, it ended up at less than 7 sts/inch, and that was too loose. So I;m back to about 8 sts/inch, which is the goldilocks gauge for me. (My knitting is like an engine—every now and again it needs to be calibrated!)


      • Alexander

        Hi Gordon,

        9stitches per inch on 2,25mm needles without a sheath/belt is very impressive indeed!! I reach 9 or 10 stitches per inch only on 2mm needles WITH a belt. I have to admit learning to takle the belt/sheath was quite a steep learning curve for me as well, as I am a continental style knitter, but I am happy I stuck with it. Now I would not want to knit any other way, even top down raglan sweaters.

        All the best,

        • Gordon

          The problem with a gauge of 9 sts/inch is that the resulting gansey can be stiff enough to use in partition walling, but you can create a really intricate patterned effect at that scale. I’ve seen videos of people sheath knitting and it’s amazing the speed they can achieve, not to mention the skill they display – really stunning. Alas, in this instance, I’m the tortoise, not the hare!

          There needs to be a Knitting Centre, like the England National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough, where a team of experts can help you deconstruct your technique using video evidence, and then rebuild your action better! (Though hopefully better than they managed with England’s current fast bowlers…)

  • Kersti

    I like the story of the Mary & Maggie – but, Gordon, surely it was very usual in those days for boat owners to name their boats after the women in their lives? I have just looked up the Kathleen & May (just because her name is so memorable it comes easily to mind) and her Wikipedia entry suggests she was named after her owners’ daughters twice:
    ‘Launched in April 1900 under Captain John Coppack, she was named Lizzie May after the Captain’s daughters.[…]by 1908 she had sailed nearly 40,000 miles (64,000 km), when she was sold into the coal-shipping fleet of Martin J Fleming of Youghal, Ireland, and renamed the Kathleen and May after his daughters’. Charles Angus was a man of his time…!

    • Gordon

      Hi Kersti,

      Of course you’re right, and I shouldn’t be surprised (though it was not unusual for boats to be sold to new owners with no connection to the names); but my delight in this case came because I wasn’t expecting it—I was just looking for a way to demonstrate how the registers can be useful for family historians, so finding the Mary and Maggie connection was a real bonus.

      The naming of boats after womenfolk was common practice and led to such celebrated examples as the “But You Said You’d Be Ready An Hour Ago”, the “I’m Not Telling You Again Young Lady You’re Not Going Out In A Skirt That Short” and the ever-popular “The Cat’s Been Sick Again, Missus; Someone Should Probably Clean That Up.”

  • Nicki

    We’ve all been there, Gordon! And I have gone as far as continuing to knit, letting all the substandard knitting below gnaw at me until hours and hours later, I rip it all out …. like I should have done in the first place. You have my sympathy ! Let it stew in the corner a day or so, then have a nice, satisfying rip. You’ll feel so much better. 🙂

    • Gordon

      Hi Nicki,

      Ach, it was a calculated risk—I knew my gauge was awry, and I was using this gansey to see if I could sort it out. Of course I was hoping it wouldn’t be so obvious! But, as the old saying goes, “if in doubt, rip it out” (or if it isn’t an old saying it should be), so out goes he.

      The problem is, it sits there in the corner of the sofa, looking at me with big, sad, reproachful, puppy-dog eyes, like a faithful old retriever that’s seen me reach for the shotgun on the wall and slip a couple of shells into the breech, knowing that soon I’ll have to trick it into the car for one last ride to the woods, and then—

  • Gail Donkin

    I have done this, and what it comes down to is a love of the knitting process rather than the finished article. I find I HAVE to knit, and if I have to knit it twice, well, OK.
    Recently, knitting a first pair of socks for Bill, I found I was rather addled and got the gauge all wrong (in spite of knitting the sample) AND did the maths wrong.
    It has taken me 5 months to knit this pair of socks, the first because of the gauge, and the second, also twice, as I lost the first on a trip.
    I’m really glad I enjoy knitting or I might feel discouraged and never attempt another project.

    • Gordon

      Hi Gail, I think you sum up my feelings about it being a process very well. It’s a bit like writing – when you’ve written 1,000 words, having to delete 500 seems like the end of the world; when you’ve written 10,000, it’s surprisingly easy to lose a few hundred!

  • Jane

    Thank you for the story of the Wick fishermen, as you have probably guessed, for me it is all about the stories. If we talk and if we knit, then it all lives on a little bit longer because otherwise, as you said it is all lost so quickly!

    Most unfortunate with the gansey, but these things happen, and to all of us. I started Chloe a lovely copper coloured garter stitch spencer a few months ago. In the rough and tumble of Christmas some stitches got knocked off the needle, all beyond help, had to be Stoic after all not one of the cats!

    Is it all right to assume the tension difference happened when the gansey moved from in the round to the back and forth split at arm to shoulder. I have agonised over the years about this mysterious tension thing and have decided I don’t really understand it. So I stay relaxed and let the yarn find a gentle way through the old digits, seems to work quite well. Take care.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane,

      I think there is an interesting social history to be done about the fishing families – at the moment we seem to have mostly anecdotes and statistics. One day…

      Occasionally I get the yarn caught on something as I tug on the cone to pull more out, so that instead of freeing up more fresh yarn I end up yanking about 20 stitches off the needles, and i watch helplessly as they leap off the needles like a stick of paratroopers jumping out of their plane over Normandy on D-Day.

      I’ve been experimenting with tension over the last 2-3 ganseys, seeing how I felt about a looser gauge. (Short answer – I like the soft drape of the resulting ganseys, but if too loose – as here – the patterned stitches lose clarity.) So I decided to play around with it this last week and firm it up a little, and voila! The pattern resolved into focus, while really showing how unclear the rest of the gansey was. But now I’ve got my proper gauge, I can rip this one out and start something else, job done!.

  • Marilyln

    Halloooo! goodness gracious, Gordon, what you get up to when my back is turned.
    I knit a sweater to the armholes for a (short-lived)high school boyfriend, and it lingered unfinished for a long, long time. One day in sewing circle, my friend Margaret said I’ll rip it and proceeded to do so. ACK!! I watched in horrified amazement. She was very cheerful and returned reconditioned wool to me. Her example was cathartic and I’m now able to do so myself, albeit not quite cheerfully…yet.
    (Lovely riff in your reply to Kersti, I’ve missed you!)

    • Gordon

      Hi Marilyn,

      When you say your high school boyfriend was short-lived, do you mean the relationship was over quickly, or…?

      Margaret has the same cold-blooded approach to ripping out failed projects; I’m a little more squeamish and like to sit down with a book of photographs remembering happier times, sharing old memories, and them embark on a similar ritual to that practiced by the Native Americans before taking the life of an animal; Margaret is more like someone gutting a herring, eviscerating away with clinical efficiency until all you’re left with are the component parts and no users’ manual…

  • Jenny

    Gordon, we call the process you are about to embark on “frogging”, because you just “rip it, rip it, rip it”. Do I sound like a frog yet? Knitters on this side of the pond love to have cute names.

    Also, I just read on the news that a nasty spider rain covered an Australian town. Margaret can probably summon them for work instead of cloaking the countryside with their cobwebs. “Entire fields have been known to be covered by thin silk created during mass spider migrations, which is often called “angel hair.” Do a search on a news article, “Cloudy with a chance of Arachnids.”

    Happy ripping!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jenny,

      Mostly it sounds like someone mowing the lawn two gardens over, but I like your version better! I got confused, because isn’t it a term for a fancy embroidered cost or something? Or am I mixing it up with a frog coat?

      Flying spider assault troops are a scary thought. Round here they’d have to get past the seagulls, which operate was a sort of Spitfire scrambler squadron which can be airborne in seconds to pick off enemy air attacks. All you’d have to do was spread the rumour that the spiders were bringing sandwiches and chips and the seagulls would be all over them, one bite, one swallow, sorted.

      In my childhood I was once woken up when a spider ran across my face while i slept. In retrospect, that tells you just about everything you need to know about me. (If you want me, I’ll be in psychotherapy…)

  • Jane

    And did I ever tell you about the James Norbury fisherman’s jumper in Aran. The back was finished, super pattern, lovely yarn, husband thrilled, small problem with length, far, far too long. I do not know quite how it happened, well I think I just kept adding rows for a very tall man, too many rows, but it would not do at all…. We knitters know so much about the learning curve!

  • Gordon

    Jane, if it’s any consolation, I imagine God has the same problems with his Creation! I like to think of him considering me now and again, shaking his head sadly, and wondering if He should persevere with me a little longer in the hopes that I come right in the end, or if it’s better just to bite the bullet and rip me out and start over…

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