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Inverallochy, Week 3: 15 January

Since last week I’ve been thinking about fountain pens—specifically, what they represent, what they tell us about us as a species. They were of course designed as a basic tool, a means to an end, but have gradually evolved into things of beauty and elegance. The next time God, dismayed by the moral turpitude of humanity, ever considers destroying the world—accidentally stumbling across the Twitter feed of the President of the United States, perhaps—I think I should, on the off chance I am asked for my opinion, propose the fountain pen as exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Ye Pens

I have a dozen fountain pens which I’ve accumulated down the years. Most were bought as new, though as time has passed they have, like my taste in popular music, acquired a distinctly vintage air (as Grandpa Simpson says, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was; now what I’m with isn’t it anymore and what’s it seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!”). I buy pens to write with, not to look at, and my favourites are a vintage Parker 51, a Parker Sonnet, and a Waterman Phileas, all with fine nibs to suit my spidery archivist’s handwriting.

Ye Book

And this is the curious thing: although I’m no calligrapher it gives me real pleasure to write with them, beyond the satisfaction of the thing I am writing. Just as it gives me pleasure to check the time on the scuffed old pocket watch attached on a loop to my belt—and to knit ganseys. Others may take pleasure in driving an old car that has character and style, or cooking a meal with the best utensils, or making things out of pieces of wood with fine chisels—but it’s all one. Carlyle described man as a tool-using animal, and he was right; but we’re also animals that delight in our tools.

A breezy day at Sarclet

Meanwhile in gansey news I’m still knitting my way up the body. Sometimes it’s hard to feel I’m making any progress, other than doing a time-lapse with the photos on the blog. But even with just a couple of rows a night it soon adds up: I’m probably a fortnight away from starting the pattern. I’ve never knit a pullover this size before, so I’m going to have to research armholes and sleeves—if anyone has any standard measurements for a drop-shoulder jumper that measures 56 inches in the round, please let me know!

Incidentally, I wonder if other animals get the same sense of pleasure in using well-made tools as we humans do? Probably not apes: I’ve seen film of them using stone tools, but they always seem a bit preoccupied and out of their depth, like I do when I’m parallel parking. Dolphins, maybe—if scientists ever get footage of them hastily screwing the top onto a Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen and hiding it out of sight under a rock, then I think the writing may, quite literally, be on the wall…

20 comments to Inverallochy, Week 3: 15 January

  • Gail Donkin

    Ode to a Fountain Pen once used. I also love fountain pens; I love the way they write, the drag on the paper, the unhurried luxury. Ballpoint pens are too slippery. Gell pens can be OK. Felt-tips cause saturation issues and are usually too thick for me. I also prefer a fine or very fine nib and have switched to .03 pencil almost exclusively, because it is quicker to pick up and just use AND has a drag on the paper. But I have a fountain pen for signing things.

    • Gordon

      Hello Gail, I think you’ve described the appeal of a fountain pen perfectly. And I write more neatly with a fountain pen, even when I’m in a hurry.

      Another thing that pleases me more than it should is that there are hints that a prototype fountain pen was invented in the middle ages in north Africa, and—how wonderful is this?—Leonard da Vinci apparently invented one, and left such clear diagrams that working model relics have been made. Now I want one!

  • Jane Callaghan

    Perfect description of the parallel parking problem! Thank you.

  • Jane

    Quite right. I also like propelling pencils, clutch pens. They have a nice handle too. I think what I really value is a tool that is so fine in its making and in its use. I think it is part of the reason why I knit. Really lovely fountain pens Gordon, treasures every one.

    The gansey is looking very, very nice, lovely stuff. I do knit for the husband and son-in-law, both tall, thin and wide men. I add at least two inches to the normal pattern length and to the sleeves, especially for the younger one, and I buy an extra 200 grams just in case. It does take time, but the end result is delightful. They are both very appreciative. I am sure the intended for the gansey will be too. Take care!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, I’m not really a materialist in the sense that I value many things as objects—but my fountain pens mean a lot to me.

      I once had the idea of a project, asking people to nominate their grave goods, the half dozen things they’ve owned that represent a stage in their lives (a sort of desert island discs for objects, a virtual museum). Fountain pens are one of the things that define me, I guess; I’m the only person working in a building of 20 staff who uses one.

      I’ve got plenty of yarn for this one! As the sheriff says in Jaws when he finally sees the size of the shark they’re up against: “I think you’re going to need a bigger boat!”

  • =Tamar

    I am given to understand that both crows and cockatoos have been seen making tools, specifically a hook to remove something from a bottle. Since they make the tool, I can only assume they enjoy making something that works. Avian aesthetics are beyond my understanding, though perhaps a close study of Bower-bird constructions might apply.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, i suppose the question is, is it pleasure in the task, or satisfaction with the reward? But as the more we learn about animals, the more like us they seem to be, so why not this too? One day they’ll invent the wheel and then we’re in trouble!

  • meg

    i have,for along time, held the view that the ills of the world might be mended if everyone took to knitting..or some other craft that kept the brain and the fingers mutually busy and creative….thereby leaving no room for anything else…..

    • Gordon

      Hi Meg, I’ve sometimes thought that one of the things that high schools should develop is a chance to explore particular avenues of creativity that students possess, instead of perhaps focusing so much on academic achievement and sports. Then they’d be better equipped to go out into the world as fully-rounded people. Mind you, the French teach their children philosophy, while the British probably think Occam’s Razor was invented by Gillette…!

  • Maria Hart

    Gordon, I came up with 14.5” shoulder drop for the 56” round gansey…with it starting after knitting 17” from the bottom.

    • Gordon

      Hi Maria, that’s really helpful, thanks. For a standard 46-inch chest (that’s the gansey, not me) I usually have a 9 inch armhole, so I was wondering about 12 inches. But i might have to push the boat out on this one. Many thanks again!

  • I love the mix of knitting and other tool-related comments here. I can only make a quick stop today so will add a writerly flavour.

    A tool should be apt as in the cliche of an apt metaphor meaning that it should serve not only the purpose for which it is intended but the mind-hand-eye of the maker. I’ve recently discovered Richard Wilbur’s poetry. He has a poem, Junk, worth looking at.

    • Gordon

      Hello Sharon, one of the joys of this virtual wall is that sometimes knitters drop by to spray paint a comment, sometimes it’s people with no interest in knitting but a shared worldview. If you build it they will come! And if you’re lucky, add a comment.

      Fountain pens go beyond the aptness of a tool to bend the fabric of reality around themselves, so that the very existence of a fountain pen produces writing where none was there before. (This is the same sort of physics that postulates that the human race has not so much domesticated the cat, rather it has been domesticated by the cat…) Nature abhors a vacuum—that’s why our house is so dusty, of course—and equally it regards an unused fountain pen as an offence to man and God.

      “Junk” is a great poem, I agree. All the same the words feel imprisoned in their cages of metre—I like to think that several times day a whistle blows and all those words run free, like children in the playground, before the end of break time and they assemble to trudge back into line!

  • Jane

    My treasured 1980s Woolcraft book has a pattern that goes to chest 52″, length from top of shoulders 29″, sleeve commences at 15.5″, so food for thought perhaps, and I am with Maria in this!

  • Lois

    I did a scrounge through my old knitting books and found one with a 54 and 58 inch chest.

    The 54 inch has a back neck length of 20 inches above the ribbing, and the sleeve starts 13 inches above the ribbing. The 58 inch has a back neck length of 22 inches above the ribbing and the sleeve starts 14 inches above the ribbing.

    This pattern only had a 1 1/2 inch rib at the bottom, of course we generally have it much deeper than that.

    I found that most of those old patterns only went up to a 44 inch chest for men. As I know from experience of knitting for 3 boys, men are much larger and taller these days. Those books were 1940’s vintage. I have a good little collection of Lux soap knitting books for the armed forces published during the WWII years and those patterns don’t run any larger.

    During the war, it was common for women to be seen knitting for the servicemen in church. I suppose that would be a faux pas today.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, this is excellent, thank you! People used to be smaller in the old days, but then they invented vitamins and we grew like Topsy.

      I’ve seen a few “comforts for the troops” pattern books from the World Wars—I like to think that if another comes along, I can fit out a good part of the crew of a naval destroyer in ganseys! (It will be a multicoloured rainbow nation effect, but uniforms are so often taken from a rather drab colour palette these days, the armed forces could do with a bit of cheering up…)

  • Kelly Nichols

    Gordon-
    I am knitting a Gansey for very first time as per a request from my husband after he saw a picture of one. He is a steelhead fisherman on occasion and thought he needed one, It is a daunting task but your website has been an enormous help in getting started! I am using elements from Mrs. Laidler’s Whitby pattern along with a middle panel that I just made up with a ladder flanked by a double moss pattern on each side. Thank you so much for your excellent website! I would be lost without it:)
    Kelly ( Baker City, Oregon USA)

    • Gordon

      Hello Kelly, and thank you for getting in touch! (And thank you for the kind words.)

      I think a steelhead fisherman definitely needs a gansey—but then I’m biased, tending to think that most professions need a gansey, even archivists…! Best of luck with yours, and if you’d ever like a second opinion or to talk something through, just post a comment or drop me a line from the contact page and we’ll try to help. Cheers,
      Gordon

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