If you’re going to knit a gansey, here are the things you’ll need to start with.
You can of course knit gansey patterns in any wool, and very attractive they look too. But to knit a proper gansey you’ll need the proper wool, and that means Guernsey 5-Ply. This is a hard twist worsted fine spun wool available from specialist suppliers, some of which are listed below. (The wool also goes by the fantastic nickname of “fisherman’s iron”, which gives you an idea of how it feels when it’s been knitted up.)
Guernsey 5-Ply usually comes in 100 gram balls or 500 gram cones.
If I’m knitting a gansey for a burly chap like myself (44 inch chest, size “large going on porker”), I tend to use in the region of 11.5 to 12.5 x 100g balls, depending on the pattern and the length. So I tend to buy 13 x 100g balls just to make sure I’ll have enough, and usually have 0.5-1.5 balls left over.
If I’m buying 500g cones, I usually buy 5 cones at a time (all of one colour), which works out at enough for two ganseys. I knit one gansey and add the remainder of the wool to my stash until such time as I need to knit another gansey in that colour.
It is, of course, important to ensure that all of the wool for one gansey is from the same dye lot. (If you do run out of wool and have to make up the difference with wool from another dye lot, try to ensure that you use the new dye lot on the forearms and cuffs of both sleeves – this way you can pretend that you’ve had to repair a well-worn gansey, and is at least an authentic look!)
While traditional ganseys were all of one colour, navy blue or cream mostly, the range of colours you can buy nowadays is quite remarkable. I still prefer a traditional navy for most patterns (though if knitting in wintertime a good reading lamp is advisable!) whereas nothing shows up the intricate lace of a Hebridean gansey like cream wool. I’ve also had good results with conifer (green) and claret (dark red). But really, use whatever takes your fancy.
Comes in 100g balls or 500g cones (certain colours only). One of the main brands, though I’ve had mixed experiences (six or seven knots in one ball once). Wide range of colours.
Available in person from Woolfayre Ltd, 46 The Shambles, York YO1 7LX (a quaint little shop in a quaint little street, though the staff can be volatile – I remember the time I asked for ‘white’ when I should have asked for ‘cream’ – boy, was I made to feel stupid). Also available online from Iriss of Penzance, though I’ve never bought from them.
Available online from http://www.guernseywool.co.uk/ or by mail order from 15 Clarence Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 2NU UK. Comes in 500g cones, nice and even to knit, with hardly any knots. Wide range of colours. Very friendly mail order service.
I’ve only used this once, as it doesn’t seem to be stocked widely (not that I go to yarn shops often!). I tried the navy blue and found it knitted up well, and the colour had a nice sheen to it. It is available online – put “wendy guernsey 5-ply” into a search engine to find stockists.
The usual needle size for knitting ganseys is 2.25mm. You will need at least 4 double-pointed straight needles, and probably a circular needle as well.
Ganseys are knit in the round as a tube, from the bottom up, at least as far as the armholes. Traditional knitters used 5 or 6 long double-pointed needles to do this, usually anchored to the knitter’s waist by a knitting sheath, and I understand that remarkable speeds can be achieved by this method.
I’ve tried this, but it was like trying to drive a car with a manual gear in a country where they drive on the other side of the road. After a while I felt my fingers were going to fall off, and I regretfully abandoned the attempt. So I knit my ganseys with a non-traditional circular knitting needle, which works a treat for me. (But I suggest you give the other technique a try – you may find it works for you.) I use 80cm diameter circular needles, as I find this holds the 400-odd stitches of a gansey perfectly, and isn’t too much of a crush.
A word on circular needles. Many of them have a metal tip at each end, connected by a plastic wire. Some brands of needles have a slight lip or bump where the plastic wire joins the metal tip. Now, as I tend to knit quite tightly, when I use this kind of needle the stitches snag and catch on the lip. This drives me mad! Instead of achieving a nice, fluid motion, inching the stitches forward with the left hand to knit them with the right, I have to keep stopping to manipulate the stitches over the snag.
You can never be sure how smooth they really are until you try a pair, but I’ve found that Inox and Knit Picks circular needles seem pretty good. Milward circular needles are also very good, but they don’t make them any more so it’s worth keeping an eye on eBay.
I’d also recommend making sure you always have a spare circular needle. It may just be because I knit very tightly, am naturally maladroit, or don’t know my own strength (or all of the above) but I do find they break, tending to snap at the join, and releasing dozens of carefully crafted stitches like thistledown. So keep a few in reserve. Old ones are also very useful for serving as stitch holders for the front yoke while you knit the back.
You will need at least 4 double-pointed needles to knit the neck and sleeves, even if you decide to use circular needles for the body. These are harder to come by – but again, eBay is your friend. I recommend 8-inch needles if you can find them.
An additional double-pointed needle to manipulate cable stitches is a sound investment, also 2.25mm, if you plan to include cables in your pattern. You can of course use one of your regular 8-inch double-pointed needles for the purpose, but I find I have less chance of putting my eye out or stabbing the cat with a smaller needle. (Ahem. This has actually happened – the cat part, anyway, and I have jabbed myself in the cheek. The cat was not impressed. The cheek stopped bleeding over time.)
Useful for obvious reasons (so you can measure how tall and wide you are, and how long the body and sleeves are). I recommend a soft tape so you can lay it flush against the contours of the knitting, and at least 30 inches long so you can measure the body at a stroke. (A soft tape measure hangs nicely over a doorknob, too, so you never have to worry about where to put it.)
I don’t normally use stitch markers, which sort of act as bookmarks, or placeholders, in the knitting – because with a fully patterned gansey, the pattern tells you where you are. But sometimes I use them when I’m knitting a half-patterned gansey which is plain from the end of the ribbing to the start of the yoke pattern.
As we know, ganseys are knit in the round, as a tube, from the bottom up. If you’re knitting one of these half-patterned ganseys, once you’ve finished the “knit 2/purl 2” ribbing it’s all just plain knitting to the start of the yoke. But most ganseys have fake “seams”, a single purl stitch on either side of the body to differentiate between the front and back halves (this makes life easier when you come to start the gussets and divide front and back, as it saves you having to count all the stitches and divide them in two – and even though it’s not really necessary, it makes a nice effect – and it’s traditional).
To an experienced knitter, the feel of the ridge of the seam under the fingers when they come to it is probably enough to remind them that it’s time to make the purl stitch to continue the “seam”. But either I have the wrong kind of fingers, or else my mind just wanders, and if I’m not careful I wake up to find I’ve knitted clean through the seam and either have to unpick what I’ve just done, or try to remember to correct it next time I reach it.
In the end, I found it was easier just to mark each “seam” with a marker, so I can’t miss it. It works a treat.
I don’t use anything fancy, In fact, I just cut a couple of short lengths of a different colour of wool, tie each one into a loop and secure them with a knot or two, trim the ends to stop them getting in the way, and slip them onto the needle immediately after the purl “seam” stitch. I haven’t missed a seam since.
Unless you have outstanding mental arithmetic capabilities, one of these is essential. Use it to work out your stitch gauge, to fit patterns to the number of stitches across the chest, or to work out the batting average of a cricketer if the whim strikes you.
PEN AND PAPER
Experienced knitters don’t seem to need this, but I can’t do without it. This is partly down to the fact that, even after 25 years of knitting, I still have very great difficulty counting rows. So I use it to keep score, ticking a mark at the end of every row of a pattern, cable or gusset in the standard “five bar gate” marking system. So, if the pattern calls for me to cable every 6th row, I tick a mark for each of the six rows, then start again on a new line for the next cable, and another 6 rows. The same with keeping track of increases and decreases on the gusset (usually every 4th row), or pattern elements – sometimes I have 3 or 4 separate columns on the same page. It’s a bit fiddly sometimes, but it saves me the embarrassment of having to constantly ask Margaret if she can please count the rows for me. (Most of the time, anyway.)
I don’t use it for ribbing, collars or cuffs, or for ganseys where the lower body is just plain knitting – in those cases I’m happy enough to use the tape measure. But in any case where the pattern calls for me to do something on a particular row, it’s indispensable.
I also plan out my ganseys in advance on pen and paper – for more on this, please see the section on Choosing a Pattern and Adjusting it to Fit.
PAIR OF SCISSORS
These are handy for cutting the yarn on those few occasions when, say, you’ve completed a sleeve but still have most of a ball of yarn left. Alternatively, you can just twist a few loops round your finger and snap it with a sharp tug, but be warned – this yarn can be tough, and sometimes it’s your finger, not the yarn, that snaps! On the whole, I really recommend scissors. Also for snipping off the ends after darning in at the very end.
A DARNING NEEDLE
There is no darning required in the knitting of a gansey… with one exception. Because of the way I join together the ends of any two balls of wool (I knit the two ends together for 4 stitches, then carry on with the new ball), I’m left with lots of little rats’ tails hanging down on the inside of the gansey.
So, the last task for me on any gansey is to turn it inside out, scrounge a big darning needle from Margaret, ask her to show me again how to thread a needle, and then darn in the ends through the back of a number of stitches, before cutting off the remainder with a pair of scissors. It takes about half an hour, and is a sort of rite of passage with me, my own equivalent of “topping out” a building. That’s when I know I’ve really finished.
Finally, of course, you need a pattern to follow. I recommend any of the gansey books from my list, as they are full of patterns, photographs, enthusiasm and inspiration.
You can purchase a kit, with a pattern already charted and sized for you. I understand there are some very good ones on the market, but I’ve never used one myself. It’s really very easy to use the charts in the books to create your own customised patterns, and more satisfactory too – and I will take you through all the steps I use to do this in the section on Choosing a Pattern and Adjusting it to Fit.
(You can also go back through the entries on this blog, since every gansey I’ve knit since I started the blog are fully documented. And some of the ganseys featured in the Gallery will have pattern charts added to them over time.)
Having secured your equipment, you’re ready to begin. The next step is to determining your Stitch Gauges and Sizing.