How big does your gansey have to be? How many stitches will you have for the pattern? How much yarn do you need to buy?
In order to answer those questions, you need to know your stitch gauge. I think of this as a horizontal stitch gauge (the number of stitches per inch you knit under normal circumstances, the basic building block of your gansey) and a vertical row gauge (the number of rows per inch).
The best way to find out both is to take a pair of double-pointed 2.25mm needles and cast on enough stitches to reach 4 or 5 inches across. Then work back and forth to produce a square of plain knitting (i.e., knit stitches on the front, purl on the back) 3 or 4 inches long.
Starting half an inch or so along the knitting, and about halfway down, count the number of stitches over 3 or 4 inches, and divide by the number of inches to give you your horizontal stitch gauge. So, if you knit 36 stitches in 4 inches your stitch gauge is 9 stitches per inch. If you knit 32, it’s 8. (Or whatever.)
(My stitch gauge is in the region of 9 stitches to the inch at the moment, but it has varied in the past, flipping like the Earth’s magnetic field.)
To find your vertical row gauge, count the number of rows over a length of 4 inches and perform a similar calculation. (My row gauge is 12.3 rows per inch.)
Now you know your stitch gauge, it’s easy to calculate how many stitches your gansey will consist of: simply multiply the width of the finished gansey by your stitch gauge.
So if your gansey is going to be 40 inches around the chest and your stitch gauge is 8 stitches per inch, you will need 320 stitches in the round. If your stitch gauge is 9, you will need 360. And so on.
Obviously, the smaller your stitch gauge, the more stitches per inch, and therefore the more stitches your gansey will consist of – a typical gansey I knit is about 400 stitches in the round, give or take.
There are a couple of ways to decide how big your gansey should be. Traditionally, they were quite a close fit, so you can run a tape measure around your chest to get your actual chest measurement, and then add 2 inches (equalling one inch either side) to the total to allow for some flexibility.
The other, easier way is to find your favourite heavy pullover, the one that fits best and feels the most comfortable, and measure that.
The essential measurements you will need to start with are as follows:
- From top to bottom, total length;
- From side to side, total width across the chest;
- Length of sleeve from the shoulder to the end of the cuff.
You will also need to decide how deep to make the armhole, when to start the gussets, and (if knitting a half-patterned gansey) when to begin the yoke.
(All of the books have advice on how to go about doing this, and Michael Pearson has a helpful diagram on page 21 of his book, Traditional Knitting.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve found that quite a small armhole works best – 9 inches from the end of the gusset (when you divide front and back) to the top of the shoulder. In practice, this works out as 8 inches plus 1 inch for the shoulder strap (see the Worked Example for more on this). The reason for a smallish armhole is, of course, the gusset – at its widest point the gusset will be over 20 stitches wide, which are then decreased as you work down the sleeve, completing the diamond shape, for 3-4 inches. So even a small armhole still gives you quite a lot of slack.
I’ve tried knitting a wider armhole – 10 or 12 inches – but this makes the sleeve too wide, baggy and generally floppy, and I wouldn’t recommend it.
Now, as I said above, my current stitch gauge is in the region of 9 stitches per inch. But lots of things can affect it: cables tend to pull the stitches together and make the gansey tighter; a detailed pattern with lots of knit and purl stitches can make the stitches looser and the gansey wider, as I switch from knit to purl and back again. If I get self-conscious about knitting a plain body too tightly I loosen up, and that affects it too.
Basically what I’m saying is, your stitch gauge is a rule of thumb, a close approximation. It’s imprecise. The important thing is not to worry about it. And remember, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of slightly too large than slightly too small – after all, when you come to block it at the end, you can choose how big you want to stretch it. It’s a nice feeling to block a gansey comfortably to the right size, knowing you have some spare capacity to block it bigger in future in case they ever open a cheesecake shop round the corner.
The final thing to say about sizing is, always add an extra 2 stitches to your final calculations for the fake seam stitches. I’ll talk a bit more about this in the next section, on Choosing a Pattern and Adjusting it to Fit, but you shouldn’t lose sight of them even now.