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Dividing for the front and back

When the time comes to start the armhole, you put the gusset stitches on stitch holders. I use a length of old gansey wool of a different colour – pull the wool through the gusset stitches, including the purl seam stitches on either side of the gussets, then tie the ends together and tuck what’s left out of the way inside the body.

Next you have to put one half of your stitches on a holder while you knit the other side. The simplest thing to do is to leave the other half on the circular needle you’ve been using, i.e., using the circular needle itself as a stitch holder (the stitches are already on it), and get out a new one to carry on with.

The front and back of a gansey were traditionally identical. In fact, it’s often said that there wasn’t even any shaping for the neck, so it didn’t matter which way round you wore it – there wasn’t a “front” or a “back” side as such. (But that’s not necessarily true – if you look at many of the ganseys featured in Gladys Thompson’s Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans you’ll see that they have elegantly curved necks.)

Anyway, I don’t like a close-fitting collar or neck, so I usually shape a neckline on the front of my ganseys. As a result, the front will have an indented neckline, while the back won’t. I usually knit the back side first, and leave the shaping on the front till later.

Continue to knit whichever side you’re on back and forth on your new circular needle, continuing the pattern as you go, until you have finished the yoke – but still have the shoulder straps to do.

16 comments to Dividing for the front and back

  • Sue Rees

    I am about to divide my stitches for the front and back – do you have to use two needles to do this? Knitting on a round needle always ‘knitting’ on the same side. What happens now?

  • Hi Sue,

    By coincidence Nigel of this parish was asking the same thing a few weeks ago,. I wrote a long (overlong) reply to him, which probably confused the issue needlessly. But I’ve copied it below in case it answers your question. If it doesn’t, please don’t hesitate to get back to me! Best wishes, Gordon.

    Nigel’s query:

    Hi Gordon, whenever you have a chance, can you explain how you divide front from back please. I am terrified of dropping stitches. Do you thread fishing wire or something along the last row before you split?

    My reply:

    Being incredibly lazy, I have worked out a very low-maintenance and (hopefully!) foolproof method for doing this.

    Start with all your stitches exactly where they are on your circular needle. Using a holder (in my case, a piece of differently-coloured gansey yarn from my offcuts stash, such as the white yarn you can see in the pictures, but it can be anything similar), loop it through the stitches of each gusset separately and tie them off, so that they are each on their own separate loops.

    You can only do one gusset right away – the other’s round the other side of your circular needle. But don’t worry—you’ll get to it in a minute.

    I loop off my gusset stitches by inserting my needle through the first gusset stitch, i.e., the purl border, pulling the yarn through as if I was knitting a stitch, but pull the yarn all the way through so the stitch has the line of yarn running through it; then slide the stitch off the needle so it’s wholly resting on and supported by the line. Then you do the same to the second stitch, and so on, until all the gusset stitches including the purl border are dangling from your line. Finally tie the ends of the line into a loop with as many knots as you like—I go for 3, because I’m paranoid—so they can’t fall off later.

    So you’ve got your front and back stitches, and the other gusset, all on the one needle; and one gusset on a holding line.

    Now take another circular needle and some yarn, such as or whatever’s left of the ball or cone you’ve been working with, and start your first row knitting back and forth, leaving the other half of the stitches on the old needle.

    I usually decide to knit the back first (any blemishes, it’s better to have them out of sight on the back, and you don’t have to worry about an indented neck or anything). Then, when I come to the front, it’s already sitting on its needle ready to go.

    When you reach the end of your first row of the back (or front) you can now put your other gusset stitches on another line of yarn, and carry on knitting back and forth all the way to the top.

    Hope this makes sense. I have a horrible feeling I just over-explained it! It’s way easier than it sounds.

  • Sue Rees

    Think I’m ok with splitting the stitches – it’s the fact that I’m now knitting on the front and back when I’ve just been knitting on the front side. I’m presuming that I just reverse the pattern when knitting across the reverse – think I have explained my dilemma?

    • Hi Sue,

      Apologies for the misunderstanding. Yes, you just reverse the pattern when knitting the reverse side – so a knit stitch becomes a purl, and vice versa. You just have to concentrate a little harder, that’s all – or at least I do!


  • Sue Rees

    Thanks Gordon. I will now continue. I’m sure there will be further questions as I reach the shoulders. Very helpful website !


  • Eva

    When you begin to work the yoke stitches, do you slip the first stitch of the row, as a lot of back-n-forth flat knitting calls for?

    • Gordon

      Hi Eva, I don’t slip the first stitch, though I understand it’s a common thing to do. The main reason is, no one ever suggested I should in any of the books I read when I was figuring out how to do it! So I never did. And as the edge stitch gets picked up and absorbed as part of the first row of the sleeve it all seems a bit moot, anyway.


  • Dawn

    Hi Gordon,
    Thank you for all this info! You mention Selvedges stitches when picking up stitches for the sleeves. Can you talk about how you do this part when dividing for the yokes. Thank you!

  • Gordon

    Hi Dawn, I’m not quite sure i understand what you’re asking. Because I’ve only ever knit ganseys, I’ve more or less invented my own terminology (and sometimes methodology) for the techniques I need; and sometimes things get lost in translation! So can you expand on what it is you’re wanting to know, please? (Sorry!)

  • Dawn

    Gordon, Please don’t apologize. I am grateful for your reply. I was looking at your tutorial about picking up sleeve stitches in what you refer to as edge stitches. (photos 22 and 23, I think). I was wondering if you cast on those edge stitches when you divide for front and back. Or we’re they patterned stitches that you begin to work in stockinette once you divide. I’m guessing it is the first option. I have not seen this in traditional gansey patterns and it seems like an excellent way to make a nice smooth “seam” where the sleeve begins. I hope this makes more sense. You don’t mention the edge stitches when you divide for the yokes so I wonder if I’m understanding you. Thank you very much.

    • Gordon

      Aha, right I think I understand. I tend to take a very minimalist approach to knitting, and usually follow the line of least resistance. So I don’t do anything other than just continue the body pattern/stitches up the yoke. I don’t cast on any additional stitches when I get to the yoke, and divide front and back.

      But because the stitch at either side of the yoke effectively “disappears” when you pick up the sleeve, I usually factor in an extra plain/stockinette stitch to my pattern right from the end of the welt, so that they run all the way up the body (making 4 plain stitches in all, 2 either side of each seam).

      So the additional stitches are usually built in from the start. But not always! So, for example, I didn’t do that on the Thurso gansey I’ve just completed, I just clipped the diamonds on the border edge by a stitch each, and they turned out fine. And there have been times when I just forgot to factor in the edge stitches and quietly cast on an extra stitch the row before I started the yoke, and again, nobody ever noticed.

      I think what I’m trying to say (and apologies if this isn’t as clear as it should be—it’s almost bedtime) is that there’s no absolute hard and fast way to do it. I figured out it was easiest for me to just add extra stitches at the start, so I didn’t have to think about it later on; but both the options you mention sound perfectly valid to me. After all, I’m sure every knitter just knit their ganseys to suit themselves, and expressed themselves as they did so. I’m a no-frills, nothing fancy (because i never learned) kinda guy; Margaret has the skills to try all sorts of other approaches – and in the end, it all seems to work.

      Hope this helps?

  • Dawn

    Yes, that’s an enormous help! Thank you very much.
    Keep up the good work. It’s beautiful!
    Sleep well.

  • John

    Hi Gordon,

    I have been working on the divided halves of the yoke. I have just completed one half and am ready to begin the other. Is it best to just leave a length of yarn and then cut my current ball of yarn away and use it to start the next half, or should I start the second half of the yoke with a brand new ball of yarn? I am concerned about which will be the better choice when it comes to making and then joining the shoulders.

    Thanks so much; your website is brilliant.


    • Gordon

      Hi John, I think it’s very much a matter of individual choice. My own preference is to just cut the yarn off when I’ve finished one side and carry on using the rest of the ball when I start the other one.

      But no matter which you prefer it won’t make any difference to the finished garment. (I guess now I think of it I tend to avoid having semi-used balls of yarn, and just use it all as I go – but this probably reflects my CPD nature!)

  • John

    Thanks very much, Gordon. I had a feeling it didn’t matter, but I needed a sanity check. This has been a labour of love and I don’t want something a silly mistake to mess it up. Thanks again!

  • Sarah Bond

    Hello Gordon and Margaret
    Greetings from East Gippsland and hoping you are both well.
    I’ve been reading your wonderful insights into knitting Ganseys for quite some time and am now about to take a leap and get stuck in to making one for my husband, I’ve wool on order and frankly can’t wait. Just a quick one regarding the sleeve armholes. You mentioned in your comments regarding the Patrington and Withernsea jumper you made that you no longer make the armholes quite so big. I rather fancy the less baggy sleeves arrangement and was wondering how big from the top you divide the front and back these days, is it just 9inches or less. Thankyou so much Gordon, there is no way I would ever attempt a Gansey, even a simple one, without your guidance and concise explanations, also the many and varied tips your readers have shared are an enormous help. Without you, Gladys Thompson would make little sense to me.
    Stay safe, stay healthy
    Best regards

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