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Gussets 1: getting started

The underarm gussets on a gansey serve a double purpose. They widen the gansey towards the “upper part of the chest”, hem-hem, and offer greater freedom of movement than you’d expect for such a close-fitting garment.

It’s important to plan your gansey in advance, so you know roughly when to begin the gussets. You need to allow 3 or 4 inches to shape them before you divide for the armhole, or you’ll find yourself caught out, and either have to make your gansey longer than you’d intended, or rip out a few inches of knitting and re-do them. Since you really don’t want to do either of these, it’s best to plan ahead.

A gusset is formed by increasing either side of a seam stitch every few rows – every 4th row works well – until you have a triangle 3-5 inches long, and 23-30 or so stitches across. When you divide to knit the front and back of the body, you place these gusset stitches on a holder and leave them till after the shoulder is finished.

Once you’ve finished the shoulder, you pick up stitches for the sleeve all around the armhole, including the gusset stitches you’ve placed on the holder. Then, as you work down the sleeve, you decrease the gusset stitches at the same rate as you increased them (e.g., every 4th row) until you only have the seam stitch left, which you continue all the way down the sleeve. In this way the gusset makes a very attractive diamond shape under the arms.

Once the gusset has been decreased out of existence you continue to decrease either side of the seam stitch as you work down the sleeve, until the sleeve is the required width for the cuff. (You can change the rate of decrease once the gusset has gone – if I’ve got a cable as part of the pattern I sometimes adjust the rate of decrease to match the cable, so there are fewer things to keep track of.)

How exactly do you shape a gusset? Well, there are all sorts of styles and variations. But as so often, simplest is usually best, and as I mostly follow the easiest model that’s what I’m going to describe here.

On the first row of your gusset, increase a purl stitch either side of your seam stitch, and knit a plain knit stitch instead of the purl seam stitch. So, instead of having just a purl seam stitch, you now have purl – knit – purl.

Keep knitting purl – knit – purl for 3 more rows.

On the 4th row, increase a knit stitch on either side of the central knit stitch. (So you will now have purl – knit – knit – knit – purl.) You can increase on the central knit stitch, or on the flanking purl stitches – whichever is easiest for you. And don’t worry if it looks a bit ugly at this stage – it will soon come out fine, I promise.

Now you’re away. Continue with: purl – knit – knit – knit – purl for 3 more rows, and on the 4th row increase on each of the knit stitches on either edge, so you have 5 knit stitches flanked by 2 purl stitches. And so on. Just repeat this process until you have the right length of gusset with as many stitches across as you like.

Once you’ve got going, if you feel like it, you can make it look a bit tidier by increasing, not on the edge stitches, but on the stitches immediately next to the edge stitches. That way the stitches on the very edge remain intact, and form a nice border to contain all the increases, like putting a fence around your property. But this isn’t necessary – your gusset will look perfectly fine as it is – it’s just an extra touch to think about.

However you go about it, you will find your gusset develops into a clean diamond shape, neatly delineated from the rest of the gansey by the purl stitches on either side. (Later on, as you work down the sleeve and decrease the gusset, these purl stitches will gradually come closer together until they join, the whole effect like water swirling round a rock in the middle of a river.)

The important thing to remember is that every gusset looks ugly and clumsy for a few rows once you start. But trust me, after an inch or two, you will have a nice, sharp half-diamond growing under your fingers. It’s a sort of alchemy. It always comes out right.

Oh, and yes – I have to keep track of where I am on the gusset by making marks on a piece of paper, too. Just four ticks per line, to remind me to increase or decrease every 4th row.

One final tip on gussets. I like to make my final increase on the very last row of the gusset before I place it on a holder, and then decrease it on the very first row when I start the sleeve, i.e., the pick-up row. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, when I pick up the stitches for the sleeve, I obviously can’t start the pattern on that pick-up row – all I can do on the pick-up row is pick up the stitches; the sleeve pattern starts on the next row. So, if I decrease my gusset on the pick-up row, it means that both the pattern and the gusset are aligned – the first row of the pattern is also the first of a 4-row decrease cycle for the gusset, and it’s just easier to keep track of. The second reason is that it gives a nice sharp corner to the gusset’s diamond edge.

28 comments to Gussets 1: getting started

  • Barbara

    Have you even knit above the sleeves in the round and then cut steeks?

  • Gordon

    Hi Barbara,

    No, I haven’t tried that – am I right in thinking that’s the technique with Fair Isle knitting? There’s a couple of reasons why not – first of all, I learned to knit by knitting ganseys and all the books say to divide front and back and join at the shoulders, so I naturally just followed that; and second, steeking seems to involve sewing, which I am about as good at as solving quadratic equations! I guess I’ve just stuck with what I know, being a creature of habit, and being terrified of needles in every shape and size…

    All the best,
    Gordon

  • Elizabeth Fry

    I’m knitting Beth Brown-Reinsel’s White Gansey and at the brink of the gussets – should one make a right leaning increase on the right and a left-leaning increase on the left, or vice-versa? I’m seizing up and can’t decide which is correct.

  • Gordon

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I’ve checked with Margaret and her feeling is that vice-versa would probably be neatest; but that it doesn’t really matter in the end which way you decide to go, it’ll look fine no matter what.

    For example, I tend to just do right-leaning increases on both sides, and no one ever notices. Of course, this can look untidy on the right edge if you look really closely (though no one ever does) – but my technique is, once I’ve got the gusset underway, I do the increases one stitch in from the very edge, so there’s always a “buffer” of one knit stitch around the edge, making a clean diamond border. All the increasing is happening inside that diamond border and so is neat and tidy.

    Not sure if I’ve explained that properly (bit of a migraine day today) but feel free to email back if you still have queries!

    Best wishes,
    Gordon

  • sue

    atempting my first gansy.on my things to do before i reach 60. your site is very help full.Im making the pattern up as i go.the top half will have the humber keel pattern. the lower half a mixture.flags for the queens jubilee followd by seed pattern cos i like planting things.then waves as my dad was a merchent sea men in ww2 and got rescued by fishermen of witby.ive just got up to the gussets ,i was going to increase every 3rd row but didnt know how many sts to increase up to.

  • Gordon

    Hi Sue,

    Good to hear from you. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule – most gussets would be 2-3 inches wide, I guess, somewhere around 17-20 stitches at the widest point. Something in that area.

    Best of luck with your gansey—I like your ideas for the inspiration of the pattern!

    Gordon

  • Laura

    Dear Margaret and Gordon;

    I am very near the start of my first gusset. I am at about 12 inches or so from the cast on, which was a seed stitch affair with an opening on each side.

    I have 396 stitches on and have employed stocking stitch to this point, so I am at the very beginning of believing that I may make it to the gusset and and of course a wonderful pattern, front and back. I wonder what is realistic to consider for a first gansey. I have taken a quick 2 hour cable class here in town recently. I was shown how to cable without a cable needle, which is what the draw to the class for me.

    So I see sections broken with a bit of fine cabling vertically. Any suggestions? With my “side seam” stitches, it would be 197 stitches for each, front and back. I am so enjoying this!
    Laura (from Canada)

    • Gordon

      Hi Laura, well, congratulations on making such progress. This is where the fun really starts! The great thing about ganseys is, as far as I’m concerned, the basics are simple, but the combinations look great.

      I would consider a simple repetition of panels broken with cables, like the wonderful Patrington and Withernsea gansey in the gallery. That was one of my very first, and it’s still favourite of mine. I would stick with 2 or 3 panels at most, repeated across the gansey, as that seems to work well. If every panel is a different pattern it gets a bit “busy” and overloaded. Simple is usually the most effective, like the Filey pattern.

      But whatever you go with, it’ll be a winner, for sure. I’ve never seen a naff gansey, so go on, knock yourself out!

      Good luck – and let us know how it goes,
      Gordon

  • Jenny

    Hi Gordon,

    I just ready your gusset instructions and will follow your technique and tips. I’m about to do my last increase on my gusset for my Barra gansey and will decrease once I pick up for the sleeve.

    What is your formula for number of stitches for sleeves? Say if I have 90 rows each for the front and back, do you pick up 180+shoulder stitches + gusset?

    Sorry I’ve been so quiet but this Canada immigration has got me and my husband shuttling back and forth between our home in WA and Victoria almost on a weekly basis. Hopefully by the end of August, the paperwork will have sorted itself out and we will have settled down.

    Thanks and looking forward to your response.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jenny,

      Sorry to hear about your immigration travails. Hope it sorts itself out soon.

      When I pick up stitches around the armhole, I measure the depth of the armhole from the shoulder join to the gusset – in my case, for a pullover for me, that’s usually about 9 inches (8 inches plus an inch for the rig ‘n’ fur shoulder strap). Double that number for both sides, so that’s 18 inches (excluding the gusset).

      Multiply that number by your stitch gauge (8 stitches to the inch on my current gansey), so 18 x 8 = 144 stitches, plus the gusset stitches. Then you can add or remove the odd stitch or so to make it fit your pattern.

      It’s important to remember that, if your knitting is anything like mine, you will have fewer stitches per inch (horizontally) than you will have rows per inch (vertically). In my case I have 8 sts per inch, but 12 rows per inch, a ratio of 3:4. It’s important not to cast on one stitch for each row on the armhole, or you’ll have far too many stitches, and your sleeve will balloon out like a Renaissance dandy’s! (Yes – this is the voice of experience…)

      Hope this helps – happy to expand further if not entirely clear, what with my morning head and all,
      Gordon

  • Jenny

    Thank you, Gordon. I’ll print your algorithm and have it permanently pasted in Glady’s book.

  • Jill Wellman

    I recently made a sweater with pronounced stripes from the long color segments in yarn dying.
    To make the stripes match in the two sleeves, I knit them together with seeks, cut them apart and seamed them. Worked beautifully. (Thanks to my niece Rachel for the idea.)

    • Gordon

      Hi Jill,

      That sounds very impressive. (Anything with steeks makes me call for the sal volatile and lavender water!) Though I’m sure it’s worth it to make sure the sleeves match, which is always a very effective look.

      Thanks for sharing! Best wishes, Gordon

  • Jill Wellman

    My big challenge was sewing the steeks (seem along bottom of sleeves.
    I needed to know “mattress stitch”. That seem is really invisible.
    Plenty of directions on the web

  • Elizabeth

    Hello Gordon & Margaret,

    Thanks for the info on the gusset, sometimes it needs someone else to spell it out for it to make sense. I have copied down & referenced these directions & put them in with my frangipani pattern. All being well my husband should have another sweater this year, just past the welt at the moment, so I’ll be a while yet.

    Kind regards, Elizabeth.

    • Gordon

      Hi Elizabeth – thanks for letting us know. As the ancient proverb says, “every gansey begins with just a single stitch”. So if you’re past the welt you’re well under way!

  • Melissa

    My directions for starting the gusset say to increase purl stitch. I’m on the right side doing circular knitting. I purled as usual but didn’t remove it from the needle but put my needle in the back stitch, took it off the needle to the Right needle and had THREE stitches. None of my books tell me how the heck to accomplish this.

  • Linda

    Hello Gordon

    I’ve been knitting for sixty years (Mum started me off at the age of four!) and after being inspired by your entertaining site and beautifully made examples, started knitting my first Gansey when ‘lock down’ began. I’m using Frangipani yarn in Cornish Fudge, a circular needle, and ‘Mrs Cole’s Whitby Pattern’ from Michael Pearson’s excellent ‘Traditional Knitting’ to make my partner a 40/42″ Gansey.

    I’ve now reached the point of shaping the underarm gussets without any mishaps. I can usually work out most patterns, but am totally flummoxed as to how to proceed with the gussets, as I can’t seem to get the numbers to add up. Up until this point, each round of the front and back consists of 314 stitches. My interpretation of the gusset instructions is that the initial round will consist of a total of 328 stitches, i.e. a total increase of 14 stitches BEFORE I start the increases on every 4th row. Is that correct? I don’t see how that will give me the nice diamond shape that you have achieved in your examples.

    Also, although my tension is correct, the body seems quite rigid and tight. You say that everything becomes a lot more relaxed after blocking, but I’m a bit nervous that after weeks of work, the Gansey might end up being smaller than I had hoped. Can blocking relax the ‘fabric’ quite significantly?

    Hope my questions make sense. I would be very grateful for any help that you might be able to provide, please. Thank you very much.

    • Gordon

      Hi Linda,

      I can’t read patterns, only charts, so Margaret has kindly helped us out here. Here’s what she says:

      “Think I’ve figured it out. The pattern is correct (or at least I got it to add up). It should perhaps more clearly read:

      p1, k1, p3, k3, p2, *k11, p2, k6, p2*. Repeat * to * for a total of 7 times. On the final repeat (k11, p2, k3, p3, k1).

      And the chart at the bottom of the page bears no relationship to what’s written.”

      It looks as though the cables either side of the seam stitches are reconfigured when the gusset appears : the left-hand p2-k6-p2 cable becomes p1-k1-p3-k3-p2 (reverses on the right side). The gusset then develops in the usual way.

      I must admit this is new to us! But no reason why it shouldn’t work.

      I can’t promise your gansey will be soft – they were tough, hard-wearing garments. But they usually do relax a bit when they’re washed and blocked, so don’t worry too much just yet.

      This pattern has lots of cables, and they do pull it in (all those flanking purl stitches act like pleats until it’s been blocked) – you can see this effect in my current project, which has loads of cables and is about 3-4 inches narrower than it will be once it’s blocked.

      Hope this helps,
      Gordon

  • Linda

    Dear Gordon and Margaret

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to me so quickly. I think the hot weather must have got to my brain as although Margaret’s instructions certainly read much more clearly than in the book, I still can’t get the figures to add up!

    Am I right in now thinking that the round where the gussets start should have 316 stitches, to include one central ‘seam’ stitch for each gusset? Following Margaret’s instructions, I can only make the stitches for that round add up to 312, i.e. 10+21+21+21+21+21+21+20=156, x2=312. I am very sorry to bother you with this again, but I just can’t understand where I’m going wrong. Please can you help again when you have time?

    P.S. Thank you for your assurance that everything should relax a bit after washing and blocking. I’m not quite so worried about that now.

    Linda

  • Hi Gordon, I’ve been working on ganseys (not completing them, that would be insane!) and have three of them up to where the normal person would start thinking about beginning the gussets. But I look around at most of the ganseys shown online that have been knit in “modern” times and it seems to me that the sleeves are just too baggy. This implies that maybe the gusset was started too soon, and that the armhole depth (with a little ease) should *include* the half gusset, or that too many stitches were picked up for the sleeve, or that the sleeve stitches aren’t decreased rapidly enough.

    You’ve knitted far more ganseys than I have, for a variety of sizes and shapes. What is your experience/observation? I note that gansey photos from museums and such where you can actually see them don’t show the more pronounced/shallower angle from bottom of gusset to mid-sleeve and no troubadour balloon over the biceps and this leads me to believe that the “formula” for beginning the gusset has been changed over the years. Margaret will probably be able to chime in on this too, I’ll bet.

    • Margaret Reid

      Hi Sheila
      As Gordon says, in the old photos ganseys are generally quite close-fitting. Some are looser, and some of them are worn with a shirt underneath – sometimes the sleeves have been rolled up so there’s a strange lump on the arms!
      Finding the right armhole depth has been an ongoing quest. It is quite possible that ‘modern’ patterns are just scaled up versions of traditional designs, to cater to a more contemporary, baggy fit. And of course, without seeing an extant 100 year old gansey, it’s impossible to tell.
      (And Gordon’s 9 inches is armhole depth and doesn’t include the gusset.)
      Margaret

      • Thanks Margaret– the verification that the 9 inches excludes the gusset was just what I was looking for. I’ll keep my eyes out for a 100-year old gansey to eyeball, but I’m guessing I’ll find one in about 50 years.

  • Gordon

    Hi Sheila, traditionally ganseys were very close-fitting so as not to snag on anything in a boat – the Caithness ganseys were often knit extra long in ribbing to the armpits and then folded up for a double layer that would really hug the lower body. (They were also worn next to the skin, or with only a layer of newspaper underneath, so they were not worn the way we tend to wear them nowadays, as an extra layer for warmth and fashion.)

    I’m always conscious when I knit a gansey for myself that it’s looser than many (but by no means all – some were probably handed down second-hand from a larger relative) would have been traditionally. That includes the armholes and upper sleeve widths. It’s all a question of comfort in the end!

    I’d have to check, though – but I’m pretty sure the formulas given in the books by the likes of Rae Compton that I started out with had an armhole for my chest size of 12 inches – way too deep for me! These days I find 9 inches is the butter zone/sweet spot that seems to work best as a compromise and offers the most comfort.

  • Thanks so much– you have reinforced what I had come to believe. author/designers like Beth Brown-Reinsel, Alice Starmore, Rae Compton and others have put such deep armholes in their drop sleeve designs that they must have arisen during the Times of Baggy sweaters and just carried on through the current twenties. Other designers like Elizabeth Doherty talk about the “modern drop sleeve” and I believe this is the original drop sleever reinvented/rebranded (and top down). I’m trying to keep things traditional (no top down for me or set in sleeves) but as well fitting as possible.

  • Suzie Ball

    Hello Gordon and Margaret,
    No real questions just thank you for this wonderful site I just wish I had found it sooner.
    I am a spinner, knitter and weaver with a bit of dyeing on the side. I knit a lot of jumpers mainly for myself as my husband is too fussy, making out that a lot of wool is prickly!. Anyway as we live in the SW of France there is a limit to how many jumpers I really need therefore when my son decided that he was going to live on his sailing boat and thought I would knit him a Gansey, we used to have them when we lived in the IOM many years ago, from the IOM Steampacket, they were brilliant. I had no pattern of course nor the blue wool that he wanted his jumper knitted in so I set about dyeing some fleece blue, I made sure that I dyed plenty but that ment 4 different dye baths, a large lot of wool, I also dyed some alpaca for good measure, making the final result a bit softer, it has been blended and carded lots of times and now I am spinning like a crazy person trying to keep up with the demand for more wool. I am pleased with the result and the colour but now just hoping that I will have enough of it, it would be very difficult to get the same shade again. I made nearly 1200 g. Having looked in detail at your work I think I made the wool a little too thick though.
    I am now making the gussets and thanks to you that seems to have worked, I put in 2 purl stiches in each side for the seams so in the gusset I have 1 stich on each side and the inc. st is 1 st inside the diamond which looks great. Onwards and upwards.

    • Gordon

      Hi Suzie, great to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words.

      I still stand by the definition that a gansey was the term for a jumper worn by a fisherman (or Humber river man) back in the day. It was only gradually that it evolved into the garment we know today, using commercial guernsey 5-ply yarn. Some of the old photos show ganseys knit much finer (when I started you could still get guernsey 4-ply and and I didn’t buy any, thinking there would be plenty of time later), and some them much bigger. So as the man said, whatever is, is right.

      Best of luck with your project—I hope your son appreciates all the work you’ve gone to!

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