Let’s start with the back side, so we don’t have to worry about shaping a neckline just yet.
First of all, place the stitches for your neck or collar on a holder for later. The rule of thumb is to divide the gansey into thirds – one third of the stitches for the left shoulder, one third for the neck, and one third for the right shoulder – and I find this works pretty well.
Now let’s say we’re going to knit a traditional ridge and furrow (“rig and fur”) shoulder strap. This is not only very easy to do, it has the beautiful advantage that the cast-off row where the two halves join in the middle just blends into the pattern and looks for all the world like a central ridge. It’s elegant and functional all at once, and is my favourite type of shoulder (did I mention how easy it was?).
Take 2 double-pointed needles. Pick one shoulder to start with. Place the number of stitches for the shoulder on one of the double-pointed needles. Then, knitting back and forth, knit 3 ribs (each rib to consist of 4 rows, and looking at it from the right side the order of rows will be purl, purl, knit, knit – though obviously the actual stitches you are knitting will depend on which way each row is facing in relation to you at the time).
The 3 ribs, each of 4 rows, come to 12 rows, or an inch.
Place these stitches on a holder, and repeat for the other shoulder.
When you come to knit the other side, you can repeat exactly the same process for a traditional neckline. This gives you a rectangle for the collar, 2 inches deep, and as many inches across as a third of your gansey comes to – about 7 or 8 inches.
But if you want a shaped neckline on the front of your gansey, just start the process a little earlier. Decide how deep you want the neck to be. When you reach that point, divide the total number of stitches into thirds, as before – one third for each shoulder, and a central third for the neck.
Now divide your central third for the neck into thirds again. Put the middle third on a holder, and set aside.
Let’s say you start on the left shoulder first. Take a double-pointed needle, and place on it all of the stitches for the left shoulder strap, plus one-third of the stitches from the centre – all of the stitches from the left armhole of your gansey to those you’ve set aside for the neck, in fact.
Now, knitting back and forth with another double-pointed needle, carry on knitting the yoke, but decreasing on the right-hand (middle) edge at a rate of 1 stitch every second row. Keep on doing this until you have decreased down to the number of stitches you’ve allocated for the left-hand shoulder strap (the original third). If you reach this point before you’ve finished the yoke pattern, no matter, just keep on knitting straight up without decreasing until the end of the yoke. Then you just knit the ridges and furrows on the shoulders as before.
Repeat for the right shoulder, but this time decrease on the left edge. (You’d think a decrease of 1 in 2 would make for a dramatic V-shaped indentation, but it turns out pleasingly smooth and rounded.)
There are plenty of other ways of making a shoulder strap, though the ridge and furrow technique is probably the most common. For example, you can knit a panel for each shoulder from one side only, instead of doing it from both sides and joining them in the middle. This was quite common in Scotland. The advantage of doing this is that you can create a complete patterned panel without a disfiguring cast-off join running down the centre. If you knit the shoulder panel from the front side, the join comes at the point where the shoulder joins the back side, so is less visible.
Here is an example of this kind of shoulder panel, from a Hebridean-inspired gansey:
Probably the most spectacular, and the most complicated, type of shoulder strap is where you have a cable starting at the neck, running down the shoulder and continuing unbroken all the way down the arm to the cuff. To do this, you knit the front and back yokes but stop before you knit any of the shoulder straps. Divide your gansey into thirds, one third for the neck and one third each for each shoulder.
Start with the left shoulder. Place the stitches for the front left shoulder on a double-pointed needle and do the same with those for the back, same shoulder.
Now, take a third needle and cast on enough stitches for your cable plus however many flanking pattern stitches you wish to have on your shoulder. Then knit that cable and pattern at a right angle to the rest of your gansey, working down the shoulder. At each row’s end, join the last stitch of the row with one shoulder stitch from the needle holding that side’s stitches, and cast it off.
When you reach the end of the shoulder, place the cable and its flanking pattern stitches on a holder, ready for when you pick up stitches to start the sleeve.
The only point to bear in mind is that you will have more rows per inch than you will have stitches per inch – probably in a ratio of 4:3 (one inch for me equals 12 rows and 9 stitches). So if you’re not careful, you’ll be knitting 12 rows for every 9 stitches you pick up along the edges, and this will cause your cable to bump up like the streets of San Francisco. So as you go along, I suggest you either decrease 1 in 4, or slip 1 in 4 stitches, to keep it even.
Like I say, it’s a bit complicated – but the results are certainly impressive.