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Week 1: 5 – 11 January

9how1aNew Year, new pullover…

The intention is to include more technical detail as I go this time, which I hope to work up once it’s finished into a comprehensive “How to” technical section for the website. To kick off, here’s a picture of all the parts you’ll need to make a gansey: (1) Yarn; (2) DPNs; (3) Pattern; (4) Graph paper; (5) Calculator; (6) Tape measure; (7) Circular needles; (8) Scissors; (9) Tapestry needle. I use 2.25mm needles: the circular ones are 80cm long, and the double-pointed ones are 12 inches. (Disappointingly, you don’t seem to be able to get 2.25mm 12 inch dpns any more; so the ones I use are getting pretty beat up after all these years – the finish is scratched off the points, they’re all bent out of shape – but I’m too old to switch to shorter needles. Move with the times? I don’t think so!)

I understand that experienced knitters make swatches to find out their stitch gauge; in my case it’s taken me about 20 ganseys to achieve the same result, but either way, my gauge for a pattern with cables is about 9 stitches to the inch, or 8.5 for plain knitting. So I know that a 48-inch chest in the round without cables will take 408 stitches, or 204 per side.

I’ve decided to knit a plain pattern, that seen most commonly on Henry Freeman of Whitby’s gansey; a man who deserves to be remembered for being the sole survivor of the 1861 Whitby lifeboat disaster, and for marrying his wife’s sister after his wife died (the dog). It’s always been one of my favourites, bands of plain rows alternating with a knit 2/purl 2 textured checkerboard effect – very effective, especially in a dark colour like navy when the sun angles across it to pick out the contours. (You can see an example on the bottom panel of Gavin’s ‘Llandrindod’ gansey here.)

When I say this is going to be plain, I also mean that I’m not going to start the pattern till I start the underarm gussets. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, and most obviously, that’s the way the pattern was in the old photographs. But it’s also being knit in navy blue, and I sometimes struggle to see the stitches clearly in dark wool, unless it’s under bright light; and finally, given that I’m about to start a new job in a new town, I might be a touch distracted now and then. So, best to keep it simple.

9how1bAnother change from the last gansey, is the welt. Unusually for me, I’ve decided to knit this in two separate pieces, in garter stitch, one for the front and one for the back, instead of my customary knit 2/purl 2 ribbed welt. Plain borders like this were quite common back in the day, and get joined at the top edge on the last row to make the first round of the body. (They have the added advantage that, being flat and knit back-and-forth, they don’t get twisted on the cast-on row!)

9how1cCasting on is crude but effective. The first “stitch” is a slip knot on the left-hand needle, pulled tightish, but left loose enough to pass a needle through. The second stitch is knit through the knot’s loop and placed beside it on the left-hand needle. Then, each subsequent stitch that is cast on is achieved by inserting the right-hand needle in between the most recent two stitches on the left needle; yarn is looped over the tip as it protrudes through the reverse side, the needle is withdrawn bringing the loop of yarn with it, and this new stitch is slipped onto the left-hand needle – and so on. I use differently-coloured wool to mark a certain number of stitches cast on – in this case, one marker every 50 stitches – to make the counting easier (see illustration).

After the cast-on row, I always make the next 2 rows purl rows (seen from the right side) – it makes the bottom edge chunkier, and looks suitably robust. With this current welt, after that, I’m just alternating knit and purl rows till the welt is the correct length ( an inch or two), with a couple of knit stitches each side as a border.

By the way, you’ll notice I haven’t given any thought to the pattern yet. That’s because it’s such a simple pattern it can easily be adapted to however many stitches there are, and sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof…

So it begins!

8 comments to Week 1: 5 – 11 January

  • Suzanne Muir

    “after that, I’m just alternating knit and purl rows till the welt is the correct length ” I think you might have meant to write ‘knit every row’, if it is to be a split garter welt, or did I misunderstand your plan? Coincidentally, I am currently waiting for the arrival of wool to start a variation on the Staithes pattern from Gladys Thompson (in essence the same as the Whitby lifeboat gansey, but with two-row purl definition ridges). A very plain gansey has been requested, so I must keep it simple. Of course, I am also awaiting the arrival of a couple more books on ganseys, so may yet change my mind about the pattern.

  • Hi Suzanne, good point!

    I just knew I’d get into trouble with this one (it’s a bit like when I used to trim my beard in front of the mirror – I’d move my hand in what I thought was the right direction, only to find it the wrong way round in my reflection!). Yes, because I’m knitting backwards and forwards (and not in the round) you’re quite right: in practice, I’m knitting every row (except the first row following the cast on row, which is purl). Seen from the front, or right side, the effect will be of alternate knit and purl rows.

    So just to be clear. You have the cast on row. Then you have the first row after that, front side still facing, which is a purl row. Turning the welt round so the back is facing, you then knit a row of knit stitches; then you turn it face front again and knit another row of knit stitches … and so on. (The advantage of that first purl row gives you (a) a nice chunky bottom edge to your gansey, and (b) it means that you can make every row thereafter a knit row, which is easier to knit. Does this make sense?

    Yes, the Staithes pattern is essentially the same (it also crops up in Scotland I think), it’s a good one and it shows up well in the Gladys Thompson book. I was interested to note, by the bye, when we tried counting the bands on Henry Freeman’s gansey in different photographs, that he is wearing several variations on the pattern – so obviously he had several ganseys, all similar but slightly different! Which I think gives us carte blanche to play around with it too…

  • Jacqueline Bacon

    Have you thought about making your own needles?

    This blog has the instructions.


    You want to find the entry called Golden Needles. Then we get into a bit of a dialect thing. It is my understanding that Music wire is called something else in the British Isles. What you want is the stuff that model makers use for support.

  • Hi there Jacqueline,

    That’s an interesting idea – no I haven’t thought of it. I’ll have a look and see – it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally think of attempting, even – but needs must, I guess.

    I have a shameful confession, however: I do have an untouched set of 4 12-inch dpns perched above my computer, possibly the last set in the known world. Each pullover I ask myself the question, Is it time to dust them off and put them to use? And each time I look at my bent, flaked old needles and decide that no, they’ll last a little longer. Like the last tin of peaches in a post-apocalyptic larder, as long as they’re still there, it’s too soon to panic and start eating each other…

    Best wishes,

  • Nigel

    Gordon, my knitting has evolved to the level of making hats in the round. My next stage is to practise some patterns and onward towards a Gansey, once time allows. So thanks so much for producing this blog. I do admire you

  • Now, there, you see? I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about making a hat! But thank you very much for the compliment.

    Many years ago, I took a degree in medieval studies at Manchester University. The absolute highlight, no question, was a 2-lecture course at Deansgate Library on illuminated manuscripts – how they were made, the inks, the parchment, the lettering – and the raised gold leaf that makes them “illuminated”.

    Imagine going into a stone chapel late one February afternoon, cold and wet and dark outside, leaving all the traffic and the noise behind and entering this great silent space, and seeing a table on which over a dozen volumes from the 14th and 15th centuries were laid open – and seeing the light absolutely gleam off the gold letters like they were lit from within. It was like entering a dragon’s treasure hoard of the imagination.

    But once I’d got past the surface glitter, what I fell in love with was the fine detail, the smallwork, the actual text and its illustrations.

    Well, I’m not an artist, nor am I religious in the conventional sense, but that’s stayed with me all my life. And I think one of the things i love about ganseys is that same fine detail, the effect of the contouring as the light hits it and brings out the pattern. Of course, you’ll know I’ve strayed from the path of reason when I try to add gold leaf to my pullovers! – but in some ways (I’ve just thought of this) I think that what I’m doing is recreating as best I can an echo of those wonderful, wonderful books.

    Which has now got me thinking – maybe there’s a way I can combine the two…

  • =Tamar

    Have you investigated the surviving knitted silk jackets of the 17th century? They are worked at gansey texture or finer and some of them have silver-gilt silk yarn worked into patterns as well as texture work. (I’m still getting up the nerve to try a modest facsimile.)

  • Hi there,

    An honest answer would be, no, I haven’t investigated them, wouldn’t know where to start, even. But you interest me strangely! Though I’ve never knitted with silk, have only ever knitted these ganseys, I must admit I’m intrigued.

    On a slightly different tack, our finance officer at work knits regular jumpers with patterns based on photographs of her friends turned into pictures – occasionally I wonder about experimenting in this way too, using some illustrations from an old manuscript, for instance. Maybe there’s a way to combine the two ideas and start a new fad?

    Meanwhile, I hope you give it a go – I’d be fascinated to see an example!

    Best wishes,