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Week 21: 19 – 25 April

Greetings all!

I thought I’d have a go at my gansey tutorial Part 2 this week, since I’ve finished the neck – 1.5 inches of ribbing – and reached my least favourite part of the process, viz., picking up the stitches along the armholes for the sleeves.

I appreciate that this will be very old news to some of you, who I imagine can do this blindfold, and probably do at knitting workshops, like the Marines disassembling and reassembling their rifles. But, as I say, I’m hoping to build this up into a separate section for the website so that someone who has never done any of this before will hopefully get some tips on how to go about it. So, feedback welcome (and, of course, if you have any tips of your own, please feel free to share)!

First of all, I measured the actual size of the armholes, and they came to 8.5 inches from the end of the gusset to the top of the shoulder. Now, I know my stitch gauge is about 9.25 stitches to the inch, so a simple calculation (8.5 x 9.25) tells me that I have just over 78 stitches to pick up for each side. Add one for a central stitch and an odd number, and that gives me 157 stitches all told. So now I know what i have to do; I just have to do it.

When back in the mists of time I stopped knitting in the round and divided for the armholes, I left the gusset stitches on a holder (1). I find that old gansey 5-ply yarn makes a pretty good stitch holder, so I just knit a piece of old yarn through the gusset stitches and forget about them for a few months. (One advantage of using old yarn is that it’s very flexible, and hasn’t got any pointy bits to jab me in unfortunate places when I sneeze.)

I always start the armholes by picking up a few stitches of the gusset first. This has a couple of real advantages. You see, if I start picking up the armhole stitches straight away, I tend to end up with a larger, looser first stitch (I assume this is a failing in my technique, but every time I start to pick up stitches without a run-in like this I can’t keep the tension as taut as I’d like and the result after a couple of rows is a very noticeable hole. This way I can start knitting with a new ball of yarn for several stitches of plain knitting, and for some reason the tension is much easier to maintain.) The other advantage is that I’m starting the gusset in the middle – which means that every time I decrease from hereon in, the decrease is happening on the same row on both sides of the gusset; otherwise the left side decrease would be out of sync with the right side by a row.

Anyway, you now have to get the stitches off the holding yarn and onto a double-pointed needle. Thread a needle (hereinafter “Needle 1”) through half a dozen or so stitches on the left side of the gusset (2), slide the yarn out from those stitches (3) and re-tie the yarn to prevent any stitches dropping off when you’re not looking (4).

Drop a good length of the end of the new ball of yarn you’re going to knit with into the armhole (5). (I tend to go for long ends of 4-6 inches to keep them out of the way, but that’s a bit excessive, I know – so long as you’ve got enough to darn them in at the end, that’s all you really need.) When you’re happy with the length of your yarn end, hold it in position by anchoring it between thumb and finger (6) to ensure a good tension on your first stitch – otherwise it will be too loose and you’ll end up with the dreaded hole, as mentioned above. Insert another double-pointed needle (hereinafter “Needle 2”) through the first stitch (7), and knit a plain stitch in the usual way (8-10).

Knit the rest of the stitches on Needle 1, until you have 2 gusset stitches left plus the purl seam stitch (11). Make a decrease by knitting the last 2 gusset stitches together (12-15). This helps to make a sharp diamond shape for the gusset, and also helps with your counting as you progress down the sleeve: because the first row is going to be your pick-up row, it won’t be part of the pattern – the pattern will start on the next row, which will be the first “real” row; so, by making a decrease on this row, you can keep the gusset and the pattern in sync as you progress down the sleeve. (Obviously you also have to remember to decrease when you reach the other side of the gusset too.)

And after all that, you’re ready to start actually picking up stitches – but at least you don’t have to worry about flabby yarn tension at the same time!

Insert Needle 1 through the first of the edge stitches, making sure you get all of it (16). It should look like an ear of wheat on the needle. (Usually the edge stitches are curled inwards a bit and are almost at right angles anyway, so they’re not that hard to see.) To pick up the stitch, just knit a plain stitch in the usual way (17-20) by inserting Needle 2 through the opening you’ve created, looping the yarn over it, pulling it back through and slipping the stitch from Needle 1 to Needle 2.

Repeat up the armhole for as many stitches as your stitch gauge demands (21). This is why it’s important to add an extra stitch on the edge of your armhole, because the row on the very end of each side is sacrificed as you pick up your new stitches – so always make your yoke 2 stitches wider than your pattern demands. You will notice the row next to them becomes very clearly delineated as you progress up the armhole (22 and 23), which is another way of telling you that you’re doing it right.

One point to remember is that your (horizontal) stitch gauge will be a smaller number than your (vertical) row gauge. In my case, I knit about 9.25 stitches to the inch, but get about 12 rows to the inch. So you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of picking up every edge stitch, or you’ll have about a quarter more stitches than you need, all too close together. I try to use landmarks on the yoke pattern to help me get the spacing about right – in this case, the ladder on each side of the yoke pattern makes a helpful marker. There are 16 steps on each ladder, so if I pick up some 9 stitches for every 2 steps I should be about right (78 divided by 16 equals 4.5).

The only other thing to look out for is that it’s very easy to pick up just half a stitch – easier than picking up a whole stitch, in fact. In this case, instead of the “ear of wheat” effect referred to above, you just get a single loop on your needle (24), and if the stitch is completed it stands out from the rest of the row (25). This is a Bad Thing and is to be avoided unless you wish your name to be a hissing and a byword in knitting circles.

Well, there we are. No sewing involved at any stage.

Sorry if that was (a) too obvious for words, or (b) too tiresome and complicated (delete as applicable). This next week is a momentous one as I reach my fiftieth year on this earth, and have a rescheduled interview with the Western Isles Council (they’re coming to Edinburgh this time!). So it could be a remarkably good week, or…

9 comments to Week 21: 19 – 25 April

  • Lynne

    Happy Birthday, Gordon.
    Regarding the knitting of the sleeves, have you seen the technique that uses two 16″ circular needles to work in the round? My friend is a sock knitter and uses two 2.5mm circular needles after YEARS of using 5-dbl.pointed needles and she says she’ll never go back to the dbl.pt. No more ladders, no more pokes! I’m going to do it for next winter’s gansey project and will order the needles on-line.
    Love the tutorial.

  • Gordon

    Hi Lynne, and thanks. I haven’t tried using a couple of circular needles instead of the dpns – though the idea has crossed my mind, I’ve always been intimidated by the “other ends” of each circular needle flailing around like out-of-control mad robot arms, poking my eyes or something. Of course, I may be over-reacting… As you’ll see from the pictures, though, my trusty old set of 2.25mm dpns is getting rather long in the tooth, with most of the gloss coating worn off (just how I feel this morning!), so I might have to look at alternatives.

    Will be interested to hear how it goes.


  • Lynne

    Just to encourage you, I’ve watched my friend do her socks, and the needle not in use just hangs limply waiting for it’s turn and doesn’t seem to have a ‘mind of it’s own’.

  • Gordon

    Well, yes, good point, but perhaps her technique, unlike mine, doesn’t resemble someone having an epileptic fit while sneezing…?!


  • =Tamar

    Thanks for the tutorial. Not that I haven’t picked up stitches but it’s been a long time since I knitted a sweater, and technique is always of interest.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar, and thanks – as I say we’re going to try to write a complete beginner’s guide to ganseys over the next jumper or two, so watch this space. So long as no one assumes this is the last word on any of the subjects under consideration, then it should be fine!


  • Joan

    I’d say you can’t beat the short circulars for the arms, I tended to use the 4 dpns for the cuff only, again no ladders..

  • Gordon

    Hi Joan – as you can see, i’m catching up on my emails over Christmas!

    The only time I tried short circulars instead of dpns, I got my brain fried – it was like driving stick shift in the States after years of driving in the UK – and i found it frustrating having to keep sliding the stitches round the needles. But maybe I was using needles that were too large?