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Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 7: 10 July

It’s that time of year again, as the event that brings together a divided nation and uplifts the spirits of a people is finally here. No, I’m not talking about Wimbledon, or the first cricket test of the summer; nor even about the arrival of the funfair at the bottom of our garden for the county show. No, it’s time to rejoice in the annual Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year.

This year’s shortlist reminds me that the universe is far more strange and disturbing place than I’d supposed: An Ape’s View of Evolution competes with titles such as The Commuter Pig-Keeper, Love Your Lady Landscape, and Renniks Australian Pre-Decimal and Decimal Coin Errors. (The bookies’ favourite, Nipples on My Knee, a memoir of keeping sheep, I dismiss as simply trying too hard).

Every now and then, when I feel oppressed by the existential burden of modern life, I cheer myself up by flicking through the list of previous winners. My two all-time favourites remain The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2000) and Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978), though I do have a soft spot for Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996).

In gansey news I can at last reveal what I’ve done with the shoulder straps: I’ve opted for the fancy knit-a-cable-at-right-angles-along-the-shoulder-and-down-the-sleeve approach. It works stunningly well with this pattern—I plan to try it on a Flamborough gansey too one of these days, since the principle is the same—even though it can be a bit fiddly, feeling at times rather like performing an intimate act on an octopus with the giggles.

I’m not exactly firing on all cylinders just now—today I got dressed, felt something wasn’t quite right, looked down and discovered I’d put on two pairs of underwear, so you can see I’m not exaggerating—so it’s with something of relief that next week we turn to simpler matters, like sleeves.


A couple of inches up the shoulder

These shoulder straps are the business, but to achieve the desired effect you do have to plan ahead.

First of all, you need to remember that you get more rows per inch than you do stitches: I knit about 11 rows per inch vertically, and 8 stitches per inch horizontally. So if you’re going to knit this sort of shoulder strap you need to decrease the number of stitches you’ll be picking up, or else your finished shoulder strap will buckle like a switchback. I know of two ways of doing this: either decrease the number of stitches for the shoulder on your last row on the yoke, or else decrease as you work down the shoulder casting off. (There are pros and cons to each method; in this case I decreased on my final row, by 11 stitches, from 63 to 52 for the shoulder).

Further progress up the shoulder

Secondly, because this pattern features a cable which is crossed every 7th row, I want to end each shoulder with a cable 6/7 completed—so that when I pick up stitches around the armhole for the sleeve it will be this cable’s 7th row, meaning that I can cross the cable and so complete the sequence. The whole point of this, of course, is that all the other cables on the sleeve will start on the row after the pick-up row—this ensures that my central cable is aligned with all the others, and the next cable sequence for the centre cable will start the row after as well.

Now, you have to remember that each row of your shoulder strap knits together/casts off one stitch from one needle only. So, the first row (which goes right side up from right to left) reaches the end and casts off one stitch from, say, the the needle holding the back shoulder. The next row (working on the reverse side) casts off one stitch from the other needle. And so on. To calculate how many rows you have to knit for your shoulder, therefore, you have to add together the stitches on both needles. I have 52 stitches on each side—that means that my shoulder will consist of 104 rows.

Ready to knit the two stitches (shoulder strap and yoke/shoulder) together on a reverse row…

By a happy coincidence 104 rows gives me 14 cables (each cable = 7 rows) plus 6 rows left over. (OK, it took me the best part of an hour’s calculation to get this to work. I did the calculation before I decided how many stitches to decrease by at the very beginning.)

Now we’re ready to start.

…and knitting the two stitches together on a right-side-up row

The process is simple enough. First of all, place your yoke/shoulder stitches on two needles, as if you were going to do a 3-needle bind-off. Cast on the requisite number of stitches for the shoulder strap. I cast on 24 (22 for the central cable and flanking pattern, plus a border stitch at each side). It’s easiest to do this using just the two needles you already have lined up with shoulder stitches on—trying to knit the strap with a third needle at right angles is like trying to play two deflated sets of bagpipes simultaneously.

Finished shoulder strap

Then, working back and forth, one row right side up, the next working on the reverse, knit the shoulder strap at right angles to the shoulders, and at the end of every row, knit together the last stitch of the shoulder strap and the next stitch from the yoke/shoulder. As you work down the shoulder you will gradually cast off all the stitches on each needle—the effect is not unlike doing up a zipper.

It’s not something you can dash off quickly. If you think about it, I was knitting 104 rows of 24 stitches each—that’s a total of just under 2,500 stitches. It’s the equivalent of 6 or 7 full rows of the body per shoulder (out of curiosity I weighed the yarn I used—it came to 28 grams per shoulder).

Anyway, it’s totally worth it, as you can see. And yes, there is slight switchback effect on the shoulder even now; but the gansey hasn’t been blocked yet, and part of that is due to the cables on the body pulling it in. It will look better blocked—everything always does.

23 comments to Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 7: 10 July


    I love your mathematics. Maybe one day I will try a gansey again but am now paralysed with indecision and fear of mathematical incompetence.

    • Gordon

      Hi Clare, don’t be put off by the maths! Usually there’s a tiny bit of multiplication at the start of a gansey and then you’re good to go, but this shoulder pattern is something of a roll royce of the gansey world for me, the peak of the gansey knitter’s art, and to get it right takes some forethought. (You can see why I don’t attempt it very often, mind…)

      It amuses me sometimes to think of my Dad’s exasperation as he tried to teach me maths as a kid, only for me to be posting things like this now—as if I know what I’m talking about!

  • Gail Donkin

    This is stunning! Could you take more pictures of the shoulder strap; I may want to try this. Perhaps after it is blocked.

    • Gordon

      Hi Gail, it’s a great pattern combination, isn’t it—I think it looks even better in a full-body-patterned gansey, as you have the cable running all the way from neck to cuff down the sleeve, but it’s “no so bad” as we say up here as it is. Yes, expect more pictures, especially once it’s finished.

  • Jane

    Wow, Gordon, the shoulders look fantastic, and what a start for the sleeves. I am so totally impressed by the mathematics of it, just magic! Super photos too! Take care!

    • Gordon

      Hello Jane, after all that maths I had to go and have a lie down with a bar of chocolate, there’s only so much suffering man can endure after all.

      I keep expecting an experienced knitter—one of the legendary “Blackstitch Ninja” Tongs, perhaps—to tell me i’ve got it wrong and there’s a much easier way to do it. (I expect the old knitters would do it by eye and finesse the number of stitches they needed as they neared the end of the shoulder; no pocket calculators for them!) But painful experience has taught me the “measure twice, cast off once” approach, and sometimes it’s better to be safe than embarrassed in front of the blogosphere…

  • Jane Callaghan

    I think your underwear problems sound A Lot simpler than these sleeves.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, I seem to be getting to a stage in life when I need a project management plan and a checklist to make sure I get dressed correctly in the morning… Not a good sign!

      • Jane Callaghan

        Don’t worry, be happy. Two pairs of underpants are twice as good as no pairs of underpants. Unless you start trying to increase and decrease underpants as you go along…..

  • Eve

    Oh wow! On the basis l’m fairly sure I’ll only ever knit one gansey and after following your blog for sometime I was fairly sure that this is ‘the one’, those shoulders look fiendish but brilliant! The recipient is on the diet as it’s not going to be any bigger than absolutely necessary and I’m working through the WIPs like a demon ready to start in September. Of course if anyone points out the folly of starting 5 ply navy just as the nights are drawing in……….I’ll just direct them to the new, eye wateringly expensive work light that’s just been ordered. Thanks so much for your constant inspiration, insight and humour. Also the underwear thing don’t worry till you find your shoes in the fridge, oops!

    • =Tamar

      Shoes in the fridge is okay. Diana Wynne Jones once put shoes in the oven for dinner when she was busy with a book.

    • Gordon

      Hi Eve, as I say I’m sure that someone who is more zen in their knitting could probably do all this by eye, but painful experience has taught me that I can’t afford to wing it. A bright light works wonders; I don’t have one that’s quite bright enough, hence my knitting this one either side of the longest day! But even then a cloudy day can make me pack in early. Next time, a light colour!

      The advantage of a gansey is, of course, it’s so tough that it also acts as a corset for those of us horizontally challenged…

  • Lynne

    Oh, MAN! Gordon! My brain is never going to work that hard at the math! I will grab the Alice Starmore book with directions for Stornaway – just because I’m lazy! So gorgeous! and how generous of you to give us this tutorial.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, you think you’ve got problems, I had to figure all this out for myself in the pre-internet 1980s! (The more I think of it, the more I appreciate why there are so many “rig ‘n’ fur” shoulder straps on ganseys…)

  • Lois

    Many thanks for the tutorial! I’ve always wanted to do a saddle shoulder, but wasn’t sure about how to tackle the row count. That explains it all perfectly.

    Though I agree with you, the oldtimers probably just “winged it” as they went along.

    Methinks I’ll probably need a whole box of chocolates ro sustain me when I try it out.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, I’m glad that made sense. I once read a book by TH White (the chap who wrote “The Sword in the Stone”) about how he trained a goshawk using only an ancient manual of falconry, staying up nights, going through all sorts of privations, but in fact had he known falconry had moved on tremendously in the 20th century and you could practically do it all from the comfort of your own bed! I feel a bit like that when I dare to explain my methodology on something like this…

      Hmmm. Chocolates, you say…

  • Sharon in Surrey

    I know I should’ve passed by that explanation but I didn’t. I read every single word & there were none that I couldn’t understand. After reading them all, I don’t understand a word you wrote. I will enjoy it from afar, in a picture. I think I need a drink.

    • Gordon

      Hi Sharon, sorry about that. My trouble as always is that I’m trying to find words for something that would be much clearer seen – a bit like trying to explain to a blind person how to bowl leg spin in cricket, or serve like Roger Federer. Come to think of it, I’ll join you in that drink…

  • Jane Callaghan

    Dear Gordon, now I have got my mind off your pants probs, I’ve re=read your shoulderstrap instructions. Can I ask one question? When you say you have left a cable 6/7ths finished, do you mean that you are crossing on your picking-up row at the top of the sleeve? Or on the next one?

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, I cross these cables every 7th row, so by leaving the last cable on the shoulder 6 rows done I cross it on the pick-up row of the armhole. This means that all the cables on the sleeve can be in sync, because I never count the pick-up row as a pattern row – so the first row after the pick-up row is row 1 of the pattern and row 1 of the cables. Hope this helps.

  • Marie Baskeyfield

    Found what I had been told to look for. Thank you. I think it makes sense, but I will re read tomorrow when the red wine is not making me quite skeroy

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