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Wick III – Fergus Ferguson: 24 April

3W160425-1There’s quite a lot to cover this week, starting with how we approached the yoke pattern of Fergus’s gansey. But if you’d rather skip the technicalities and go straight to the regular blog—and let’s be honest, who could blame you?—then Click here.

Are we alone? Have they all gone? OK, then. (Warning: maths ahoy!)

Now, here’s the problem we ran into: the row gauge of Fergus’s gansey changes quite dramatically at the start of the yoke. Up to now what I’ve been knitting matches the body of the gansey in the original photograph pretty closely. But now there are no fewer than 200 rows from the gussets to the shoulders.

My standard row gauge is currently about 10.5 to the inch—if I recreated Fergus’s yoke pattern exactly it would be almost 20 inches long! (We’ve charted out the original pattern, so you can see what it consists of.)


Chart of photo

On the other hand, the (horizontal) stitch gauge is about the same. Go figure.

Anyway, there’s no way I can reproduce Fergus’s original pattern under these circumstances, not at that scale. So we had to compromise. Basically, what we did was this: we calculated that the central tree consisted of about 50% of the height of the pattern, and the two centre diamonds about 25% each.


Modified chart

Now, given my current row gauge we had about 100 rows to play with, give or take, so the maths are really simple. We made each centre diamond 25 rows high, and the central tree about 50 rows.

But! There’s a catch. Making the centre panels shorter vertically also necessarily made them narrower horizontally—and remember that the stitch gauge stayed about the same. So we had to play around with the pattern to get it to fit. In the end we achieved this by widening the side panel diamonds and also the moss stitch rows used to separate pattern bands (instead of having these one stitch wide, we made them 3 stitches wide, copying the pattern from the body so it would all be in keeping with the original).

It’s a compromise, of course. But hopefully the overall effect will look roughly similar, even if it’s not so fine as the original. (How on earth did she do it?)

Anyway, that’s enough of that. Time to take a deep breath and rejoin the others.

3W160425-2One of the reasons why I enjoy working with archives—apart from the fact that I get to sit indoors out of the rain and sometimes receive chocolates at Christmas—is the way it telescopes the past and the present, closing the distance between them until it’s as thin as a sheet of letter paper. Here’s an instance I came across last week. It’s a story from the First World War, so you’ll forgive me if the tone is rather more serious than usual.

We were recently given a collection of letters from the family of Sinclair Macdonald, the celebrated Thurso architect, relating to the war service of his son, who’d been christened John but was known as Ian.

Ian had served in the Middle East but in April 1918 he was made 2nd lieutenant and posted to the Western Front. This was at the time of the great German offensive, a last desperate attempt to win the war before America could turn the tide in the Allies’ favour. It nearly succeeded: the Germans broke through French and British lines and suddenly trench warfare was a thing of the past, all was chaos and confusion and movement as the Germans surged towards Paris and the Allies frantically tried to throw together a last-ditch defence.

On 11 April Ian Macdonald was posted as missing. He’d gone on patrol one night with another officer and wasn’t seen again. Next day there was a German attack, the British were forced to retreat and the officer he’d accompanied was found dead. But Ian had vanished in the darkness of the night.

3W160420-1For two weeks the family was left in uncertainty as to whether he’d been killed or captured. Two officers with the same initials had been lost on the same day, one of them killed, and no one knew if either of them was Ian. (To make matters worse no one even knew if he’d been registered with the army as Ian or John.)

It’s impossible to read the letters without experiencing something of what the family must have gone through. Two weeks! Can you imagine? There are letters of support and encouragement from family and friends, as you’d expect. Eventually the news came through: Ian was alive, a prisoner, and at last his name was posted in the paper.

Then I read a heartrending letter from a lady in Ross-shire. She’d read the news of Ian’s capture in The Scotsman. She had a son in the same regiment, but he was still posted as missing; how had Sinclair Macdonald learned that Ian was alive? How might she discover the situation of her own son? (I looked her up and found she’d already lost one son at Gallipoli, at which point I had to get up from my computer and go for a walk and think about something else for a while.)

Ian survived the war, though his health never recovered. Now, like almost everyone who lived through that dreadful war, he’s passed into history. And yet—through the words of his family and friends recorded in letters like these—they’re not quite lost to us.

16 comments to Wick III – Fergus Ferguson: 24 April

  • Nigel

    Very sad the last bit. What an awful war. I had three family members in it, somehow they all survived although my dad said my Grandad “was back in the trenches living it again” just before he died.
    I enjoyed reading the planning of the gansey although I can’t figure the maths! I am going to begin a second gansey soon – Matt Cammish I think in seaspray just like yours. Best wishes and thanks for the blog

  • Gordon

    Hi Nigel – yes, almost unimaginable what it must have been like now.

    I couldn’t find the war record – many soldiers’ records were destroyed in the Blitz in WW2 – but I did check the village war memorial – and it looks as though the lady’s second son survived, thank God.

  • Lois

    Your perceptive comment about how time telescopes the past and present led me to think about our own family experiences.

    Though I was a baby at the time, the impact of WWII stayed with our family for many years after. My mother’s youngest brother was killed in action when his destroyer was torpedoed in the English Channel. The family had no idea until they were informed a year later after his death. I can only suppose it had something to do with security. I can’t even imagine how they coped with the shock.

    A few years back, suddenly realizing that now I was the “old” generation, it became my mission to trace the family back and write down the tales passed along over the years. And in the course of this I found that one of my ancestors had fought at Waterloo. That seemed so remote that it was hard to comprehend. But when I put it into terms of generations, it was only 4 generations back. So the thought of how time telescopes seems very relevant to me.

    And probably why I carry on with the ganseys.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, I think there are two ways of recording family history—the first one is the names and dates approach, that focuses on the bones of the family tree. Then there is the collecting of stories, reminiscences, and collecting letters and diaries. Both are important, and the two together put you in direct contact with the past. And sometimes it lets you give a voice to the people who fought in the wars, who declined to speak publicly about it themselves.

      By the way, the battle of Waterloo was what first sparked my love of history (at the age of 11, a mere 45 years ago!). There’s a brilliant book about it, just called “The Battle” by Alessandro Barbero, one of the best military histories ever written. You really feel what it must have been like to be there, and not in a fun way.

      I sometimes think of the study of history as being like looking at reflections in a pond; if you look carefully enough the images are almost close enough to touch—but if you try you break the surface, the image dissolves, and you’re left with just fragments of an illusion. The past is always just out of reach.

  • Song

    GAH, but … but did the lady ever find out about her son?

    • Gordon

      Hi Song, as far as I know he survived, so hopefully the news would have come not long after this. But reading the letters from Ian’s superior officer to his family, trying to explain the circumstances, it’s clear that the whole situation was total chaos—they were out of the trenches, attacking and counter-attacking, and as he says, there wasn’t a front line.

  • Laura Kilner

    Love the Gansey and the chart you show. Following along gives me such joy. (I did send a little stipend under my husbands PayPal – K Newton). I realize you might not recognize it was me. I do hope the good people remember to send their stipends as well. All the best to you and yours Gordon. Thank you so very much!

    Laura Kilner
    British Columbia, Canada

    • Gordon

      Hello Laura, and thank you so much. It’s the donations that help keep us afloat, not to mention keeping me in wool!

      All the best, Gordon

  • Jane

    Fascinating, Gordon, and wonderful work, absolutely. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that this gansey is so thought provoking. I am assuming that nothing is known of Fergus Ferguson or of the knitter. In changing her guage, would she have changed to finer pins?! And then changed back at the welt and somewhere for the sleeves, the mind boggles, really well done!

    Thank you for sharing the WW1 letters, such heart rending times. As a teenager, I used to visit a retired nurse, a fit, spinster lady in her eighties, whose fiancé went down on one of the ships at Gallipoli. Devastated, she volunteered to nurse the troops and never married. She kept his photo on a little shelf. So many ripples, hey. Take care.

  • Jane

    How did she do it?!

    • Jane

      The knitter, sorry, bit vague!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, that’s the mystery. People’s stitch gauge changes when they switch to front and back—i know mine does—but that’s a heck of a shift. Finer needles, yes, I’m sure. Well, that and warping the laws of physics, as far as I can tell!

      No information on FF or who knitted the gansey, sadly. we don’t even know if he was from Wick, or the date of the photograph. So I could try the 1901 census, for example—but Ferguson isn’t that unusual a name up here and you normally need another couple of reference points to make a positive ID.

      There’s a great line in a book by Stephen E Ambrose (who also wrote Band of Brothers), when he interviews a British soldier who single-handedly stopped a German tank one time. The soldier says, “Now don’t you go making me out to be some sort of hero!” And Ambrose replies, “No I don’t make heroes, I just write about them.” That’s how I feel about so many of the people who lived through the two world wars.

  • Brenda

    Hi Gordon. Quick question. I have one hour to spend in Wick, what should I see? Or should I sit at the bus stop and knit?

    • Gordon

      Hi Brenda, depends which day it is, and on the weather. But if it’s a Monday-Saturday from April-October, take a walk down to the harbour, stand and look out at the open ocean and the far horizon and imagine the vanished fishing fleet of 300-plus boats putting out under full sail, then stroll up to the superb Heritage Museum and get lost amidst the photographs and artefacts of a bygone age, realise that in fact several hours have passed and you’ve missed your bus, and that in fact you now have another day to explore the town properly!

  • Brenda

    Ha. I wish I was staying longer in Wick but at the last minute I decided I was going to go North instead of leaving it for my next trip so I am off to the Orkneys for a 2 day mad dash and then straight back down to Glasgow on a SUNDAY. Nothing moves on a Sunday. So end of May I take the train to Wick and then bus it to a ferry landing somewhere. not John O groats and not Scrabster. the one in between. If I cannot find the bus stop then indeed I will be staying longer. Heritage Museum it is as I worked on fish boats in my younger days so I can already imagine but then again the sights in Scotland are much superior to anywhere else.

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