The gansey I’ve been knitting since early February is now done and has been worn already. It is time to reflect on the process and consider what I have learnt, both for my own benefit and that of anyone reading this blog who is contemplating knitting a gansey, particularly those who don’t want to follow a pattern slavishly.
There are a number of decisions to be made if you’re going to design and knit your own jumper in a traditional gansey style. It will be a long slog because you will be using fine needles, and there will probably be some new techniques involved, but it needn’t be difficult. A gansey has little in the way of shaping, which means it’s easy to design one from scratch or adjust a pattern to fit perfectly, and you can go to town on the patterning if you wish.
Here’s what you need to think about:
- Will you make it a skin-tight fit (zero ease) as was apparently the norm for fishermen, or allow 2-4″ of ease as is more usual nowadays?
- Traditional 5-ply Guernsey/gansey worsted-spun wool yarn knitted to a tight tension, or something thicker/looser to make the task quicker?
- Will you knit it in the round and bottom up, or as flat pieces? If the former, will you use steeks and cut the armholes open, or switch to knitting back and forth when you reach the armholes? And will you use a circular needle or double-pointeds?
Do you want an ordinary ribbed welt, or Channel Island-type flaps? If you go for flaps, will they be patterned or garter stitch with a few rows of rib, and will you use the Channel Island cast-on?
- If knitting in the round, will you have seam stitches and, if so, how many and how will you work them?
- Will you knit the wearer’s initials above the welt on one side?
- Will the gansey have an all-over pattern, be plain for just a short way then patterned above, be plain up to the armholes and have a patterned yoke, or almost entirely plain like a Guernsey? Will there be a “definition ridge” to divide the sections?
- What length and width will your gussets be, how will you manage the shaping and how will you incorporate the seam stitch(es) of the body and sleeves? The gussets could even be patterned.
- How will you join the shoulders and allow room for the neck: collar gussets, shoulder straps (essentially, a saddle shoulder construction) or a combination of the two?
- If you are going to knit shoulder straps, will they be worked from one side of the body, or from the neck down? If the latter, will they continue into the sleeve?
- Will you have a crew neck or a roll neck, and will it need to have a buttoned opening?
- How will the sleeves be patterned?
These are just the main decisions, there will be plenty more. The good news is that, provided you are knitting bottom up, you don’t have to make them all at once. I just tackled each new challenge as I approached it and designed the thing as I went along.
You may decide to do something unusual, like a patterned lower half with a plain upper half. That may not be traditional, but there are no rules as such for what is or isn’t a gansey. In the gansey heyday period – which was surprisingly short – they were knitted by thousands of different women (and a few men), mostly without patterns, who took into account the requirements of the intended wearer, local custom and their own preferred way of doing things. The “herring girls” who followed the fishing fleet down the east coast of the UK each year learned from each other and the knitters they met at the ports where they stayed, so there was a constant input of new ideas. But most people would recognise certain features as indicative of a gansey: tightly knitted fabric; underarm gussets; identical front and back; dropped sleeves (no armhole shaping); straight shoulders; a high neck; single colour.
However, many ganseys, both ancient and modern, break at least one of these “rules”. A striped jumper or one with a V-neck can still be recognisably a gansey, there are no knitting police out there. You will be making a work of art that will take you, probably, several months, so make sure you create something that the wearer will love and wear to death (literally), even if that does mean losing a little of the tradition.
There are gansey patterns available online that are useful for understanding the method of construction and for checking that stitch and row calculations are approximately right. Two that I kept referring back to are the Beatrice gansey on the Moray Firth Gansey Project website, which is knitted in the round, and this Leeds/Liverpool Canal gansey which is worked flat with an allover pattern.
Designing a gansey
Having made the basic decision of what size to knit, all that remains is to work out how many stitches and rows are required and design a stitch pattern to fit them both lengthways and widthways. It’s traditional to use 2.25mm (UK size 13) or even smaller needles with 5-ply gansey yarn. Work a large (at least 4″/10cm) tension square – yes, I know it’s a bore, but you really need to because you will have a lot of stitches and a small difference in tension will make a big difference to the size – block it and measure it. Calculate how many stitches you need to give you the size you want. If you are knitting flat, add a couple on each side for sewing up. Check that the number of stitches works with whatever design you are planning to knit and add a few extra if needed. Then cast on and proceed as follows, assuming you are knitting in the round without steeking.
10 steps to a gansey
- Knit the welt, however you have decided to do it.
- Knit a few rows of plain stocking stitch, incorporating seam stitches.
- Work the wearer’s initials, or anything else you like (I worked the year, 2014), towards the side of the front or back, if you wish. Moss stitch is the most successful stitch for legible letters and numbers.
- Work more stocking stitch until you are ready to start the patterned section, with or without a definition ridge.
- If the yoke is to be patterned, then traditionally the gussets start where the yoke starts, which needs to be at least a couple of inches below the armhole, so design your yoke patterning to fit the available depth.
- When you reach the armhole (gussets at full width), leave the gussets and one side of the body on a length of yarn while you work the other side back and forth until you reach the desired length, allowing room for a shoulder strap if you are going down that route. Then work the other half to match, leaving the gusset stitches on holders.
- Work the shoulder straps, or just join the shoulders (the 3 needle cast-off is a good way, it gives a nice ridge) to each other without using straps. The neck opening should be about a third of the total width, so leave those stitches on a length of yarn.
- Pick up stitches around the armhole to suit the armhole depth, allowing for gusset stitches and any stitches left on a holder after knitting neck-down shoulder straps. Work the sleeve, decreasing the gusset stitches at the same rate as they were increased until they are all gone, then work regular decreases at the underside of the sleeve to taper it down to a sensible cuff circumference. (I explained how to do the calculations in an earlier post, Return of the Bees.) Don’t forget seam stitches to match the body. Knit a ribbed cuff, making any necessary additional decreases in the previous row. Repeat with the other sleeve.
- Put the neck stitches (and any neck-down shoulder strap stitches) back on your needles and knit the neckband or collar, incorporating a triangular gusset at each side if extra space is needed.
- Block, darn in ends and invite compliments.
These instructions are, of course, simplified, but they provide the basic method. Read as many books and articles on traditional fishermen’s sweaters and gansey patterns as you can get hold of, and scour YouTube for helpful videos, before deciding how to tackle the job, there are so many ways of doing each element of the garment. That is part of what makes it so enjoyable, you will knit something that is quite unlike anything ever knitted before because of all those permutations. If you’re reading this and you have any questions, just add a comment and I’ll do my best to reply helpfully.
Gansey knitting tips
Finally, a few tips for would-be gansey knitters:
- Knitting on fine needles in poor or artificial light is a struggle, especially in a dark colour. Start your gansey project in the spring if at all possible.
- Gansey yarn can be bought in balls or on 500g cones. Using cones avoids joins, but it will mean that you are carting around 500g (just over a pound) from day 1 and 1kg by the time you have finished the body for an adult size. Not so good if you like to knit while travelling.
- Use good quality needles, you’ll be glad of them and they will add little to the overall cost.
- Chart out your design before you start – an Excel spreadsheet did the job for me – but be prepared to adjust it as you go, particularly if you knit the gansey partially in the round and partially to and fro, your tension will probably vary.
- Examine your work carefully in a good light every few rows/rounds so that any mistakes can be corrected quickly. It’s too depressing if you find an error a couple of inches down and realise that several days’ work will have to be ripped out. Having said that …
- … it is usually possible to correct a wrong knit or purl stitch many rows down using a fine crochet needle. And, realistically, who’s going to notice if it’s just a stitch or two that are wrong?
- The hard part is getting the stitch pattern right on wrong side rows above the armholes when you have knitted in the round until then. Take extra care for the first few rows.
- If it all gets too much, put it aside for a week or two and have a rest.