How to design and knit a gansey

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.

Decisions, decisions

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?
  • Channel Island cast-on and garter st flap

    CI cast-on and garter st flap

    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?

    Gansey yoke

    Gansey yoke

  • 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?
  • Half a gansey gussetIf 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. Gansey with yoke and above-welt patterning

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

  1. Knit the welt, however you have decided to do it.
  2. Knit a few rows of plain stocking stitch, incorporating seam stitches.
  3. 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.
  4. Work more stocking stitch until you are ready to start the patterned section, with or without a definition ridge.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Gansey  shoulder strapWork 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.Gansey shoulder seam showing neck gusset
  10. 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
  • 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.

    Gansey body design

    Gansey body design

  • 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.

About yorkshirecrafter

I live and work in West Yorkshire.  I've always enjoyed crafts of all types, from woodwork to lace-making.  I also enjoy anything mathematical, which makes knitting a favourite pastime, especially complicated designs.  I've been advising businesses and industry on environmental matters for 30 years and also have an interest in green living, especially where it saves me money. I live with my husband and our Maine Coon in a 100-year-old cottage that constantly needs something doing to it.  Fortunately, I enjoy DIY too.
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24 Responses to How to design and knit a gansey

  1. Crooked Tracks says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have been knitting for many years and to knit a gansey is on my wish list. I really appreciate that you took the time to pass along your experience. Judy

  2. Wow. Fascinating post, but 2.25mm needles? Yikes! OK, I’ll stop grumbling about the jumper I’m knitting on 3.5mm needles. I’m so in awe that you’ve done this.

    • On the plus side, ordinary-sized needles like your 3.5mm ones now seem enormous to me and my current Aran-weight project (Nanook cardigan) is flying along. And I’m someone who rarely knitted anything finer than DK until a couple of years ago.

  3. I love your simple description on how to knit a Gansey.
    @ The Twisted Yarn: I knit my Gansey’s on 2mm needles with knitting belt. They have to stand by themselves when done, if they dont, the knit is too loose :-).

  4. Well, they don’t have to be comfortable, they are made to turn weather :-). There is a reason why they are called “Fisherman’s iron” But in fact once you are used to there solidness they are very comfy. Not in the sense of cuddly comfy, but in terms of creating a perfect body climate either indoors or outdoors. If you like you can find pictures on Facebook:
    I knit Ganseys to order and surprisingly the really densely knitted are my customer favourites.
    Do you have any experience with Frangipani and Wendy Gansey wool? At the moment I am using Frangipani but got a sample ball Wendy’s and I actually like it.

    • I used Frangipani for this gansey. I like the range of colours – I used Falmouth Navy – but the yarn was full of foreign bodies such as bits of straw and baler twine. It was very strong, so good for getting a tight tension. I knitted a Guernsey (flat) many years ago in, I think, Wendy, but I can’t remember much about the yarn, and it may well have changed since then anyway.

  5. i have just finished a gansey on size 13 needles but i am having trouble doing the neck guset pattern noy very clear on instructions can anybody help

  6. I’ve only ever knitted neck gussets separately and sewn them into a knitted-flat gansey afterwards, so I don’t have any direct experience. However, essentially you are starting from probably one stitch and then picking up an extra one from the front and back at each end of every (or maybe every other) row to make a little triangle that widens as it heads towards the neck opening. If you tell me what the pattern instructions say, I might be able to offer more specific help.

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  9. Karen Tozer says:

    I’m currently trying to do the Beatrice gansey moray firth project jumper and I’m up to the shoulder straps part and struggling to understand the instructions. Can you give me any advise please?
    I’m loving knitting this, even though some of the pattern I’ve done is a bit off. I think I’ll probably do another with my own design at some point using your tips x

  10. The Beatrice straps are knitted in the opposite direction to the gansey I made, but did you find my shoulder strap post which should help nevertheless?
    Basically, you are making a strap that is 17 sts wide (for Beatrice), working from the point of the shoulder up to the neck edge. The only complication is that at the (far) end of each RS row you work in one stitch from the shoulder of the front (say) and at the (far) end of each WS row you work in one stitch from the shoulder of the back (say). This joins the front to the back little by little along that shoulder, like closing a zip.
    Where the pattern says “Return the front and back stitches of one shoulder to needles…” it means (say) the left shoulder, ie the sts on the RHS of the neck on one piece and the LHS on the other.
    Is that any clearer? Do ask again if not.

  11. Karen says:

    Thanks for your help, I think I’ve got it now

    • Karen says:

      Can I scream?!!!
      I’ve progressed slowly and have just completed both arms and as I am starting the neckband things don’t look right. There are too many stitches so I am now thinking that maybe I went wrong back at the shoulder straps after all.? Will I ever get this right?

      • Screaming is definitely allowed when knitting with needles smaller than 3mm! The shoulder straps are 17 sts wide and stay at that width, so I don’t see how you could have got them wrong. If you’re only a few sts out in the neckband, it’s not going to matter, just work extra decreases in the 1st row as necessary to end up with a number that’s divisible by 4 so that the P2, K2 ribbing works. Looking at the pattern, to get the st count for the neckband (126, 134, 142) you should have 6 sts for the overlap, 17 from each strap and (43, 47, 51) from each of back and front. So can you figure out where the extra sts have come from?

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  14. Seed stitch says:

    Thank you so much for your post on designing & knitting a gansey. It’s so well written and very clear. I am working on my third gansey, this time designing it. My husband wants a gansey just like the one worn by Ernest Shackleton during his Antarctic Expedition. The gansey has bottom ‘flaps’ knitted in a garter stitch, followed by 10 rows of K2,P2 ribbing before changing to plain knitting. In photos I have seen, the Shackleton gansey seems to be the traditional tube shape and this is my problem. My husband’s measurements (while wearing a heavy shirt over which he wears his gansey) are: hips 40 1/2″, waist 41 1/2″, chest 42″. I plan to add 2″ to all measurement for ease. Here’s my problem. Do I use his chest measurement to calculate the total number of stitches when I begin or should I begin based on his hip measurement and the gauge for the garter stitch and then increase when I begin knitting the body of the sweater in plain knitting? Technically, it won’t be a tube shape (like the gansey in your photo) but I am concerned about the sweater being too loose and baggy around the hips. Or am I over-thinking this?
    I am knitting in the round and have knitted a 40 stitch swatch using the 3 different stitches for this gansey. Truth be told, I only remembered to do this after a succession of dismal starts. If the flaps are to be based on the hip measurement, I’m thinking I should make a 2-inch increase in the first few rounds of plain knitting. My gauge for plain knitting (stocking st.) is 25 stitches over 4 inches or 1″ = 6.25 sts. using Wendy Guernsey 5 ply, in dark blue. NEVER AGAIN! You are so right. It can an absolute b-gger to see the stitches, especially now that winter is upon us. (I live in Toronto.)
    I have zoomed in on your red gansey, peering intently to see how you have dealt with this. Any advice you have will be most gratefully received. Your blog is a treasure.

    • I would size it according to the chest measurement and not worry about the hips area at all, the difference isn’t big and most men (at least, those with youthful figures) have a chest measurement several inches bigger than their waist/hips but traditionally shaped (or rather, shapeless) Guernseys look fine on them. The ribbing should draw it in a little to suit the smaller hip measurement. I don’t think the welt will flap around or be too loose, but you could take the overall ease down a bit from 2″ if you’re worried.
      I have to confess that the red Gansey is a bought, machine-made one, but as is traditional, there is no increasing after the welt flaps, it’s just a tube.

      • Seed stitch says:

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and giving me the information to carry on. I was beginning to feel that designing a gansey was a bit beyond me but with your post and suggestions I know I can do this and, most importantly, enjoy the process. Thanks again. Looking forward to upcoming posts.

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