Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Yachting Jersey: Finished! [Part V/V]

I've participated in knit-alongs, and enjoy knitting from current Vogue Knitting... but no knitting thrill has been as great as the feeling of possibly having been the first person in a hundred years to knit from an antique pattern.  The uncertainty of not knowing if the final product will resemble the printed image as one slowly works, line-by-line, through the mysterious pattern is tremendously suspenseful.  The process feels a bit like receiving a secret code from a friend from long ago, and deciphering that code helps bridge the gap of time.

The big reveal took five posts on my blog, which may seem like overkill... but bear in mind that it took me nearly two years of research and steady work.  Though most gansey sweaters were knit with dark blue, I chose natural (more in the aran tradition).  As it turns out, as you may have gathered from Part IV/V, though a gansey, this particular pattern was clearly meant to be a less-utilitarian type... and so I hope will not be too bothersome for the purists out there.

I was lucky that, at this time in history, snug-fitting sweaters are in fashion.  This works well with the tradition of the gansey, which is meant to have negative-ease so as not to interfere with one's work.  I am also fortunate to have a handsome model living right in my household who is willing to work for food (lots of it!).  Here's hoping it's not the only time he'll ever wear it! 

See it on Ravelry here:  Yachting Jersey

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Yachting Jersey: How to Put a Spin on a Fisherman's Sweater [Part IV/V]

Fishermen Saluting Mrs. Buxton, from the Norfolk Museum collection of Fishermen Ganseys
As previously mentioned, the "Yachting Jersey" is somewhat pompously described as "specially intended for yachting and boating, may yet be worn for football and other athletic sports."  The jersey is, in point of fact, of a type known as a Guernsey (or Gansey) sweater.  Guernsey sweaters were anything but jaunty collegiate sweaters.  Though named for the Isle of Guernsey (a British protectorate), they were worn for hundreds of years (from as early as the 15th century) by North Sea fisherman of many nationalities for utilitarian warmth. By the 1900s, the Gansey had been adopted as the official uniform of the Royal British Navy.

On a website where one can still order a traditional Gansey sweater, Flamborough Marine describes verbatim how the Yachting Jersey is constructed *

A Gansey is a distinctive woollen sweater, originally designed to provide protection for fishermen from wind and water but which is ideal for all outdoor activity. Using a tightly spun 5-ply worsted wool (popularly known as "Seamen's Iron") the intricately patterned Gansey is knitted in one piece on five steel needles. The patterning to back and front and, in some cases, the upper part of the sleeve provides an extra layer of protection, while the combination of seamless construction, fine wool and tight knitting produced a garment that is both wind and waterproof. Indeed, every part of the garment is designed with practicality in mind. The wool is knitted tightly so as to "turn water"; the lack of seams ensures greater strength and impermeability; the underarm gusset allows freedom of movement; the lower sleeves where most wear is sustained, are left plain so the worn part can be unravelled and re-knitted, while the patterning across the chest provides extra insulation.1

Weldon's Woollen Guernsey Frock
     The most basic elements of the basic Guernsey are a tight fit and not-quite-full-length, tightly fitting sleeves, a band of garter stitch bottom wet, a ribbed sleeve top, and a vertical garter stitch panel on the upper chest.  Contrast stitching was applied only to the upper sleeve and upper torso (Again, the utilitarian reasoning behind restricting the more complicated stitching to the areas least likely to be damaged, so elbows and edges could be unraveled and repaired). These elements can all be seen in Weldon's pattern for the Woollen Guernsey Frock (above).  It is said that the farther north one traveled from Guernsey, the more elaborate the designs.   And here, on a blog featuring images from an archive of Shetland Patterns for Gansey sweaters one finds images quite similar to our Yachting Jersey (and with a good imagination, I believe one can almost see the hint of a block pattern on the chest, though not on the body):

Wayside Flower: Shetland Pattern Gansey Sweaters, "From the Archives - Island Life North of the border, Och aya."

By the 19th century, the Gansey sweater would have been widely recognized on sight (much like blue-jeans in America), and many British Isles knitter had likely committed the Gansey sweater to memory. By the time the Yachting Jersey was printed in the refined notepaper of Weldon's (in other words, NOT given to a young knitter by her mother/grandmother as her youthful chore), the Gansey was, for many,  part of the knitting vernacular.  Thus, I suspect that the suggestion that one should utilize a fancy pattern (The Block Pattern) on the arms and body, might have seemed rather frivolous... Not unlike the way I feel when someone tells me that young people are spending $250.00 on blue jeans because they are produced by "7" brand rather than "Levi's." 

...although they do say their handknit sweaters are made " one piece in the traditional way, using 5-ply WORSTED wool." ... not fingering as described in our pattern.  The use of worsted wool is corroborated by the Norfolk Museum Gansey Sweater Collection, where they write, "Of all the Norfolk fishing ports, Sheringham is particularly noted for its ganseys. They are extremely fine, being knitted in size 16 or even size 17 needles with three-ply worsted wool. This gives a stitch count of 13 stitches and 19 rows per inch"

1 Flamborough Marine, Ltd. (Accessed 2/24/2015)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Yachting Jersey: Franklin Habit [Part III/V]

Having struggled through the materials section of my pattern, I began to need additional help with some of the more archaic instructions.  Enter Stage Left: (superstar knitter) Franklin Habit.  Franklin Habit is well-known for his blog, Panopticon, as well as his many popular patterns [Princess Franklin Plaid Collar, Pineapple Purse, and recently in Vogue... his tour-de-force Fitted Waistcoat.].  Franklin, an expert on working with antique and vintage patterns, tours/leads workshops on the subject ... including the one at MIT which I attended in 2014 (Organized by the Common Cod Fiber Guild).  Here are the pearls of wisdom I gathered that day:

1)  Write down all materials.  Ensure materials match and make sense.  For example... The Yachting Jersey calls for "... the best unshrinkable Alloa or 5-ply fingering."  First, Alloa yarn was woolen and decidedly NOT unshrinkable*.  Next, a 5-ply yarn is Sport Weight yarn according to most yarn weight standards, not a Fingering yarn.  Hmmm.  Write it down and move on. 

Elements which do not make sense must be looked at in the context of all the other elements of the pattern.  If, for example, the pattern has contradictions about yarn weight (as above), you may use the needle size as a clue as to which is correct.  Or sizing... if the yarn weight , say fingering,  will result in a 12" wide sweater designed for a man, it may be wise to bet on a conflicting element of the pattern (say, needle size) which would tend to produce something larger.  Write down ALL the MATERIALS, and then look for what makes the most sense... interpreting historic patterns is an art, not a science!

2)  When all else fails, search the pattern for something which indicates finished object measurements.  When these data bits appear, hold on to them for dear life. If you are aiming for a 13" cast on length, and your cast on with size 1 needles and fingering weight yarn totals 6"...ADAPT.   Knitters did not always have hundreds of needles from which to choose and made do with the needles in their houses.  They adapted their materials to make what they needed.    The modern knitter, when faced with nonsensical patterns must be willing to do the same.  Written instructions were meant as a guide, not law.

3)  "Plain knitting" in historic terminology means GARTER stitch (not stockinette, and not purl).   It is sometimes abbreviated P1 for "plain knit."  I'll admit, this had me pulling out my hair as I read and reread the Yachting Jersey pattern.  Thank you, Franklin.

In summary, when knitting from an antique or vintage pattern, FLEXIBILITY IS AS IMPORTANT AS PRECISION.

Thank you, Franklin, for helping me move past my considerable OCD barriers...and for a fun morning workshop!

 * Viyella, a blend of merino and cotton, was available in yarn form, but it is unclear to me whether it was being made prior to 1920.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Yachting Jersey: Materials & Methods [Part II/V]

There are many challenges in knitting from a historical pattern... availability of yarns, translating units of measure from a foreign (in this case, English to American) system, and occasionally the challenge of making sense out of something which makes no sense.  All of these challenges (and more) were present in the Weldon's pattern for Yachting Jersey.  The intrepid knitter of an historic pattern must be determined as he/she reads through materials and methods.  This is the hardest part... do NOT give up.  The yachting jersey pattern begins as follows: 

"Procure 2lbs 2oz of the best unshrinkable Alloa or 5-ply fingering, either Fleming, Reid, and Co's, Paton's, Baylis and Gille', or other reliable make, and seven steel knitting needles No. 12.  These needles must be each 12 inches in length and pointed at both ends."

Book on historic Alloa published by Stenlake

Alloa was known for yarn at the time of Weldon's, and Paton’s arrived there in the early nineteenth century.  According to Wikipedia, Alloa (/ˈælə/; Scottish Gaelic: Alamhagh, possibly meaning "rock plain") 
is a town and former burgh in Clackmannanshire, set in the Central Lowlands of Scotland. It lies on the north bank of the Firth of Forth close to the foot of the Ochil Hills, 5.5 miles (8.9 km) east of Stirling and 7.9 miles (12.7 km) north of Falkirk. Dr Jamieson, author of the Scottish Dictionary, states that the most probable etymology of the name was from Aull Waeg, signifying the way to the sea or the sea-way....The economy of the town relied heavily on trade through its port with mainland Europe, but due to competition from modern ports it closed in 1970. Nowadays the economy is centred on retail and leisure after the closure of the main industries of the town; only one brewer and one glassmaker survive today."  
... CHECK.  Won't be using Alloa yarn.  Onward...
"Commence by taking three of the needles and for the bottom of the Jersey, cast 54 stitches on the first needle, 45 on the second, and 49 on the third needle, 148 stitches in all."  
  [We tend to think of dpns for use primarily in small projects such as socks.  Note that rather than using circular needles, early knitters simply used a series of dpns when knitting in the round or for any large project...very clever]

The pattern calls for a 5 ply fingering and UK size 12 steel needles (British and American needle sizes differ, and steel needles historically were sized differently as well.  Americans assign small needles small numbers, and the British assign inversely such that a small gauge needle is assigned a large number.  Needle conversion charts are easily found online... HERE is a link to one which includes historic conversions including steel.  As you can see by the chart, the UK 12 is equivalent to US size  1, or 2.25mm).  According to the Craft Yarn Council, Standard Yarn Weight Chart, the gauge utilizing fingering yarn is 33-40 stitches in 4."  Thus, casting on 148 stitches will result in a sweater with a front the measures between 15-18" across.

Mohair goat at Martha's Vineyard Fiber farm
 In an effort to maintain that seaside natural wool feel, I chose yarn from my Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm CSA... a fabulous light-worsted weight Cormo wool  yarn that was spun from animals that lived by the sea in Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, utilizing this weight yarn would require a bit of conversion.  I used size 5 needles and my gauge was 24 stitches/4."  That being said, I reached an equivalent front length of 17" by casting on 102 stitches.  Altogether the project required 1400 yards of light-worsted yarn.

 I followed the Block Pattern for the body as written (12 knit stitches followed by 3 purl), so given that I had fewer stitches overall, the blocks are proportionally larger than in the original pattern... hoping this slight deviation will not offend the historical purists.

Stay tuned for Part III, in which I share wisdom from Common Cod Fiber Guild's MIT master class with Franklin Habit!


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Yachting Jersey: Weldon's Practical Needlework [Part I/V]

     Weldon's Practical Needlework was a monthly subscription newsletter printed in England in the 19th Century.  Approximately one hundred years after their original printing, Piecework magazine re-published these patterns as facsimiles bound in twelve volumes.  I have a personal connection to the newsletter, and so I purchased the entire set.  Opening the cover feels akin to stepping in to a time machine... and I can lose myself reading about such historically evocative (and now defunct) patterns as bicycle stockings, knit fascinators, beaded penwipers, and toilet tidys.  Unfortunately, the appeal of knitting from historic patterns is often  lost when the modern knitter realizes that even the dodgy standards of modern pattern-writing were absent in those from the turn of the century.  Yarn options were limited, most people knit with whatever needles they had in the home, and patterns, if shared at all, were as varied as knitters themselves. 

     When my eldest son took up rowing with a passion, I fixated immediately on a pattern from Weldon's Volume 11 (30th series), called rather pompously, the "Yachting Jersey."   This knit was described as follows:

   "The handsome jersey represented in our engraving is knitted all in one piece with strong white wool, and though specially intended for yachting and boating, may yet be worn for football and other athletic sports."

Though, as with many teenage boys, my son had long since refused to wear sweaters (even hand knits), I optimistically embarked on this challenge - convinced that given it's intended use, and his love of rowing, he might consent to its wearing.

     Two years, and countless classes on historic knitting, later, I have at last completed the Yachting Jersey.  And though by the time I finished it, my eldest had already outgrown it and it may never be worn, I feel the journey of learning was well worth the effort.  I have made friends along the way, as I struggled to understand the antiquated language and make good-faith choices from contemporary knitting materials as substitutes for the old.  Finally, sharing my experience by returning to my blog with the hopes of being helpful to others who may endeavor to make the Yachting Jersey (or any other historical knit) may be the most valuable aspect of this project and merits mention.

Stay tuned for Part II (Materials and Methods), Part III (Franklin Habit), Part IV(Some historic images and social history of the jersey), and finally Part V (Photos of the finished project)!