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Thinking About the Gansey

We are happy to welcome designer Courtney Kelley of Kelbourne Woolens to the blog today to share a bit about the history and construction of the gansey sweater. Join our knit-along tomorrow as we cast on our own gansey style sweaters from a variety of modern patterns, including Courtney's own design, Seascale. Now, here's Courtney with more on this interesting and classic knitted sweater...

I've always liked reading about the history of knitting, but nothing has swept me off my feet the way the gansey (or Guernsey) has. Named Guernsey after the small Balliwick of the same name in the English Channel, these incredibly practical garments most likely did not originate here. They are, however, a very typical seamen's garment of the Scottish and English coasts. These simple garments most likely originated from knit jerseys, or plain undergarments, which gradually became more decorative with simple knit and purl patterning, growing more complex until the garment was worthy of outerwear. What we consider the traditional dark blue gansey sweater most likely came into popularity sometime in the mid to late 1800s. The garment is pure utility in construction, and each element takes into account the need for flexibility, strength, and warmth.

So what makes a gansey a gansey? The main elements that make up a true gansey have to do with the unique construction, the materials used, and the patterning. A gansey is always knit using wool, and most commonly dark blue. However, grey, red and a lighter "French blue" are seen as well. The wool is tightly spun and plied for added strength and waterproofing. My favorite is Wendy's (now called Wendy Poppleton's), and is available from Schoolhouse Press. The garment would have been knit to fit with some ease, but not oversized -- 2" of positive ease is about perfect. A gansey is always knit from the bottom up, often using the yarn doubled in the cast on (and bind off). Seascale uses the Channel Island cast on, which creates a small picot at the hem. Garter welts are the traditional next step after the Channel Island cast on, and these are knit separately, then joined to work the body of the sweater in the round.

The other traditional beginning for a gansey is to cast on with your yarn doubled, working in the round, possibly working a small rolled hem of a few rows, then working in a 2x2 rib. I use this method on a modified gansey I designed called Eastbound.

Traditionally, the body of the gansey would have been knit on long double pointed needles, or pins - this being before the advent of the circular needle.

The bottom part of the body, maybe the bottom half or third, just a few inches, or none at all, would be knit in plain stockinette. I think, though I am not sure, this would be a holdover from the traditional undershirt, the jersey, and if being tucked into one's trousers or skirt and therefore have no need of patterning. It is, however, a nice look and often you'll find the wearer's initials stitched into this plain section with purl stitches. Often, the deep ribbing of the sweater was folded up over the plain stockinette area to create an extra layer of insulation for an area that would see hard use.

Then the patterning begins. The patterning can start anywhere on the body, really, and can incorporate simple knit purl patterns, cables, and even lace elements in some cases. My favorite examples tend to be the most simple, and Seascale fits the bill here. The patterning is simple garter welts and blocks and is a classic example of gansey patterning.

Now comes the underarm gusset, my favorite element. Seascale incorporates all of the traditional gansey elements of construction, the Channel Island cast on, the welts, and the underarm gusset. This gusset is an integral part of what makes a gansey and gansey, and I have always thought it was a fantastic design element, born out of necessity for ease of movement and ease of repair on a part of the garment sure to see hard wear. This underarm gusset has one additional detail that the original patterns lack, a bit of short row shaping at the top of the gusset where the sleeve meets the body. You can see it below; it's the garter stitch right triangle to either side of the top half of the diamond underarm. This allows for some additional ease of fit and movement, which I feel is an improvement on the original design. It also helps to make the sleeve lay nicely in the body. Just a simple diamond of knitted fabric, knit as you are working around and around the body, and such an innovation.

When half of your gusset is worked, you'll then be working back and forth on the front and back of your sweater separately. The shoulders are joined at the top, or a saddle shoulder is worked, called a shoulder strap. This strap often had very intricate patterning on it, and is fun to knit. These straps are seen not just on ganseys, but on all manner of designs from in and around the British Isles.

Seascale does not use a shoulder strap, and has you simply work a sturdy three needle bind off at the top of the shoulders.

The sleeves are then picked up and worked down to the cuffs, much like a top down sweater. Those of you who have knit those before will find this part very intuitive - except you must pick up your stitches around the underarm. The held gusset stitches are placed on the needle and as you work the sleeve around you'll also be decreasing the gusset, creating the diamond shape.

Once the sleeves are complete, you would work your welt or ribbing and bind off, again using the yarn doubled. When I began designing ganseys I searched and searched for a bind off that would match the picot look of the Channel Island cast on. I started playing around with picot bind-offs, and bobble bind-offs, and all the bind offs. Finally, I developed my own: the Channel Island bind off. I merged two different bind-offs; the Icelandic bind-off and a picot bind-off. It creates a smaller picot than usual, and has the sturdiness of an Icelandic bind off. I'm quite pleased with it. I was happy with the innovation, and surely it's not the first time a gansey knitter has made up a stitch variation to suit her or his design needs - I think it's exactly how the gansey came to be!

What kind of gansey will you be making? I can't wait to see!

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