A Green Gansey
The Yarn Harlot revealed today that the gansey and shawl she’s been frantically knitting were intended for her and Joe’s wedding. (She didn’t finish either of them.) This made me cry, not because she didn’t finish, and not because I always cry at weddings — I usually giggle, actually — but because of the gansey.
Ganseys are, for those who don’t know, fishermen’s sweaters from Great Britain, mostly the eastern coast; they’re tightly knit from a 5-ply skinny worsted- or hefty sport-weight yarn (in some parts, it’s known as “seaman’s iron,” and there are companies that make specific gansey yarn), and they have elaborate textured patterns on the chest and sleeves. Unlike the fancy Aran sweaters, the patterns are mostly made up of combinations of basic knit and purl stitches. They’re also knitted in the round: up from the waist, divide for front and back, then knit the shoulder seams together, knit a collar, then pick up the armhole stitches and knit down to the cuff. When you cast off that last cuff stitch, you can put the gansey on and walk away in it.
I’ve been knitting for about 20 years, ever since Lisa’s mother taught me the basics. After 5 or 6 years, I was pretty good. I could do cables, I had succeeded at colorwork even if I didn’t like it, and I could even make gloves — cabled gloves, at that. But for the longest time, I hadn’t really made anything that Lisa liked. I’d made her sweaters, which she wore dutifully, but they were all too heavy or too fancy for everyday, or just too... not Lisa. Ditto for the gloves and the hats and the scarves: all not quite Lisa.
And then I found Knitting Ganseys, by Beth Brown-Reisel. I’d read about it in a knitting magazine, and was intrigued by the one-piece construction and the subtle patterning, so I bought the book and some yarn from the farmer’s market and knit away. The yarn was a dark purple heather, heavier than the usual gansey gauge, so that I ended up with a cozy tunic: very much my kind of sweater. I showed it and the book to Lisa, and to my surprise, she said, “I like that. Can you make me one that’s lighter, and with ribbing? But I really like those pattern bands.”
“Of course I can,” I said. “Just give me a little input here....” (I’d learned something after all those years.) We looked at the book, and at the various patterns, and she picked four she liked, which would go across the chest of a basic, traditional gansey. Traditional ganseys have the owner’s initials knitted into the area of plain stockinette stitch above the ribbing, and Lisa decided she was OK with that, too. Then we went back to the farmer’s market and found two cones of an odd weight that you’d have to call either light sport or heavy fingering. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but Lisa loved the color, a deep but bright forest green flecked with bits of cream and a little brown. So we bought it.
And that’s the thing about ganseys: once you learn the technique, you can adapt it to any weight of yarn. I did my swatch, did the math, and off I went. I knit in the initials, and only had to unknit twice; the underarm gussets emerged just the way they were supposed to. The patterned sections were actually fun, though I did make a mistake on a wrong side row once I’d divided for the armholes, and I never did correct it. You’d have to look hard to find it, anyway. I could only fit three pattern bands on the sleeves, so I dropped the one that had given me the most trouble, and then.... I was done.
I called Lisa to come and try it on. She did, and I held my breath. She grinned. She tugged the cuffs and the waist ribbing, and then she ran upstairs to look in the mirror. She came back down running her fingers over the initials above the hem. It worked. She liked it, it looked good on her, and — she liked it.
That was almost 10 years ago, as best I can work out from the photos in our albums. I made her other ganseys, but it was the green one she wore most often, to work, on vacation, on long walks, finally as the hem and cuffs started to fray out to the barns at EPONA where she volunteered with rescued and retired horses. I offered to unravel and reknit the edges, but that never happened, partly because I was afraid I’d mess up the magic somehow, and partly because it was hard to get the gansey away from her. The horses rubbed hay and spit on it, chewed on the hem and generally felted the cuffs so that I doubt I could have unraveled them anyway. After she had to stop volunteering, she used to hold the gansey to her face and breathe in the faint barn-smell that still clung to it.
Finally, this January, I persuaded her to let me try again. We went to the local yarn store for the January sale. Lisa picked out her yarn in about half an hour, then retreated to the “husband chair” to wait while I spent another hour choosing yarns for my projects. Then.... You know the rest.
The new gansey yarn has been sitting in my basket ever since, still in the original skeins, not yet wound into balls. There’s not enough for a sweater for me (Lisa lost 45 pounds last year after the brain surgery, and she was 4 inches shorter than I to start with) and, anyway, that didn’t feel right. The hospice chaplain suggested making a shawl or a wrap with it, so that’s what it’s becoming. The green gansey sits on a shelf where I can grab it and try to smell the barn that Lisa loved. And, someday, I’ll make one for me, and I’ll put both our initials on it.