Knitting Ganseys

I flit from one enthusiasm to another and my bookshelf charts my crazes for various crafts from long abandoned papier mache and wirework, a brief dalliance with natural dyeing and book binding, an erratic flirtation with calligraphy and printing, through to an enduring love of knitting. Not surprisingly, I have veered from colourful Fair Isle and Icelandic to plain and simple, from tiny baby clothes to enormous blankets with a detour via felted bags and knitting a scarf with two bird perches. And now, ganseys.

In January, when Ruth was planning her printmaking courses for 2020, we did a trial run of her Printing in Progress class, where students choose a topic or theme to explore and so trigger printmaking projects or other creative pursuits. As it turned out, all the printmaking courses were cancelled in 2020, but I ended up with a notebook filled with ideas.

Drawstring bag with print of sheep and field hanging from hook with green cardigan

I chose the theme “Stitch” and printed with samples of knitted plastic bags, wire of different gauges, various yarns and strings. Some prints were more successful than others but one idea was developed to make a Woolly Sheep screenprint and the printed fabric came in very useful for making face masks, even if they did look a bit odd.

The most unexpected outcome was an enthusiasm for knitting ganseys, the traditional hand-knitted jumpers fishermen wore in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the Hebrides down the east coast of Scotland and England to East Anglia and in Cornwall. It started when I was trying to find different stitch patterns to knit the samples to print with and got completely sidetracked. As so often happens.

The construction of a gansey is very simple as they’re knitted in the round up to the armpits, then the front and back are worked separately until they’re joined together by a shoulder strap. The arms are knitted by picking up the stitches from the body and knitting down to the cuffs. The glory of the gansey is the complex motif patterning, created by knit and purl stitches and cables.

The first gansey I tackled was based on Cordova from “Knitting Ganseys” by Beth Brown-Reinsel. In retrospect, this wasn’t the easiest pattern to start with as it has vertical bands of seven motifs, each with a stitch chart of different lengths so that on one chart I was knitting Row 2 and on another chart Row 28! Too confusing. I had several false starts and unravelled the work a few times as I knitted. Part way through, I used a spreadsheet to make a chart pattern that covered the full width, instead of using the individual charts in the book, which made life a lot easier. The gansey is still riddled with mistakes in the motif patterning where I lost my way, including a whole section missed out on the arms but it’s for me and it’s not a smart “going out” piece of clothing. I don’t think anyone is going to examine it and notice the mistakes.

gansey drying on jumper board in garden

I simplified the second gansey by using the same pattern motif across the whole width so that it was easier to knit. It also made a useful scarecrow while it was blocked on the jumper board and left it to dry in the garden. There followed a quick-knit gansey for a teddy bear that’s been so loved and worn away that the only way to stop his arm dropping off was to knit a skin tight (should that be fur tight?) gansey, slip it on and sew up the seams so it couldn’t be removed.

Knitting belt for knitting ganseys

By now, my enthusiasm for knitting ganseys was in full flow. The first two were knitted on an old circular needle I bought decades ago to knit a gansey that was abandoned before I even reached the arm gussets. Ah, those heady days of my early twenties when a full and lively social life left little time for quietly knitting in the evening. The needles were badly bent and the cord had an annoying kink so I decided to invest in a new set of needles. I’d read about the old gansey knitters using double pointed needles with a knitting belt (a horse hair stuffed leather pad on a belt that the right hand needle is pushed into to keep it anchored as you knit) and it dawned on me that there had been one of these in my father-in-law’s collection of vintage machinery and domestic objects. I have no idea why he had a knitting belt, but his collection was very eclectic, so it wasn’t surprising. Fortuitously, I’d kept it back when we’d cleared out the sheds as I’d thought it Might Be Useful One Day even though I had no idea what it was. Hallelujah! That day had come. Even more amazing, I knew where the belt was and hoiked it out.

I ordered my next batch of yarn and added a set of stainless steel, 40cm long 2.25mm knitting needles. The yarn and needles duly arrived and fearsome weapons they were: pleasantly weighty, sharp and very long. I strapped on the belt and pushed the needle into one of the holes in the belt. It barely went in. I pushed harder and it went through the pad and out the other side. Into my side. Perhaps sitting in a shed hadn’t done the leather any good. After a few attempts, I worked it out and found a comfortable position. It was a revelation! It makes knitting so much easier. Without having to hold the right hand needle, it’s easy to cast the yarn around the needle with minimal hand movements and the weight of the knitting is supported by the needle pushed into the belt. Best of all, instead of sitting hunched over a circular needle, I sit upright and (if I were so minded) could even walk around while I knit. I’m converted.

The gansey was knitted in record time with a simple motif design of seed stitch, ridges and furrows for my farmer with a W at the waist above a ribbed welt (to keep out the draught). Ganseys are the ideal work jumper with their diamond underarm gusset that gives freedom of movement, the cuffs that can be reknitted when they start to fray by unravelling and picking up the stitches as they’re knitted from shoulder to wrist and a gansey is dense enough to protect the wearer from the wind. Unfortunately, I had to use a different dye lot for the sleeves (because I had some yarn left over from the last gansey and was too mean to buy more) but the colour mismatch only shows in a certain light and it’s only a work jumper.

The next gansey is already being planned; a project for the cold, dark evenings in January. This time, I shall knit the whole thing in the round with steeks instead of knitting the front and back separately. Something to look forward to in 2021.

If you’d like to knit a gansey, these might help:

feathers print

Something Exciting in the Post

At the beginning of lockdown in the spring (when we thought this would all be over by Christmas) I started a Letterbox Art Collaboration with my mother as a way of keeping in touch while we weren’t allowed to meet up. I’d been inspired by Anna’s post and thought it would provide a little ray of sunshine while we were socially distanced. Then, buoyed by the success of the first collaboration, I also joined an online chum for another Letterbox Collaboration as part of the Slamseys Creative Summer Challenge.

Art collaboration starter of circles drawn on card.
Starter | Letterbox Art Collaboration

The premise of the collaboration is that you send a set of prompt or starter cards to the other person who completes them and returns them with a set of their own prompts. There’s no telling how the other person will interpret your prompt, so it’s always a bit of a surprise when they’re sent back. As you can see above, the original prompt produced three very different reactions. You can read all about the Slamseys Creative Summer Challenge Letterbox Collaboration here.

I must admit that I wasn’t prepared for it to be such a joyous thing to do. This year, when celebrations have been few, it’s been a delight to find a little bundle of artwork in the post. It’s so much better than looking at a screen for there’s nothing like holding something in your hands to appreciate it. Perhaps we post a little bit of ourselves, revealing a hint of our character with our handwriting and choice of stationery that you don’t get with emails. It’s also been great fun to do. Sometimes I know exactly what I shall do as soon as I see the prompt but other times I guiltily push the cards to one side hoping that inspiration will suddenly strike. Not surprisingly, the answer often comes while I’m out for a walk and I hurry home to commit the brainwave to paper before I forget.

By the end of the summer, I’d accumulated quite a stack of cards. Some were pinned up and others stored in a box but I wanted to do something better with them, especially as I think they’ll be a wonderful record of this odd year.

Paper bag book as part of the Letterbox Art Collaboration project. Tunnocks wrapper and blackbird

The summer collaboration was very much a springboard for being creative and so we’d varied the collaboration a bit by sending out four prompts but returning only three. This provided the leeway to be experimental so that when it ended disastrously, (as it so often did) I could keep that card back and work on it a bit more or quietly consign it to the bin. In this creative spirit, I wanted to make a book from existing supplies and allow space to add the retained cards or work inspired by them and notes. I remembered seeing a Paper Bag Book in the book Making Handmade Books, so I liberated some bags from The Christmas Shop, found an old cardboard folder to use for the cover and sewed the whole lot together to make a very simple pocket book.

Paper bag book as part of the Letterbox Art Collaboration project. onion ring prints and flower print

The art cards are slotted into the half page pockets, where they form part of the page and can be easily pulled out to look at more carefully.

paper bag book standing to show extended cover

I extended the cover to wrap it round to stop everything falling out. One day I might even manage a fastening for it. Read the full instructions for making a Paper Bag Book if you’d like a go. They’re easy for young children to make if you make the holes for them to push the needle through and would be great for treasure hunts if you changed the orientation of the pockets to make them drop-in ones.

Envelope Book made for the Letterbox Art Collaboration 2020

For the other collaboration, I wanted to retain the theme of sending and receiving in the post and so made a book that looks like a collection of envelopes held together by a ribbon. I now realise that, had I thought about this at the start, I could have used the original envelopes they were posted in. Alas, forward planning has never been my strong point. The envelopes are made from a sheet of A4 paper, which is folded and glued to make an envelope.

Letterbox Art Collaboration Envelope Book Birds in Boxes

The envelopes are then stuck to a concertina cardboard spine, which holds them all together. Each envelope holds three cards, so if I’d kept them in their original groups, I could have put them into chronological order. But that would have needed some forward planning. No matter. From now on, I can keep them in order.

Envelopope book with Harlequin picture

If you’d like to have a go at making an Envelope Book, the template for the envelopes and instructions for assembling the book with a concertina spine can be found in the craft section under How to Make an Envelope Book.

Both these books would also be a great way to keep a collection of postcards or photographs. They’d make good travel journals, especially if you used bags or envelopes picked up in your travels. If I’d thought about it earlier, I could have made an Advent pocket book, with something appropriate slipped in each day. Honestly, how did we get to December so quickly?

Why not give the Letterbox Art Challenge a try? You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

Making Wigwams

For no reason other than the promise of sunshine later in the week, I decided to make a children’s wigwam to replace the one that disintegrated last summer after twenty-five years of sporadic use and a strong wind. Normally, I’d just nip out to the fabric shop to buy the requisite three and a half metres of fabric, but of course these are not normal times. A little improvisation was needed.

Luckily, I found an old dustsheet covering up the shelving that’s used for Christmas tree stands out in the barn. It was rather grubby with a few paint spills but it was perfectly suitable for making a wigwam once it was washed, dried and ironed (while ignoring the pile of clothes in need of similar care and attention).

Following some notes that I’d scribbled down from a borrowed book by Jean Greenhowe together with a host of diagrams on Pinterest, I laid out the dustsheet and cut it into triangles. The door triangle was cut in two halves, sewn together at the top and left open below for an opening and then all six triangles were sewn together, making a channel on the inside for a cane to be inserted. The bottom of the wigwam was hemmed, the top sewn across to stop the canes pushing out and tabs sewn on by each seam so the wigwam can be secured by tent pegs.

Once finished, the wigwam was rather plain, which is to be expected if you use a dustsheet instead of some exciting patterned fabric, so I enlisted help from a three-year old to decorate it with foam block and screen prints, though his enthusiasm wore off before mine. I was glad to have had the forethought to trace around the children’s hands to make foam printing blocks instead of inking their hands to make handprints but rather regretted sewing the wigwam together before we printed as it was rather cumbersome to manoeuvre.

I was in a hurry to erect the wigwam in the garden as the sun was shining but alas, the only canes I could find were of several different lengths and mud caked from when they were pulled out from vegetable garden last autumn. Undeterred, I decided they were good enough for the job and up the wigwam went. To be truthful, it was rather lopsided but the three-year old took out a tablecloth from his alien pack (aka a rucksack) and we spread it on the ground in the wigwam and lay there discussing grass, Australia, space and life until he had to go inside for his tea.

hand printed wigwam in child's room

I’ve since taken the canes out, washed them and sawed into similar lengths which is much better. Now all we need are some warm sunny days to enjoy the wigwam in the garden, though it works well inside too.

Once we’re out of lockdown I must remember to buy some replacement canes for the runner beans and find something to cover the shelving in the barn..

These were my notes, which might be helpful if you want to make your own children’s wigwam. Or indeed one for yourself, which seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I cut out the triangles with the centre seam of the dust sheet in the centre of each triangle so it was at the same height when they were sewn together.

You may find this article about printing with foam shapes helpful if you’d like to try a simple printmaking technique.

September Days

No matter how many decades it is since I was at school (and it’s several) September is always a prominent marker in the year. It makes me think of sharp pencils and new shoes; reading suggestions and equipment lists; scratched hands picking shiny blackberries and apples eaten straight from the tree.

September collage of new shoes, sloes, blackberrries and rosehips

This September, the Barley Barn has been cleared after the overnight Gong Bath ready for the new term of printmaking classes, which start this week. In preparation, there’s been a flurry of creative activity including some experiments for using up rubbish imperfect prints, hence the collage above.

In September, the farming year starts a new cycle as the fields have lime, farmyard manure or biosolids spread on them filling the air with dust or a range of smells. Curiously, the biosolids (the more attractive name for sewage sludge) have a not unpleasant smell with a slight whiff of washing powder.  Before the new crop is sown and while the ground is dry, the chance is taken to trim some of the hedges and clear any ditches that have become overgrown or been dammed by children during the summer holidays.

This September, a trailer was discovered dumped or hidden in a remote spinney. The discarded number plates and other detritus suggest it was probably a holding place for stolen machinery.  Meanwhile, field boundaries are checked and any bordering a road without a thick hedge are trenched or bunded against unwelcome intruders, which seems positively mediaeval but is actually very effective.

rosehiips in September

In September, the hedgerows around the farm are filled with the colour of spiky sweet chestnut cases, orange rosehips, red haws and the beautiful dusky blue skin of the sloes that belies the astringent flesh beneath. Branches dumped in a jug with some bolted salad crops from the garden make an unfussy grouping, which is about my limit for flower arranging.

sloes in September

This September, the sloes are plentiful but the plum trees in the garden have been disappointing. The wasps ate more greengages than we did and many of the damsons went from hard as bullets to wrinkled almost overnight.

Soon it will be time to eat crumbles and pies, socks and sweaters will be pulled on reluctantly and doors that have stood open all day during summer will be closed as the days cool. But for now, we’re enjoying the late summer days of September.

Making Paste Papers

Over at Slamseys Journal, the Creative Summer Challenge is in full swing. The aim of the challenge is to have fun, perhaps involving children over the school holidays or just making some time for yourself as you let go of any insecurities you might have about your artistic talent and focus on enjoying the process.

This year, the Challenge is to make a regular habit of being creative with a suggestion every weekday for things you might do. Day Two of the challenge was Making a Mark, a wonderfully liberating exercise in adding a wash of colour to paper and then flicking, dribbling and blowing paint and ink. An activity that involves absolutely no skill but a degree of messiness and haphazard results. Right up my street.

In a serendipitous twist, on the day of that post, I was at a collage workshop with Mark Hearld, which involved a great deal of mark making with paste paint to use in our collages. In fact, that was probably the bit I enjoyed most about the day as my dexterity with scissors leaves much to be desired.

I first tried Paste Painting as a youngster (it’s in the book Fun with Art by Martin & Cherille Mayhew) and later used it on MDF to make ploughed fields as part of a farmyard set for my children. One summer holiday we spent a very happy afternoon puddling about with paste paint and I remember one of the children doing a wonderful bowl of spaghetti picture. Since then, it’s another of those techniques that I’ve tried and dismissed. Until now! I have a new found enthusiasm and have been making a pile of decorated papers.

Paste papers were originally used by bookbinders as end papers and for covers. The paste paint is made from a mixture of flour and water, which is then brushed or spread onto paper and marks made with fingers, scrapers, combs and any number of other items to form a pattern. I used dry copy paper, brown paper and (plain) newsprint for my first experimentation but heavier paper may need to be dampened first.

At the workshop, the paste was made with strong flour but as we have someone in the family with coeliac disease (a bit of a downer for a family that grows wheat!) who may give paste painting a go, I used cornflour and it worked just as well. In fact, I think the cornflour gives a slight sheen to the paper. The recipe is at the bottom of the page.

When you’re ready to use your paste, put a couple of tablespoons into a small bowl or plastic pot and mix in some acrylic paint or artist’s ink. It’s a bit trial and error for amounts but I started with a small squirt of acrylic paint and added more paste or colour as needed.

Paste paper made with cardboard comb

Use a wide brush (I used a cheap set of decorator’s brushes) to brush the paste paint onto your paper generously, going both crossways and lengthways. Then take your marking tool of choice and drag it across the paper to make a mark. You can leave it as it is or repeat with another colour. on top. The pattern above was made with two card combs. One was cut with wide teeth and the other cut with pinking shears.


paste paper made with rubber tipped brush

These marks were made with a rubber tipped paint brush (brown paper).


paste paper in dark blue

Brush on the colour, fold the paper in half and prod with your fingertips. Additional marks were made with a broad tipped cotton bud.


Dark blue patterned paste paper

A light blue coat was covered with a darker blue and the dark blue lifted off with scrunched up newspaper.


Paste paper in dark blue

This time the paste paint was dabbed onto the paper with a piece of scrunched up newspaper. It would make a great background to a collage. Stormy sky? Crashing waves?

Making these papers is so easy and by the end of a session you’ll have a heap of wonderfully textured and patterned paper. Let’s be honest, it’s only a small step up from finger painting.

Leave the papers to dry but don’t stack them one on top of another because they’ll stick together. If you use thin paper, it may curl up at the edges as it dries. This doesn’t matter if you’re using it for collage as it will flatten when you spread PVA glue onto it, but you could press it under something heavy or iron it.

How to Make Paste Paint

Textured paint made with flour and water


1 part flour or cornflour
6.5 parts water


1. Measure the flour into a saucepan and slowly stir in the water.

2. Heat it gently, stirring all the time, until the mixture comes to the boil. Simmer for about a minute, still stirring and you should have a thick sauce-like mixture.

3. Pour it into a bowl and cover with a circle of baking parchment or a tight fitting lid and leave to cool. Pop it in the fridge if you’re leaving it overnight.

4. When you’re ready to use it, give the mixture a good stir to get rid of any lumps or whizz it with a stick blender if it’s very lumpy. It should be the consistency of mayonnaise, so you may need to add a little water.

5. If you don’t use it all in one go, store it in the fridge and use within a few days before it goes mouldy.

Give it a go!

Read more about the 2019 Summer Creative Challenge.