Friday, 23 September 2016

Completing a guernsey (gansey) in a day.

If it was just possible before the 1950s to knit a gansey in a day (Hartleys and Ingleby's 'The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales) then by calculating how many stitches were in a guernsey I could discover just how much of a challenge this would have been. In the following calculations, I am assuming our knitter was a woman, only because it was a female knitter, Mrs Dinsdale, who told Hartley and Ingleby that you had to be a 'terble good knitter to deu yan i' a day' (page 58, 1978 version), but of course men knitted too.

I have knitting patterns for WW2; for jumpers for the troops. An average size is 32" to 36" chest. Men on average were much slimmer, leaner, and somewhat shorter even 50 years ago than we expect today. Guernseys in all the pictures were fitting garments, no slack to catch in the nets, and they stopped at the waist and above the wrist. My father-in-law was a fisherman in Cornwall and I recall that he certainly wore 'knit-frocks' of this type.

I quote an excerpt from a 2nd World Wartime Jaeger leaflet to make a jumper for the Armed Forces and I'm using Imperial measurements as everything in the UK was in inches at the time:
'Measurements: Length from shoulder at armhole edge, 19.5 inches; width all round under the arms, 37 inches; length of sleeve seam, 18.5 inches.' Take off a couple of inches all round for a 19th century or early 20th century man.

Now to discover what kind of wool and tension might be used for the contract guernseys. I discovered that the guernsey wool we use today was also used 150 years ago. I knit guerseys with guernsey wool at a gauge of 34 sts to 4 inch (10 cm) in width. A contract knitter would not have knit tighter with guernsey 5-ply wool than I do, and would almost certainly knit just a little looser (in the need to work as economically efficiently as possible), say 8 sts x 10 rows to the inch, a square inch requiring 80 sts using old No. 13 needles. Mary Wright's book gives the measurement of a man's guernsey as 25 inch length x chest 36, giving 72,000 sts on the body. The sleeves are 19 inches long (190 rows) with an average of 100 sts in a round, giving 19,000 sts per sleeve. Total 110,000 sts. Let's say a 10 hour day was planned to knit the guernsey; that's 19,000 stitches per hour, and 183 sts per minute. Of course, working the ribs, picking up sts for sleeves and knitting the neck would take relatively longer, say at least 3 hours, even assuming the ribs were shorter than we would knit today. This would be a marathon task, to knit a 13-hour day, but do-able only if our knitter was an automaton.  If our knitter was working for a special order and was prepared to work a 20 hour day then she would still need to knit at 92 sts per minute and no stopping for meals, rest-breaks, hems, or pickings up. I am of course assuming an all stocking-stitch design, fancy patterns take longer. It could be that other members of the famly had prepared the cast on and the rib, and would complete the neck and wrist ribs after the knitter finished the body and that would reduce her task.

If I repeat the calculation at a slightly looser tension of 7 sts x 9 rows to a square inch - this comes to 86,600 sts for the body and sleeves, at a rate of 144 sts/min non stop in a 10-hour day, or 72 sts/min for a 20-hour day. 

If I worked at this speed and completed a 36 inch chest guernsey in a day, I could earn now in the 21st century about £100 - £150 a day I guess, working for a guernsey specialist retailer. But modern men tend to be much bigger than 100 years ago, and their 'to-day' guernseys would take much longer to knit making this one-day aspiration virtually impossible in the 21st century, even if we all knit using their speedy and economical method of knitting.

NB. After reading my words above Dear Husband suggested that the women of the day might have calculated 'a day' as being a total of 24 hours, ie. 2 x 12 hour or 3 x 8 hour days! He knew many of them, he came from a fishing family and knew how their minds worked! This would have given them some respite from continual knitting, and allowed them to begin each day's knitting refreshed. It would still be an enormous feat!

More on the discovery of this method of quick knitting soon ...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Speed Knitting - How did the old knitters do it? And what is swaving?

I love reading books on the history of knitting. I bought a copy of
'The Old Hand Knitters Of The Dales' by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby on Amazon. 


Their description of the speedy method of knitting in the Yorkshire Dales included the word 'swaving' which modern researchers relate to the local dialect word for swaying. But it is not known exactly what 'swaved'. 
I was fascinated by the similarities on the techniques given in Mary Wright's book 'Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks' which I have owned for over 30 years.


In both the Cornish and Yorkshire knitting histories, children learned to knit speedily in knitting schools. No doubt, a mother needing to knit her quota each day did not have the luxury of time to teach children the special technique, which would have entailed months if not years of monitored supervision. 

There is agreement in several sources that the professional knitters knitted exceedingly fast and I am attempting to rediscover the method. I am delving into the historical publications.

The rapid clicking of the knitting needles can be heard announcing the knitters proximity! - "Mr Nicholas of West Looe recalled the distinctive clacking noise of needles struck at speed, which could be heard 'before you turned the street corner." from Mary Wright's book.

Mary Wright says, "Experienced knitters achieved very high speeds of about 200 stitiches a minute!" "Mrs Crabtree remembers that her mother could knit a jersey, or frock, as they were called, in a day ... " write Joan Ingleby and Marie Hartley. These two descriptions, written at opposite ends of England, each support the other's assertions; therefore I am tempted to say neither was exaggerating! 

How could the knitters of old reach these speeds? And what was the process of knitting that each region developed? And what is swaving?

I have been researching all the hints which explain what their high speed knitting could look like. More soon ...