Monday, January 21, 2013

Alice Starmore's "Eriskay"

As promised, some photos of the sweater I just finished knitting - Alice Starmore's "Eriskay" from her Fisherman's Sweaters knitting book:

I knit this sweater using the excellent 5-ply guernsey yarn from Frangipani based in Cornwall, U.K.  This particular shade is "Red" - and what a magnificent, bright, lively true red it is! 

Alice Starmore's design is a homage to the intricate knitting patterns used by the guernsey knitting community of a little island called Eriskay, located in the Outer Hebrides of northern Scotland.  The women of Eriskay incorporated many decorative symbols of the seafaring life into the warm, practical and hardy guernseys (or ganseys, or jerseys - the name for a fisherman's sweater in this kind of style varies depending on where they were knitted in the British Isles) they knitted for their fishermen husbands to demonstrate their love for their husbands and as a display of virtuoso knitting talent.  Some of the typical symbols used by Alice Starmore in her "Eriskay" design include the starfish, the tree of life, the anchor, the cable, and the diamond:

Eriskay fisherman guernsey symbols. I'm thinking some of the symbols are kind of like the symbols of luck, love, prosperity, good health like you get in many different cultures. Macabre fact:  It is said that they were able to identify the originating port of drowned fishermen when their bodies were washed onto shore just by the symbols on their sweaters since each fishing community would have their own idiosyncratic knitting patterns and symbols.

I read on this website about Eriskay that it would take two weeks for the skillful knitters of Eriskay to complete a sweater.  Two weeks!  Are you kidding?  It took me THREE YEARS!*

* I did take breaks in between to knit some other sweaters, but still, I don't think I can manage to finish one in two weeks!  Also, the sweater is supposed to be so tightly knitted that it becomes wind and waterproof, heh... unfortunately, I can't get the gauge that tight (I have wonky, self-taught technique - but hey, if it ain't broke...) so sorry Man Yung if it feels a little bit breezy when you are wearing the sweater!  

In fact, one particular gentleman knitter from the U.S. was able to discover how the guernseys were knitted so tightly.  He was able the duplicate the tight gauge and the speed of knitting with traditional double-pointed long steel knitting needles and specialized knitting equipment - the knitting sheath and the knitting belt.  You can read about his fascinating research on his blog here.  

Here's another knitting gentleman (from the U.K.), talking about the history of "ganseys".  This short clip also has historical photos of fishermen wearing their lovingly-knit sweaters:

Another interesting fact about the fisherman's guernsey is that it is knit without any seams, so that the resulting sweater would be stronger and not so likely to "split at the seams".  It goes something like this: The sweater is knit in the round from the bottom up to the armhole - with diamond shaped gussets in the underarm to give more room for the arms to move inside the sweater when working in strenuous physical fishermen tasks.  Then, the chest on the front and the back is knit back and forth with straight needles.  Once the back and the front pieces of the chest are completed, the shoulder straps are knit from the neckhole, joining the back and front as you go along.  Once the shoulder straps are done to the armhole, the sleeves are knitted by picking up stitches from the armhole and then knitting in the round right to the end of the cuff.  The ribbing at the neck is knitted by picking up stitches from the neckhole.  Thank you Alice Starmore for describing this so clearly in your book (with diagrams!) - it made the task much less daunting.  However, despite the fail-proof instructions, I still managed to join the left shoulder to the right shoulder when I was knitting the straps (it was a very distracting week!)

The traditional fisherman's guernseys from Eriskay came in dark navy and cream - navy for working days (to hide the grot that got on them from the fishermen handling all that fish), and cream for the weekend (to look presentable at church). You can still buy genuine fishermen's guernseys knitted by the older generation of expert Eriskay knitters (see, Milongueras of Knitting!) from the Eriskey co-op store (maybe here at Co-Chomunn Eirisgeidh because this website says so) or, strangely enough, from Japanese fine clothing retailers.  Here is link to a website I found with this product.  Your order will even have the name of the lady (this one was knitted by Helen MacLean) who knitted the sweater!

Genuine Navy Eriskay guernsey for sale for discerning shoppers in Japan!  

Of course, don't expect that this museum-quality garment will cost the same as some polyester fast fashion from your local H&M... This sweater costs all of 78,000 YEN (That's $850.00 CAD)

The minute I finished knitting Eriskay, I was onto my next project - knitting an Alice Starmore "Kittiwake" hat design out of the remaining yarn.  I don't like my needles to be idle!

The other thing I did was order yarn for my next project.  Three cones of yarn in Aran from Frangipani.  It arrived super fast in one week from the U.K.  My order came with a number of goodies too from Jan and Russ of Frangipani - a colour card with all their newest colours, and a surprise!  Cute little red and yellow fish stitch markers:

 "I want a sweater in all of these yummy colours!" said Man Yung.  
"Then you will have to get yourself several more knitting wives, because at the rate I'm going, it will take FIFTY YEARS!" I replied.

Man Yung wants me to knit Alice Starmore's "Fulmar" AGAIN for my next project.  Man Yung loves Alice Starmore designs - and he loves Frangipani 5-ply guernsey yarn!  The crisp sturdy texture of the yarn makes it very suitable to show off intricate knitting stitch patterns, and Man Yung says the yarn makes the warmest sweaters he has in his sweater "arsenal" - and I tell you, he has quite a collection!

Here's Man Yung, enjoying his new "Eriskay" sweater.  It will come in handy when the temperature drops to minus 18 degrees this week!

"Is he thinking deeply about Tango?  Or is he thinking deeply about lunch?"


Tiny said...

That's a magnificent sweater! Such intricate pattern with such light weight yarn ... You are so patient! I normally knit shawls and scarves, and occasionally a cardigan or top but nothing like the sweaters that you made. Wow!

Tiny said...

That's a magnificent sweater! Such intricate pattern with such light weight yarn ... You are so patient! I normally knit shawls and scarves, and occasionally a cardigan or top but nothing like the sweaters that you made. Wow!

Christine--RHP said...

wow--that is a work of art. well done, Irene!!

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Tiny and Christine,

Thanks for the compliments!


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