Most repair commissions I receive have an interesting back story, but some stand out more than others, making the repair even more meaningful.
A gansey repaired
One such story is behind the repair commission of a traditional gansey I worked on over a year ago. As Virginia has written so eloquently about the history and memories infused in her gansey, she’s given me permission to tell her story in her own words. After that, I will take you through the repairs I have performed on this gorgeous gansey.
This sweater and I go back to the end of May, 1971, when I was twenty-four years old, newly arrived in the UK from a two-year teaching appointment in Hong Kong. My mother had come from California to meet me, and together we went to stay with friends of my parents who had returned to their home in Guernsey following wartime evacuation. One of our first stops was, of course, the Guernsey knitwear factory.
That summer I made my way to Scotland, and in the West Highlands became fascinated by the lives of the remaining Gaelic-speaking people in the Outer Hebrides – people who still harvested their own peat for fuel, and gathered seaweed to fertilise their crops; who still milked their own cows, and made their own butter and crowdie cheese; who sheared their own blackface sheep, one of which they slaughtered every now then, producing not only the most fragrant mutton but also fabulous black- and white puddings; who gathered shellfish and carrageen moss (which makes a delightful blancmange pudding) on the shore. Some of them also made their own whisky, and fished at midnight for wild salmon in the rivers. When these people realised I was seriously interested in what they were doing and wasn’t the usual sort of tourist, I was welcomed as an extra pair of hands. I think it is safe to say that my background as a college-educated American suburbanite afforded me scant preparation for hauling hemp bags of peats across boggy moorland, or for pursuing unwilling ewes across the same terrain, or shearing the same sheep once we had them confined in the sheep-fank, or walking miles in the constant drizzle. Apart from a thin anorak and a pair of wellington boots, my blue guernsey sweater protected me during all of these adventures, and in its time has been covered in fish-scales, sea water, and sheep shit to the point that other people were inclined to leave the room when I came in.
This was an important summer for me, because it set me on a path I’ve followed ever since. I am now a research fellow in the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing interests that were ignited during that first summer forty-five years ago.
After years of mistreatment, the sweater eventually reached the state it was in when I consigned it to Tom. Having tried unsuccessfully to repair it myself, I had long since packed it away in a trunk. Every couple of years I would come across it, and the memories would come back, and I would put it away again. I am fully confident that he will restore it to wearability, and can’t wait to see the result!
Virginia’s gansey shows a lovely patina from years of wear and being out in the open, protecting her from wind and water
Gansey Repair Case Study
This gansey has aged beautifully. Having been outdoors many a time, in salty sea air and seeing plenty of action, the fabric has an almost shimmering quality in places. I was excited to see previous repairs, and I always prefer to leave those in as much as I can, to honour the life the garment has already seen. My repairs will add to the patina and history.
both cuffs showed previous repairs where the seams had come undone, and the sun has bleached some areas more than others
Originally I wanted to use a traditional navy Guernsey 5-ply yarn, but when I saw Blacker Yarns Pure Romney worsted-spun Guernsey 5-ply in Oxblood, I changed my mind, as it seemed perfect: although a different colour, there wasn’t too much contrast. I felt it would show off the repairs, yet not scream for attention.
Virginia’s gansey presented a number of different issues I needed to address. Here is how I did it and why:
Small holes: there were a few small holes, which I repaired by Swiss darning (aka duplicate stitching.) Swiss darning retains the stretchy quality of the knit fabric, and after a while will become so integrated in the fabric that it looks as if it has always been there.
there was already one obvious repair in the form of a patch, which in turn developed a hole
repairing the repair: meta-mending
Shoulder seam: the shoulder seams of traditional ganseys are often bound off together on the outside. Although this gansey was machine-knit, you can achieve the same result by using a three-needle bind-off on the outside. As with the small holes, I wanted to retain the same properties in the mend as in the original shoulder seam, so I used more duplicate stitching to emulate the bound-off row.
the shoulder seam has been repaired with duplicate stitching, in order to retain the same properties as the original seam
Cuffs: at one point the seams in the cuffs had busted, and they were visibly whip-stitched together. The main challenge, however, were the fraying cuffs. I repaired this by unravelling each cuff until I had a round of stitches in sound yarn. I particularly liked the cuff where the bust seam had been sewn back together not quite straight, so there’s now a step in the transition from the old to the new stitches. Using short rows allowed me to level up the rounds before binding off.
After unravelling, I put all the stitches on double-pointed needles, size 1.5mm (UK 15, US 000) and re-knitted the cuffs in the round
one of the cuffs was not sewn together straight along the seam, which I resolved by using some short-rows to level up, before knitting in the round to complete the new cuff
Splits at hemline: on traditional ganseys, there is often a side-seam split between the front and back hem. This usually becomes a stress point, resulting in some damage, which is exactly what happened here. I didn’t want to sew it all back together, as then I would invite the same issues to occur. Instead, I used a buttonhole stitch to neaten the unravelling edges, and the resulting curve should prove to be much more resilient.
buttonhole stitch is not usually used in knitwear repair, but here it neatens the raw edges and gives additional strength to a common stress point in the garment
Thinning elbows: these are unavoidable over time, but on this gansey, the shape of the weak area didn’t quite conform to the usual thinning area from elbows. Who knows what happened there? I ended up using a traditional stocking darn to close up holes, and strengthen the surrounding weak areas with some Swiss darning. I really like the differences in texture within one area of repair.
as the gansey is such a dark colour, I temporarily marked the area the repair with some basting thread. This way I could ensure all of the thinning fabric would be reinforced with Swiss darning
the finished elbow repairs consist of a mixture of techniques, resulting in a mix of textures, adding more interest to this area
Finishing touches: every repair commission gets a serial number, stitched in by hand.
this gansey has serial number VMP07: the seventh item I repaired since I started logging my Visible Mending Programme repairs
I hope you enjoyed my gansey repair case study. Although I didn’t go explain my techniques step-by-step, I hope you have gained an appreciation of the things I look for when repairing a garment, from yarn choice to choosing techniques. All the techniques I used for this gansey repair can be found in older needlework and knitting books, and there are also plenty of tutorials to be found on the internet.
Repairing your beloved garments, whether they were bought in a shop or a precious hand-knit, is not only a way to extend the life of your garments, but it also allows you to be creative and put as much thought into the repair, as you may have done when first knitting that jumper. When the time comes that you will need to mend it, you can create a beautiful darn, and wear it as a badge of honour!
the finished gansey!
Note: this blog post is an adaptation of an article originally published in Rib Magazine, issue 2: knitting for men and for those who knit for them.