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Most repair commissions I receive have an interesting back story, but some stand out more than others, making the repair even more meaningful.

Visible Mending of Gansey

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.

Virginia’s story

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!

Visible Mending Gansey Before Picture

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.

visible mending gansey - fraying cuff

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.

Visible mending gansey - patch detail

there was already one obvious repair in the form of a patch, which in turn developed a hole

visible mending gansey - patch patched

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.

visible mending gansey - shoulder seam

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.

visible mending gansey - preparing the cuff

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

visible mending gansey - stepped cuff repair

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.

visible mending gansey - split seam repair

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.

visible mending gansey - elbow repair prep

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

visible mending gansey - elbow repair finished

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.

visible mending gansey - serial number VMP07

this gansey has serial number VMP07: the seventh item I repaired since I started logging my Visible Mending Programme repairs

Be Inspired!
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!

visible mending gansey - repairs finished

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.

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Some repair commissions are so much more than mending a hole or two. I recently completed a very special commission, which I would like to share with you. Bernadette sent me an email with a repair commission request, and as she has put her conundrum in such concise and clear words, I will quote the relevant parts here:

I have a pullover that my mother knitted me in the 1980s.  It was  cream coloured natural wool — I’ve since dyed it grey.  It’s a typically big and baggy eighties style from a pattern by Edina Ronay. It didn’t really suit me, the undyed colour was a kind of dirty cream and the neckline is wrong.  

There’s a lot of my mother’s work in this garment.  I don’t want to get rid of it – it’s about 25 years old and it’s been at the back of a cupboard for a long time.  So I had an idea to make it wearable by dyeing it grey.  This wasn’t wholly successful. The colour is a bit patchy but on the whole I prefer it to the cream.  It still looked massive on me.  I had another idea to turn it into a cushion – it’s got nice (I think Guernsey) textured patterns all over it and the body would be big enough to make a substantial cushion cover.  So I cut off one of the sleeves, with a view to hacking the thing to bits to make a cushion.  As soon as I’d cut off the sleeve I regretted it.  

There’s  a small hole in one sleeve too.  The pullover means a lot to me, especially since my mother died a couple of years ago.  We didn’t have much in common and knitting is one of my only true connections to her.

Visible Mending Programme - Jumper with hacked off sleeve

Bernadette’s jumper, you can see the cut off sleeve with ragged seams. In this picture I already unpicked the top of the sleeve and picked up the stitches

We exchanged a few emails so I could get a feel of what she wanted and come up with a repair strategy before meeting up.

Thank you for your kind reply.  I’m so glad you understand about the jumper – and about mothers!  I’m sure my own mother would think I was completely mad to be trying to fix up this old jumper she made.
As you can see – not only did I cut off a sleeve, I also cut open the seam of the sleeve.  Why  – I couldn’t really say at this point.  The wool is a bit felted through age, so nothing has come unravelled at all.
Re the neckline – it used to be a lot wider. I think maybe the jumper has shrunk a little bit because the neckline doesn’t seem so wide as I remember it. I guess it’s okay how it is.
I had to come up with a way of reconstructing the sleeve without losing too much of the original knitting. As the sleeve had been cut off and open, rather than carefully unpicked at the seams, I had some unravelling to do and fill in the missing inch at the very top of the sleeve cap. I also needed to do something about the side seams, as these could not be sewn together as they were.
The Visible Mending Programme - Shoulder and Sleeve Detail
A sympathetic contrasting colour was used to fix the sleeve and make up for lost fabric
Looking for a colour that would provide some contrast, yet harmonise well with the lavender grey of the jumper, I settled on a dark grey alpaca sock yarn. I chose a cable stitch that resembled the stitch in the jumper, but wasn’t quite the same to reinforce the idea that this repair was not done by the person who originally knitted the garment.
Picking up stitches from somebody else’s work felt really intimate, and throughout the repair my thoughts went out to Bernadette, and her mother. I admired the skill and effort that went into making this jumper, the even stitches. I have never met Bernadette’s mother, but picking up her work forged a connection, and I imagined how she worked on this jumper. I will never know what might have gone through her mind, yet I was wondering about this; wondering what she would’ve thought about her daughter asking to do this Visible Mend.
Visible Mending Programme - invisible mend on sleeve
One invisible mend is hiding on the sleeve – can you see it?
As I had some original yarn from unravelling the untidy cut edges, I did an invisible mend on the hole in the sleeve. I felt that another, seemingly randomly placed visible mend would distract from the visible sleeve reconstruction. Once I had sewn up the jumper, I ‘de-pilled’ it, and then gently hand-washed it before blocking it. I had asked Bernadette not to wash the jumper before giving it to me for repair, as this might inadvertently do more damage: stitches might unravel, or more felting might occur. As always, once I feel I’ve completed the repair, the final touch was stitching the Visible Mending Programme initials into the garment.
The Visible Mending Programme - stitched logo
VMP – Visible Mending Programme
I guess you might want to know what the jumper looks like now?
VisibleMendingProgramme_BD_2_JumperRepaired
Bernadette can wear her mother’s handiwork again, and be reminded of their one true connection
Both Bernadette and I were very pleased with the end result, so let me end with her own words, providing another little glimpse on the value of this jumper:
It really does mean a lot that I still have the jumper.  My mum always tried to make me the jumpers that I chose patterns for.  Unfortunately I had such bad taste back in the 80s that they were mostly horrible, but it wasn’t my Mum’s fault. 

When I was older my Mum made my children quite a few little things, but none of the garments have been hardy enough to survive.  There was one pink fair isle twinset she made my daughter that I really hoped to keep but a moth ate holes in it and it made me feel sad to look at it, and I eventually got rid of it.

So this jumper that you are rescuing is the one surviving garment (apart from an astonishing array of teddy trousers and dresses in acrylic!).

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It has taken me over a year to complete, but I am now the proud owner of a traditional Cornish Knit-Frock.

This traditional fisherman’s jumper is also known as a gansey or guernsey. I based my design on a picture I found in Mary Wright’s Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks:

Mary Wright’s book is full of interesting facts and history of the traditional frocks and guernseys and good instructions on how to knit one yourself. I would encourage you to read it. The shape of a knit-frock (this appears to be the Cornish name for a guernsey or gansey), is very simple, which makes for easy knitting, but it also does not distract from the beautiful patterning. The bottom half of the jumper was frequently tucked into (high-waisted) trousers, so they usually have no patterns: it’s less bulky. The exposed part of the sweater is textured for extra warmth.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, many women knitted these jumpers inbetween their daily tasks to earn money, while their husbands were away at sea. To make this worthwhile speed was essential. Several things aided in making the knitting quicker: the jumper was mainly constructed in the round and knitted on very long double-pointed needles. They often used a knitting stick, which could be tucked into a waistband. The stick would support the working needle, making for very speedy knitting. You can read more about them on Kate Davies’s blog.

I knitted mine on circular needles, and manage to break two in the process… The cable broke on one pair, and I managed to bend the needles on the other. But, the effort was worthwhile:

I’m in love with the garter stitch arm strap. It also made for easy picking up stitches for the sleeves. The design feels like a coherent entity: the bars and seeds bands are like opening and closing brackets on the sleeves and chest. And the diamond motif is repeated in three different guises.

Some things in my knit-frock are not traditional: original knit-frocks were usually black or navy. The body was usually a bit longer and the sleeves shorter. I guess the longer body was to make sure they would stay tucked in. The shorter sleeves would keep them from getting wet and mucky during hard work on a fishing boat.

During the course of knitting this jumper I had to perform some delicate sweater surgery AND I found a new way of keeping track of counting rows. All to be revealed in another post!

PS can I draw your attention to the blanket I used as a background? It’s a Shetland blanket, woven by Crofter knitters in, you guessed it, shetland wool. I found it at Snoopers Paradise in Brighton for a mere £20.

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