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 ...