I Wish I Was in Cordova, Alaska.

by Sarah Lake Upton in ,

We are alongside in Petersburg, Alaska today and I have taken advantage of my morning off to run to a coffee shop and catch up a bit on all the Instagram postings from participants in the Net Loft's Fiber & Friends: Fisherfolk 2016 gathering . Much as I love Petersburg, and my job, I am so very bummed that I am not in Cordova this week sharing in all the gansey knitting, indigo dyeing, and general crafting. 

So, hello to all of you in Cordova at the moment.  For those of you on Instagram #cordovaganseyproject is full of gorgeous ganseys, and #fiberandfriends2016fisherfolk is likewise a tag to check out. 

The Net Loft commissioned a run of my Straw's Farm Island Sheep Gansey yarn.  If you are interested in working with gansey yarn spun from Maine island sheep, please buy through the Net Loft first, but if you have a color way in mind, or the color you want is sold through, please get in touch - I have a bit more of undyed yarn at home, which I will begin working with again during the middle of July. 

What I Got Up To Whilst Home Part 2: scads of gansey yarn

by Sarah Lake Upton in ,

I have been looking forward to this project all year.  First, if you haven’t yet read Dotty’s amazing posts about her Cordova Gansey Project and all that inspired it, you should go to her blog post haste.    Cordova, Alaska,  is a fishing town, and Dotty and her family are fisherfolk.  To very briefly summarize her wonderful eleven part series of posts; while attending Shetland Wool Week she was drawn to the knitting traditions of a culture of fishermen and inspired to bring them to her modern day (though not that different) fishing village in Alaska.  To that end she has created the Cordova Gansey Project, bringing together people interested in all aspects of gansey study, design, creation, and wear.  This June (date) she will be hosting a week of classes and yarn adventure in Cordova in celebration of ganseys and fisherfolk.  The list of teachers reads like a who’s who of the knitters and dyers I am in awe of.

I love everything about this project (history! boats! complicated forms of traditional knitting!) but the bit that I am personally honored by is that a special batch of my gansey yarn will be at the Netloft for this event.  The fleece for this gansey yarn comes from Straw’s Farm, in Newcastle, Maine.  Or rather, the farm is in Newcastle, but the sheep themselves live year round on an Island in Penobscot Bay.  The island has been occupied by sheep for the last two hundred years or so; whatever breed they started as has been lost to time (hence the unwieldy yarn name, “Straw’s Farm Island Sheep”).  The moment I learned about this flock I knew that I had to use their fleece in some project, and when Dotty got in touch about her Gansey Project I knew that it was the perfect match - heritage island wool from Maine going to a gansey project in Alaska.

There are a variety of different fleece and yarn buying models for small yarn producers. Some have their own flocks and sell yarn only derived from that flock, some buy fleece from wool brokers or wool pools, some buy base yarns from a third party, and some, like me, buy fleeces directly from small farmers.  The time needed to get from fleece to yarn to finished yarn varies, as one might imagine, depending on the source of the fleece and the mill that does the spinning.  I tend to start planning my fleece buy in February, buying fleece as the sheep are sheared (the timing of which depends on the farm in question).  Then it’s a matter of getting fleece to the mill, and the mill getting the yarn back to me.  If I send fleece in June I sometimes get it back in August, or sometimes I get it back in January: a lot depends on the size of the job and complexity of the yarn.  This is a long way of saying that I have been planning my part of this project since last February, and finally during my last rotation home I got to work with the yarn.  

Last June Sarah of FiberTrek was good enough to help me pick up 172 lbs of island wool from Straw’s Farm (contributing her Subaru to the cause).

(For anyone who has ever been curious about what 172 lbs of fleece packed into the back of a station wagon looks like.)

Shortly thereafter it was off to the mill, and then all I could do was wait. And wait. And wonder. And plot.

And then in January the boxes started arriving back from the mill.

And I started turning coned yarn into skeins for scouring and dyeing.  And once I had enough yarn ready, my world become all indigo all the time.

(The pot on the left is for scouring. The shorter pot on the right is my indigo pot.)

For all of my plotting and planning, once I started dyeing I left a lot of room for serendipity.  Natural indigo is a funny thing.  Sometimes a certain batch is just a little more gray or a little more blue than the preceding batch, and sometimes really amazing colors just appear for no predictable reason.  So when I was lucky enough to get a really unique batch I let it stand rather than continuing to dye it to a dark blue.

I let the batch on the left stay as it was.  Ultimately I ended up with a few more lots this color - Child’s Glacier

And the finished yarn started piling up;

And piling up;

And eventually I had five colors.

And then it all went out to the Netloft.  Anyone interested in this yarn, or in the Cordova Gansey Project, should get in touch with Dotty.  

And then waaaaay too quickly my rotation home was over and it was back to the Sea Lion for me, but I took a bit of my gansey yarn with me to swatch.  

I swatched without any project in mind, just trying out motifs that I’ve been curious to see in person. I need to tuck ends and block it a bit harder (this yarn has spirit!) but already I am in love with the result.

I have always thought of my ganseys as armor against bad weather and the world; portable, fitted, security blankets for adventure (because in my experience Adventure! is generally cold and wet).  My ganseys are not for wearing indoors when the heat could be turned up a few degrees; I bring them out when I am working outdoors or doing slightly scary things in cold weather.  In my earlier life that meant sanding and painting small boats in a barn heated just enough so the paint would kick, or sailing a schooner in bad weather, or parking cars on the deck of a ferry in a Maine winter, or chopping firewood; now that I am a bit more domesticated these days they come out for cold mornings on deck in Alaska and winter walks with the dog.  The Straw’s Farm Island Sheep gansey yarn is perfect for this sort of gansey, dense and tough, but with a little bit of elasticity.  From an artistic standpoint, the spinning is ever so slightly irregular which combined with the slightly uneven dyeing lends a depth and texture and personality to the stitches.  There are occasional small bits of kemp, which I was at first a little surprised and annoyed by (I didn’t even notice the kemp in the fleece!) but I have come to love, because it is a reminder of island sheep turning their backs to a cold Gulf of Maine wind and just going on about their sheepy business because there’s no point in getting upset about the weather.  Which is exactly how I feel wearing a gansey.
And for those on the Coopworth Gansey yarn wait list, the Coopworth sheep of Buckwheat Blossom Farm have been shorn.  As soon as I get home from this rotation on the Sea Lion (middle of April) I will be visiting the farm, catching up with Amy, and selecting fleeces.  

Ganseys! or, reasons why they are even better than you think.

by upton in ,

For many years I worked on traditionally rigged schooners (mostly the schooners used for experiential education programs, though I've also done tall ship festivals and dock tours) boats which, except for a few differences (electricity, refrigeration, engines, student crews) were constructed, rigged, and operated exactly as they would have been a hundred years ago.  Actually, several of the boats I worked on were build over a hundred years ago, and while they move students and passengers these days rather than fish and sand, the sailing is the same.  I started knitting my gansey (the second gansey I knit, the first was for my husband, knit years before I was to find boats) while living aboard the Ship Wavertree (built in 1885, now docked in the East River at what used to be Pier 15) and working aboard the Schooner Pioneer (also build in 1885, and now taking passengers on two hour sails around New York Harbor – look her up if you find yourself with a spare summer evening in NYC).  I continued to knit my gansey while working on Highlander Sea, ex Pilot (built in 1924 for the Boston Pilots Association) tearing out and re-knitting sleeves now a bit too tight, and I finally finished it while sailing north from Belize on the Harvey Gamage, three months into a four month semester at sea program for high school students.

I have since worn that gansey while doing a thousand things that would be utterly familiar to most men who wore them back in the day, furling sails, hauling lines, flaking out anchor chain, climbing aloft far too early in the morning (swearing all the while) to unfrig a fouled topsail sheet, scraping sanding and painting some bit of the boat for the nth time, carrying heavy things onto the boat, carrying heavy things off of the boat, standing at the helm at two in the morning steering by a star, fixing a bilge pump worn out from overuse for the nth time, and curled up in my bunk fully dressed and soaking wet.  At times schooner life is impossibly, romantically amazing, but more often it is cold and wet and kind of gross.

I am one of what I suspect is a small number of people currently alive who have extensively worn a gansey knit from gansey yarn in the work environment for which they were created (except for the fishing bit) and I have reached a few conclusions that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere.

Firstly, the armpit gusset really is genius: they really do give a lovely freedom of movement.  I can work with my arms above my head (a frequent occurrence on boats, especially given that I am not tall) without my gansey rutching up.  And the gussets also have a practical effect on the longevity of the gansey: every other sweater that I have worn for work ultimately tears at the underarm.  When I reach above my head most of the weight of the sweater rests on the seam where the front and back of the sweater meet the sleeve, and those few stitches will inevitably give way.  A gansey, being constructed in one piece, distributes the weight of itself far more evenly across a far greater number of stitches, and the gusset removed the weak point at the underarm entirely.

Secondly, one of the things that I have seen commonly written about ganseys, that they are “knit so tightly as to be wind and water proof” is just silly.  I knit incredibly tightly, even when I am trying to do the opposite, and my gansey is neither wind nor waterproof, even after I have dipped it in a solution of wool fat, but being wind and waterproof is not all that important: wind and waterproofness is the purview of foully jackets, these day usually coated vinyl (oilskins back in the day) but what they do do is far more important: ganseys hold their shape when wet (which on a boat is most of the time).  They neither sag, nor bag, or impede movement; wearing a sopping wet gansey is not that different from wearing a dry gansey.  Before you dismiss this, think of your favorite sweater or sweatshirt. Now think about how it bags and hangs and sticks to you weirdly and snags on everything once it gets wet. Now imagine climbing a very narrow ladder that is moving erratically, and at the top wriggling yourself through an opening barely larger than yourself, and all this just to get to the place you need to be so you can start your real work (which is generally much scarier than the climb itself).  Even modern fleece is unpleasant in this situation (actually, I’m biased, I dislike modern fleece in any situation) but I’ve done something very similar in my gansey on many occasions, and have never had cause to note that my gansey was in any way making the situation more difficult – which may seem like faint praise, but it really really isn’t.

And finally, knitting the sleeves from the top down is brilliant.  Not only does is prevent the heartbreaking moment when you realize that because of gauge differences the shoulder on your sleeve does not match the shoulder on the body of the sweater, but when the cuffs wear through, which they will, it make the repairs the work of a lazy evening.  I have re-knit the last few inches of both sleeve several times with no fuss or annoyance.