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1975 Bulletins Index  Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club


Vol. 1. No. 6. October, 1975.

J.I. Bramman

Mention traditional knitting patterns and most people will call to mind Aran, Fair Isle and Shetland: but Caithness? - Never! And yet the fishing communities of the Caithness coast in the past century shared with similar communities down the whole East Coast of Britain a lively tradition of patterns which were incorporated in fishermen's jerseys and guernseys.

The guernsey (or "gansey" - a word of wide currency throughout Britain) was worked in thick, dark blue wool, and the jersey was worked in rather thinner wool and could be almost any colour, the knitter in both cases using finer needles than would be used for similar yarns in modern commercial knitting patterns. Both had similar shape - they were rather square, the working gansey having a wide underarm gusset, shoulder straps and a tight-fitting crew neck, the ribbing in Scottish guernseys generally being much too tight for pulling over the head so that two or three pearl buttons would be used for fastening the neck at the shoulder. A circular needle or a set of 5 or 8 double-pointed needles was used for the body, though-false side seams were often worked into the pattern. The sleeves were worked by picking up stitches around the arm-hole on four needles, knitting the cuff last. Ribbings were generally k1, p1.

It is in the patterns used for these garments that the real interest lies. They are texture patterns (worked in a single colour), but, using less than a couple of dozen motifs, the fishermen's wives created hundreds of variants, handing the same pattern on from generation to generation. With such variety, it is rare to find the same pattern in two different places, though I have seen one particular pattern, identical stitch for stitch, in jerseys worn by local fishermen in Gardenstown (Banff) and in Flamborough (Yorkshire).

The motifs often have names and are associated with items seen in the fishing communities. Among them are:-

  • Cables associated with ropes;

  • Diamonds associated with net mesh, a pattern often called "mask" (the old Norse word for a fishing net);

  • Single moss stitch associated with sand or shingle;

  • Double moss stitch associated with pebbles;

  • Zig-zags associated with cliff paths;

  • plus ladders, anchors, hearts, herring bones, trees and flags.

The illustration shows four patterns which were used in Thurso and Scrabster. A simple square code has been used to differentiate between knit and purl stitches as they appear with right side facing. The symbol for crossing the cable shows a right hand twist; to work it, half the stitches are taken onto a spare needle which is dropped behind the work (away from the knitter), then the other half of the stitches are worked and finally the stitches from the spare needle are worked. It will be seen that cables are crossed on the fourth and every following seventh row as is common in these traditional patterns; adapting these to conventional two-pin knitting may give difficulty, as cables will have to be alternately worked in knit and in purl stitches, in which case the 8-stitch cable in pattern 2 should be crossed on row 5 and every following eighth row, and the 6-stitch cables in patterns 3 and 4 should be crossed on row 3 and every following sixth row.

Pattern 1

Pattern 2

Pattern 3

Pattern 4

Pattern Key

Pattern 1 is the well-known "kilt-pleat" pattern (called 'half-flag' in Whitby).

Pattern 2 is characteristically a Scottish pattern with its cables worked on a moss-stitch background. (In all English patterns, cables are worked against Patterns 3 and 4 are similarly characteristic with cables worked against a garter-stitch background. Both incorporate a herringbone motif and pattern 4 also has a diamond net with single moss stitch.

In each case the arrow beneath the chart shows the number of stitches after which the pattern repeats.

All of the patterns were used as yoke patterns above the start of the arm- hole shapings on the body and about halfway down to the elbow on the sleeves, the rest of the jersey being in stocking-stitch, a few rows of garter stitch or a ridge pattern with three purl rows, two knit rows and three purl rows facing (known as "rig and fur" - ridge and furrow), being used to separate the stocking-stitch and the yoke pattern. Pattern 2 was sometimes used as a body pattern with pattern 1 as the accompanying yoke pattern. In a modern adaptation, however, I would recommend their use as all-over patterns.

These Thurso/Scrabster patterns all come from Thurso Folk Museum. Details of the first two were given to me by 'Jinad' (Mrs. Janet Maclean), pattern 3 was taken from a photograph in the 1975 display and pattern 4 from a photograph in the 1974 display. There must be other Caithness patterns to be found on old photographs in private collections; I would appreciate being allowed to examine any prints.

Note From Bill Fernie Caithness.org 15 March 2005
We would be interested in hearing from anyone with Caithness knitting patterns, instruction sheets or even actual sweaters to take photographs of them.  Email bill@caithness.org or phone 01955 604648
See the new Ganseys In Caithness section set up following resposes to the above note -
Bill Fernie28 March 2005