Wool at Work: Utilitarian Yarns and the Gansey Sweater

For the spring 2015 issue of Interweave Knits, author Selma Moss-Ward wrote a piece about a fascinating knitter--a knitter and yarn-maker who spends much of her life working on the high seas as a ship engineer. We've excerpted from the article below; find the whole feature in the spring 2015 issue of Interweave KnitsIf you are looking for gansey sweater patterns, we have a collection available here.

Wool at Work: The Utilitarian Yarns of Seafarer Sarah Lake Upton

by Selma Moss-Ward

Like many fiber artisans, independent dyer Sarah Lake Upton, of Upton Yarns, has a day job to facilitate her yarn vocation…except it’s actually a six-weeks-at-a-time job, about three thousand miles from home. She’s an assistant engineer aboard the Sea Lion, an eco-cruise ship whose itineraries range from Alaska to Baja, California, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Sarah aboard ship. Photo by Garland Sutton

Sarah aboard ship. Photo by Garland Sutton

During these tours, Sarah’s work involves maintenance, diagnostics, and dealing with whatever weather, water, and mechanics throw at the vessel. She doesn’t get much sleep. Aboard the Sea Lion, Sarah  is constantly mindful of surrounding natural forces and of the teamwork essential to smooth sailing.

Her job is about as far from yarn as you can imagine.

“The work is hard, physically demanding, sometimes lonely, and the ship’s crew is a community that becomes your protective shell,” she explains. Nonetheless, she appreciates the stunning phenomena—wilderness, wildlife, glaciers, bioluminescence—that are the rewards of the eco-tours, rewards that provide thrilling “moments of grace, when everything comes together.”

At six weeks’ end, Sarah flies west coast to east coast—to Portland, Maine, where she lives with husband, Sam, and their dog, Nell. She catches up on sleep, then re-enters the world of her vocation, the world of highly specialized hand-dyed yarn. “I love wool,” Sarah says. “Yarn has so many different properties. My pet peeve is the idea that for knitting all your yarn should be soft.”

Sarah hangs dyed yarn to dry at her studio. Photo by Selma Moss-Ward.

Sarah hangs dyed yarn to dry at her studio. Photo by Selma Moss-Ward.

But who wouldn’t want soft yarn? Sarah’s answer is rooted in both her love of gansey sweaters and her Yankee practicality. An interest in cultural history, a college degree in anthropology, archaeological fieldwork, and employment on traditionally rigged ships, taught her the value of durable fibers. In her early twenties, she knitted her first gansey, following Beth Brown-Reinsel’s pattern in Melanie Falick’s benchmark volume, Knitting in America (Artisan Press, 1996). “I had never seen anything like it—the fit, the motifs, the genius little armpit gussets; I loved the combination of decorative and utilitarian.”

Ganseys, originating in nineteenth-century coastal Britain, were designed for seafarers. Tightly knitted of five-ply yarn, they’re water-resistant, workhorse sweaters: “They’re like protective armor,” Sarah says. As with many garments from traditional cultures, the decorative motifs convey specific meanings, and it’s customary for the wearer’s initials to be knitted into the sweater’s front, near the waist. Nonetheless, ganseys are primarily utilitarian gear.

What Sarah wanted was abrasion-resistant, water-resistant yarn, spun specifically for ganseys she’d wear aboard ship. All-American gansey yarn wasn’t available. “As much as I loved British yarn and American yarn spun from New Zealand or Bolivian wool, New England is still full of sheep, and it drove me nuts that I couldn’t find any yarn made from these sheep.”

Sarah's first gansey, the "At Sea Gansey" from the book Knitting in America. Photo by Sarah Lake Upton

Sarah’s first gansey, the “At Sea Gansey” from the book Knitting in America. Photo by Sarah Lake Upton

Sarah’s original gansey was worn so hard that she re-knitted the cuffs almost every year, and the neck at least twice. “The elbows finally went in 2011,” she reports.  About that time, she discovered a nineteenth-century photo of a man wearing a gansey with cut-off sleeves. “Rather than trying to patch the elbows, I’m thinking about doing this to my gansey,” she says, drawn to this useful historical precedent.

That first gansey launched a mission leading to a nuanced knowledge of local yarns’ best uses. “Different breeds of sheep produce fleece with different qualities: strength, softness, luminosity. Matching the project to the correct wool type can make all the difference between a garment one likes well enough and a garment one wears every day.” Currently, Sarah works with yarns created from Coopworth, Corriedale, Romney, Cotswold, and Montedale fleece.

Ultimately, Sarah’s ideal gansey yarn was spun from Coopworth wool, from a farm in Maine. “I am making the yarn that I really wanted to be able to buy,” she cheerfully declares. She calls what Upton Yarns produces “utilitarian wools.” Her five-ply Coopworth gansey yarn, whose long staple renders it stronger than conventional yarns, comes in 120-yard (110-meter) skeins.

For the rest of the article, check out Interweave Knits Spring 2015 today, and take a look at Sarah's yarns here. Please note, Sarah travels much of the year and her yarns are available in limited quantities. 

If you’re looking for gansey sweater patterns to knit, check out the Gorgeous Gansey Textures Design Collection, which includes these patterns:

Plum Island Pullover by Alison Green

Plum Island Pullover by Alison Green

Margot Pullover by Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark

Margot Pullover by Mercedes Tarasovich-Clark

Bailiwick Pullover by Courtney Spainhower

Bailiwick Pullover by Courtney Spainhower

Eastbound Sweater by Courtney Kelley

Eastbound Sweater by Courtney Kelley

Old Way Gansey by Ann Budd

Old Way Gansey by Ann Budd

Deer Isle Pullover by Alison Green

Deer Isle Pullover by Alison Green

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