Lisa’s List: 4 Sweaters to Knit before You Die
I’m a sweater nerd. I have been since I became an obsessed knitter at age 13—an awakening I credit to my mother and her vast collection of knitting books and magazines. I was fascinated from the very first by the historical context of knitting. So this week, my list covers 4 sweater types that I think every modern knitter should attempt. These are classics that will always be in style; they teach techniques and constructions you might not otherwise encounter; and they are an important part of our history. They also cover a wealth of pattern options across texture and colorwork—the possibilities are endless!
The Aran Sweater
The iconic cabled fisherman sweater conjures visions of green Irish islands, cut with rock walls, dotted with white cottages. As romantic as the idea of the Aran is, it’s one steeped more in myth than history. The fisherman style we call the Aran was named after the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.
But the style did not evolve there until the turn of the 20th century, and it was a commercially driven adaptation of the British gansey (indeed, the Gaelic for Aran is ‘geansai’ which means gansey). The myth that islanders used knitting motifs to recognize the bodies of sailors is a lovely and marketable fiction that is still being perpetuated.
The Aran is typified by allover cables and texture-work, drop-shoulder construction, and natural sheep colors (cream being very popular). The Aran uses high-relief combinations of cables, traveling stitches, and raised textures, compared to the gansey’s low-relief knit-purl textures.
The Gansey Sweater
Ganseys (or guernseys) have a rich history in the fishing communities surrounding the English Channel. Dating back to at least the 17th century, these pullovers were prized for their warmth, water resistance, and hardwearing character. To achieve those qualities, knitters used 5-ply sport weight wool with a high twist. Proper guernsey yarn is rare today, but a few producers offer it, such as the British company Wendy (my red gansey below was worked in Wendy’s 5 Ply Guernsey Wool). Ganseys are knit densely in panels of knit-purl patterns, some representing sailing symbols such as anchors, often outlined with fine “rope” cables. Because these were working sweaters, knitters built in fixes such as plain sleeves below the elbow, so that they could remove damaged cuffs and sleeves and knit on new ones.
The Fair Isle Jumper
Just as dense textured knits developed to serve the fishermen of England and Ireland, glorious colorwork knits developed in the northern islands of the North Sea and Atlantic, including the Scottish Shetland and Orkney isles, which angle northward from the tip of Scotland, darting toward the Arctic Circle.
In the midst of these islands is a tiny dot on the map called Fair Isle. And here developed a style of two-color stranded knitting that has become synonymous with colorwork knitting the world over: Fair Isle knitting.
Fair Isle jumpers were common in the Shetland isles by the middle of the 19th century. These sweaters typically featured horizontal bands of small motifs, and featured many colors throughout, though only two colors would be worked on any given round. In toothy fingering-weight Shetland wool, these sweaters were dense and warm and certainly lit up the cold gray winters of those windy isles. The sweaters were knit in the round and steeked for arm and neck. Due to that very toothy nature of Shetland wool, knitters usually did not reinforce the steeks—the stitches fulled to themselves and did not unravel when cut!
Other northern colorwork styles you might be familiar with: Faroese, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Sami.
The Bohus Yoke
We move north and east from Fair Isle to Sweden, and forward in time, with the Bohus yoke sweater. The Bohus Stickning movement started in 1930’s Sweden, as a way to bring job opportunities to women in Depression-era Bohuslan. The cottage industry took off, owing its success to the style that the Bohus women developed—multi-color circular yoke pullovers worked in angora blends.
The Bohus yoke is a seamless yoke with colorwork patterning around the yoke, incorporating shaping into the complex and radiant colorwork. This is not Fair Isle knitting—the Swedish women worked more than two colors per round and combined knit and purl stitches with stranding, plus the patterns are abstract, even modern, and often vertically oriented, unlike Fair Isle’s horizontal banding. By using angora blends, they created luxurious sweaters with a dreamy halo. These were indulgent garments that were made and sold to affluent, stylish women, exported to many other countries. By the 1960s, the Swedish economy had changed, styles had changed, and the program was shuttered in 1969, by which time Bohus patterns had become so complex and the gauges so fine that many knitters found them too fussy to knit anyway. For knitters today, combining knit and purl stitches in colorwork is still a very cool and approachable style—just avoid too many colors per round and work on decently-sized needles!
These are 4 sweater types that brought me great fulfillment in the studying of and making of; I highly recommend that every curious knitter try these styles. Why don’t you make 2017 the year you tackle a new sweater type, or all four? I want to add more types to my portfolio, as well; in 2017, I want to move west from Europe with the Icelandic yoke; into Canada with the Mary Maxim intarsia sweater, and then the Pacific Northwest with the Cowichan. What other types do you think I should knit in the new year?
Til next time!
Get this product today in our shop!