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Miss Flora Campbell’s Cardigan

"Flora Campbell's cardigan", back view

My first ever piece of traditional knitting wasn’t a gansey. It was ‘Miss Flora Campbell’s cardigan’,  a 1930 Fair Isle cardigan, the pattern worked out in the classic (soon to be re-published!) ‘Traditional Knitting’, by Michael Pearson.

Pearson’s book came out in 1984, and I must have clocked it within weeks of it landing in our library.  A month went past, then another, then a few more and I realised I had this book out on almost permanent loan. And despite it being the 80s, and us being unemployed and broke, and sometimes if we bought books, we didn’t buy food that week… when I saw it in paperback, in Smiths, I swooped. I probably lived on sardines and pitta bread that week. But who cared? I had the Book.

Now I think of it, this was the first knitting book I ever bought.  Which is why I was thrilled when I heard on the grapevine,  Mr. Pearson is working on a new edition.   This cardigan was to be the first thing I knitted from this book. It must have been knitted in 1985. As you can see it still lives. (And fits me – one of the joys of keeping your beginning knitting: eventually, you will get fat enough for it to fit you! I made Kate Moss look overweight at the time I knitted this – ah, happy days!)

This cardigan may be one reason I have had little time for people who whinge about the ‘terrors’ of steeking. Imagine knitting this beauty in the round, your first ever piece of ‘real’ traditional knitting… then taking the scissors to it, to cut a front opening. And yet I did. Years later, I read blogs etc by knitters bigging up The Steek as if it was some towering monster to be fought down, or a rite of passage, worthy of at least 6 stiff gins before you tackle it. Is it hellaslike. It’s just an easier way of making a cardigan.

But after the knitting, a couple of things happened that made me rarely wear it, despite loving it.

One of those things was – I realised the red in the original, was actually two shades, not just the vivid tomato red I’d used but in the background, in some of the peeries (smaller patterns), it was a pretty crimson. To be honest, it looks like the original knitter didn’t quite have enough scarlet so was eeking it out with some crimson. But that apparent ‘mistake’ just added to its beauty and subtlety.

Someone pointed to an old gansey at Ganseyfest, that had an allover pattern, that many people found unaccountably mesmerising. She’d realised it was so compelling because the knitter had made a few mistakes, so your eye travels over the piece, then back again, as you subconsciously try to find what’s going on with the pattern, that should be predictable – but isn’t. Same thing with this cardigan. Somehow that subtle shift between the two reds in the original make overall design, more compelling.

At the time I’d bought the wool, I didn’t have my “eye in”, yet. And wasn’t being analytical or critical enough, before I jumped in with both feet. It seemed to me, a straightforward matter of the primary colours, and white and moorit. Yet it was a more subtle, intelligent thing than I first realised.

Secondly, I’d got the wrong blue. Mine was darker than the sort of Wedgewood blue in the peeries of the original. The paler blue undeniably works better.

Instead of a sort of old gold yellow, I’d got a vivid, primary yellow. Again, all easy mistakes for a beginner to make – less analysis of what it was I’d need. The original was knitted in 1930, and so for ‘Wool’, Mr. Pearson listed:   “6 oz.Moorit (natural brown), secondary colours (Blue, Madder Red, Dark Yellow and Shetland White), 4 oz. each…”

The subtler colours of the original just worked better than my slight variations. This was in the days just  before the lovely Kaffe Fassett was about to pop up, and give us all some insight into colour theory.

Then I washed it, carefully, once, as Elizabeth Zimmerman says, ‘like you’re washing a baby’, and… despite all my lavished care, the blue ran into the white on the peeries.  Now it is not so noticeable in photos but for me, that somehow made it less wearable.

Yellow Buttons!

Last but not least…. the Button Trauma.  Now, if you see the buttons on the original, in the book, you’ll see I wasn’t far off. Shape-wise, they were close. But I was broke, it was the 80s, and I thought I could get away with yellow plastic.  Now, the vividness of the yellow in the knit fabric was dampened down by the fact it was usually on the same round as the moorit (brown). But those buttons SCREAMED.

Don’t get me wrong, on a cold day (or if I was wearing a coat over it), I’d wear it. It saw some use. But not enough.

I was also too lazy to change the buttons. I think we all know where this story is going.  Well, one place it’s going.  First of all, the devil is in the detail. Before you even buy the yarn, if you have the freedom to make colour choices, make considered ones. Secondly… It is all in the finishing. I was happy with this, despite the colours being just marginally off, and the blue from the peeries running into the white on the first wash, right up til I put on the cheap-looking buttons.

And believe me, ‘finishing’ and lecturing anyone about it, is the last thing I’m about given that I rarely swatch (heresy!), never block (What’s blocking?), and knit in the round because I can’t be bothered to sew things together. (If the gods meant me to sew and cook, they’d have given me a sewing machine instead of one hand, and a mixer instead of the other. Bit like a Dalek. Well, they don’t have the sewing bit, but you get my drift…)

Vintage buttons

Then in 2010, a trip to my favourite vintage shop, in York, yielded these little beauties. Yes, some sort of man-made material, not the natural bone or horn buttons I’d sort of had in my mind as preferable to the yellow horrors (since 1985), but the minute I saw them, I knew it had to be.

Took me another year, almost exactly to bear to detach them from their original packaging. But I did it!  These buttons are slightly faceted, and annoyingly, only after I’d stripped all the yellow horrors off, did I realise that I wouldn’t be able to get a wool darning needle (or even, a wool thread), through the holes in them. So I had to sew them on with cotton. I found some matching vintage red cotton, and it was a whole morning’s work to replace every single button on Miss Flora Campbell’s cardigan but…. worth the effort.

I can’t take the loose blue dye from the white in the peeries, or change the original wool colours, but I can change ill-advised buttons. And since I did, I’ve been wearing this a lot more!

The old ‘Made Do And Mend’ spirit is a bit slow to get going in me (26 years. Is that a record?) But I’m glad I eventually was moved to do something about Miss Flora Campbell.

Red vintage buttons

2012 promises to be a bumper year for the re-issuing of classic traditional knitting books, as I’ve been working on an Introduction to a new edition of Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby’s ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’. Later in the week, it’s up to Grasmere to document one of the oldest extant Dales-style gloves.

The book is going to be reissued with some ‘special features’, including designs by some of the foremost contemporary designers, inspired by 19thC Yorkshire knitting, – also, one or two actual stitch by stitch repros of old Dales knitting in Marie Hartley’s collection, and museums elsewhere. It has been fascinating, researching how the 1951 book first got researched and written, and I can’t wait to share it all, with you.

If my Ravelry projects page looks dead, that’s because I’ve been busy working on stuff for my own book, ‘River Ganseys’ (working title), and it’s all top secret right now. I’d feel more like 007, if I got special gadgets and stuff.

A couple of the book projects include attempts to recreate things Misses Hartley and Ingilby describe fleetingly, as well as several patterns for ganseys, based on our Yorkshire inland ones. But there is now an end in sight to ‘book knitting’, and so I have turned my mind – if not yet my needles –  to a bit of Fair Isle, which I’ll start next month, when the book is put to bed, just for a change.  Which is why, this week, I sent for a Lucky Dip of jumper weight Shetland yarn, from  Jamieson & Smith, the Shetland Wool Brokers.  Worth a punt.  I’m hoping to be at the Harrogate Knitting &  Stitching Show next month, so will pick up a unifying background colour, if J & S have a stall there, this year.

On a genealogical note, as we’re discussing Miss Flora Campbell’s cardigan – our trip to Inverness at the start of the month, made us wonder about our Scottish ancestry. The only possible I have is the surname Calam (sometimes spelled ‘Callam’, even ‘Calomb’) which appears around the 1720s, in my mother’s direct line. This name appears abruptly in the Yorkshire parish records with John Calam, who died in Scrayingham on 11.11.1745.  If any of the genealogists reading this have any clues how I can join the dots, I’d be most grateful. It is always hard pre-Dade, if a name just suddenly turns up and isn’t traceable prior to that via the IGI.  I have read online that ‘Calam’ is a Scottish name, but it could well be an English one too. I just don’t know..? Any hints or tips gratefully received.

Re. the knitting… These days I have my eye in, and I try hard to channel Kaffe Fassett whenever I go shopping for wool. My next Fair Isle, 26 years on from the first – will be just as much fun to knit as the first one was. Probably.

Jamieson & Smith's Lucky Dip

2 replies on “Miss Flora Campbell’s Cardigan”

I bought Michael Pearson’s book in 1984, too – and read it from cover to cover, like a storybook. It has great photos. I still treasure it. Your “River Ganseys” book sounds wonderful – is there a way to be notified when it comes out, please?


Those buttons are much, much better – wish I’d kept some of my early knitting now – and the blue doesn’t seem quite as assertive…

(I’ve got that book somewhere – must dig it out… Wonder what will change in the new edition?)


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