What do we want from a gansey cast on?
We need it to be:
Strong – maybe with double or triple yarn
Historically, the simple Backwards Loop Cast On seemed to be popular. It was certainly a cast on described in some of the earlier knitting manuals of the 1830s-40s. It’s not the prettiest cast on and also is not as strong or elastic as we might want for a gansey, where we want to get as much yarn into that first round or two, and build into it some give.
Where you can see cast on edges in the earliest book about ganseys, ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’ by Gladys Thompson (1951), the cast ons look like nothing to write home about. Unshowy, serviceable cast ons. Mrs Thompson seemed to assume the reader would favour their own.
Many of us knit using the first cast on we learned, or our favourite, without really adapting to the project. I know I used a simple cable cast on for more than two decades, with absolute gay abandon. I might have doubled the yarn for a gansey cast on but that was the extent of it. Rae Compton’s classic “The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting” (1985) walks us through several possible cast ons, and if you’re a fan of tension squares (“swatches” and I’m no fan) then every time you knit a new square, try a different cast on.
Nowadays I favour the Channel Island Cast On. It manages to get three strands of yarn into that vital first round and looks so pretty with the ‘pearls’ of yarn along the cast on edge. So that is the cast on I want to talk about, today. But not without a quick diversion.
One alternative is a provisional cast on. I favour the one where you make a crochet chain, then knit into each loop. Later you can cut away the crochet, and have those live stitches to knit down from. I have used a provisional cast on when knitting kids’ ganseys – an insurance policy against a growth spurt. But in the past, certainly along the Yorkshire coast, they have been used so that when the welt starts to show signs of wear and tear, you can unpick the thing and re-knit the welt. It is easier to do this with a cast off edge, than a cast on.
The thing you have to trade for your pragmatism is a less pretty edge as it’s hard to make a cast off edge as decorative as a pretty cast on.
One cast on I have used for hats, and not ganseys, but would consider for ganseys, is the German Twisted cast on. That looks great with garter stitch.
I won’t give a tutorial on the Channel Island Cast On here, just a few tips. The reason being I think it’s easiest to learn from a video and I can’t do that here.
You won’t go wrong with Beth Brown-Reinsel’s tutorial, or Eunny Jang’s. Alongside those, here are a few quick pointers. This will only make sense to someone in the middle of a Channel Island cast on. Sometimes, understanding what you’re meant to be doing, and a couple of tips, make the penny drop sooner! Beth gives instructions for the C I Cast On, using either English or Continental knitting styles. I knit Portuguese style, but cast on continental. So knitting style isn’t crucial.
A general tip for gansey cast on…. I cast on flat, on two needles, and knit the first several rows flat, before joining in the round. If you’ve left a long enough tail, you can easily, in seconds, sew those initial rows together to make your rows into rounds – and that is less aggravating than knitting ten rounds before you discover a twist! Which despite my experience, has happened to me in the past year, let’s just say!
Channel Island Cast On
You are casting on in pairs of stitches. The first stitch of each pair is a yarn over. The second, you are making by pulling a single strand of yarn through that doubled yarn over your thumb.
I find it easier to work from 3 balls of yarn, rather than knit like I sometimes would for a long-tailed cast on, where I’d use a single ball or cone. It is much less stressy to use 3 balls at once as you are not worrying about running out before all the stitches are cast on. If knitting from a cone, I’d make two small balls of yarn, enough for the cast on round and use alongside the cone.
Make a slip knot with all 3 strands to start off. Ignore this and don’t knit it for the first couple of rounds, then you can undo it and darn in the ends to secure the round. (This is the end of yarn I use to close up my initial 3 or 4 flat rows, when I’m making them into rounds). Leave the slip knot and knit into it if you need an odd number of stitches, though.
You have the doubled yarn on your thumb. Remember to wrap the doubled yarn anti-clockwise, round your thumb – as then you can pull the yarn through more easily, and get a neater finish when you pull the yarn snug to the needles, before you start the next stitch.
The little pearls of yarn along the cast on edge will be set off to their best advantage with a couple of rounds of garter stitch, before you start ribbing. 1 X 1 ribbing works better with a Channel Island cast on, than 2 X 2. 2 X 2 tends to be commoner in traditional knitting, though.
Tensioning this is the hard part. It is very difficult to make sure the little pearls of yarn you’re making, don’t look sloppy; and you want them to be fairly uniform as they will draw in the eye of the beholder. So take your time to make sure each stitch is seated perfectly – I just work doggedly through each pair of stitches at a time, and try not to think too far ahead! I can be interrupted mid most things, whilst knitting but will only cast on when I can guarantee no interruptions. Well, so far as anyone with 5 kids can guarantee no interruptions.
My other tip for gansey cast ons… Place a marker every 20 stitches. Traditional knitters thought in ‘scores’. This way you can more easily keep track of where you are in the cast on. And double check your accuracy by re-counting every score of stitches. So you’re only ever really thinking in 20s, not 200-odd to 300-odds. I have dyscalculia and struggle with numbers, seeing them backwards and all sorts, so I find this keeps it manageable for me and as I know at the end of casting on, that each section really does contain 20 stitches, I only have to count up the markers to be sure I have cast on the right number of stitches.
Gladys Thompson described a Filey knitter, Lizzie-Ann:
… I often slipped up to her cottage in the evenings and listened to her lovely East Yorkshire dialect and learnt to knit the different patterns she was always ready to show me.
She talked very fast, and it was difficult to follow all she said. She called her knitting needles ‘Pins’, the stitches were ‘loo-ups’ and she reckoned nubers by ‘t’scoore’. She was a quick knitter and worked with one needle held under her arm.
Although the Channel Island cast on is not ‘traditional’ for Yorkshire knitting, I use it anyway because it looks so beautiful and with those acres of boring 2 X 2 ribbing ahead of me, followed by an expanse of fairly plain stocking stitch before my pattern starts, I’m determined to do something a bit special-looking, when I can.
In “Knitting Ganseys”, Beth Brown-Reinsel points out:
“… Whereas in modern garments, the ratio of ribbing to body stitches is 90 percent, many old gansey ribbings had the same number of stitches as the body 100 percent)…” 
And this is worth mentioning when thinking about cast ons, as well. I usually check my measurements and calculations for a gansey using Elizabeth Zimmermann’s ‘EPS’ system (See ‘The Opinionated Knitter, 2008, page 25 – first EZ book I pulled out at random – EPS can be found in most of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s books). But I tend to ignore EPS for the welt, and cast on very close to 100%. I may add in the faux seam stitches – anything from 2 stitches to 6 or more – above the welt. But yes. There’s that to consider, too, when casting on a gansey.
To add to this, there is the modern idea of changing needle sizes so a contemporary knitter may go down a needle size or two for the welt, as well as start on 90% of the final body stitch number. I am with the traditional knitters, and stay with the same size needles throughout. That said, I prefer close to zero negative/positive ease and like them to fit well.
These are matters of personal taste and the knitter must, as ever, do what seems right to her/him.
Hope these tips and random thoughts on cast ons, are useful.
Look what came for me last week! A belated Mother’s Day present, from me to me.
A knitting belt from Journeyman Leather. I have long had my eye on these, but when I had a mini windfall selling some I’ll-never-knit-this stash on eBay, I decided to finally take the plunge. Especially after I saw the picture on their Facebook Page of the nice, groovy and funky coloured knitting belts. I asked for green; or red if no green was ready to go and am now so glad it was red!
I have had a knitting belt from elsewhere for years but never fell in love with it because when it came it looked nothing like the picture in the brochure – this was in the days when there were brochures not websites! Totally nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t look usable for what I do (living history). And I never forgave it for not being the one in the picture.
No such problem with Journeyman knitting belts.They are sewn – not a rivet in sight. And even a funky coloured one is OK for living history, I reckon, because the vege-tanned leather in the past was occasionally dyed bright colours.
An historical quibble though. Journeyman say : “The Shetland Knitting belt is unique to our islands…” and I can’t blame them for being proud of their brilliant heritage. But that’s not quite accurate. Belts were used in Yorkshire. I don’t know about elsewhere in the UK as I only get to the museums here and in Cumbria. But my feeling is they may have been universal, once. Although Dales knitters seem to have preferred a wooden knitting stick.
Researching ‘River Ganseys’, I found a man’s description of his Humberside mum knitting ganseys using a ‘tipee’ and he goes on to describe a knitting belt. There are examples from here in at least two Yorkshire museums and of course, Gladys Thompson mentions them more than once. They may have been less common in some parts of Yorkshire than others, as the firm accounts I have are from Humberside and I know one example in a museum, from here on the Vale of York.
I’ve thought of them as ‘knitting belts’ or ‘tippies’ . In Staithes, Gladys Thompson saw one when she visited the elderly Mrs Manship:
Her daughter showed us the leather ’tishie’, or pouch, pierced with holes and worn on a band round the waist…
I hate it when I hear people using the old words like “pricks” (no laughing at the back) or try to pretend there is some complicated distinction between “gansey” and “guernsey” (there isn’t) – although traditional knitting belongs to everyone, the world over, there is something pretentious about swaving pricks thousands of miles away by people who didn’t grow up using this now largely defunct lexicon. I grew up with at least one parent who was fluent in the East/West Riding border dialect but even I cringe to hear what feels like cultural appropriation. I think the oldest knitting usage I heard was ‘pins’ for ‘knitting needles’ which was a common usage across the UK and not particularly Yorkshire dialect.
But I love the word TISHIE so much it’s not cultural appropriation for me to use it, right? Or anyone, come to that, because tishies deserve another life. So tishie it is.
I might revert to tipee sometimes.
Coming Soon – I’m working on a blog piece on genealogy and knitting. In Gladys Thompson’s Footsteps. I recently found out the writer of ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’ came from my neck of the woods – by no means a foregone conclusion in such a large county. So look out for a piece coming soon, about the places Gladys Thompson knew, growing up here in the Vale of York. We had ancestors in Selby at the same time, and from similar backgrounds, both with close relatives who worked on the river when Selby was a busy dock. There must be something in the water, here!