Designing the Ardmore gansey


I can’t believe we are in the ninth week of the Inspired by Islay club! I’ve spent such a long time with these designs, and the thoughts about these designs, and it is very satisfying to finally send them out into the world. One of the things I rather miss is writing more about process. It is sometimes difficult to discuss one’s thinking about a design without spoiling the surprise, and believe me, there is a lot of trial and error going on here behind the scenes! As today’s club design – the Ardmore gansey – is one which involved a few interesting decisions, I thought you might like to hear more about the process behind it. (Those who are not fascinated by sleeve-caps can stop reading now!)

I’ve often been drawn toward designing and knitting a gansey with a maritime, masculine feel, and some of my favourite ganseys are the simplest: those with a plain body and a small amount of textured patterning around the upper torso.


As well as poring over photographs, I’ve taken lots of inspiration from the books on my shelf. I’ve long loved Glady’s Thompson’s writing, and her classic book on ganseys is one of my all-time favourite knitting titles. Stella Ruhe’s work on Dutch ganseys includes important research, and is also well-worth a look. As well as allowing you to find out more about the history of this important working garment, Ruhe and Thompson’s books teach you a lot about fit and shaping, and the “traditional” combination of a drop sleeve and under-arm gusset.

(image from Interweave).

Though these underarm gussets were probably essential for close-fitting nineteenth-century garments that required general ease of movement and saw an awful lot of wear, I tend to feel that far too much fabric is created by them at the underarm. I wanted my gansey to have a fit around the sleeve that was more modern and comfortable, and a little more refined.

Ever since I saw my friend Gudrun Johnston’s classic Audrey in Unst design, I’ve enjoyed designing garments with top-down set-in sleeves (if someone (apart from Barbara Walker) pioneered this interesting construction in a contemporary pattern prior to Gudrun I’m unaware of it). Some of my favourite cardigans feature top-down set-in sleeves, such as Ursula and Deco.


Over the years, I’ve mused long and hard on these sleeve caps, and have modified the way I design them several times. To my mind, there are two basic impediments to a top-down set-in sleeve that fits well around the upper arm: the first is gauge differences (a frequent issue when working small circumferences is that knitters’ gauge differs wildly from their ‘achieved’ gauge used throughout the rest of the garment – and by the time the sleeves are being worked these gauge differences go unnoticed.) The second impediment is what I’ve always felt was a little excess fabric at the underarms and upper arms. I’ve found this tricky to address, and I’ve previously done so by working the sleeve caps on smaller needles, then decreasing away any excess fabric through the sleeve. But for my neatly-fitting modern gansey I was determined to solve the conundrum once and for all and come up with what was (for me at least) the ultimate top-down sleeve cap! So I did quite a bit of research. I examined stitch ratios, geometry and proportions in the patterns of several other designers, and carefully read Elizabeth Doherty’s excellent book Top Down: Reimagining Set-in Sleeve Design. Books and patterns gave me lots to think about, but the simple fitting method I’ve devised here is my own – please feel free to follow and adapt it.


There are two key elements to my method: the first is to relate the number of stitches picked up around the armscye to the desired finished circumference of the sleeve at the upper arm. This results in far fewer picked-up stitches than you would imagine – a ratio of around 1 in 2. Second, repeated swatching suggested it was necessary to only work the short rows down half the depth of the scye (i.e. half the stitches remaining after the widths of upper shoulder and underarm have been factored out).


This photograph shows the transition between short row shaping, and the point where the sleeve has been joined to work in the round. Some may perhaps question whether this sleeve cap is in fact set-in at all. In fact, it is effectively a combination of set-in and drop, with only the shoulder and upper arm being accommodated by the short row shaping.


But whatever you want to call it, the result is a sleeve cap which is completely seamless, fits really well, and doesn’t have a problem of excess fabric around the upper arm. (I liked my new method of sleeve construction so much I also used it on the Kildalton cardigan.)


Another design conundrum posed by my gansey idea was the fact that the majority of the garment was worked in plain stockinette, with a single section of cabling around the front of the upper torso.


If you’ve never designed a garment in a combination of stockinette and cables, you may not realise this a problem: the issue is the radically narrowing effect of the cables in comparison to the plain fabric that surrounds it. I might have specified going up a needle size (or two) to work the front panel but the effects of such a move on an individual knitter’s gauge can be incredibly variable, and I felt it was too blunt an instrument in this case (a decision which my tech-editing guru, Jen Arnall-Culliford eagerly encouraged). Repeated swatching is always the designer’s friend, and in this case it allowed me and Jen to accurately verify the stitch differential between the cable panel and plain stockinette sections.


To divide stockinette from cables, a section of 2×2 rib is worked, followed by a series of increases which allows the panel to be worked at exactly the same gauge as that which preceded it. Those who like their cables to “flow” out of their ribbing may be offended by this move: I swatched other transitions (moss stitch and garter stitch) but in the end much preferred the rib, despite the fact that the increase row effectively means that the cables cannot “flow”.


Finally, a note on fit. This pattern has a wide size range (to fit chests from 30 to 60 ins). My friend Gordon is wearing his gansey in the 7th size with slight positive ease. I also knit one for myself, in the second size, with zero ease.


Gordon is well over 6 ft tall, while I am just over 5 ft. The pattern is very easy to adjust in terms of sleeve and body length for different requirements, and you may wish (as I did here) to add a little waist shaping and to work fewer rounds of rib at the neck than specified.


The gansey has been designed to suit the shape and proportions of a masculine torso, and, being the complete opposite of well-endowed, it rather suits me. The design and grading of the armscyes and upper body reflects this masculine fit, which can be worn with more ease than either of the garments shown here (for a looser fit, select a size up to 2.5 inches above your actual chest measurement). There’s lots of information in the pattern’s sizing table to help you make adjustments to suit your gansey’s intended wearer.


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the design process behind the Ardmore Gansey!

If you are interested in joining the Inspired by Islay club, and receiving the nine already-issued patterns as well as the three to come, you can still do so here.