Saturday, July 28, 2012

Why Cables?

Like a Socratic question or a question used to teach Shaolin monks, this question has many layers.

First, why gansey knit? (i.e., knit with a knitting sheath and long steel needles)  The gansey knitting technology allows knitting tighter than can be achieved without the leverage provided by the knitting sheath.  The tighter, gansey knit fabric is more weatherproof than can be achieved with hand held needles.  The fabric  is remarkably thin for its warmth, which is a real advantage in the cramped quarters onboard a working fishing ship, and it is remarkably warm which in an a real advantage in the cold and windy conditions under which commercial fishing is often conducted.  That is reasonable, but why cables?

Cables provide some additional ventilation between the sweater and the oil skin (water proof layer) to reduce wetness under oil skins as a result of moisture from the sailor's skin condensing on the cold inside of the oil skin.  This is a good reason.  It may abe reason enough.  Cables provide some additional comfort when sleeping in a canvas hammock.  This is a good reason.  Cables provide an artistic outlet for the knitter.  This is a good reason.  Cable patterns help identify the sweater (and I assert, at one time the cable pattern indicated the wearer's job and fleet.)  That is a good reason.  However, none of these are really compelling  reasons.

To really understand cable patterns, you have to go back to the reason for for ganseys; warmth with light weight. The early (13th centrury) fishermen on the North Atlantic lashed barrels to the rails of their small (70 foot) ships.  Then, the fishermen stood in the barrels with straw to help keep them warm , and jigged for cod.    (later they jigged for mackerel, and trawled for herring).  In those days, a single cod could weigh more than 100 pounds.  Bringing up a cod was like hauling a iron manhole cover up through 300 feet of water, and they would do it every 10 minutes. Except this is the North Atlantic, so there are large waves and everything is rocking.  What did they do?  They braced themselves against the edge of the barrel.

Put on a sweater and climb into a barrel, grab hold of a manhole cover and have 2 of your brothers rock the barrel violently as you repeatedly lift the manhole cover for a week. At the end of a week you have a big hole in your sweater where it rubbed against the edge of the barrel.

(Later generations of fishermen worked from dories and braced themselves against the gunnels of the dory.)

After they caught the fish, they cut fish.  With the ship still rocking, you take a fish in one hand and a sharp knife in the other and you brace your self against the cutting table - except by now your gansey has a hole in it, and there is only a thin apron between your belly and the cold slime and wet from the cutting table.   You get back to St Peter Port  and you  go to your knitter, and tell them that you want a sweater that will last more than a week.  So they  knit you one - with cables on the belly where it rubs against the barrel, and the design was so good, that in some way copied by 50 generations of knitters. Thus, fisherman's sweaters have cables or fisherman's welt on their fronts.

The third job of the fisherman was to get where the fish were, and  stay where the fish were.  That meant sailing up wind  in all weather.  The weather blew the ship off the fish, so the fisherman must constantly sail up wind. Sailing up wind is an uncomfortable business.  Moreover, the harder the wind blows, the more uncomfortable it is, but also, for a commercial fisherman who must catch his catch as fast as possible, the more important it is to work to windward, to stay over the fishing grounds.

During a storm on the Grand Banks, the expected wave period is only 20 seconds.  On a ship, anything that is not lashed down is going to get thrown about.  Lead sinkers jump 2 feet in the air, twice a minute.  Sailors get thrown about. The ships were oak and the sailors, mortal flesh. Today under those conditions, we would be wearing layers of  polyester fleece (and life jackets/ float coats/immersion suits) and that would provide some protection.  However, gansey fabric was thinner and provided less padding.  Hence, cables all over the sweater provided some padding in an otherwise thin garment.  Again, likely a concept developed by knitters on the Channel Islands, and copied by others knitting for sailors for 50 generations.

We can look at the differences between the sweaters worn by sailors and fishermen and those worn by life boat men to take another bearing on the concept.  The ganseys worn by life boat men do not seem to have had cables.  Life boat men did wear oil skins, so we can drop the ventilation concept. What they did not do is brace themselves against the railing or gunnels to haul fish to the surface.  The lifeboat's prize was already at the surface.  They rowed out, picked it up, and rowed back.  Nor did the lifeboat men take the beating of sailing to weather for days or weeks on end.  It is not that rowing a lifeboat is easy, just there is less to bang against.  So while lifeboatmen's gamseys without cables do not prove my theory of cables as padding, they  does not disprove my theory either.

Having worn ganseys with and without cables, while sailing in serious weather, I find the concept of cables as padding the most compelling reason for cables.   Anybody that disagrees should have tried sailing in ganseys with and without cable patterns on them in serious weather.  To have any credibility, on this topic you need to have been out fishing when the waves were bigger than the boat.  You need to understand that the key to getting work done while wearing a Type 1 PFD is motivation.  To have any credibility, on this topic you need to have been knitting while lead sinkers were thumping on their racks.


Anonymous said...

These are impressive articles. Keep up the sunny handiwork.

Sabine said...

Okay - when will you eventually make a book from your deep knowledge in spinning and knitting Ganseys?
Fleegle on Ravelry made the best reference book for supported spinning - I'm waitng for the one about your topics...;-)

Aaron said...

Every so often I offer a publisher a proposal.

Sabine said...

Cat Bordhi is doing it with her e-books, and Fleegle sells her book on an USB-Stick or as a printed version.

The advantage is you're in control of the whole process (and of course, the money...)

Aaron said...

Yes,to a certain extent, that is what I do here : )

I want higher production values, better video, and etc. Every time I think I have team put together, it somehow falls apart.

Sabine said...

Oh, but as a blog you're just inputting free content without being paid for all your work.
If you have enough money and don't need more and if you are happy with your work - it's perfectly okay as it is right know.

But most scientists and artists appreciate money as a measurement of value of their work....

Why should you deprive yourself of that? ;-)

I'm paying a lot of $$ for books with special spinning/knitting techniques - you need a very good photographer and good editor - go and ask people who did it before how they managed it and what they think about the people they worked with.
And what they would do better/other ways when they had to do it again.

Standard printed publishing will leave you with most of the work and the vwry minor part of the money.

Just give it a go!

=Tamar said...

I would like to know the earliest use of cable stitches you can demonstrate; the earliest I've found are circa 1815.

Aaron said...

I think you have traced it back farther than I have.

I am simply looking at early knitting and saying, they were good knitters and they used those skills to solve the problems posed by square rigged ships.

I think they started knitting cables early in the development of square rigged ships, but I have no proof of it.

On the other hand, once you have worn a gansey with cables to reef sails in a bad squall, you understand what an advantage the cables represent. It is such an advantage that when ever they were developed, I am sure they spread rapidly through out the sailing / fishing community very rapidly, likely resulting in a dramatic expansion of shipping capacity. Where do we see that? I suggest the 12th century.

=Tamar said...

Could the rubbing against the edge of the gunnels be the reason those 19th century photographs show sailors wearing their ganseys with a very deep ribbing turned up to make a second layer around the waist? I don't recall seeing visible holes in the photographed ganseys, but I guess they could have been wearing the repaired/newer ones in port.

Aaron said...

No idea! What were the fishing for?

=Tamar said...

Probably herring, given that they were in UK ports during the era of the Herring Girls who followed the ships from port to port (and knitted their own ganseys). But they could easily have been fishing for cod as well.

=Tamar said...

I don't know. Cod or herring, I guess. On the history of similar techniques, have you ever investigated nalbinding? The Dura-Europos fragments include one with marvelous patterning involving traveling stitches done in Egyptian-style nalbinding that could pass for twisted-stitch Aran work except for an increase stitch that is nearly impossible in knitting and extremely easy in nalbinding. It's hard to believe that those patterning techniques were forgotten for a thousand years, but we just have no evidence of them in the intervening centuries.

Karen said...

Hi Aaron,

Lifeboatmen in the UK at least have always been the fishermen (and some other local volunteers) as being the people with the necessary knowledge of the local waters and with the requisite boat handling skills.

Aaron said...

"Always" is a slippery word. Prior to the 12th century, most UK fishermen were the local guys in small boats and the local fishermen were the life boat men.By the 13th century in shore waters were fished out and "real fishermen" went to sea - then there had to be life boat men that were on shore and ready to assist ships in distress.

Yes, there were still fish near the shore, and near shore fishing was done, but most fish were farther out.

Aaron said...

My view is that workers choose their clothing to fit their work. Carpenters wear carpenter's pants, and painters wear painter's pants, and farmers wear bib overalls.

As Alden Amos builds spinning tools he likes bib overalls, and as I work on my knitting tools, I like coveralls that I buy from a Amish farm supply store. However, the fabrics and features are remarkably similar.

I think sailors and fishermen told their suppliers what features they needed in their clothes and the suppliers made them.

As for nalbinding - the problem with nalbinding is cost. Nalbinding is slower than knitting. I can spin and knit a good water repellent fisherman's sweater in well under 200 hours. Next year I can unravel the good parts of that sweater, then using that yarn (adding another ply or two) and some newly spun yarn I can make a "new" good water repellent fisherman's sweater in less than 150 hours.
Fishing was a business, and in a business, cost matters.

How long would it take you to spin and nalbind a good water repellent fisherman's sweater? After that sweater is worn, how long would it take you to prepare a second "good as new" sweater?

The only argument against nalbinding is cost. Thus, craftsmen likely used it for decorative items for the rich - and such items are those most likely to survive.

Anonymous said...

"Cable patterns help identify the sweater (and I assert, at one time the cable pattern indicated the wearer's job and fleet.)"
On what evidence?

Kate Corwyn

Aaron said...

Because that is how I select the designs for the sweaters that I want to wear. I knit one pattern for tuna fishing and another for sailing around SF Bay. The old timers were just as rational as I am. They selected and wore clothes suited to the job. Some fleets fished warmer waters and the fishermen did not need as much warmth. Fishermen had different jobs from sailors and thus had needs.