Wool Maker Lane

knitting, spinning and life with alpacas


Digging in the Round

I have been looking for a while for interesting stitches for an aran jumper and I was captivated by a pullover that I saw in the Knitter’s Almanac book by Elizabeth Zimmerman.  It was called ‘Fish Trap’ and I liked it because it didn’t require the use of a cable needle, just travelling stitches, and didn’t appear to be too prominent on the garment ie. it didn’t jut out 3-D wise.  Like a new Zimmerman disciple I decided to make a hat rather than a swatch, and for the first time I thought that I would have a go at knitting on a circular needle.

I have knitted in the round before, always on four needles, and have quite  enjoyed the thought of limiting the amount of sewn seams to finish a garment but I have to say I did find it a bit peculiar.  I am guessing that circular needles are a relatively new invention compared to using four needles:



( Visit of the Angel, from the right wing of the Buxtehude Altar, 1400-10 (tempera on panel)CreatorMaster Bertram of Minden (c.1345-c.1415)NationalityGermanLocationHamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

This painting is meant to depict Mary of Nazareth knitting in the round. Now,  I can’t say whether Mary actually did knit but I think that this painting definitely indicates that this type of knitting took place in Germany during the lifetime of the artist in the 14th-15th Centuries.)

From my own experience I found it difficult initially to work with the shortness of the needles but after about ten to fifteen rounds of the ‘hat’ I was well into the swing of it and now I see no point in using two needles for a hat again.  This part was a great success.

The only drawback in the whole project was the ‘fishtrap’ pattern.  I found this really disappointing.  Due to busy commitments I wasn’t quite able to get a good run at it and I found myself stopping and starting and losing my place in the instructional chart which was extremely small (and at times having no pen or pencil to mark off how far I had reached. )


(This is an example from Google Images of a hat with  ‘half fish trap’ pattern)

To make the stitches ‘travel’ without a cable needle was fairly simple particularly when travelling  or twisting to the right.  It basically went like this:

Right Twist

K2 together, Leave on left needle, K first stitch again, Remove two stitches from the left needle

This was the easy one.  The next, twisting to the left, required, as Zimmerman would put it, a ‘dig’.

Left Twist

Knit (read ‘dig’) into the back of the second stitch, knit into the front of the first stitch  and remove the 2 stitches from the left needle.

Digging , of course, is the operative word here although, prodding, poking or stabbing would easily suffice.  By row 6 or 7 I had had enough of the chart and decided to just enjoy what I was doing and take charge.  My efforts look nothing like the beautiful hat in the picture above.  At many stages I was considering the ‘abort’ option but I feel that I have mastered the use of the circular needles, I now (eventually) can knit the fish trap pattern and being more relaxed the tension of the stitches has loosened so there is less violence and emotional outbursts required during the left twists!  I am now about to start the decreases for the crown of the hat.  It will be one that I can wear as I go out to the field on a cold evening.  I’m sure the alpacas will love it!



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The Aran Jumper: Myth or legend?

I recently grasped the opportunity to buy twelve hanks of beautiful Aran wool during a trip to the West of Ireland.   I have been dying to start an aran jumper for some time so when I came across this bargain I just had to dive in.  Having made the purchase I hunted for a pattern and this quest led me down all sorts of avenues…involving a little bit of research on the history of the old Aran.

The Aran jumper originates from the Aran Islands off the West Coast of Ireland.  There appears to be a number of phases in its story though.  During the 19th Century knitters on the Aran Isles were thought to be influenced by traditional guernseys worn by fishermen from England and Scotland which were mainly dark blue in colour.   Indeed the Gaelic word for jumper is geansaí (gansey) which obviously derives from the word Guernsey.  Playwright John Millington Synge took many photographs around the turn of the century during his time there.  One of these shows local men sporting such garments:


Image of the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 taken by the playwright John Millington Synge for Weekend Arts

Synge also contributed to some of the myths surrounding Aran sweaters; most notably the one where each family would only knit jumpers using particular stitches or pattern designs.  In one of his plays, Riders to the Sea,  a drowned fisherman could only be identified by the stitches on his gansey.

Another romantic theory was introduced during the 1930’s by a German author  Hans Kiewe.  He  made the argument that all of the stitches had a deeper sacred meaning but more recent research has put this theory into disrepute.


(This picture of a quay in the Aran Islands, thought to be taken in the 1940’s – 1950’s, shows some young men wearing the familiar white Aran sweaters.)

Ann O’ Dowd, curator at the National Museum of Ireland, believes that the Aran jumper was not worn on the Aran Islands until the 1930’s and 40’s.  A combination of the influence of the fisherman’s guernsey, emigrants returning home with new knitting techniques and the contributions from local knitters all merged over time to bring forth the pullover that we recognise today as an Aran.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s Aran Sweaters became very fashionable when celebrities such as Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen started to wear them.   In fact one traditional Irish music group, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, always wore them whilst performing thus adding to the garment’s popularity.   As a child myself during the 1970’s I well remember donning a scratchy, heavy Aran made by my friend’s granny from coarse báinín wool.  Its design was fairly simple with symmetrical repeating patterns spanning out from a honeycomb panel in the centre.  Along side the twisted and diamond cables other common stitches used such as moss stitch and blackberry stitch.  Here is an example of an Aran Sweater from this period.


More recently there has been another shift in the evolution of the Aran Sweater.  Designers, such as Alice Starmore and Carol Feller, have been making the cables more intricate resembling Celtic artwork found in ancient monastic scripts.   These very beautiful garments require an enhanced level of skill and concentration as the patterns don’t seem to repeat so regularly and many are knitted on circular needles.  Nowadays though they are knitted in wool that is softer and lighter on the wearer and also the knitter’s hands.


I have a lot of thinking to do to decide how traditional or modern I wish to be in choosing a design for my wool.


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International Mitten Knitting Rule 1: Pay More Attention!

What a difference a millimetre makes

Do you find that one of your hands is bigger than the other?  Will a ring that fits on say the ring finger of one hand fail to fit on its equivalent finger on the other?  Yes I find that too.  By sheer good fortune my right hand is a tad bigger than my left basically because I am right handed.  And the reason that this is so fortunate is because I recently returned to Bristol and took up where I had left off a month previously knitting the second of a pair of beautifully soft, moss green mittens.  I had brought my pattern book with all of my notes with me so I was simply following these.  I proudly knitted up to the wonderful tips of the fingers and sewed up the side with pride.  Eventually I went to the drawer to find the matching mitten and what a shock I got when I found that, with the exception of the colour and the basic design, the latest mitten was way bigger than the original.  Yes I had neglected to pay attention to the needle size and instead of using 4mm needles I used 5mm.  It’s a simple mistake to make but I really must be more careful when I make notes as this was a serious omission.  These mittens were destined for the ‘Christmas Pressie’ Pile but now they shall adorn my own hands and I can have a giggle each time I look at them.


Sun, Cross and other design features

While I was away I got the chance to browse in lots of local charity shops.  There is a super charity bookshop nearby and I spied a book called ‘Sun and Cross’ (1984, Floris Books, Edinburgh) which is a history book written by a Swiss guy called Jakob Streit.  It chronicles the cultural changes in Ireland from pagan times to the arrival of Christianity.  What I suppose I found most interesting was the intermingling of the two cultures.  The book is full of splendid black and white photographs which depict lots of ancient stone  monuments with their spirals and lozenge designs.  The pictures then move onto the Celtic cross style of monuments and show how initially these pictorial pagan elements were incorporated into the carvings. Interestingly Ireland is now at a similar crossroads where, through immigration, many new religions are now being practised and there is also a strong movement towards secularism.     Socially it’s a very exciting time to be living here and it will be fascinating to see how our society will shift to accommodate and integrate new ways of thought and living.


New Skein

During my charity shop rambles I came across this gorgeous skein of petrol coloured wool. It had no label on but is incredibly similar to Donegal Tweed.  It only cost £2 so I shall leave it in Bristol and make a lovely hat during my next visit (paying close attention to the needle size of course!).  It is a tiny bit scratchy so I’ll see what it is like when it has been made up and washed but I may have to consider a lining if the hat is still coarse.




Lovely Albie’s eye is all better now for which I am extremely grateful.  I must say that I was extremely worried but he has made a super recovery and is now back to his tip top self.  It took about three weeks for his ulcer to heal altogether.

Spinning Wheel Fix Up

Last year I bought a second hand spinning wheel in Bristol.  It’s an Ashford Traditional model from New Zealand.  It required a lot of TLC.  I took the bobbins and the Lazy Kate from it and brought them to Ireland to use.  Having a lot of fleece in Ireland to spin I thought that it would be a good idea to get the Bristol wheel up and running so that I can do some spinning when I’m in England.  I sent off to a suppliers and got a new fly wheel, brake band, bobbins and a spring and my wonderful husband crafted a footman for it out of a length of wood.  Can you spot the additions?



I just can’t wait to use it.

Meanwhile I have been spinning the alpaca’s fleece for a friend in Sydney who wants to make a hat.  Here is a combination of Bert (2 plies) and Albie/Bootsy (1ply).  I loved carding and spinning the Albie/Bootsy combination.  It will be great to see the beanie when it’s finished.