Those Darned Sleeves

Remember that scene in Cool Runnings when they arrive in Calgary and Sanka rushes back into the terminal to put on everything in his bag, followed by the bag? Thirteen years ago, that would have been me arriving in New Zealand, had my grandmother not met us at the airport with a better bag: a bag full of woollies, knitted with her own two hands.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-E0127-0091-003, LPG Schenkenberg, Mitglied der LPGThat bag included a grass-green guernsey for me, a garment which I immediately put on and have worn for large parts of every year since. When it was two years old, I wore it to said grandmother’s funeral, along with some of my similarly guernseyed cousins (she was a very productive woman, my gran). I have done many wardrobe clear-outs over the years, of varying levels of drasticitude, but I have never considered getting rid of my guernsey.

So you can imagine my distress on noticing that the cuff was wearing thin at the fold. But we were in the middle of moving house, packing everything up and so on; hardly a good time to settle down to some mending. I did manage to go through the box of ancestral happiness which contained all the odds and ends of wool left behind by this same knitting grandmother, looking for matching wool to mend with. Alas, there was not so much as a scrap of the original yarn, but I pulled out a few greens and packed them separately, so as to have them to hand.

Imagine my horror, on one of our first mornings in this house, when I pulled the guernsey on and my finger went through a hole.

This is what our camera thinks grass-green looks like.

There was no time to be lost. I found the assortment of green yarns and compared them with the original to decide which was closest. There was one that was Close Enough to Do, I decided; no need to hit the shops before a mend could be undertaken. The next question was one of method. It may be “sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,” but for raveled sleave of guernsey you need some kind of a darn.

Results having finally come through (or rather worn through) from the sock-darning experiment, I thought I would go with the classic back-and-forth darn. One of my vintage handwork books recommends a sort of Swiss darning for holes in knitted things (there’s a tutorial here if you dare), but I quailed at the thought. I was by no means sure of my ability to execute it correctly – and the idea of taking scissors to the beloved garment brought me out in a cold sweat. This was no mere sock, after all. This was the last garment my gran ever made for me, and while there may be knitting where she has gone (I sure hope there is), they don’t allow for forwarding to the bereaved descendants.

The stakes were high. I gathered my materials from the various locations to which a state of partial unpackedness had spread them.

Darning flat: no egg required.

The actual darning wasn’t too much trouble, once I’d figured out a way to weave the needle in which didn’t leave long strands on the wrong side – or right side, if the cuff is folded back, though I doubt there is a right side for long unattached strands. There was more to do than I’d realized, however: the hole was small, but the eight-ply-worn-almost-to-lace section ran about halfway round the cuff. It took a while.

The problem with darning, as identified by Miss Mary Grant, is that it is not exactly mentally invigorating – but it does require you to keep your eyes on what you are doing. Happily, however, ears are not a necessary part of the darning equipage, and you can listen to music, download an audiobook from Librivox, or, like me, get your nearest and dearest to read aloud to you while you work. It tends to take longer than you think. Just when you reach the end of the patch with your up-and-downs, you realize now you have to do all the back-and-forths (or vice versa).

At least the camera’s odd rendition of colour makes the mend easier to see.

But at last it is finished. I am happy to say that the sleeve was saved: the darning not only captured any thread that was thinking of unravelling, but reinforced the whole worn area. It’s thick and sturdy now, I think it will survive.

Wikipedia describes the guernsey as “a particularly hardy item of clothing” and notes that “It is not uncommon for a guernsey to last several decades and be passed down in families.” I don’t know if my guernsey will last that long (though it is well into its second decade now), but I intend to give it every opportunity to do so.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will even have the guts to try Swiss darning. It’s certainly more beautiful than plain darning. Still, while my mend may not be pretty, it’s practical, and that’s what guernseys are all about. And I am glad that my practical skills can keep the guernsey together while it keeps me warm.

The mended cuff.

Today’s bit of Old-Fashioned wisdom is brought to you by the guernsey: Keep Warm and Carry On.

Swings and Roundabouts

No, this is not a post about playgrounds, although while I was on holiday I did pay a brief visit to the largest playground in the Southern Hemisphere. (Well worth a visit. I especially enjoyed the Archimedes’ Screws, reminding me as they did of piston-filling fountain pens.)

Rather, I thought I would start my fourth blogging year (can you believe it?) with some exciting news on the Simplicity Front. Remember the epic quilt of craziness I slogged away at in my Year of Finishing Things? I finished it.

Newport Hill Climb finish line

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am now an official card-carrying member of that mysterious cadre, People Who Finish Things. (All right, there isn’t a card. But there should be. Maybe I’ll make one. I’ll even finish it…)

Not only did I finish the Giant Quilt of Craziness, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I also delivered it to the intended recipient and it is no longer in my house. I do still have the scraps, but I am intending to make a hussif with them as a permanent reminder to myself never to begin such an enormous and ambitious project again.

So far so good. The house is less one large sewing project, which is a good step in the direction of simplicity. But… what you lose on the swings you make up on the roundabouts.

On the Merry-go-round at Deepwater Races - Deepwater, NSW, c. 1910 G Robertson-Cuninghame from The State Library of New South Wales

There’s the Box. The ancestral box which came down to me from my grandmother via my mother (the latter, I am happy to say, is not deceased, but rather, well ahead of the pack when it comes to pruning).

The box started out as three bags full (which should give you some idea of what was in it, if this didn’t). Actually, four bags full – there was a small one hiding behind one of the big ones. What it worked out to, once I had cunningly smuggled it home in my luggage (and the Caped Gooseberry’s luggage, obviously) was a 60L clear plastic storage container full to lid-not-fitting with yarn. “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.” Instant stash (although not SABLE, unless I pop my clogs well before my odometer ticks over to three-score and ten).

Not all of it is actually wool: some of it is 100% acrylic (I am shocked, Gran, shocked) and some of it was made up of worn out slippers and odd sleeves, button bands etc. Some of it was a Gordian Knot of odds and ends partially wound into little balls and partially wound into each other. This was gradually unwound over the course of three days with the help of The Occasional Visitor. (Alexander may have had a swift solution to his knotty problem, but I’d like to see him try to knit with it afterward.)

Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot.

Deceased slippers and assorted body-parts aside, I am welcoming this boxful into my home. Why? Because the point of simplicity isn’t to have as little as possible of anything. The point of simplicity is to have just enough of the right things – that’s lagom – and for me the right things include knitting wool. It makes me happy, and I make it into useful things for keeping people warm and well-dressed.

But fear not! I have by no means given up on pruning, or on Finishing Things (details to follow). In the meantime, I have large quantities of mystery yarn to test for fibre content. By which I mean setting bits of it on fire. So much happiness, from just one box…



My grandmother believed in buying quality: the best you could afford. The idea of buying an item simply for the status of the label would have been completely foreign to her. What she would have said about buying an item simply for the status of the faked label, I don’t know, but it would have been short, sharp and unflattering.

Not a woman to be trifled with (6171317215)

Buying good quality is, to my mind, very sensible, and probably the reason why a lot of what the Caped Gooseberry and I own comes from our ancestors. Not just big things like furniture, but the sorts of things which these days are subject to obsolescence and its more evil twin, planned obsolescence.

We still use my grandmother’s VCR for watching videos. We still use my grandfather’s heater. They’ve been gone for ten and twenty-one years, respectively, but they bought quality, and it shows.

I still wear their dressing-gowns, too. Admittedly, the cord on my grandpa’s wool dressing-gown needed replacing this year, but that’s not bad after more than two decades of wear.

Ladies clothing section, Bell and McCauley's Store, Drouin, Victoria (6173559063)

It’s the same on the Caped Gooseberry’s side. He regularly wears some of his grandfather’s clothes (his grandfather’s been gone more than thirty years now); and I use his granny’s teapot (made in the early ’20s) on a regular basis, pouring tea into my gran’s teacups.

We are still using my gran’s everyday crockery set – despite years of wear it was in much better condition than the set I bought new (and cheap). The same goes for her oven dishes, and my grandfather’s china jugs.

One of my favourite winter hats (très chic) originally belonged to the Caped Gooseberry’s granny. I also have one of her summer hats, which she wore to meet Prince Charles back when he still had hair. Dark hair.

I wrote the entire first draft of my WIP (158k words) with a fountain pen dredged up from somewhere in my husband’s ancestry. I still use it every day. It just keeps working.

The Woodside's cottage, Aylmer, Quebec, May 24, 1909 / Le chalet des Woodside à Aylmer (Québec), le 24 mai 1909

We still use my gran’s lawnmower (with my grandpa’s WWII petrol tin). It wasn’t working so wonderfully well lately, so I took it for a shamefully overdue maintenance visit to the mower man. The blades were not only blunt but actually broken. (I shudder to think what my gran would have said.)

Mercifully, maintenance and spare parts are still available for mowers. The same cannot be said of everything. Time was, you could pop down to the local stationers to have your fountain pen nib sharpened. These days, most of them don’t even sell real fountain pens, just fountain-looking pens with disposable insides (which do not count).

I do worry about what we are going to do when these practical heirlooms eventually wear out or break down. It’s very hard to get things repaired or mended these days – you’re just expected to buy a new one. Where will we find another such heater? Where such a perfectly dripless teapot?

A Customer Can Use the Ration Books of the Whole Family. But the First Thing She Will Want to Know When She Buys Pork Chops, Pound of Butter or a Half Pound of Cheese Is - "How Many Points Will It Take?" 1941 - 1945 (4545457453)

Time was, if you were prepared to pay, good quality was available. These days it is perfectly possible to pay a high price for something which is still of inferior quality, and which will not last. Gran would not be pleased.

I’ve reached the stage in my life where I’d rather pay more for something I know will last – though as things stand in the world today, it’s not looking good for the grand-kids.