Charting a course for my fisherman sweater

Charting a course for my fisherman sweater

I began the first of my Summer of Basics garments on the plane last Tuesday — in this case, not with a ball of yarn and knitting needles but with a Knitters Graph Paper Journal and a freshly sharpened Blackwing pencil. This is for the 1967 Bernat fisherman sweater — my choice for the sweater I’ve wanted for decades — and Step 1 was/is to convert the written instructions to a chart, so I can actually see what’s happening and make any necessary adjustments thereto. After an hour or two of converting words and abbreviations to marks on graph paper, I could see that the sleeve is just panels of raspberry stitch, one repeating cable motif, and what I believe will become broken rib with the underarm increases. What I haven’t puzzled out yet is why they took what became clear is a 12-row repeat and wrote it out as 36 rows, but I’m guessing it’s because the front/back center panel will prove to be a 36-row repeat and perhaps they meant to make sure you kept them aligned in some way that the pattern never ultimately specifies? I may never know. But anyway, I began with the simpler sleeve chart so I could have it to swatch with.

I’ve been thinking Arranmore might be the perfect yarn for me and this sweater. I do want it to be a classic ivory fisherman, but feel like the slight tweediness of the Arranmore (it has little flecks of tan and light blue) might be my friend in terms of long-term spots or discoloration. Plus I just really love this yarn, which I previously used for my black yoke sweater. So one morning, chart in hand, I sat on the dock at Squam and began to swatch.

The first swatch was on US8/5mm and the fabric was too loose for my liking, so I began again on US7/4.5mm, which is the swatch pictured above. As I knitted it, I thought the yarn might not be right for these stitches, as the fabric felt stiff and the cables looked underwhelming. (It’s such a weird cable.) I took it to class to show my students and we talked about how I plan to take my time, swatching with as many yarns and needles as it takes to find the right thing, given all I’ll be putting into this sweater and how long I’ve wanted it. Then I decided I might as well take the time to dunk the swatch and make sure I didn’t like it any better after blocking, and guess what: it’s pretty dreamy. This photo was taken while it was still damp, and I really should have taken a dry one to show you, but you’ll have to take my word for it — I can’t stop draping it around my arm.

That meant trying to sort out size and gauge as compared to the vintage pattern, which is rather short on the sort of details we’re used to these days. There’s no schematic, and the gauge is simply given as “11 stitches = 2 inches.” Eleven stitches of which of the many stitch patterns, we can’t know. Is it an average across the whole sweater? If anyone out there is an expert on the way things used to be done, I’d love to hear from you, but meanwhile that will have to be my assumption. If true, my gauge is slightly more compact at 6 stitches per inch, which means I’ll need to knit the XL and still come out with a sweater slightly smaller than intended — or figure out some tweaks to the patterning to compensate.

[UPDATE: A couple of commenters have said it would have been implied in those days that the stated gauge was for stockinette stitch — which tells a very different story than cables! But looking at the pattern’s stitch counts and finished circumference, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. For example, the XL (44-46″) calls for a 122-st CO for the back, which divided by 22″ is 5.5. (I.e., their “11 sts = 2 inches.”) Same for the other sizes. So it does seem to be the average gauge of the finished fabric and not taken from stockinette.]

On the flight home, I was too brain dead to do anything but stare at the swatch, my chart, and the photos I’d snapped of the pattern photo so that I could zoom in on them and try to sort out the details that aren’t present in the pattern itself. The swatch had me thinking even the smallest sleeve would be too big, and I was toying with the idea of eliminating two of the cables from the sleeve, leaving just one down the center of the arm. But as usual, it’s a good thing I was prevented from rushing in, since while staring at it all, I realized that would necessitate the same change along the sides of the body — a change I don’t want to make — AND the fully dry swatch is actually totally fine. Patience does pay off, even if it’s imposed.

So all that’s left is to commit to the investment it will be to do a yarn-eater like this in this particular yarn, but I feel like it will be more than worth it.

Charting a course for my fisherman sweater

ARMY PORTER NOTE: What remains from our starter batch of the army green Porter Bin, launched at the Squam Art Fair, will go into the webshop this Friday morning, June 16, at 9am Central Time — set your alarms!


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39 thoughts on “Charting a course for my fisherman sweater

  1. Love the blow-by-blow. I find it essential to (wet) block cable swatches. I learned the hard way when a finished garment grew in width by around 30%. My cables do that!

    • Oh, definitely! I mean, I wet block everything, but especially cables since I want to make sure they don’t flatten too much in the given yarn. In this case, I just didn’t have any expectation that it would look enough better than it did unblocked, so that was a nice surprise!

  2. The way things used to be done:
    Old-timer here: I knit my first cabled sweater sometime in college (class of ’68) from a Bernat pattern, but not the one you have shown us. Besides all the missing pieces that you noted, its important to remember that fit was quite different then, and hand knitting patterns tended to be shorter (just below the waist was common) and to fit much more closely, not just in the body, but sleeves were also tighter, and the armhole opening was of shorter depth; necklines tended to be tighter, too. It’s also important to remember that the “ideal” female form of the 60’s was less athletic and narrow of shoulder, and in general, we were shorter (I am 5’3″, I never needed to adapt for length). That Bernats worsted would have come on a 4 0z skein with about 250 yards, and it would have probably been a denser feeling yarn (always 4 plies) compared to the more lightly twisted yarns favored today . That density made the cables stand out more sharply.

    Gauge would definitely been done on stockinette stitch, although I have to admit that my swatching at 19 was not nearly as meticulous as it is today, and no one ever emphasized it much. My suspicion is that extra stitches were added in for the cables in a sort of arbitrary fashion, and not with the precise swatching that Norah Gaughan’s newest book has given us. And most patterns had a side panel of something like moss stitch or some other flat, mindless stitch that allowed a place to add extra stitches to adapt the size.

    When Alice Starmore started her first yarn line, the cabled sweaters she sent as samples were knit densely enough to be worn as winter coats, with a tight gauges, and yarn that had 5 plies, as I recall. They were thick and luxurious looking, but not really wearable indoors (and I live in a cold climate). On the other hand, when i went to the UK Knitting and Stitching show several years ago, I was surprised at how loosely the fisherman sample sweaters were knit: only for indoor wear now. Whatever you decide for yourself has to weigh the authenticity of the old ways, with what makes the most wearable and useful to you sweater for today.

    • Fit-wise, this one is actually unisex and if anything the armholes are too deep and upper sleeves too big, so that’s the part I’ll be tampering with — opposite of the more common situation with fitted vintage patterns. And thanks to Ravelry, I know this particular yarn came in 2 oz balls of 90 yards each, so I need at least 1500 yards of whatever I choose, although I always err on the side of buying too much, just to be safe.

      (The other thing I should have said about the pattern info is not only is there no schematic, of course, but the sizes are given as ranges — small is 32-34, medium is 36-38, and so on. Which I sort of applaud, since truly these things are squishy and our current tendency toward precision measurements can be problematic.)

      I wondered if the implied stitch pattern for gauge might be stockinette. I’ll have to knit a St st swatch and see what that tells me. I guess it’s possible my gauge could be roughly 5.5 sts/in with this yarn since I’m knitting it on 7s. We’ll see! And that could change my thinking about which size is the best one to start from. Thank you for all of that background.

      Any thoughts on why the 12-row repeat might have been written out as 36 rows?

      • I agree that the sleeves in this pattern look quite commodious, shall we say. I would imagine you’ll be wanting to shave some of that down in your planning. Otherwise, it’s a beautiful pattern, and the yarn you’re planning to use is stunning. You will have this forever!

      • The 36 row repeat probably has no logic. It was the 60s, I seriously doubt anything was tech edited then, not everything made sense. Knitting such a sweater was much like patting your head and rubbing your stomach while singing a song and dancing a little jig. I was in college, and furtively xeroxed my knitting pattern at the library (the xerox machine being a new and wonderous invention) so I could cut and paste the written pattern in order. There were charts for fair isle then, but I don’t recall seeing a chart for cables ever until at least a decade later, and schematics? I am sure no American knitter had heard of such a thing, although we might have made our own.

        • It also makes the whole pattern fit exactly onto two pages, but I’m sure the knitter would have preferred some white space over tracking their progress through 36 written-out rows that only needed to be 12!

    • See my UPDATE in the post above, but stockinette seems not to have been the case here. Unless my pre-caffeine brain is missing something … ?

    • Thanks for these insights and wow, what a wonderful reflection fabulous lifetime of knitting. I found myself thinking about the pictures from my childhood (late sixties early 70s) and the sweaters worn by my mother and her friends. It was a very different look. I find myself holding onto the older books and constantly picking them up in second hand bookstores though.
      thanks for sharing.

  3. I can’t wait to see the progress. And by the way — I came across another copy of that pattern book (I live in a town with a lot of old people and a lot of estate sales) if you or anyone else wants it.

  4. I love your process! It’s so helpful to read this. I’m nowhere near this type of sweater though. I’ve been spending an obnoxious amount of time trying to swatch and plan out the sloper. Planning is half the fun though.

  5. I hope this is a knit along, because i have had that pattern and the yarn i want to use for several months now. Of course i have also been looking for that perfect fishermans’ as well and when i saw your original post of that pattern, i was thinking….”finally, yes”. :) I immediately tracked it down on ebay and it is now burning a whole in my knitting bag. Looking forward to reading more on the subject.

  6. I really love the Honeycomb Aran and think a classic grey Arranmore (classified as bulky) would do it for me although the pattern actually asks for a worsted weight. Ellen’s comment above that the original worsted for this pattern might have been denser than today’s worsted is helpful. Swatching will begin……

    • Do you mean the Paton’s pattern? ( That one does call for a worsted, but Arranmore is aran weight, not bulky, so not too far off. You might just have to do some tweaking or knit a smaller size, depending how different your gauge turns out to be. The Paton’s patterns also gives stockinette gauge, at 19 sts/4 in; I get about 17 sts on US7 with the Arranmore, but I’ve wondered what would happen if I went down another needle size. Definitely play with it! It’s awesome yarn.

  7. The pattern is very pretty and colour seems very appropriate for the pattern. I love aran knitting, if I had the pattern J would challenge myself to knit this pattern.

  8. If someone has the pattern they would like to sell, I would really love to have it. I am planning
    on knitting it and love all the comments!

    • Nana and Priscilla, this particular booklet — The Bernat Book of Irish Knits, 1967 — seems to have been wildly popular so there are a lot of copies floating around. People frequently report having found it on eBay, etc.

  9. I inquired with a relative who knit all her own sweaters in the 1960s and 1970s, and she was sure that a late 1960s pattern gauge would be for stockinette stitch, especially if the pattern has multiple stitch types. The blog By Gum By Golly, which does a lot of vintage pattern knitting, has at least one reference to assuming that vintage pattern gauges are for stockinette as well (e.g.

  10. Good for you! The yarn and swatch are lovely. It will be fabulous, like all your makes! I don’t recall, is this a bottom up sweater? If so, for me, it would be easier to design my own fisherman sweater than try to modify an existing pattern. I’m not great at following patterns. I seem to always verve off on my own ;)

    I use Barbara Walker’s pattern books – I don’t have Norah’s yet – picking the cables I like, swatching to get gauge, adding a simple stitch as Ellen said on the sides and then figuring out the shaping.

    Looking at the pattern picture it appears the center cable panel has a longer repeat than the sleeve cable … maybe why they give you 36 rows? I love knitting this kind of sweater – just enough complexity to keep things interesting.

    • Yeah, that’s what I was saying — I suspect all 36 rows of the written-out front cable are actually needed to cover all those twists and turns, and that they felt it made sense somehow to write the sleeve cable as 36 rows as well, even though it’s only 12 and there’s no particular alignment of the two called for in the pattern, and they don’t match up in any way anyway. I think they were just filling the page.

      • I have a seriously valuable collection of “international” sweater patterns from Womans Day magazine 1964 . It has 24 patterns printed on 12 pieces of paper, which includes a 3″X3″ photo and a few colorwork charts. Given that scale, white space was is confined to small outside margins. The collection contains a genuine Bohus cardigan (which I made); the chart is 1.5″X2″…white space be damned. That was the norm of the day. No charts, no verbiage, no schematic, maybe a gauge, and a narrow range of sizes and even narrower choice of yarns. It is soooo much easier to become a knitter today.

  11. Keep in mind that aran stitches are really just a form of ribbing. I always soak swatches for my own aran designs in water for about 15 minutes so that the wool can fully absorb the water, then gently squeeze, and finally lay the piece to dry. I expect stretching to occur, and some slight shrinkage back after the wool is completely dry. By doing this I get a really accurate read on how my aran sweater (Zora being an example) will fit.

  12. Ohhh this is going to be divine!!! I’m not entirely comfortable doing a lot of tweaks on patterns still but I have been eyeing the Arranmore and the Finn Valley pattern. I’m glad to hear the arranmore would be worth the expense though as I’ve been waffling on it.

  13. I CANNOT wait for this finished product! You’ve been wanting to do this for so long!

  14. Kudos to you for even being able to contemplate a wool sweater during the summer months – I can barely stand to knit right now. Not that I don’t have ideas. I appreciate your inspiration.

  15. I made an Aran sweater from an old pattern leaflet that we all used to share in my house. Or rather it belonged to my Mom. I made a pullover and it was a beautiful object, HOWEVER it was far too bulky for the fit having no drape whatsoever. Bobbles and cables and twisted ribs make for a cloth that has a life of its’ own! Be sure that the warmth of the sweater isn’t too much. Mine was a traditional wool from Ireland that I bought in England, and I managed to also make an afghan from the 40 pound cost small person of yarn that I got. ha! If I had it to do again, I would simply make a cardigan. Just too darn hot. Also, the traditional folded over collar at the neck was too tight. So this was 30 years ago, and you’re probably more advanced than I am, AND that Arranmore looks like it can do no wrong…Best wishes, and btw this is my #1 blog. So generous, and great taste. Well done!


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  19. Hi all, when my Mom passed away in 2001, I took all the knitting stuff since I am the only daughter of 4 who knits. Early on I went through all those books, pamphlets and paper patterns and just laughed at how outdated and stale they were but put them into a box. The other thing is: those patterns went on for pages and pages and pages. I had best go downstairs into the basement and pull out that pattern because from what you’re telling me I’m sitting on a goldmine! lolol

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