When traditions collide: the incipient stoorworm gansey

A sock puppet, a mythical monster, or both?

My friend Erin (of the seaweed adventure) just finished a masters dissertation which heavily featured the story of the muckle meister stoorworm.  It’s a traditional Orkney tale, and as well as being entertaining it explains the origins of various landscape features, including Orkney itself.  Erin has been pretty vocal in her enthusiasm for this tale over the past while, and it’s inspired those around her.  One example is this attractive representation of the stoorworm made by another friend.

And the stoorworm was running through my mind as I considered motifs for my gansey design.  What could be more appropriate?  I liked the idea of drawing inspiration for a gansey design from a tale so connected to a fishing community.  And so, the challenge: how to turn a tale into a jumper?

Stories and ganseys both have motifs, so I set about translating one into the other.  I tend to prefer non-representational designs, so I wanted to make gansey motifs that appeared non-representational until one knew the connection to the story.  Actually, that is one of the things I like best about traditional ganseys: many of the motifs are based on familiar fishing items (ropes, waves, etc.) but are attractively geometric.

Here are my attempts at representing the stoorworm legend.  Left to right, we have the stoorworm’s teeth/islands, the moon and its horns, the stoorworm himself (writhing in pain, head tipped back about to glance off the moon, and tail curled up), and the stoorworm’s forked tongue.  At the bottom is my favourite: it can represent the waves of the sea as well as the spoons.  I had a spiral to represent the curled up dead stoorworm, but it didn’t really seem to work as a motif.

On the left and right, there are vertical stripes of the moon/horn motif and moss stitch. The central panel is horizontal stripes of spoons, moss stitch, and teeth.

This was a lot to fit into the gansey, particularly as my taste runs to simpler, less cluttered designs.  The design I currently have only uses the moon/horns motif, a teeth/islands motif, and the waves/spoons motif.  Apologies that it’s difficult to see, but that’s the best I could get with the faint pencil marks.  Just ignore it if you’re not prepared to squint!  This section is the upper chest; below this will be stockinette stitch down to a ribbed welt.

Someday this may be a jumper.


I have boldly cast on!  I am daunted by the sheer number of stitches involved, but knitting on the steel pins is a joy.  Erin has agreed to write up her retelling of the stoorworm story, so hopefully I will be able to post that soon.

Posted in Knitting, Stories | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ganseyfest 2011

After months of anticipation, Ganseyfest 2011 was finally upon us.  It is a testament to what a fantastic weekend it was that I enjoyed it thoroughly despite having to camp in the rain, having failed to book accommodation in time.  Oh well!  The weekend was a look at British (and Dutch) fishermen’s jumpers.  There were lectures, workshops, and displays.  If you’re not familiar with the work of the Moray Firth Gansey Project (the organisers), their website is definitely worth a look.

It would be difficult to select highlights from the weekend since absolutely everything I heard and saw was beautiful and fascinating.  I even got to wear some of the lovely display pieces myself, since they were short of models for the Saturday night fashion show.  That was certainly an unexpected twist to the weekend, but good fun!

The best part of Ganseyfest was the neat way in which the craft was tied to the people who made and wore the ganseys.  It was a privilege to not only see so many ganseys in one place but also to hear the stories of the fishermen and the herring girls told by people with an obvious love for this tradition.

Fresh from Beth Brown Reinsel‘s inspiring gansey design workshop and armed with some beautiful 5-ply from Frangipani, I am all set to have a go at making a gansey myself.  Watch this space for updates on how I get on with that.

Posted in Knitting | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tweed Jacket from Scratch: Finished yarn!

A few years ago, some friends and I conceived a plan to make a tweed jacket from scratch (ok, from a raw sheep fleece, anyway).  This was rather ambitious considering that we did not have most of the skills or equipment required, but we began with the happy confidence of the neophyte.

The project has progressed ever-so-slowly over the years.  We picked debris out of the wool, washed it, picked it apart, carded it, dyed it, and spun it.  And then, just a few days ago, my friend handed me this, all tied up in pretty skeins:

A very small quantity of usable wool!

The cream colour is natural, the light brown was dyed using only onion skins, and the dark brown was dyed using onion skins and copper sulphate as a mordant.

This is only the first finished wool that we’ve produced, and it was more a dye experiment than an attempt to contribute to the jacket.  There is a lot more wool where this came from which has not undergone any of the processes except the washing.  In order to boost morale, I am going to knit these skeins into a pair of double-stranded fingerless gloves so that we feel like we’ve actually produced a usable garment before heading back to the massive garbage bags of wool waiting to be carded!

Posted in Tweed Jacket from Scratch | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Seaweed Soup: I can’t bring myself to regret it

It was my friend Erin who suggested that we try collecting dulse (a type of seaweed) and cooking with it.  I remembered recently coming across a recipe for dulse soup, and it seemed like kismet.  So the two of us, armed with a black-and-white sketch of dulse and heaps of enthusiasm, set off on the long bus ride to the beach.

This stuff

I should confess that I don’t actually like seaweed very much.  And this seaweed was different.  Yes, it’s all right when served in sushi or miso soup, but that is clearly food, you see, and a different thing entirely from the slimy smelly stuff that squelches under your feet on the beach.  I was so curious about it, though, that I soldiered on despite my initial skepticism.

We located the dulse and checked it against the picture in the book to be sure it actually was dulse.  And there we were, harvesting seaweed from the rock pools, and to be honest I was surprised at how quickly this stopped seeming weird.  We simply scanned it for bubbles or sea creatures and threw the acceptable specimens in our plastic carrier bag.  We were also fortunate that the tide was out when we arrived on the beach, or the whole venture would have been impossible!  Who needs planning when you have luck?

Lovely, isn’t it?


We were tired but excited when we got back to Erin’s flat and began to wash the dulse out in the sink.  We had done a pretty good job of cleaning it as we harvested, so it was mostly a rinse; we only accidentally kidnapped one snail and one mussel.  Here it is in the sink:

Cleaning the dulse

The recipe, collected from Peggy MacRae and published in Margaret Faye Shaw’s Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, is simple: ‘To make dulse soup, cut the dulse in wee wee pieces so that it will melt away.  Boil it in fresh milk with a little butter, pepper, and a wee thing flour, and a taste of sugar.  You don’t need to strain it.  You eat your finger after it–so good!’  Well, with an endorsement like that you can imagine that we were keen to start cooking.

In went the seaweed.  In went the milk.  In went the butter, the salt, the pepper, and the sugar.  We brought it to the boil and added some flour.




Half an hour later, we began to debate what Peggy meant by ‘melt away’.  This seaweed was not going anywhere.  It had turned a brighter shade of green, but that was about it.  It smelled a tiny bit more edible and didn’t make me gag when I tried a taste, but let’s just say my fingers were still safe.  We decided to google image dulse just to make sure we had gotten the right type of seaweed.

This is the last shot of the soup before it died. The milk is boiling, and it's turned a nice creamy colour.

As you may have guessed, we had not!  After some perusal, we decided that we had possibly gathered pepper dulse.  We decided to just boil it until it got soft enough to not be chewy, but after hours of simmering and a brief period in which it was definitely edible and approaching something near tasty, things took a turn for the worse when we burned it.

Oh well.  We haven’t given up yet, and we intend to try the recipe again sometime with seaweed which we are certain we have identified correctly.

Posted in Food | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What, you’ve never made butter?

Growing up as I did in ‘America’s Dairyland’, I always took it for granted that everyone had made butter at some point in their life.  To me, it was an activity for children.  I have a distinct memory of sitting in a circle on the floor of my kindergarten classroom passing a tupperware container of cream child to child, each of us taking a turn shaking.  At the end of all this effort, we were rewarded with a cracker spread with fresh butter.

I hadn’t thought about it much since then, until one day when I was making pancakes with a friend.  I asked him to pass me the butter, and he stopped in thought to look at it.  ‘Butter…’ he mused. ‘That comes from milk, right?’  Kindergarten memories flooded back, and within the week we were taking turns shaking a jar of cream.  I had forgotten how rewarding it was!  I’d forgotten the satisfying way the stubborn whipped cream suddenly goes SPLOSH and separates into butter and buttermilk.  I haven’t looked back since.

Cream In Jar

So, to butter.  All you need is a watertight container and some double cream (trust me, I learned the hard way that single cream doesn’t work).  Put your cream in your jar.

Whipped Cream

Right.  Now seal your jar.  Now make sure your jar is really sealed, because this, in my experience, is the only place in butter-making where there is potential for disaster!  You don’t want to clean up a whipped cream explosion–I can tell you that it’s really gross.  Now shake.  Now shake some more.  Now shake some more.  When your arms hurt and you’re starting to work up a sweat and you’re wondering why the cream isn’t moving any more, you’ll have some lovely whipped cream!  You’re halfway there.  Take a break and catch your breath.

Butter! Also, buttermilk.

Ready?  Ok, now shake some more!  It might not look like it’s moving any more.  Don’t worry, it is.  It is difficult to shake.  It is frustrating.  Your hands hurt.  You are thinking of giving up.  But wait!  Suddenly there is liquid, and it’s easy to shake!  That is because you have made butter.

What you have now is butter and buttermilk.  Pour the buttermilk off into a separate container.  Now you need to get the remaining buttermilk out of the butter, or it will go bad quickly.  Traditionally this was done with butter pats (grooved wooden paddles) or your hands (according to Old & Interesting–check out this interesting butter article for more information), but since butter pats aren’t exactly common in a modern kitchen, for years I have just used a spatula to squish the butter around on a cutting board held at an angle so that the buttermilk runs off.  It proves a serviceable if slightly messy method.

It turns out her grandmother was a dairy maid.

Imagine my surprise when I found a pair of butter pats hanging out (literally) in a friend’s kitchen!  If you’re not lucky enough to have a friend whose grandmother was a dairy maid, go with the spatula method.  Ok, so now squish the buttermilk out of the butter with your spatula/butter pats.  If possible, find a way of catching the run-off to save with the other buttermilk for baking.

Ah, fresh butter!

This is also the time to add salt.  You don’t have to, but it makes it last longer and gives it flavour.  Just pour some salt on and keep squishing until you can’t squish any more buttermilk out.  Shape the butter however you want to, or put it in a container.  Voila!  Fresh butter.

Or, if you are even more adventurous, check out this convenient butter-making method at In Mol Araan.

Posted in Food | Tagged , , | 1 Comment