Marybell | Eriskay Gansey
Tell me a bit about the Eriskay ganseys or jumpers…
They are very much a working man's clothing; that's what it started off as being before there were synthetic materials available. The Eriskay gansey was used as working clothing, it was for a very practical use. They would wear them when they went out on their fishing boats. Having patterns improved the quality because if there's a pattern on a piece of knitting, it's denser and thicker and warmer, but there would be pride as well in having your beautiful patterns and showing off that you are making your man look good as they went to work. Your son, your husband, your father. The patterns, they were just passed down from mothers to daughters and then to their daughters and so on.
When the herring fishing was going on the women would go with the fleets, and they would move up and down the coasts of Scotland and Britain. And so girls from the islands would be sharing patterns with women from other fleets because they would all be knitting while they were with the herring.
How did you learn these skills?
I went to an evening class in Eriskay in 2013. There were skills that were dying out and they wanted to try and encourage them. So they persuaded two women (Myag and Mary Sarah) who had the skills, to do the tutoring, and they very generously did this. It's such a precious thing, traditionally you were very careful and kept your patterns close to you but they were happy to share their knowledge with us all. I remember some snowy nights heading to the classes in Eriskay, but it was always good fun. We did it for about eight weeks and we learned a different part of the jersey each week.
Have you passed on your skills to anyone else?
Yes, I have shown a few people how to make them. There's one friend in particular who I’m going to show this winter.
I remember one of the women who taught us saying that once you start knitting Eriskay jumpers you won’t want to do any other knitting, and it is a bit like that. I don't feel so drawn to making simple baby clothes anymore - I just want to make another Eriskay jumper because you get so involved in it and it is so rewarding and enjoyable to make. It's challenging enough to keep your mind occupied and there’s a sense of achievement when you reach each stage.
Talk me through the process of how you knit a jumper?
First of all it's calculating the size of the person. They give you their measurements, chest and length of arms (because they’re tailor made to the person) so then you know how many stitches to cast on. It's like knitting a big tube, there's no seams on the jumper. This was part of the reason it was so warm, there aren't any seams to let in the wind! It’s kind of tight to the body as well so it doesn't hang loose and get caught up in nets and equipment, especially important for the arms and the cuffs. The cuffs would be long and narrow, so they would not catch on things, and the collar is quite far up the neck, and quite snug; they tighten the neck by adding buttons so it wasn't loosened by the head when putting the jumper on or taking it off.
You make the tube for the main body, then you divide it and do the yokes. Then you join the shoulders by grafting so there aren’t any visible seams. Then it’s the collar and the sleeves. You grow the sleeves out from the shoulder by picking up the stitches and grow a tube to the cuffs.
This was another practical aspect, for if the cuffs get frayed, you can unravel them and join some new wool on and redo the cuff, whereas if it was a normal sleeve that starts at the cuff and finishes at the top, you can't unravel it. You can't easily unravel backwards in knitting but you can unravel forwards. So they could always be mended. The sleeve could be replaced right up to the elbow and the same with the collar. You've got a diamond shape called a gusset under the arm for room and manoeuvrability.
Why do you knit the Eriskay jumpers and why are they important to you?
I like creating and making things. Making a jumper satisfies that need in me to be creative. I have always liked art and one of my dreams, when I retire is to do an art course. Meantime I sometimes get a very mad drive that I have to create something so I'll get my sewing machine out and make some cushions or something so the knitting fulfils this need too.
And why do I do them? To show my love for people as well.
What’s your favourite part of making a jumper?
When I sew on the last button, or even better, if I saw it on the person. When the person puts it on and it looks good on them, that's the best bit. I like the whole thing. I like the process. The stages in the journey are satisfying.
What is the most important material or tool that you use?
The steel pins. The traditional knitters would say they are the only way to do the jumpers. Now in modern days, some people use circular needles, but I'm going by the traditional way because they say this gives a very firm effect or end result.
Yeah, and the 5 ply Guersey Wool is especially for a fisherman’s jersey. There are a few manufacturers so this one that I have here is Frangipani from Cornwall. They sell this to the knitters of different fishing ganseys from many parts of Britain and the Eriskay shop buys it too.
What are the different patterns and are they unique to Eriskay?
There are general ones that crop up in lots of the different fishing places and there are patterns unique to Eriskay. The Tree of Life is this one. This is the St Andrew's Cross.
In Eriskay tradition these are called horseshoes, that's to connect with the Eriskay ponies.
Other patterns that you could say are suited to Eriskay are the lazy beds; the striped ridges along the shoulders. That's a very common thing because they were mostly fishermen and crofters. So there were things to do with crofting.
These are flags. And there's things like cables and ropes as well. These are marriage lines.
There are lots of diamonds so quite a lot of pattern is based on a diamond which is part of the fishing net. Look, there are more diamonds here across the chest - called the netting.
Did families or individuals all have their own unique style?
Not so much a different pattern but a different combination of the same set patterns. You wouldn't be inventing anything - that would be taboo because it's tradition. For example the traditional patterns are so many stitches, so many rows, this particular shape. This is an Eriskay anchor, not to be confused with any other. It wouldn't be an Eriskay jumper if you didn't have that anchor in the Eriskay style.
They did have family traditions to arrange patterns in different ways to make them personalised, and there are all sorts of other little differences you can have such as the narrow channels between the main patterns. The chest is made up of nine blocks, and the body is made up of panels so depending on the size of the jumper, you can have more panels or fewer panels.
And then you just pick and choose the options and combine them all together into your own individual style, and there are endless combinations. It's very mathematical at the start; I have to have my calculator, and I can take ages trying to work out how to divide all the stitches into the different panels - the jumper needs to be planned.
Where can you buy an Eriskay Gansey?
The Eriskay Community Shop sell them so they are a good contact point. You can phone 01878 720236 and order from the shop, they have a waiting list because there aren't very many knitters who can make these jumpers. There's a bank of knitters for the shop and then there are some individuals too who make them independently.
I did one once for the shop but I find I get too attached to the jumper, and I didn’t enjoy the process of knitting for a stranger. That's my traditional thing, when I'm knitting the jumper I want to be thinking about that person. When I'm knitting a jumper I think of the person as I knit. It sort of becomes like a prayer for the person. It’s a symbol of love, very much a concrete symbol of love and a very tangible one. The day I took it to the shop to give it over, it was like: how can I part with this? I’ve been so involved with this and I don’t know who it’s for. I didn't really feel that I wanted to put a price on it.
I’ve made eight or nine jumpers Each of those is for someone I have met and known and loved apart from that one. I’ve also made one for Pope Francis and gave it to him in person.
What do you enjoy about living in Uist? (One perk, one disadvantage)
When you live in Uist, you're not overly concerned about your image; it’s not materialistic here and you can be true to yourself. The priority in a small community is your relationship with others. It's not always about new things either; it’s what is well established, things that have stood the test of time, things you really love rather than the latest trend.
I feel free here. Yeah, I've got a sense of freedom about being who I want to be.
One disadvantage is probably just the distance from people you might want to be seeing. My children are on the mainland, for example so they're that little bit further away.
Have you got a favourite drink?
I don’t drink tea or coffee but I do like a hot chocolate with marshmallows as an extra treat.
Is Gaelic and local heritage and culture important in your work?
Although I’ve been teaching English recently, I used to teach Gaelic. The young people I teach are of course part of our island community and reflect the island values. I think that's what makes my job as a teacher here so very rewarding because the young people are just wonderful to work with - they are my kind of people! They’re grounded and I like that very much.
Even though I’m now an English teacher, I still speak Gaelic to the children. The ones that have come from Gaelic medium primary will automatically speak Gaelic to me when they come into the classroom and chat to me. It comes very naturally to them.
With the jumpers I did feel extremely privileged to have the skills passed to me by the two lovely women Myag and Mary Sarah. You know, they were so absolutely amazing. I've phoned them, several times and I went to visit them to ask them to clarify things and to get more information. So yeah, they're just so generous to have passed it on.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I remember being worried about trivial things. I read an article about two or three years ago by journalist Melanie Reid who is tetraplegic following a horse-riding accident. Her advice was go live life, travel, see the world do all the things that she can't do now, and you know that kind of struck a chord, yeah, definitely, seize the moment.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”