Old Wives mostly got it right.
If you’ve been hanging around the shop recently, you know that Liz and I are “racing” to finish our dueling sweaters. It started about 6 months ago when a young sternman came into the shop with a pair of neoprene wristers in his hand and a gleam of hope in his eye. (For those of you who don’t know what a sternman is, he is the second working man on a lobster boat. His position is toward the stern of the boat…hence the name.) This particular sternman had a sweater he loved but it had some flaws and it was wearing out. Sternmen get wet while they work and their sleeves catch on the wire of the traps and other things. In Maine, the ocean water fluctuates between about 45 and 55 degrees Farenheit. That, my lovelies, is cold. And on a brisk mid-winter day, when the wind is whipping and the temperatures plunge, wet cuffs can be awfully unpleasant.
We all know the fiber your clothing is made from is important to over all comfort. Any maritimer will tell you, cotton is a deadly no-no. Polar fleece can block wind and keep you toasty, but loses all its effectiveness if it gets even a little damp. Divers will tell you that neoprene will keep you warm, and they are right up to a point. Thinsulate? Maybe, but again wet is an issue. Our sternman was hoping we could make him a new sweater and attach neoprene wristers to the sleeves in an attempt to keep the wet out…in the hopes of keeping dry and warm. What to do; what to do?
Now I can hear some of you shouting from the ether because you already know the answer. For those of you who don’t already know, wool has a wonderful property; it retains heat even when it gets wet. Yup. There’s a really good reason all those Irish and Scottish and Scandinavian folks developed their various sweaters and shawls and mittens and socks. They live in cold damp climates with maritime traditions and they needed ways to stay warm even if they couldn’t stay dry. For hundreds of years, long before the invention of polar fleece, neoprene and Thinsulate, those folks relied on wool.
They developed techniques and traditions of using wool that incorporated making it thicker, too. Stranded color work, heavy cables and…fulling. What’s fulling, you ask? These days we call it felting, but they are technically two different things. Felting is when you use unspun fleece and apply moisture and agitation. Fulling is what you do after you spin and knit wool. All of these methods make the worked wool thicker, more wind and moisture resistant, and more hard wearing. Sounds perfect for a working stern man, right?
After Liz started working on a traditional boiled wool sweater for our stern man, I got in touch with Captain John of the J&E Riggin. Low and behold, he has the same criteria for the perfect sweater. Wind and moisture resistant, warm and hard wearing. So…Liz and I are knitting dueling sweaters.
Old Wives may tell tales and you might be tempted to discount what they had to say, but they often had good reasons for doing things the way they did. And we’re taking their advice. Stay tuned, and we’ll tell you how to do it, too.