Guilty pleasures

The trials and tribulations of knitting a gansey

Okay, so I gave in to temptation. I admit it. But what’s wrong with that, tell me? What shame in that? After all, it’s only a jumper.

Yes, after some days of deliberation, hesitation and procrastination, I finally sat down at the knitting machine and made myself a jumper. And I have to say, I’m rather pleased with myself. And it.

I had forgotten how much work was involved in the creation of a garment. All that measuring, counting, reducing, grafting, making mistakes, fixing mistakes, taking long rests; I was quite worn out by the end of it.

I admit that I did have some help with the more difficult bits. In fact I had quite a lot of help with quite a lot of the bits. Actually, it is probably stretching the truth somewhat to say that I really made the jumper myself. But I was certainly involved in the making of it. And more so than I am involved in the making of most jumpers.

I have been proudly sporting this new jumper (gansey is the Shetland word) all around the isle, showing it off to anyone who is interested. Which unfortunately is nobody. But still, my pride is undimmed, and I have not taken it off in 12 days. I just can’t wait to get the chance to show it off to a wider public. There, I am sure, it will find an appreciative audience.

The more observant and knowledgeable amongst you will have noticed from the picture that I have been very sensible in choosing to use only two colours, instead of the standard plethora of tones. This was partly for reasons of fashion and good taste, and partly because it made my job a huge amount easier. Mainly it was the second reason. The constant changing of wool colours is what makes Fair Isle knitting so much more time-consuming than a plain or two-tone pattern. It also vastly increases your chances of making mistakes. So two colours was plenty for me.

In the course of this task I have discovered that there is something very satisfying about making a piece of clothing for yourself. Like catching your own fish or growing your own vegetables, an involvement with the process increases enormously the pleasure in the result. And believe me, I am very pleased.

Not that I’m thinking of taking up knitting more regularly of course. I certainly am not. This will undoubtedly be the first, last and only jumper I ever make for myself. The knitting machine has been packed up and given back to its rightful owner now, and I shall not be allowing it back in the house again. Even if it asks very nicely. One jumper is quite enough for any man, after all.

I have been wondering about crochet though.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear