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Tag Archives: Knitting

The Knitting Book by Patmore & Haffenden

You know silly words like “transparency” and “full disclosure”? I believe in them, so you should know this: I did some pattern checking/tech editing, some sample knitting, I am thanked in this book, and I received an advanced copy.

But I am still going to tell you exactly what I think of this book.

You may know that my day job involves meeting lots of knitters and offering technical advice. As part of this day job I get often asked which book I would recommend for beginning knitters. I usually recommend Debbie Stoller’s Stitch & Bitch because it gives a beginner information I think is vital: in-depth notes on needles, yarns, and patterns that understand different skill levels. However, S’n’B suffers from three flaws: the pattern styles are outmoded, the yarns used are rarely available to a UK knitter, and once you have graduate from being a beginner to a intermediate knitter, you won’t find the book super-useful.

The Knitting Book (KB) ticks the boxes that S’n’B does not do – whilst still delivering the entry-level information that a beginner needs. KB is actually jaw-droppingly all-inclusive. You get a section on tools and materials that explains everything from needles, yarn weights and how to understand a ball band to colour theory, how to use blocking wires, and garment care.

The section on techniques had me reeling. The beginner gets a competent and assuring run-down of how to cast-on and how to do basic stitches. Intermediate knitters get tips on shaping, knitting in the round, and using colour. Advanced knitters? Oh heavens: cast-on methods I had never heard about, two-colour i-cord, ways of knitting backwards, clever buttonholes..

.. can you tell that I’m actually pretty shocked to have encountered a book that combines traditional tried-and-tested methods with trendy Ravelry-style techniques? I am so used to seeing knitting books that essentially just repeat what hundreds of older books say (“there are three ways of casting on, you pick up stitches this way, baby garments are only knitted in baby wool..”) that I am honestly taken aback from the sheer knitterly joy and unbridled freedom that I see in KB. This book is clearly written by people who understand there has been a minor earthquake within knitting in the last ten years and who want to combine the sense of everything is possible with the UK’s proud knitting heritage.

The pattern section is particularly strong on this point. Intelligently it picks up on techniques previously showcased and delivers accessible designs for knitters of all skill levels. The designers must be used to dealing with knitters on a daily basis because I can see so many of my usual queries being answered: easy accessories (also for men!), gift ideas, and baby items. Want to learn how to do fair isle? There is a small project idea for that! Fancy giving socks a go? Three different patterns are available at increasing difficulty. Every pattern has hints and tips – I wish all patterns came with these little features as they would make my life a tiny bit easier.

I have three patterns that I personally want to try: the cabled wrist warmers (I was just given the perfect yarn for them), the Jelly Fish scarf (which looks super cosy), and the Harlequin scarf which uses Kid Silk Haze in a colour-graduating fashion. Mmmm, Kid Silk Haze..

Are there any drawbacks to KB? Yes, of course there are. It is more expensive than, say, Stitch’n’Bitch. It is not particularly portable and will most likely become a reference book residing on your shelves rather than being dragged with you to knitting group. Some beginners will feel overwhelmed by its wealth of information and run away screaming. I am unsure about the stitch dictionary section: you first see it straight after the tools & materials section, but the actual instructions only appear sections later – this feels a bit random. It is not styled to within an inch of its life nor does it have beautiful people wearing the knitted samples in a stylish home. KB is much more utilitarian than that.

I am trying to be objective here – truly I am – but KB is a cracker. I see and get offered so many knitting books and I rarely come away feeling like I have uncovered a gem. I’m clearly not the only one to feel this way, though, as I have been told this title is already being translated for overseas markets. I am very, very glad to have this as part of my library. It is going right in next to Montse Stanley & I am going to use this for many years to come.

Knitting In Public No More

As a blogger and a social media type, I think frequently about privacy issues. It matters to me even if my face is plastered across Ravelry and my full name is easily uncovered.

Yesterday I joked I was going to sue if my little private gathering of knitters were declared ‘the next cool thing’ in Scottish newspapers. Well, we just ended up having our photo tweeted by some UK television personalities. I might have thought it a fun little interlude (just like when we appeared on TV) if they had actually asked our permission before taking the photo. They had not and I am not amused. I respected their privacy; it would have been nice if they had afforded me the same courtesy.

(ETA Wednesday lunchtime: They have pulled the photo with an apology. I really appreciate that. Thanks.)

And then tonight I was knitting on the bus home. A rather thuggish group of ladies congregated around me and stared as though I were juggling sharp knives. That was a very long bus ride.

I think it is time to retire my knitting in public, at least for a little while. I’m tired of being a circus performer for other people’s blooming amusement.

Thoughts on Designing

A couple of months ago, I was approached by the talented and charismatic Ben who wanted my thoughts on designing and writing knitting patterns. Seeing as I have just finished Karise (pattern up early next week), I reckon now would be a good time to post those thoughts..

1) Define your design strategy in a word.

Intuitive.

2) In your work, what is the difference between successful and unsuccessful design?

I always design with a need in mind. A yarn to showcase or a technique to explain.

I have a really good idea about what knitters need because I meet and teach so many. I design many mini-projects that’ll teach my students the techniques they need to know whilst still in context of where they’ll use those techniques. (I don’t release those patterns to the general public because they are so specific to my teaching but I have designed a lot).

Successful designs marry well-written instructions with a distinctive look and relative ease of knitting. Unsuccessful designs have hard-to-follow instructions or no distinct aesthetic.

I also think designs have to be authentic – I always find it unappealing if I can’t see any trace of personality or obvious thought-process behind a pattern.

3)What does your review process look like?

I subscribe to the same view both in knitting and writing: keep it simple, stupid (KISS). I simplify, simplify, simplify. Kiss, kiss, kiss. Can I do without this bit? Does this shawl really need three different stitch patterns? Can I make this chart smaller without losing any information? I always take away far more than what I add.

I can’t remember who said it but there is this quote about a sculptor whose job is simply to remove bits of marble to reveal the sculpture that was always within the block of marble. Chip, chip, chip..

4) As a creator, what is your biggest personal challenge.

Confidence has been a big one for me.

I am not the most confident person in the world (to say the least) and I have never really ‘understood’ fashion, so I did not think I had any business getting involved in designing. However, I have come to realise that there is a difference between being fashionable and being stylish – and I think I can definitely claim I have a personal style or aesthetic.. so that has played a big part in me getting involved in designing knitwear.

I had been asked to submit designs for many years now, actually, but it was not until last year that I had the confidence to put a self-designed pattern in front of other people. The response was fantastic and was a real confidence boost.

I’m now moving from teaching-related designing and small, locally-released patterns into releasing patterns, full stop.  It feels slightly daunting. But also incredibly liberating.

5) What does development look like? How does an idea move from initial concept through to finished object?

My Karise shawl is a good example. Lilith gave me two hanks of her new 4ply yarn and asked me to design her shawl. She had requirements: a) the shawl should take less than 100g of sockweight yarn and b) it had to be downloadable from Ravelry by Knit Nation. That told me two things: the size of the shawl and the type of knitter. With Ravelry knitters in mind – who tend to be adventurous and curious – I sat down to doodle some sketches.

The yarn was a gorgeous mossy green-brown with real depth to it. Showcasing that colour was a no-brainer, so I included a large stocking-stitch element. I wanted to avoid using obvious leaf stitch patterns because I see so many shawl patterns with leaves but I still wanted the shawl to have an organic feel to it (the colour name – ghillie dhu – means ‘guardian spirit of the trees’). I played around with grid paper until I had achieved a stitch pattern that flowed organically from one shape into another with minimal adjustments. Karise does have a certain forest-like feel to its lace but it’s quite subtle.

After the initial lace chart, I swatched to make sure that it looked like I wanted it to look and to ensure my knitter’s maths was correct. Then I did more knitter’s maths before starting the shawl itself. I did rip out the shawl twice (to take away surplus elements) but that was pretty much it. I modified the hand-drawn lace charts as I was knitting the sample, then transferred all my notes to Excel and refined the charts.

6) What sources feed into your work? Are there any resources you’d recommend to other designer/makers?

I am an intensely visual person and I draw upon a lot of sources which people might think random for knitting designs.

I grew up with a keen interest in fashion and art history, so I have an ‘inner library’ of trends that I use a lot. I’m extremely passionate about late 19th C/early 20th C art and culture (including colour palettes), so that forms a huge chunk of my design vocabulary. There is definitely some Art Noveau-influences in Karise.

Finally, having grown up in Scandinavia, I am also influenced by Scandinavian design which tends towards sparseness, minimalism and functionalism. I shoot a lot of photos of brick walls, roof tiles, paving, and other patterns I notice in my surroundings.

My best advice is to keep your eyes open. There are token stitch dictionaries out there and they are obviously great resources, but keep your eyes open for anything that might come your way.You might find your greatest idea will come from a cereal box in your local supermarket.

7) You are writing the definitive knitwear-design Bible. What is the first commandment?

Thou must write clear and concise patterns. I cannot emphasise this enough.

Even the most extraordinary design is a failure if other people cannot follow your instructions. And complex design elements can become accessible through well-written patterns (Laminaria is my favourite example). Keep the end user in mind.

I have thoughts on indie designers, the new Knitty and even some finished object photos but I think all those things are better left for another day.. Hope your Monday is more sun-drenched than mine..

Response

Many of you have left thoughtful replies to my review of Jane Brocket’s knitting book. I have also received a few mails and tweets. Thank you all. Some of you wondered I made no mention of “Brocket-gate” – i.e. the mainstream media and blogosphere response to Ms Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Domesticity – and whether or not I was aware of it.

Yes, I was aware of the response to The Gentle Art of Domesticity but I did not think this response particularly relevant to The Gentle Art of Knitting. I could write a long and boring paragraph about how I read books (I’m one of those girls who went to university and lost her intellectual innocence to literary theory) but suffice to say that I tend to focus on the book itself rather than any outrage surrounding its author.

And so I approached this new Jane Brocket book as I would any other knitting book: did I think it useful? did I find the patterns interesting? did it inspire me? did it teach me anything new? I hope I answered those questions in my review.

Some linkage:
+ Women of the Vortex. MARVELLOUS pictorial evidence of daring lady painters of a young 20th century. I find Vorticism endlessly exciting. I wish I could go to Tate Britain and shout about machines, speed and modernist epistemology. BLAST!
+ A Knitted Garden. This totally made my morning when I first saw it.
+ Modern day Hollywood has nothing on the stars of the Big Studios years. Clark Gable & the Scandal That Wasn’t is an excellent read.
+ Speaking of entertaining reads, this review of “Rushed to The Altar” from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had me howling with laughter. The review is definitely not for the faint-hearted and it is NSFW, but it is also hillarious.
+ It is a good thing I did not have my own webspace back in 1996, because I would definitely have set up an early prototype of My Daguerreotype Boyfriend.
+ Neil Patrick Harris’ opening number at this year’s Tony Awards = possibly the best 6 minutes of 2011 so far?

I have finished no less than three projects this week, so there will be plenty more knitting content over the next few days, but I’m also trying to work out a response to China Mieville’s Embassytown which does not involve me muttering about Martian poetry. Cross your fingers hard.

The Not So Gentle Art of Reviewing

I was asked by a publishing company if I wanted to review a knitting book. My only problem was that the publishing company has a back catalogue of, well, novelty knitting books and so I was sent Jane Brocket’s The Gentle Art of Knitting when I showed a decided lack of interest in a Harry Hill knitting book. I think the Harry Hill book might have been better because the Brocket book confuses me.

The Gentle Art of Knitting is pretty in a comfortable, yet aspiring way. The photography is lovely, the layout is stylish (but not dauntingly stylish) and the writing has a spring in its step. I was not surprised to find that Brocket is a blogger because her writing has a certain immediate, chatty style to it. I know I’m supposed to be charmed by her book and herself, but I have problems with the book.

I am well-educated middle-class woman who likes making things. I also like things with a story. And I appreciate aesthetically pleasing things. I am the target audience for this book but I feel condescended towards:  Reading The Gentle Art of Knitting I feel like I am not good enough because I have not chosen the right wine to go with my knitting (but Jane can help!); I am not good enough because I did not pick up 20 skeins of Cascade 220 on my last breezy weekend trip to New York (but Jane did!); And I am not fun and retro enough to have a knitted tea-cosy for my teapot (but Jane sure is!). There is a sense that my own life is slightly lacking but that Jane Brocket hovering behind me will gently correct all my tiny flaws.

I am not sure where this lingering sense of inferiority is coming from. Ms Brocket’s designs are not exactly earth-shattering: a knitted apron, a bog-standard ripple crochet blanket, a chevron scarf.. There is exactly one pattern I like in this book – a pair of pillows – while the rest of the patterns feel nondescript. Designs do not need to be complicated, of course, but I somehow expected more from a book with such a heavy emphasis on aesthetics. I somehow expected a cohesive design strategy..

(There is even an strange bit devoted to “cult knitting patterns” which has her describing the Clapotis scarf and The February Lady Sweater. This section feels very odd, very tacked-on, and oddly dated.)

It is a UK book, yet most yarns used can only be bought in a handful of shops throughout the country. We are not even talking unicorn yarn here, just straightforward US workhorse yarns: Cascade 220 and Blue Sky Alpaca. If Jane Brocket wants to use yarns that is more exclusive than what you can find in your average UK yarn shop, why use quite plain US workhorse yarn? Why not track down The Natural Dye Studio? Fyberspates? The Knitting Goddess? If exclusivity is not her aim, why not promote UK companies? Rowan? Debbie Bliss? Sublime? Her readers will thank her for being able to buy the suggested yarns.

But then again it’s a book for knitters that do not knit. It is lifestyle porn in the same way as Nigella’s cooking shows, Kirstie Allsopp’s TV crafting and the Sunday newspaper colour supplements are inviting you to buy into a lifestyle. As a knitter who does like to knit, I am not sure what to do with this book.

I have tried hard to think of The Gentle Art of Knitting‘s unique selling proposition but I cannot really find one. At the end of the day it is an aspirational lifestyle blog locked into a book. There are many knitting and lifestyle blogs out there – many of which are far better than this book – and I can read them for free. I can also buy far better pattern books at a fraction of the price.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have spent nearly 700 words on the Harry Hill knitting book. I’m also sure I wouldn’t have felt so disheartened either.