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Review: Defarge Does Shakespeare

I was asked by the lovely folks at Cooperative Press if I wanted a review copy of the forthcoming Defarge Does Shakespeare. As a former English Grad with a ‘keen interest in knitting’ (euphemism), I could not resist. So, just to make things clear, I was given my review copy for free because CP wanted to hear my thoughts. Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

ddsDefarge Does Shakespeare is the third book in CP’s Defarge series. The series features knitting patterns inspired by classic literature (and is named after a knitter in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) and now the focus has landed on good, old Will Shakes.

The first thing that caught my eye was that the book is divided into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies – just like the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. It betrays a level of literary nerdery that I can only applaud. Each pattern is accompanied by an essay in which the designer writes about the play she has been working with and how the design developed. If you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare plays, or only know the really famous ones, then the essays are a great read. For me, the literary analyses were less interesting (I’m very tetchy about these things, sorry!) but I really enjoyed reading about the design processes.

Most of the 29 designs are accessories. Six sock patterns (all of them very strong; is a Madame Defarge Does Socks book forthcoming?), 15 other accessories, two home items, two baby items (including the very witty Exeunt, Pursued by Bear (reference) baby cardigan by Amy Tyszkiewicz), and three garments.

I particularly liked the Twelfth Night-inspired socks by Elizabeth Green Musselman called The Yellow-Gartered Dude Abides which are both fun to look at and also calls back very specifically – and wittily – to the text that inspired them. The socks have two different cuff options and they function amazingly well as a nudge-wink to historical costumes and as a 21st century knitting design. Kudos!

Another stand-out is the puntastic The Taming of the Shrug by Heather Ordover. Obviously inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, Heather’s design is reversible so you can either be a flame (Katherine) or a leaf (Bianca). The shrug can also be knitted in two different weights – I always like when this is given as an option. The ‘Bianca’ option is especially appealing with its quirky lace edging. I have up-coming bridesmaid’s duties and this shrug is now on the list of ‘cover up them shoulders’ options.

There is a lot to like about Defarge Does Shakespeare and you can spend a great deal of time digging through this book. Apart from the designers already mentioned, It has a really distinctive feel that is different to many other knitting books I have seen, and it is unashamedly nerdy about William Shakespeare. If you know a literature student who loves knitting small projects, DDS would make a very thoughtful gift.

An Unexpected Twist: Looking Back at 2014

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One of the reasons why I love this blog is that it allows me to retrace my steps. 2012 was the year of throwing out all the I ought to.. and 2013 was the year of ‘what happens when I try to do the things I love’. 2014 offered an unexpected twist.

I started the year injuring my knee. As painful as it was, the injury also gave me some downtime to reflect upon my life and my work/life balance. Later in the year I was offered an opportunity to move into a new role with the yarn company I was working for .. and I decided to turn it down. Instead I became a fully self-employed knitting designer, writer and teacher. It was a very big, scary decision but I am yet to regret it.

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From Brighton to Belfast, I travelled a lot this year. Unwind Brighton coincided with my new career path and it remains an undisputed highlight of my year. I loved Brighton itself, I loved teaching my classes, and I especially loved meeting knitters from all over the world. I have so many memories from Unwind: the teachers’ dinner where I looked around thinking holy moly, this is like the knitting equivalent of a Nobel Prize dinner party, teaching in a Grade II-listed Georgian house, going on an impromptu photo safari of Brighton with Bristol, winning the Pompom Party pub quiz (I am still proud of my nano-second response of entrelac to an anagram question), teaching crochet to someone with the best sense of colour I can ever recall meeting, giggling hysterically over Sunday lunch with Joanne, and watching the Football World Cup finale in a craft beer pub filled with friends both new and old. And all while I was knitting a very woolly cardigan in the sweltering heat.

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Design-wise, it was another bumper year, although most of the design ‘action’ took place after I turned self-employed.

+ I had patterns in two book releases this year: the Picycle Shawl in Bespoke and also The Juniper Hat and the Pinecones Shawl in The Knit Generation. The latter book was curated by Sarah Hatton and is just incredibly beautiful.
+ I had several patterns in knitting magazines this year. The Proserpine Shawl,  the Mirja Hat & Gloves set, the Wharram Cowl, the Scollay cardigan, the Dala Love hat & boot toppers, and the Koselig vest all appeared in Knit Now while the Stina Crochet Collar popped up in Crochet Now. I also had the Vintage Moments set appear in Let’s Knit.

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+ Even more excitement as I collaborated with my good friend, Susan Crawford, on a design for her Knits in a Cold Climate collection, Noblesse Oblige. I also released the freebie Seaforth Hat as an exclusive download from LoveKnitting.

+ And probably the most exciting thing was finally finishing the Doggerland collection with Vedbaek, Ertebolle, and Storegga. I received so many messages and mails about Doggerland and I continue to be floored.

17 designs in one year. Last year I said I wanted to try my hand at garments and socks. I managed to publish two garments (Scollay and Koselig) and I have a sock club launching in January. I nearly made the deadline! I also had two magazine front covers which was equally bewildering and exciting.

I also managed to find time to write (including two articles for Knit Now about the Arts & Crafts Movement and Nordic knitting), teach, tech-edit, copy-edit and do some mentoring. Hardly any translation jobs in 2014! I went wholesale with my patterns which is a new adventure.

Yes, 2014 was a year of the unexpected twist and I think I’ll look back at it as a transitional period in years to come. I have no idea what 2015 will bring (my 2013 prediction was “So. 2014? It will look quite a bit like 2013, I imagine.”), but I think it’ll be another year of transitions and changes. We’ll see.

Finally, some of my personal favourites from 2014.

1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illes was my favourite read of 2014. I love my early 20th century arts and culture and 1913 was a really great take on cultural maelstroms and intermissions. It was very, very much up my street.  Stuart Murdoch’s Glasgow-set pop musical God Help the Girl was always destined to be my favourite film of the year: it is filmed in a five-minute radius from where I live, I love Murdoch’s band Belle & Sebastian, friends appear as extras and I freaking love musicals. Pure catnip, I tell you. Under the Skin was amazing too. The novel by Michel Faber is one of my favourites and I was relieved to see the film had not lost its otherworldliness. My favourite singer-songwriter, Neil Finn, visited Glasgow in April. I’ve seen him play live on mumble, mumble occasions, but this year’s concert was really quite special. Here’s some footage from the encore (not featured: me bawling somewhere in the crowd).

And 2014 was the year that Dave & I went to Arran for the day. And what a good, good day that was.

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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.