Friday, July 23, 2010

Knitting Bookshelf Must-Haves

I’m teaching another sweater design course – a summer version of the same Knitting to Fit course that I taught in the winter. It’s so much fun to see intermediate knitters ‘get it’ and take off into designing their own sweaters that incorporate exactly the details they want and fit them exactly!

One of the comments I make in the class materials is what I’d like to talk about. I take an entire box full of reference books with me to each of these class sessions. As I explain, the students wouldn’t be best served by my attempting to remember everything I’ve ever knitted, read, or seen about sweater design and construction, so I bring along my own favorite reference books. This gives them a chance to see that I’m not an expert knitter (I’m not an expert at anything except perhaps research!), and gives me a chance to recommend a few books, and bring a sizable chunk of my design bookshelf to each class so that we can investigate options together.

I sometimes think there was a golden age of knitting during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Elizabeth Zimmerman, Barbara Walker, Maggie Righetti and others were opening knitters’ eyes to a very old concept – self-reliance. Since basic knitting information never goes completely out of fashion, their ideas are still as exciting today as they were when first published. They each wrote books that I find classic resources, and to which I return frequently. I truly do think these should be part of every knitter’s bookshelf, and that the money to purchase them is some of the best-spent of a knitting lifetime.

The writing style may be a bit old-fashioned to some of the younger knitters out there, and these books don’t have lots of pretty pictures and designs. What they do have is basic knowledge, easily mastered with a bit of thought and practice and endlessly adaptable to every single knitted object you’ll ever make.

Elizabeth Zimmerman is the grand old dame of knitting. “Knitting Without Tears” and “The Opinionated Knitter” are only two of her books, but to my mind are the most indispensible. Her ability to look at topographical contours and extrapolate clever ways to make knitted fabric cover them (a lá her Baby Surprise Jacket) was extraordinary. And her common-sense attitude toward knitting is still wonderfully freeing to knitters who are afraid to tackle anything without a pattern. Her percentage system bottom-up sweater and the modifications thereto are currently turning a third generation’s eyes toward knitting independence. EZ reminds me of my grandmother – always encouraging, but more than willing to deliver a gentle kick to the relevant portion of anatomy when necessary. I adore her writing style, finding it wonderfully readable. It sounds exactly as she did on her PBS knitting show, which I vaguely remember from my childhood.

Barbara Walker’s name will be enshrined forever in the Knitter’s Hall of Fame due to her stitch dictionaries; I love my “Treasuries.” But she was a talented designer who did other books as well. She was a perfect foil to EZ, since she preferred to knit from the top to the bottom of garments. Her “Knitting from the Top” gives concise instructions for starting at the neckline and knitting down on any sweater– set-in sleeves, yoked, raglan, or any other style of neckline and sleeve. She expands this concept to other garments, too – one of these days I will make a pair of slacks and skirt by her method, because they mimic the exact construction I like to purchase! She shows that you can, indeed, knit a top-down set-in sleeve at the same time as the bodice – in a couple of practically throw-away paragraphs that you’ll miss if you aren’t careful! This is more of a textbook than a read-in-one-sitting book, perhaps a bit dated in writing style but full of sensible, completely useful information.

Maggie Righetti’s “Knitting in Plain English” has sold and sold and sold. Somehow her companion book, “Sweater Design in Plain English” isn’t quite as popular. I can’t understand why for the life of me. It answers more of the hard design questions than any other book I’ve ever seen. She tackles how to determine a basic body shape, what styles look good on what shapes, how to use color and stitch patterning to fool the eye and draw it away from areas you want to deemphasize, color palettes and more. Most importantly, she tackles how and what to measure for a perfect fit; how and when and at what point to begin short row shaping; and how to recalculate vertical or horizontal increases/decreases for a custom fit. I seldom complete a sweater, for myself or anyone else, without consulting this book at least once.

I think I know why none of these books is tremendously popular these days though. None of them take you by the hand and lead you through; they aren’t a fun read; they’re more in the nature of textbooks, to be read thoughtfully and referred to often as you progress along your knitting journey. There isn’t a single mindless knitting pattern in any of them – instead you’ll find a wealth of information to challenge a thinking knitter. And to my mind, that’s their biggest strength. They all foster knitting independence and insist on a knitter’s responsibility for his or her knitting decisions. Taking responsibility for your knitting can be a little scary at first – but then it’s wonderful!

Will these books make you independent of patterns forever? Probably not. We will always see a pattern in a book or magazine and ‘just have to’ make it. What these books WILL do, however, is give you a set of top-notch tools to use while you’re knitting that “have to make it” pattern. You’ll know how, where, and when to tweak the designer’s instructions for a custom fit – not just follow the standard patterning instructions blindly. And if you do decide to design a sweater or sweaters, you’ll be able to proceed with confidence.

If you are the type of knitter who just wants to knit, have a feeling it is probably illegal to make changes to a design, won’t pick up needles and yarn without a commercial pattern in front of you, and are lucky enough to have a completely standard-sized body, these books aren’t going to appeal to you at all. But if you have a ‘normal’ body complete with fitting challenges, or if you knit for someone like that; if you want to know why you’re doing something instead of just blindly following directions; if you don’t necessarily trust some unknown designer’s judgment entirely; if you actually do want to design your own garments – these are the books that should absolutely be on your bookshelf. You’ll come back to them again and again. Eventually you’ll regard the authors as old and dear friends, the perfect companions on your knitting design journey.

1 comment:

Kaspian said...

Thanks for a great post!

Of the ~16 sweaters I've knit so far, only one has followed a pattern, and of course I had to alter the yolk shaping to get it to fit my shape. Another was a re-write of a published pattern to accommodate a different sized yarn, and the rest have either been my own inventions, based on the "Incredible Custom-Fit Raglan Sweater Pattern" (, or primarily improvised after looking at a photo.

Knitting from the Top has been a great inspiration and resource. Thanks to this post, I now have a couple more to add to my library!