Books with Franklin: Couture Feature
As knitting books have got fewer, they’ve got fancier.
I was performing the twice-yearly cull a few months ago—I usually rip out dead books around the same time I rip out garden plants that aren’t worth another season of food and water—and I could see clearly see the progression.
The oldest knitting books that were new when I bought them aren’t unattractive. But they were printed in the last years before the advent of the tablet and the e-reader; when publishers knew that if you wanted the pattern, you’d have to get the collection.
Compared to what’s emerged in the last couple of years, some of these older books—including many of the best—look rather bland. They’re full of pretty projects, capably photographed. One of the pretty projects has been slapped on the cover. Like myself in high school math class, they’re fine; but honestly they’re not trying very hard.
This isn’t just the effect of time, and changing fashion, dulling the edges.
Many of the newer books—which want you, sometimes rather desperately, to love them and buy them and keep them on your shelf and your work table—are positively lush in a way their predecessors seldom were.
They are sensuous, these newer books. They are wantonly heavy. Silky to touch. Everything from the au courant typefaces to the witty photo styling is engineered to attract and seduce. Such is the case, at least, with the books that most often persuade us to bring a little more paper into the house—even as we fill up another cardboard box marked LIBRARY SALE DONATIONS.
Something Completely Different
Which makes it all the funnier to be writing, this month, about a knitting book so spare, so unlike the baroque extravaganzas in my stack of review copies, that in the end it becomes the center of attention. The chic front row fashion editor in black, who for a moment makes the gift-wrapped celebrities on either side of her look ridiculous and over-eager.
This book—The Ravell’d Sleeve, by Catherine Lowe—is not, in fact, new. The oldest material in it dates from 2002, and the book in its present form appeared in 2009.
Catherine Lowe originally wrote up these treatises on aspects of couture handknitting as a series of four separate journals; which are compiled here into a single volume with additions and revisions.
She begins with a discussion of what exactly she means by couture knitting. That’s wise, as it could be convincingly argued that any knit-to-fit garment is couture, in the sense of having been made by hand to suit a particular body.
What Is Couture Knitting?
Lowe’s definition of couture knitting is, in brief, partly an attitude—the idea that in pursuit of perfection, there is no such thing as taking too much trouble, no such thing as spending too much time. Knitting that cuts corners, that fudges, that settles for “good enough,” is not couture.
And in part, she defines couture knitting as incorporating specific techniques—from methods of swatching and blocking, to methods of marking, construction, and finishing.
What’s all this in aid of? Perfection, of course. Or the closest thing to it. Knitting that down to its finest details is handsome, strong, balanced, and resilient. Knitting that fits just right not only when the body is still—but also when the body is in motion.
It must be noted that at no point does Lowe look down on or disparage capable, serviceable home knitting. Rather, she draws the comparisons to show the reader what benefit his or her work might derive by adopting couture techniques.
What follows are subject-by-subject explorations of pretty much every aspect of knitwear creation and fabrication except design. This book isn’t about choosing a neckline or a style of sleeve, nor is about taking measurements or calculating waist-shaping.
Instead—well, allow me to present an excerpt of topics from the Table of Contents.
Marking Stitches for Construction
Swatching and Blocking Part I: Gauge and the Swatch
Swatching and Blocking Part II: Blocking Methods
Selvedge Stitch Patterns
Picking Up Stitches for Garment Construction and Design Detail
Edges and Their Finishes
Ribs and Ribbing
Now, you are likely to fall into one of two camps after reading that. Either you have stopped reading and clicked over to something with more colorful pictures; or you are kind of excited and would like to know, please, how many pages are devoted to Selvedges. Answer: thirty. Thirty pages just about selvedges.
What selvedges are.
How they work.
Why they are so important to a piece of hand knitting.
What happens if you use them well.
What happens if you don’t.
Various ways to work them, what you will get from each, and why.
That’s fairly representative of the way the chapters in The Ravell’d Sleeve run. Lowe sets forth her expertise in uncompromising detail. Will it be too much for some? Yes. But it is what it is. You may take it, and create superlative selvedges that are the envy of all; or you may not. Either way, nonetheless, it is what it is.
Even if you are a technical knitting nerd, as I am, there are portions of The Ravell’d Sleeve that reward repeated study. Emphasis on repeated. Experience helps. The book will best serve the curious knitter with miles of yarn under her needles, who has reached a point in her life where she knows perfectly well how to cable and strand and pick up and short row; but who would like to make her work the finest it can possibly be, to stand well out from even the best specimens in the common herd.
This is a book about acquiring expertise, in an age when it too often seems that expertise is no longer valued or desirable.
The crowning touch of The Ravell’d Sleeve is the fourth section, “Practica”—which any other knitting book would have called “Patterns.”
There are three Practica—the proof, as it were, of Lowe’s pudding.
Yes, she has a lot to say about ribbing and about picking up stitches; but how do you know it’s all worth learning? I mean, I could tell you that you’ll get more perfectly even purl stitches if you take off your right shoe and tension the yarn around the Little Piggy Who Ate Roast Beef. That’s doesn’t mean it’s true.
So, try it.
The author gives you three couture knitting patterns. As she notes in her introduction to the subject, couture knitting patterns leave nothing to chance, nothing unspoken. You’re told what to do, you’re told exactly how to do it.
There are two hats and a scarf. Each is represented by one (1) black-and-white photograph. (The entire 251-page book has three photographs.)
The projects appear to be almost comically simple. You will look at them and think you have not only seen them before, you’ve probably made a ribbed hat like Headgear II (Practicum III) twenty times.
Except no, you probably haven’t. Not quite like this. Not with, for one thing, this many different needles (you’ll need four different sizes). The pattern is thirteen pages long. In quite small type.
If that sounds absolutely ridiculous, of course it may well be. Four different circular needles? I consider myself lucky if I can find the one circular needle I need for an everyday hat. And my everyday hats are and have always been good enough for every day.
But . . . what it would it be like to knit a hat that’s more than good enough for every day?
That’s the prospect, the tantalizing prospect, that The Ravell’d Sleeve opens up.