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.
The Ravell’d Sleeve by Catherine Lowe. Available from the author’s website, Catherine-Lowe.com.
Thank you for this review, Franklin.
This book is right up my alley!
I took a weekend retreat with Catherine Lowe many years ago in Chatham, NY and learned so much especially to respect every stitch you knit (or purl).
I took a one-day workshop in NYC and realized that I am glad she is the Type A person developing these techniques, and can teach them to me. We spent hours discussing sleeves, insets, and shoulders. This book must be the intro material I ought to have had prior to that session! Thanks for the review, Franklin!
I have also experienced a Chatham weekend and continue to aim for such discipline in my daily knitting work. Catherine is quite an inspiration, even more so as many of us turn our backs on fast fashion and move incrementally toward higher quality in our wearable choices.
So many Chathamites! The Warm Ewe is my beloved LYS – I live in the next town over, and the Chatham Main Street is my go-to place to shop.
You had me at “superlative selvedges”…
Thirty pages on selvedges is fairly tantalizing!
As a seeker of perfection both in sewing and knitting, this book has a real value for me. I recently trawled through all my knitting patterns and looked online for a cardigan pattern that would suit my lovely 4 ply Falkland yarn. After much deliberation I went back 30 years (published in 1985), to my “Marion Foale’s Classic Knitwear”. hardback, black and white, beautifully detailed and very pleasing to knit. So I say hold on to your vintage books.
I’ve always thought my knitting was enough, and generally, it is. But when I saw the 2 of the 3 photos I thought, (gasp) it’s not! My friends and family are cluelessly happy to receive my work as is but all I can think of is how I must have that hat and the skill to make it. I have enough hats and shawls and sweaters. What if I had less but so much better?
I think 30 pages on selvedge is so cool. It’s not so much that I seek perfection in my knitting, but have learned that every stitch does matter and the better the final product looks, the more the knitter is proud of it. Edges and seams are the final frontier of a project…
Just added a new book to my library 😉
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how to take my knitting to “the next level.” Yesterday, my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday; this morning I found my answer. And, Headgear II is the exact ribbed cap he’s been wanting for years. A “win win” for sure! Thanks Franklin for bringing this book to our attention.
Thanks so much for that shock of recognition at the cover photo! I bought this book years ago upon its recommendation by my friend the professional fiber artist, but it was WAY over my head.
Now, years later and, as you say, with many more miles of yarn past my needles, I am ready and have been working toward picking this book up again. Just spotted it while cruising through the collection and thought, hmmmm…
A timely reminder. It’s also why I enjoy patterns like the Picket-Fence Blanket, which feature interesting techniques that produce clean elegant surfaces, as well as fit.
Wonderful review. The attention to technique, structure, & detail is precisely why I love Catherine Lowe.
Great review! I bought this book a few months ago at Madrona and have started applying the techniques to my new projects. I hope the recipients of my knits this Christmas will notice the difference. But even if they don’t, I notice, and am really happy with how the new attention to detail shows through.
Oh my! RESPECT. That scarf is a thing of rare perfection.
I am a perfectionist in some areas of my life (both knitting and the rest of it), and um…less so in others! I swatch and block for almost every project, for instance, but also for instance have not yet incorporated a jogless jog, or even Jen Arnall-Culliford’s helical stripes into my projects with stripes. I briefly considered trying one or the other just yesterday, but thought, “Nah. It’s just a small pillowcase for me. Nobody will see the other side.” But four different needle sizes in a hat does not sound at all ridiculous to me. I have done that many times, in order to achieve the effect I want!
One CL project (large wrap – four circs of the same size! – most beautiful edgings) and one CL lecture (3 hrs on swatching) under my belt, I am ready for more CL. I’d forgotten about this book. One of my pet peeves is the over-use of either garter rows or garter edge ribs in popular patterns. It seems lazy sometimes. Let’s up our game 🙂
That hat is simply perfect, but my inattentive-type ADHD brain is mildly panicky at the thought of 30 pages on selvedges or a 13-page hat pattern. 🙂
I wish that I could recycle/toss/ get rid of my worthless books in my knitting library, but no matter how bad they are, I have issues. I recently filled two huge 13 gallon bags of yarn to recycle, but books are another issue. I have the first knitting book that I purchased in February 1983. It was my birthday gift to myself after taking a knitting class from Sidna Farley. Sidna was a student of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s and the book was Knitting Without Tears. Over 35 years my library has grown and I continue to knit on with confidence and hope.
And so the bar has been raised…..
I love the difference between couture and everyday knitting as much as I love both. Catherine is clear in her classes that one doesn’t apply these techniques to every project, of course. Just the ones you want to be as close to perfect as humanly possible.
Just checked on Ravelry and there is only one copy of her book available and that is from a third party seller. Cost: $59.95. Perhaps you can get the book directly from her? Several years ago I THINK I ran into Ms. Lowe in an elevator during Vogue’s first knitting convention. At least it sure looked like her. She seemed to be quite a nice person with a twinkling smile kind of sense of humor. In case her exactitude might lead you to believe she would be a stern disciplinarian. Happily not. Chloe
I just visited her website. $40. If you’re outside of the US, there’s a link to Lulu.com which seems to be a “print on demand service.” I ordered a copy, to be shipped to Canada…was charged in $CDN (!) AND had a choice of 4 shipping options… (having seen a copy on amazon.com the other day, for $79 + $20 shipping $USD – to Canada, I was thrilled to find the Lulu option!)
and, not only charged in $CDN, but $40 CDN, and a mere $7 for shipping… 🙂
Love! Thank you!
This is exciting, writing about the Ravelled Sleeve. I have the original 4 books. Than you for writing about them. Isn’t it a wonderful way with the world that what we need appears when we need it? Franklin, you are a treasure and I am so happy that you are and you write.
Franklin when are where is your book sale?
My first thoughts were, yes I want this book, and, but I have too many books as it is… but I really want it because LOOK AT THAT HAT!! But then I realized that I’m finally, actually finishing projects after so many that I didn’t finish because of my overly perfectionistic tendencies. And I ditto Anya’s comment about her brain being mildly panicky with the thought of 30 pages on selvedges and a 13 page pattern. So tempting, but alas, I know that would stop me in my tracks. Still, I really love that hat… but I’m turning away. Turning away now before I give in to the temptation!
After 66 years of thinking I couldn’t knit, I determined to learn and took it up with a passion after I retired three years ago. Since then I have knitted as if it were a full time job. While I may not yet have as many miles of yarn through my needles as needed for this level of excellence, I have ordered the book and will give it my best effort.
Thank you for your review.
Thank you for writing this review. I appreciate your work.
Well this just looks amazing and, is printable in the UK using lulu! Woohoo!
I bought a copy of this book years ago and, surprise! I found it unberable to read. It must have been at the end of the print run because on top of the font being way too small, the ink was faded and stressful on my eyes. If it’s really that good, I will drag it out and try again.
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