Books with Franklin: Patterns to Knit by the Fire
I live in Chicago and I hate cold weather. It’s a magical combination, let me tell you. I spend nine months of the year suffering (not in silence) and the other three nervously watching the trees, dreading the sight of the first yellow leaf.
Does knitting help? Of course knitting helps. You can have the foliage, kid. What I look forward to in the fall—just about the only thing I look forward to in the fall—is the sudden onslaught of new knitting books.
Forthwith, I offer you a round-up up of some pattern books that are making me feel less like crawling under the bed to sob until June, and more like casting on forty new projects in self-defense.
(The onslaught will continue, my dears, in the next column–with a complementary avalanche of technique guides and stitch dictionaries.)
British indie designer Woolly Wormhead has pulled off a—I am trying so hard not to write “hat trick” here—has pulled off the remarkable feat of building an international following on the basis of slim booklets of patterns for hats.
Yes, hats. Just hats. On my desk right now is one of her most recent, Circled. It’s a collection of four patterns, all variations on a fabric comprising garter stitch punctuated by columns of slipped stitches. The title is a sly wink to those in the know, because although circles and semicircles and concentric circles are the key decorative element in each pattern, the hats themselves are knit flat. A pretty paradox.
Flat-knit hats are Woolly Wormhead’s signature. She lives, it seems, to dream up new ways of shaping and re-shaping one of the most fundamental (and let us admit, so often boring) knitted garments. Her skill is in not making the innovations in structure the star of the show. Rather, she uses them as a springboard to turn out hats that, at their best, never scream LOOK AT ME I’M DIFFERENT, but do cause other knitters to wrinkle their brows and peer closely at your head and ask, “Wait. What pattern is that? How is that done?” Subtle, but intriguing. Hats that make you kind of happy that it’s so cold you need to put on a woolly hat.
The hats in Circled are so closely related that you would be forgiven, at first glance, for wondering if they’re not the same thing in different colors. A closer look shows that the slipped stitches—the key to everything—form lines that Wormhead has jiggled and joggled a bit here, a bit there, to ring (ha ha, oh dear me) the changes.
I must mention, for the benefit of skittish readers, that all the necessary techniques that might be unfamiliar (garter stitch grafting, for example), are laid out in detailed tutorials right at the front of the book. And they’re good tutorials. I’m a fan of grafting, a grafting veteran, and I learned a bunch of new things just by reading them.
Final note—Woolly Wormhead is so productive that since the release of Circled, she has produced Elemental, with short-row colorwork and garter grafting across color changes and I need to go lie down for a moment please excuse me.
Speaking of things we knit over and over, and that occasionally make us wish we had never learned to knit at all: baby blankets.
If you’re having a baby and I like you, I may knit something for your baby. But unless I really like you—by which I mean I am the father of the child, or at least the crazy gay uncle—probably you are not getting a baby blanket from me. My go to is little cardigans, possibly with matching booties.
However, 60 More Quick Baby Blankets (from the editors at Sixth and Spring Books, Soho Publishing) has much in it to make me reconsider the policy. With sixty (they aren’t lying, I counted) projects, the variety is staggering as you might expect. If you are Known for Your Baby Blankets, this will get you through a decade or more of showers and christenings and quite a few toddler birthdays as well.
On the simple side, we have stripes and checks, many within the reach of new knitters. Chaste, classic patterns like “Oxford Stripes” and “Gingham Glory” strike me as especially well suited for refined parents who plan to buy all of baby’s clothes at Bonpoint, and who grow tight-lipped after unwrapping Auntie Debra’s offering of a onesie with ALL MOMMY WANTED WAS A BACKRUB across the front.
At the other end, “All Tucked In” features adorable fairy tale miscegenation–two pigs and one bear in the same bed–and blurs the line between mere blanketry and soft sculpture. This is the sort of thing designed to make everyone at the shower squee, and the mother-to-be start to cry, and all the other knitters who made their gifts will hate you. What could be lovelier than that?
Seldom does a knitting book make me laugh out loud. The self-published Unobtainables (co-authored by Allison Sarnoff and Heatherly Walker) did it with the first sentence:
“There comes a time in every nerd’s life when you realize that you can no longer tell the difference between something you learned in a high school science classroom and something you picked up watching old Star Trek reruns during college.”
This is a knitting book for those nerds. The book opens with a “Periodic Table of (Fake) Elements” that lays out the socks, shawls, and scarves within, each based on a substance (Amazonium, Mithril, Carbonite) found only in the nerd’s alternate universe of science fiction and fantasy.
The patterns cleverly avoid straining to represent, literally, the liquids, gasses, and solids of the source materials. It means the the stuff is perfectly wearable outside of a comics convention without looking like misplaced accessories for cosplay–but those who are in the know will appreciate them. The Dalekanium socks (which make clever use of beads) could be worn to the office without ruffling corporate feathers; but they might also score you points with the new VP of Finance who keeps a sonic screwdriver hidden in her desk.
Hunter Hammersen’s line-up of self-published hits (among them Curls, Fine Things for Plain Occasions, and the Knitter’s Curiosity Cabinet series) is long and lovely; so it is a pleasure to find that she has revised and reissued her early work Silk Road Socks: Socks Inspired by Oriental Rugs under her own Pantsville Press imprint.
The original is long out of print; and Hammersen has excelled it with this second edition. The format and layout are brand new (and much improved), adorned with some of the handsomest knitting photography I’ve seen all year. This is one of those knitting books you like to keep out to flip through even when you’re not knitting from it.
The front matter here is notable for being a well-researched introduction to the rugs that inspired the designs—where they came from, who made (and makes) them, and how in the part of the world that is often called “the West” they were imported, traded, regarded, romanticized, and copied. She takes care to thoughtfully address the loaded term “Oriental.” It’s an excellent contribution to the hot topic of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation.
The patterns themselves are as fresh as ever. Hammersen’s hallmark is detail, and the details here are exquisite. Now, talk about a loaded term. In most writing about knitting, “exquisite” means lace. And yes, some of these socks are lacy, and the lace is exquisite. But even one of the simplest designs—like the geometric “Kazak”—merit the designation, because the details are perfectly selected, perfectly placed, and perfectly balanced. “Mood” (a spelling of the eastern Iranian town also called Muud or Moud) is frankly breathtaking—with a single (and quite simple) motif that morphs as it progresses down the leg. What’s more, the changes appear seamless and spontaneous—a natural reaction to the anatomy of the foot and leg.
It’s good to have Silk Road Socks back again.
Image: Yellow Rocker by Bernard P. Schardt, New York Public Library Digital Collections. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library.
P.S. from Kay and Ann: You’d be off your rocker (har har) not to check out the MDK Holiday Shop, loaded up with gifty goodness.