Books with Franklin: Boldfaced Knitter
I’m gonna level with you.
From the outside, it might seem like the life of a knitting professional is a cashmere-covered dream, all pretzels and beer and midnight hot tubbing with Clara Parkes at an exclusive resort in Aspen while Xandy Peters entertains on the ukulele.
But it’s not. Not all the time.
Sometimes, life gets dull when fifty percent of the air that you breathe is superwash merino. You see so much knitting that you begin to wonder if you’ve seen it all. Beautiful yarn? Seen it. Cool new pattern? Seen it. Novel technique? Seen it, tried it, didn’t like weaving in all those ends.
It doesn’t matter if, in truth, you’re being presented with a buffet of humdinger novelties. Everything looks the same from the bottom of a rut.
The best antidote is a radical shift in your point of view. This may require a kick in the pants.
Out of the Ordinary
I, myself, was recently kicked in the pants by Typographic Knitting: From Pixel to Pattern (Princeton Architectural Press).
The publisher’s name probably made you pause. Academic presses are not known for bringing out sock and shawl patterns.
So what is this?
The author, Rüdiger Schlömer, is a Swiss graphic designer and art director with a particular interest in type design. His book emerged from a series of collaborative art experiments in which electronic images—primarily images of type—were ultimately transformed into pieces of knitting. Schlömer found that the tactile, physical process of knitting had a profoundly positive effect on his digital work in typography. In his introduction, he writes:
People who knit letters or words experience a slowing down of the design process, a sensation familiar to stonemasons . . . Typeknitting is typographic meditation, a kind of digital detox—albeit one that doesn’t spurn digital technology but instead lends itself to it as a practical plane for reflection.
In other words, building letters with needles and yarn can help you to build better typefaces at your computer.
I realize it is unlikely that you, dear reader, are a professional type designer interested in making knitting a part of your creative process. That is about as niche as niche gets. So what’s the point of this book for the rest of us?
For me, it’s the author’s point of view. He’s a knitter, yes, quite a daring and accomplished one. But he doesn’t write from the usual perspective of a knitting book author.
Knitting authors usually assume they are speaking to other knitters. Schlömer is looking to draw type and graphic artists into the fold. They may know nothing about yarn (yet) and their common creative language is not the same as that of the knitting community.
This means he sometimes emphasizes some things that usually go unmentioned in standard knitting books:
“Knitting, as an activity, is inextricably linked to the body. Implicit factors, such as rhythm, the way you hold your hands, and how you sit will mold your individual style almost as strongly as your choice of color and materials. Your stitch texture is your ‘signature.’”
I’d certainly never thought about that.
And often, his descriptions of common techniques (including mosaic, intarsia, and stranded colorwork) are illuminating, or even funny, because they don’t sound much like those we’re used to.
A Case in Point: Mitered Squares
Consider Schlömer’s extended account of mitered squares.
It begins with a two-page spread of written instructions, supplemented by an annotated photograph. The photograph catalogues in painstaking detail every part of the anatomy of a square, right down to the tail left after binding off.
Then the square is presented again in two slick structural diagrams. One expresses the square graphically, row by row, but not like any chart I’ve ever seen. The other maps only the path of the rows as they wind from cast on to bind off.
This may sound offputtingly technical, but it’s not. The language (aside from occasional fifty-dollar word like “aleatoric”*) is spare, lucid, and concrete. If you’re the sort of knitter who likes to know not only how to work a technique, but why it works, this is fascinating. Things we take for granted, or never pay much attention to, are highlighted; and that can lead to happy epiphanies.
What’s more, the tone is wonderfully free of preconceptions. What’s the right side of the finished fabric? What’s the wrong side? What can you do with shadow knitting, mitered squares, intarsia? Can you mix these into the same piece? Sure. You can do whatever you want.
Many mainstream knitting books say that. But this book actually does it.
For example, I thought I’d experimented a fair amount with two-colored mitered squares. Enough to know their full potential. The “Modular” chapter, which uses them in ways I never dreamt of, showed me how wrong I was.
As Typographic Knitting is aimed in part at potential newcomers, there are lots of technical fundamentals, beginning with choosing yarn and needles. These are well done, though not necessarily always clear enough to help a lone beginner learn without other resources. But much to his credit, Schlömer repeatedly urges the reader to connect with the larger knitting community, both in person and online.
Type designers live to help people communicate with each other. To see how one of them has chosen to communicate the craft we love is a revelation.
*It means “random.”
Typographic Knitting: From Pixel to Pattern by Rüdiger Schlömer (Princeton Architectural Press)
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