Books with Franklin: The Trouble with “Easy”
I am a congenital dimwit. As my mother loved to point out, I was born a breech baby and have never stopped doing everything ass-backwards. At my age, I am both accustomed and resigned to my nature.
It means I will forever see the word “EASY” printed in friendly letters on a book cover as not a reassurance, but a challenge.
Oh, so it’s easy, is it? Easy for whom? Certainly it’s easy for you, author. It had better be. You wrote the damned book.
What about me? Will it be easy for me, a knitter who got stuck inside his first unfinished sweater? Who thinks to himself, “Now, don’t knit with the tail end!” and then immediately knits with the tail end? Who once forgot the word “yarn” in front of a knitting class he was teaching and told his students to pick up, “You know … in front of you … it’s string but not string. That. Pick up that.”
(“YARN,” said the class, helpfully.)
The “easy” label on a design book smells especially fishy. Knitwear design—no matter what the book may promise you—is going to include math sooner or later. And some of us (me) trip over the multiplication table the way Bella Swann trips over plot holes. Some of us (me) never really believe that “math” and “easy” coexist peacefully in the same space.
There’s That Word
Melissa Leapman’s Knitting Modular Shawls, Wraps, and Stoles: An Easy, Innovative Technique for Creating Custom Designs, with 185 Stitch Patterns (Storey Publishing) isn’t the first book I’ve seen that lures knitters with the promise of a simplified system for design. Evelyn Clark’s classic Knitting Lace Triangles did it so well that clones of the Clark triangle glutted the shawl pattern market in its wake. And Leapman herself did it with her last book, the staggering 6000+ Pullover Possibilities: Interchangeable Options for Custom Knitted Sweaters (Sixth&Spring Books).
When books of this genre fail, it’s usually in one of two ways: either the simplified system isn’t really all that simple or systematic; or the system works—but the results are clunky, repetitive, or dull.
The guiding principle of Leapman’s modular approach is so concise that she presents it on the front cover in a single sentence: “Combine knitted wedges to get the shawl shapes you want.” Then there’s an arrow, pointing to a little diagram of six triangles joined together to make something akin to a semi-circle.
Okay, that’s comforting. I can knit triangles. I can count to six.
Inside, the system is neatly set forth in eleven pages full of well-behaved diagrams and illustrations that don’t bring on a headache. No step is rushed through. No step is dragged out. Where paths diverge (would you like to work wedges separately and sew, or work them all at once in a single piece?), the options are clear and concise.
The wedge, we find, is wonderfully versatile. Leapman shows how to multiply and arrange it into ten different silhouettes, and even a timid amateur may easily envision more. All the silhouettes share a common cast on method, and all the wedges grow at the same rate in the same direction.
In fact, the author has carefully organized all 185 stitch patterns in Knitting Modular to play well together. Every lace and texture motif is based on a multiple of two, and there’s even a sweet little chart showing quite clearly—I mean, even I was able to understand it at a glance—which multiples will combine most readily.
Figuring this out would reduce a mere mortal to a quivering, gelatinous mass. But hey, maybe after you’ve sorted 6,000 (plus) possibilities for a pullover sweater, it’s a cakewalk.
That’s the point, though. Leapman has done the grunt work so you won’t have to. The rest is, dare I say it—easy.
Does it work? Seems so. The book is crammed with inspirational photographs of shawls and wraps made using the system. They’re all handsome—some are gorgeous—and they don’t look like they were all stamped out with the same cookie cutter.
Fresh and Locally Sourced
I commented in an earlier review that some places in the knitting world (hello, Shetland!) have been so heavily trodden in search of inspiration that they are now mostly footprints. This is not to say that I don’t love Shetland knitting. I do.
But I also feel, as a I sift through the pile of new books, that it would be nice to look at other parts of the world with a knitter’s eye. Even if a given locale isn’t the source of legendary wool or legendary knitting, perhaps it could inspire fresh ideas?
So I’m happy to note what may the stirrings of a “knit local” trend—with designers drawing upon the beauty and energy that lie (sometimes literally) in their own backyards.
The last time Denise Bell and Chris Dykes appeared in this column, it was (ironically) with a book of patterns, photos, and essays inspired by their time in Shetland. Now the Oklahoma-based duo behind Lost City Knits have produced another book with a heart closer to home, Deep Roots: Pattern Inspired by the Tallgrass Prairie.
Bell and Dykes (she designs, he takes the photographs and writes the essays) have devoted this collection to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, and to those who live in, work in, and protect the area.
There are surprises. I’ve always thought of “flat” and “Kansas” as synonyms, but the Tallgrass Prairie encompasses the Kansas Flint Hills. These hills and their underlying geology meant that the landscape was largely spared plowing and cultivation during the westward expansion; and so it remains much as it was before European settlement. And far from being one gigantic, overgrown lawn, the prairie boasts a staggering biological diversity—four to six hundred species of plants, fifty-six species of butterfly.
Bell’s patterns are pretty diverse, too.
There’s a lot of lace—probably the work for which she’s best known. The Switchgrass Scarf and Wingstem Skirt are especially bewitching, both playing up the contrast between the ruggedness of the terrain and the delicacy of the plant life it supports.
Fox Creek Picnic Blanket (detail).
For lovers of stranded colorwork there is a sweet echo of Shetland in Bell’s Fox Creek Picnic Blanket, worked in bands of repeating patterns. But those patterns are from the prairie: hares, butterflies, leaves, and a witty border of marching ants.
Two International Cities and One Spinning Mill
The small but ambitious firm One Row Press has turned the concept of local inspiration into an ongoing series called “Knit Like a Local,” presently at three volumes, each inspired by a single locale and full of essays about, and patterns by, knitters who live there.
Editors Kathleen Dames and Alice O’Reilly began close to home with I Knit New York (Volume One). (Full disclosure: MDK’s own Kay Gardiner is one of the locals within.) It’s a solid collection that truly does capture the diverse vibe of the city, by turns elegant (the 42nd and Lex cardigan, with a lacy evocation of the Chrysler Building) and edgy (as in the downtown vibe of the Manhattanhenge gloves and cowl).
The second in the series jumped the Atlantic for I Knit Paris, and offers the same winning mix of good patterns and fun writing. In fact, there’s even more writing.
Running Up That Hill Shawl.
Among such charmers as yarn shop proprietor Enrico Castronovo’s multi-patterned Running Up that Hill Shawl and Julie Dubreux’s Tuileries Pullover are vignettes of city life by the designers, as well as hints on what to see, where to go, and (most important) where to buy yarn. You won’t find that last one in a Lonely Planet guide.
The most recent installment, At the Spinnery, was released this year and is a departure in celebrating not one city, but one spinning mill: the famous Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont. What’s local here are not the designers, but the yarns.
Green Mountain Spinnery is a fabled name among those who love to know where their yarn is coming from. The mill buys domestic (American fibers) and spins their signature blends and weights exclusively in Vermont on venerable, time-tested machinery.
Mizuna Shawl by Angela Tong.
The cooperatively-owned firm’s reputation is much larger than its tiny grey building, with devotees around the world. So the designers in the book aren’t locals, but fans—including major names like Amy Herzog and Heather Zoppetti.
One misses the reading material from the earlier volumes, as there is far less; surely much more might be said about the Spinnery? But the patterns are solid, without a weak link in sight—possibly the strongest “Knit Like a Local” collection yet; and the leafy, woodsy, woolly photography is enough to make you start scouting for property in the neighborhood. Sigh.
Knitting Modular Shawls, Wraps, and Stoles: An Easy, Innovative Technique for Creating Custom Designs, with 185 Stitch Patterns by Melissa Leapman
Deep Roots: Patterns Inspired by the Tallgrass Prairie by Denise Bell and Chris Dykes