14 Oct 2015

Knitting Books for the World


I’m reading two books right now:

  1. The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu
  2. In the Footsteps of Sheep: Tales of a Journey Through Scotland, Walking, Spinning, and Knitting Socks by Debbie Zawinski

I have two trains of thought to post about.

First, the former book is about porcelain and the history of China and the author’s family. It is iporcelain thief coverntended to be read by a wide audience of general readers, not people who work with clay or make pottery or who love China. It’s certainly not intended to be read solely by the author’s family. I “read” this as an audiobook on my most recent road trip, and I also downloaded the ebook so I could highlight passages I found interesting and “make notes in the margins.” I found the entire book engrossing, especially the parts about the author visiting porcelain artists and talking about craft, traditions, and the meaning of making things. I also learned a lot about Chinese history, and was fascinated by the interactions between the members of the author’s extended family in the present as well as in the past. All of these topics are, frankly, esoteric and potentially boring to those not already interested in them. And yet, here we have an engaging book marketed to a general reading audience.

footstep of sheep coverNow I find myself wondering, why couldn’t the latter book marketed to non-knitters and those not already interested in the sheep of the Scottish Isles? It’s published by Schoolhouse Press, which is a knitting-book publisher, but the ideas and stories presented by Debbie Zawinski are no less fascinating than those offered by Huan Hsu. Hsu’s book is published by Crown. I doubt that any of the “Big 5 Publishers” would have considered Zawinski’s book. Why? Is it because the author is a woman? Because it’s about knitting (subtext: women’s work)? Because only old grannies would be interested in reading it?

Just thinking about this pisses me off. And then once I decide that anger is a secondary emotion and I’m really disappointed and sad that there isn’t a broader audience for knitting books — in no small part because big publishers have somehow decided that there isn’t, and not for any reason based on reality — I realize I have to consider my work of promoting this kind of book and encouraging writers to publish this kind of book, and to explore ways to get this wonderful writing in front of an audience of general readers who will enjoy learning about knitting, sheep, and Scotland, every bit as much as they enjoy learning about porcelain, clay, and China.

My second train of thought is about traditions and how to preserve them, and if we even should be concerned about preserving them. More on that soon, perhaps tomorrow.

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9 Responses to Knitting Books for the World
  1. I was so thrilled to see that Debbie Zawinski has written up her adventures. I first encounter her in a Spin Off article and was captured by her intention and experiences. So much so I started exploring spinning my own landscape in Australia. Spinning in Australia can be a wonderful thing, it is great for drying fleeces at home for example. But the crippling postage and hideous exchange rate make this marvellous book over $125 AUD and simply out of reach. I will try and get our public library to order it, but till then I might just need to reread your post…a few times! Thank you.

  2. I have bemoaned this exact issue many times. I recently was asked by someone if I might combine two ideas (a non-fiction/memoir book pitch and knitting) for a new project. I said no…for exactly the reason you state. I think traditional publishers will toss out any pitch that brings knitting into the topic, without “20 easy patterns.” And, of course, you know that I struggled mightily to get editors to include a diversity of craft (not just knitting) along with the essays in Fiber Gathering, too. I would love to read more mainstream fiction/non-fiction that includes fiber art without making it all about patterns and how-to. It is disappointing how denigrated this topic still is in the mainstream publishing world. Wish I could help change it!

    • Still working to thing this but it’s hard to change expectations of both knitters and mainstream readers. How did foodies do it? Not all food books are cookbooks any more!

      • I actually just heard from a couple of local publishers that no one wants to put out a cookbook anymore as it is so expensive. All the color photography, the binding, etc. Instead they are thrilled by a culinary history, as it is cheaper to do and has a longer shelf life. So, someone needs to think this through…a knitting book without patterns requires no big photos, no tech edits, etc. It is cheaper to put out, but still has a big audience! Why don’t publishers see that and hop the divide towards making history about knitting a “history book, “for instance….

        • Exactly. So far only knitters seem to be interested in those kinds of books. I want to break down that barrier. I’ll keep working on it. I think sometimes we put too much knitting into our writing just so knitters can be happy, but that makes it less interesting to a broader audience. We need to have the personal story, the philosophy, the travel, the other elements that are not all about knitting, but are tied together with a theme of knitting somehow. Just thinking aloud now.

  3. I will pursue the ebook suggestion with Schoolhouse Press. But then I got sidetracked by your great discussion with Joanne. I have recently started a PhD exploring the intersection of the handcraft revival with movements for sustainability and ethical consumption and have been struck by the prevalence of knitting within the academic literature on the handcraft revival. Most of the literature I have examined so far focuses only on knitting or conflates knitting with handcrafts in general despite the contemporary and historical proliferation of a great many craft practices. It is interesting to see that this bias extends to publishers expectations as well. Knitting seemed to frame much of the media’s early coverage of the revival perhaps because it is so portable, so easy to take into public and perhaps simpler to convey in a media grab than crochet or cross stitch or spinning. It seems to have become a dominant framing however. I had not understood how difficult it was to produce a book about knitting or textile history without patterns. A very interesting discussion, thank you.

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