An unapologetically long post about how knitting books can change the world, if knitting designer/authors have the balls to take it up a notch.
The best knitting books are not about having patterns for projects you want to make. The best knitting authors may start out by creating books of patterns and techniques, but it is when they move beyond that into story and artistry that their work becomes something more important, more valuable, and more wonderful.
What makes a knitting book great? It reaches beyond the genre of crafts, just like great food books reach beyond the genre of cooking. Over the past decade or so, the food genre has gone nuclear with “foodie” books in the genres of memoir, travel, and history making the beset seller lists and winning awards. And, at least for the ones I’ve read, the accolades have been well deserved. The writing is thought provoking, with beautiful prose and inspiring stories. And they’re being read by everyone, not just chefs or homemakers.
I believe the same thing can happen with books about needlework, and specifically about knitting. Why do I focus on knitting? Because it’s what I am passionate about, and because there are so many people who are knitting, and thinking about knitting, and making art with knitting, and using knitting for environmental and political activism. All of these things are happening, and all of these stories can be appreciated by people who don’t knit. I believe the world is hungering for these stories, and that people need to be shown how making things can enrich and change their lives, and the world.
These books don’t have to be expensive or made expensively. But every detail has to be perfect. The trends in our genre over the past few years are promising, but we haven’t crossed over into the mainstream yet.
I’ve asked a few of my favorite author/designers why they don’t include longer, more detailed stories in their books and they say that they don’t think that anyone would read them. That is so fucking sad. It almost makes me cry. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that knitters are starving for these kinds of stories. For every knitter who only wants to make a pattern, there is at least one, probably two or ten, who will never knit something from a book but who will read it, skim it, dip into it from time to time for inspiration, and who will both learn and grow from the content of the book. How much they are able to learn and grow depends on how much we have the guts to put into our “knitting” books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with knitting books that are “just” patterns and techniques, just as there’s nothing wrong with cookbooks that are “just” recipes. But those are not the books that, to me anyway, are the most inspiring. And they definitely aren’t the books that will jump out of their niche and be of interest to people who don’t knit (or cook).
Here are a few books that I think show promise and can inspire those of us who write, as well as design, to go ever further. This is by no means a list of all of the knitting books I love, and there are pattern books that I adore as well as books with no patterns or techniques that are amongst my favorites. Here are my top three favorite books that include patterns, stories, and artfulness, that I find to be inspiring:
Colours of Shetland by Kate Davies knocks my socks off. Photos, illustrations, stories, and patterns all flow together in a seamless way and draw you into the book as if you’re falling into a fairy tale world. The topics vary from history to nature to science to linguistics, yet they all tie into the knitting in a way that is not forced or even shoehorned.
This book shows exactly how a knitting book can be both a pattern book and a way for the author/designer to think and share ideas, philosophies, and stories. Kate wins a blue ribbon.
Coronation Knits by Susan Crawford is a beautiful, thoughtful work of art. The photography helps tell the story, as do the short historical blurbs at the end of each project. While I often think there should be more text and longer stories, in this case I think the mix is just right. I love the way Susan and her husband, Gavin, style their photographs with a vintage feel. Everything about this book is perfect.
Tudor Roses by Alice Starmore, who is the best, most talented, fabulous, awe-inspiring designer/author in the world by my estimation. I can’t say it better than she did in her artist’s statement for Tudor Roses:
Tudor Roses: A Personal Statement by Alice Starmore
It is not the business of women to govern kingdoms but of men.
These words were spoken in 1483, not long before the 330-year reign of the Plantagenet dynasty came to a violent end at the Battle of Bosworth. The words are ironic because that bloody conclusion, and the resulting foundation of the Tudor dynasty, were events engineered by women with courage, shrewd statecraft and a steely sense of purpose. Yet they are barely remembered: eclipsed by their male contemporaries. The chroniclers of the time were men, as were the portrait painters. High-born women were encouraged in only two activities — needlework and the production of male heirs.
My daughter Jade and I decided to tell the stories of fourteen women connected with the Tudor dynasty: women who in some way made a stand and chose their own paths — for good or ill. If these renaissance women were not allowed to write their own stories, and their painted portraits were often idealised, how could we know what they were really like? That is the question we sought to answer in creating Tudor Roses. Our approach was to put ourselves in their place; to stand in their shoes; to blend history and imagination; to weave a narrative around the known facts of their lives. We planned to deliver this narrative in a unique manner, using not just writing but photography, art and the only medium through which our subjects could leave a lasting physical record in their world — needlework.
A Tudor chronicler wrote of the “pain, labour and diligence the tailors, embroiderers and goldsmiths took both to make and devise garments for lords, ladies, knights and esquires …” This is the model we chose to emulate. I designed and made garments never seen in knitting before, full of meaningful details, carefully constructed to evoke character. Jade undertook fourteen photoshoots, using a different model to play each of our Tudor subjects. The evocation of character was considered when constructing the photographic sets, as each of our dramatis personæ has her own distinct colour scheme, designed to project an aspect of her personality and story. We both took pains to balance the historical with the modern; the garments I created are eminently wearable today, while Jade’s photographs are in the style of renaissance portraits but have a contemporary twist. As a final detail, we enlisted students of silversmithing at City of Glasgow College to produce Tudor-themed jewellery that can be worn by modern women.
The result is a unique book that transcends the traditional knitting market. Tudor Roses will appeal to aficionados of art photography, of history, and of fabric and costume. It is also a volume for book-lovers, classically designed on a page size that allows unstinted white space. Jade and I are grateful to Calla Editions™ for granting such a generous canvas on which to paint our joint vision.
Finally, Tudor Roses will also appeal to students of life’s ironies. The last character portrayed in the book is Mary, Queen of Scots, the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor. Her needlework survives to this day, and the craft gave her solace during many years of imprisonment prior to her execution in 1587. She was beheaded but won posthumously because it was her son who became James I of England when the line of Henry VIII fizzled out. In July of 2013, in London, a boy was born to worldwide media attention; he is destined to become King George VII and it is through Mary that he takes his dash of Tudor blood. From back across the centuries, our shrewd stateswomen can allow themselves a wry smile.
Other books that almost made the list:
The Knitting Goddess by Deborah Bergman: This book is an amazing retelling of ancient myths with a knitting twist. The stories and patterns infused my knitting and thinking for a long time. It’s not in the top 3 because there are no photos of the projects–there were crappy photos on the web when the book first came out but even those are gone–and the how-to illustrations are gorgeous but so small that you can’t really see what’s going on. The stories and accompanying illustrations are drop dead gorgeous though. And what the hell has happened to Deborah Bergman? She fell off the face of the earth after releasing this one amazing book. I hope she is well and is just busy with other things.
White Whale by Ann Weaver: Would love it if Ann could afford to work with a traditional printer (not publisher) rather than print-on-demand which doesn’t quite come up to snuff yet in my opinion. The book is gorgeous, and I believe the print version–which includes original paintings inspired by Moby Dick to go along with each project–deserves a larger audience. Of all the designers I love, I am most inspired to knit projects by Ann Weaver. Her designs are spare and classic and elegant and fun and crazy all at once, and many of them are quick, easy knits which is something I need in order to be able to make something for myself in between my own design work.
Doggerland by Karrie Westerman: It’s only an ebook so you can’t put it on your coffee table! But the stories, drawings, and patterns all tie together in one of the most inspiring and forward-thinking knitting books I’ve ever read. I think that says it all.
History on Two Needles by Annie Modesitt: Annie is at the top of her game as an artisan and designer. She’s written some wonderful non-pattern books about knitting, but I’d also love to see her include more of her wonderful writing in her books that do include patterns.
This book upset me a bit because it deserved to be more than what it became. I hope that like Alice & Jade Starmore, Annie will have the chance to create a new version of this book someday with production values that bring it up to it’s potential as one of the books at the pinnacle of its genre. The history, patterns, and artwork in this book are all stunning. I wanted this book to be as gorgeous as the new edition of Tudor Roses is. Annie deserves that kind of quality and readers and knitters deserve to hear more of what she has to say.
My books are not the works of art I want them to be yet, either. But I hope that with each year, I will grow in my own skills and that my audience will grow so I have the resources to put more into high quality production.
What books inspire you in this way?