Book Review: Aran Knitting

I’ve got to keep up a better pace than this, folks. I’ve got 3 more books on the shelf for reviews and at the rate I’m going you’ll be hearing about the last of them right as the new batch of spring publications are released. (Note to self: stop letting paying work get in the way of your knitting time. Where are your priorities?)

I was debating which one to talk about next, and reached for my copy of the new and expanded edition of Aran Knitting, sent to me by the fine folks at Dover Publishing. It’s a beautiful book, make no mistake.

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This book is two things: A collection of Aran-style knitting patterns, and a history/explanation of the origins of Aran knitting. It’s also been flying off the shelves, as from what I hear, my fave Toronto shop The Purple Purl is already on their second ordering. There are good reasons why this is the case. The patterns are stunning. Originally released in 1997 and then allowed to go out of print, this is one of Alice Starmore’s pattern collections that is highly coveted. I myself am thrilled at the prospects of being able to make my own St. Brigid (Ravelry link), for example, along with a few of the others. There is a new one called Eala Bhan which is done in fingering weight and looks beautiful as well as stylish, and – unlike the other sweaters – uses the cables to include shaping and flare at the waist. In general, all patterns follow the Aran style of symmetrically placed panels of cables, knitted flat.

It’s the sort of collection that will be very much at home in a knitter’s library, regardless of whether or not you plan to cast on for any of the projects right now. The time will come (at least, it often does for me, and I hope I’m not alone) when you’ll need a selection of adventurous cabled knits to choose from, patterns that you can really sink into with skill and tradition. The collection in Aran Knitting includes mostly sweaters, but also a few rectangular shawls and hats. A few of the sweaters are styled to be unisex pieces, which adds some versatility.

Starmore also devotes a few dozen pages in the first chapters of the book to a history of Aran knitting, which I suspect is her true concern with this publication and re-publication. It’s a presentation of very detailed research in which she explains how Aran knitting tradition is rooted in 20th Century processes of production in the Scottish isles, and is emphatically not the same as ‘celtic’ knitting (which, incidentally, she wants you to know is something she herself established through another of her publications). There’s more to it than that, of course, and it’s worth consideration. She very much wants to set the record straight on the origins of Aran sweater knitting, so much so that I am not sure whether she is more concerned with people having this knowledge, so much as she wants to be the one to explain it to you.

I feel some sympathy for her at this point, because although she is breathlessly trying to convince her readers that Aran knitting and Celtic knitting are emphatically NOT the same thing, I can predict pretty quickly that this misconception is still going to persist. Partly because, quite simply, many people will read the book primarily for the patterns alone, and only skim the surface of the historical writing; The patterns are beautiful and are worth the price of the book in and of themselves. Also, in the end I am not sure she is helped by the format of this book – the patterns and historical discussion are two almost entirely separate pieces, and the knitter who doesn’t read the first half will eventually get to the section of the patterns titled “Celtic Designs,” and conclude that if a book called “Aran Knitting” includes a section called “Celtic Designs”, then surely Celtic knitting and Aran knitting are directly related.

(Also, I’m a geographer and not once in this book does there ever appear a map pointing out where any of this history happens. Respect the power of maps, yo, they help.)

A few technical notes on the patterns – I fully believe that they are well edited, as Alice Starmore’s reputation for precision and detail well precedes her, and the charts are excellent. Sizing is definitely skewed towards slimmer bodies wearing these sweaters with several inches of ease, so women with bust sizes above about 42″ or so will need to look into modification in order to complete them. And finally, all the patterns are written using Alice Starmore’s specific yarns, and clear specs on the yarn (i.e. yardage per weight) are not included in the book, so if you want to substitute yarns for the project, account for that few minutes of thought process to match up your yarns to intended gauge and so forth.

I hope that Starmore’s books remain in publication. As collections of patterns they are worth keeping active in knitters’ imaginations, and as sources of knowledge they will do very little good sitting gathering dust in scarce few libraries and archives. Knowledge needs to circulate, otherwise it will be lost.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Book Review: Aran Knitting

  1. I’ve been seriously attracted to cables in general and Aran sweaters in particular for a couple of months now. I’ll have to check out this book and decide if I’m actually going to cast on for one!

  2. Nice! Thanks for the review!

  3. Val Champ

    Glenna are all the patterns charted? I am having a bit of trouble with cables and charts, they are new from when I was knitting before.

    The book looks lovely tho..and one I will put on my Wish List.

  4. radmeister

    You’re correct. Sometimes a map is worth more than a thousand words. I enjoyed your review. This book looks promising and I appreciate the info about sizes. It’s good to know that if I want to knit a sweater There Will Be Math Involved.

  5. Marlyce

    Your review of this book is an enjoyable read in itself!
    I have a another book by Alice Starmore and she also
    has given specs for her yarn only, which even at that
    time was discontinued. My friend in Toronto scurried to
    Romni who allowed her to pore over their sample books
    to get the yardages of the various yarns. Romni still had
    those sample cards even though the yarn was no longer
    available. At that time Starmore was switching from one
    mill to another to make her yarns. I don’t know whether
    her current yarns are comparable. But I did feel at the time
    that it made her book less compatible with knitters who might
    delay knitting a project for awhile. Thanks for the review.
    Marlyce in Windsor

  6. Linda B.

    I have the original 1997 publication, but bought this edition mainly for Eala Bhan!

  7. I added this to my amazon wishlist recently so good to read a review, thank you.

  8. Pam

    I love cables! So far I only knitting one on a swatch to see if I could do it. I need to be brave and try it on an actual sweater.

  9. I have the original book, as well as Tudor Roses. I don’t think I’ll ever knit anything from either one, but as eye candy and history, they’re fantastic.

  10. AS is my idol! I have the original (which never leaves the house!!) and jumped at the chance to get this one, too. I have many of her other books as I was lucky enough to be knitting while she was still actively publishing. They are all equally wonderful and inspiring! Thank you for a great review!

  11. This is one I may have to peruse myself.

  12. Karen Girvan

    This book looks lovely, but I’m a bit confused about Aran coming from the Scottish Isles, which may come as a bit of a suprise to Ireland to whom the Aran Isles belong. There is an Island in Scotland (just ‘doon the watter’ from me) called Arran, but it has no relationship with Aran knitting.

  13. Hi Karen

    Thanks for the message! You make a fair point, and to be honest with you, I went over and over the book trying to find a specific geographical location reference point, and came up empty handed. My presumption was that there is a link with Scottish islands based on other references and things that Starmore has said, but it is entirely possible that I”m wrong. Perhaps more fuel for misconceptions about what Aran knitting actually is?

    Incidentally, I came up with Aran locations in an atlas – Aran island, as you say, as well as Arran, and I think there may be a 3rd.

    If only Starmore had included a map in her book….

    Glenna