Category Archives: book review

Book Review: The Big Book of Socks

When you’re a knitter, there is just a whole darned lot to love about fall. I love that I can break out all my hoarded socks and sweaters that have been waiting to come out again ever since May, I love that wool feels cozy in my hands again…and I love that there are new knitting books on the shelves coming my way for review. I’m pleased again to be keeping up with a bit of blog book reviews. The fine folks at Random House Canada are good enough to continue sending a few titles my way, and I thank them for it!

Today, I have a few review comments on The Big Book of Socks, by Kathleen Taylor:

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If you’re a knit-blogger, or a knitter who is a blog-reader or Ravelry user, chances are you are familiar with socks in some fashion. Socks are the little black dress of the knitting world – good for all knitting occasions. Either you’ve knitted them yourself, or you’ve at least been exposed to them enough that you’ve probably started to think about knitting your first pair. You probably don’t need me to tell you why socks are awesome to knit and to wear.

It’s also true that there is no shortage of sock knitting books out there in print, so it can be difficult to tell one apart from the other. It took me a bit of time to consider The Big Book of Socks for where it fits in, because at first glance it may seem a bit simplistic in light of other sock efforts – Ravelry and the blogosphere abound with sock patterns of intricate complexity, some that seem to push the boundaries of knitting. These things, however, are not what The Big Book of Socks is trying to accomplish.

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I think where this book fits in is for the knitter who has not tried sock knitting before, and needs a gentle and progressive introduction to it, or for the knitter who wants to knit socks as gifts for family members or friends, but needs some variety in basic options. There is a very brief introduction to the world of sock knitting in general, with some short notes paid to the differences between a few techniques, and then six different kinds of socks: Basic, Striped, Textured and Cabled, Lace, Colorwork, and ‘Just for Fun’. Essentially, this book takes you through a mini workshop whereby you gradually apply slightly more adventurous techniques to the whole sock concept. Most patterns are sized from wee child on up to male adult.

This starts out with, surprisingly, tube socks. It’s been a long darned time since I saw anyone recommend knitting tube socks (essentially, tubes with toes but no heels), but Kathleen Taylor makes the point that these can be ideal for small children whose feet grow quickly. I imagine they might also be a gentle step up for new sock knitters who are just getting used to the whole in-the-round thing first, and the heel second.

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Never fear, though, for this book does in fact progress to heel flaps and short row heels. (Generally the patterns are written for cuff-down knitting). As the chapters progress, the socks become slightly more adventurous and introduce the knitter to new techniques – lace, cables, bobbles, beads, stranded colourwork, all of these are included in turn. I quite like these simple lace socks, above, and there are even one or two pairs with bobbles on them that I would make as a fun pair. You know I’m a fan of colourwork, and I admit I was quite taken with the two-colour mosaic socks, below.

The yarns included in the samples will also be familiar to most people who look through the book – they include well-known American labels such as Knit Picks, Patons, Blue Moon, Berroco, and a few others. This also makes me think the book was produced with accessibility in mind, since these kinds of recognizeable labels can be pretty easy to locate.

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So, I think that while a lot of experienced knitters will probably glance at this book and then put it back on the shelf, it may be just right for others. Do you know a knitter who hasn’t yet embarked on his/her sock knitting adventure? Or are you that knitter? If so, you just might be an ideal recipient for this book.

I’m happy to pass on my copy to a sock knitter or would-be sock knitter out there. If you’d like to put your name into the ring, please comment below and tell me why you enjoy/would enjoy sock knitting. The more sock knitters, the merrier!

[ETA]: I should have included a deadline! I’ll accept comments to this post through Saturday midnight, and will draw a winning name some time on Sunday. Thank you to everyone who has left a comment so far! It is lovely to read them.

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Book Review: Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes

Some of you may be waiting on an Autumn Rose FO post…and one will come, just as soon as I weave in those last couple ends I should have already done by now find a photographer. But in the mean time, I have a book review that’s been waiting in the wings – and it ain’t even a knitting book!

I think most of you know where I stand on cupcakes. (I am on the side of cupcakes). During the last year of finishing my PhD dissertation, I baked them a lot. Baking things gives me the same great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I get from knitting, only a lot faster and with frosting on top. Delicious, delicious, procrastination. This, I feel, is a good thing. And because I know my way around a cupcake pan, I was very curious to have a look at this new offering in the baking world: Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes.

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When it comes to Martha Stewart, I am admittedly ambiguous. On the one hand, I often find that her cooking recipes ask a few ingredients too many and are a little bit fussy, and I steer clear of the home decor stuff entirely. (Why would I give up the precious knitting time?) On the other hand, a lot of her recipes are quite simple and her techniques often make a lot of sense, and I think the complicated, overly precise and finicky projects of Martha’s often overshadow the ones that are in fact very do-able, very practical, and – in this case – very tasty. Not everything needs five million steps, and I’m glad that Martha (or possibly her staff) realize this.

And lo, this cupcakes book does not disappoint. If you are a fan of baking, if you could potentially become a fan of baking, or you know someone who can tell their all-purpose and cake & pastry flours apart, then you just might need this book. It is worth it. It has a good supply of standard recipes – vanilla buttermilk, devil’s fudge, blueberry, carrot, one-bowl chocolate, marbled swirl – on up to filled, glazed, and carefully decorated ones. If you want to get out the pastry bag and decorating tips, well, Martha is here for you. If you want to just bake some plain old cupcakes and slap some plain old icing on them, this book will do that too.

Overall, I’m glad to have tried out this book and I think it is a great collection of recipes. A must-have for the cupcake baker.

Don’t worry about complicated. Your cupcakes do not need ganache filling or candied walnut sprinkles or complexly piped icing. If you want to put all of these things on, people will gobble them up happily, but I have never seen anybody refuse a well-made plain vanilla cupcake with vanilla frosting. They are just as delicious.

I have made three recipes from this book: Vanilla Buttermilk cupcakes with Swiss Buttercream Frosting, Devil’s Food Cake (chocolate cake) with Chocolate Ganache Frosting (these may be the ones on the cover of the book), and Mini Raspberry Cheesecakes. They were all fantastic, and I regret very much that I do not have pictures of these endeavours.

Although I think this book is a great resource overall, I do have a couple of gripes with Martha. For one, despite incredibly clear written and photographic instructions on all the recipes, this book assumes that you are baking with the aid of a stand mixer (a la the ubiquitous Kitchen Aid one, or similar). While I have recently been able to have the use of my mother’s stand mixer (and it is, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “so choice”), I am here to tell you that you do not need to own a stand mixer in order to bake cupcakes. The vast majority of baking that I have done in my lifetime thus far, has been with regular mixing bowls and hand mixers. It can be done, and I do wish Martha would acknowledge this more often.

Second, I think anyone using this book would do well to skip past Martha’s written introduction and just use the recipes. She paints a picture of cupcakes as incredibly indulgent, cosmopolitan affairs that belong in trendy upscale bakeries and complex adult dinner parties. This is surely the image that cupcakes have taken on recently, thanks to trendy NYC cupcakeries and similar spots, but let’s not forget what cupcakes are: they are small cakes, they are yummy, and they are meant to be eaten. They are for people of all ages, and they belong in your cluttered kitchen, eaten with your fingers while leaning over the sink, just as much as at a fancy party.

Third, the quantities in this book are large. Many of the recipes make three dozen cupcakes, which means some recipe adjustment is probably in order much of the time.

Finally, if you’re new to baking cupcakes allow me to impart a bit of experiential wisdom from the dozens of batches I have made. If I can save you a bit of turmoil, please let me. When baking cupcakes:

1. Do allow your cupcakes to cool completely before frosting them. There is nothing worse than successfully applying a beautiful swirled mountain of frosting with a piping bag before watching it all melt out into a splat.

2. After you’ve made your batch of cupcakes and you discover you have far more than one household needs, I highly recommend sharing them with a group. (Don’t you have a knit night to go to?)

3. One of the best gadgets you can get if you are going to bake on a regular basis is an ice-cream scoop with a release mechanism. It is about the perfect amount of batter that needs to go into a waiting cupcake liner.

4. Do the little things that seem finicky and stupid. DO pre-heat the oven. DO make sure your baking racks are set as close to the middle of the oven as possible. DO combine your flour and baking powder/soda/salt before mixing. DO let your ingredients come to room temperature before using them (not just the butter). It’s things like this that can make the difference between cupcakes that look fluffy and perfect and ones that come out half-burned or uneven and tragic.

5. Finally, if you are going to go to the effort of dirtying up your kitchen and then eating the indulgences that result from those efforts, make the best you can. Bake from scratch whenever possible. Use real ingredients. Mixes are easy, but they will never match the taste of real cake. Remind yourself and your loved ones what cake was meant to taste like.

It’s my birthday this week and I’m sure there will be more cupcakes later…the only question is which kind?

Catch you again soon…next time with knitting content, I promise.

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Book Review: Socks from the Toe Up

I have a review for you this week, dear blog readers, this time for the recently released book Socks from the Toe Up, by Wendy D. Johnson.

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This book has been in wide release for a month and a half or so, so some of you may already have had a glimpse of it. Some of you may also be familiar with Wendy’s blog, and although I am not a regular reader of her blog I know enough about her knitting style to know that it makes sense that she would pen a book dedicated to toe-up sock knitting, since it is her method of choice for sock knitting. Let’s have a brief look inside the book.

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One high point of Socks from the Toe Up that bears mentioning is that it is technically strong. There are several pages devoted to techniques like toes, heels, and bind-offs which are useful for toe-up knitting. If you’ve dallied with toe-up sock knitting before, many of these techniques will already be familiar to you. If not, they are presented here with helpful images to make the process as painless as possible.There are instructions here for 3 different kinds of toe-up toes, heels (including the ubiquitously cuff-down slip stitch heel), and bind-offs.

Another strength of this book, possibly the strongest feature in fact, is its production. The images are colourful, plentiful, well edited, and generally quite attractive. Also, the format is quite user-friendly: the written instructions for each pattern are contained over the same fold, so there is minimal flipping back and forth required, and the size of the book itself is small enough to be portable – I can envision knitters slipping this into their handbag to set over their lap while in transit. (This is actually a quality I wish more knitting publishers would keep in mind – knitting books need not be coffee table books.)

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The technical ‘part a’ of the book is followed by the sock patterns ‘part b’, which in turn is subdivided into ‘Basic’, ‘Lace’, ‘Textured Gansey’, ‘Cabled’, and ‘Sportweight’ Socks, although these last three sections contain only 2-3 patterns each. Not counting the basic socks (which would be an excellent starting place for those new to toe-up), there are 20 patterns in this collection.

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The patterns are knit in a variety of trendy and colourful yarns, and are certainly meant to be eye-catching. Lots of bright colours and strong photography here. I like the look of the Lace and Cable Socks (above), which could be versatile for a number of sock yarns. I was also intrigued by the Vandyke Socks (below), which are knit in a single skein of Dream in Color Classy, and therefore likely to be a speedy knit.

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Socks from the Toe Up is in general a nice addition to a sock knitter’s library. In the end, my only concern with it is that I am still left wondering why the book does not do more to convince readers why we should be knitting socks from the toe up in the first place. Other than a brief note early on about the convenience of being able to use up all the yarn in the skein without worrying about running out, there is very little attention paid to answering this question. For example, from a toe-up sock book, it is surprising to me that other than the lacy patterns, many of these socks could be virtually identically reproduced working from the cuff down.

Perhaps I am under-selling the usefulness of yarn economy (which make no mistake is quite useful), but I think there was a big missed opportunity here. There are lot (a LOT) of sock books out on the market these days, and any new offering needs to distinguish itself from the others in some way. Either the ‘why toe-up’ question was not considered necessary enough to devote time to it, or the publishers are assuming that anyone who buys the book already wants to knit from the toe-up and does not need convincing. There are certainly valuable traits to toe-up sock knitting that have nothing to do with efficient use of yarn – what about customizing fit? or the difference of working certain patterns in one direction versus another? I wish Johnson would have done more to emphasize such benefits or differences involved working from the toe-up.

Overall this is a nice collection of patterns, and for knitters looking for a new set of sock patterns to work their way through, this will be a good book to add to the collection. If you are looking for a handy set of instructions about how to work socks from the toe-up, then this will also be a very useful book. If you’ve had a chance to look at this book yourself I’d be curious to know what you think, or if you have a favourite pattern from it.

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Book Review: Knitting and Tea

I’ve been remiss in getting back to the book reviews the past few weeks, but now that I’ve gone through a period of post-term sloth, it’s time to get back to the writing and the thoughts-thinking, and what better way to ease into that than with a book review? This one has been on my desk for a month or so, and is a recent publication called Knitting and Tea, by Jane Gottelier:

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On the surface this would appear to be a collection of knitting patterns inspired by the world of tea, but it actually strikes a decent balance between both halves of the title. It does contain knitting patterns inspired by the world of tea, but also includes a great deal of attention to tea itself, including brief notes on how it is processed, different locations where it is planted, and particular attention to cultural events or sites focussed around tea – cricket matches, afternoon tea, or even more workaday ‘builder’s tea’. All of these provide chapter divisions between patterns, but also a small series of recipes. I’m quite interested to try the cake-like Bakewell Tart, as one example.

The knitting patterns themselves are diverse, and include a variety of techniques and skill levels. Sweaters are definitely in the majority, but there are several accessories including a scarf, capelet, hat, pillow, knee-socks, and – as would be expected in a book like this – several different kinds of tea cosies. Here are some relatively lo-tech images to illustrate.

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The ‘builder’s tea’ chapter offers several casual knits, including this ‘biker’s’ scarf and a-symmetrical cardigan jacket. I would make either of these, although I might adjust the cardigan as a plain front. The men’s sweater above is a beautiful cabled piece, and I might actually be inclined to adjust it to a women’s pullover – but I admit to wondering if this piece would actually appeal to a broad number of men. My sense with male knits is that cables are best used in a more modest fashion, but I’m very happy to be proven wrong.

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These two sweaters above present me with similar questions – I like the women’s Somerset Cable sweater, but find the back more attractive than the front which includes an extremely bulky cable in the centre. I would knit this with the back piece adjusted for the front as well. The men’s Cricket Cardigan is definitely reminiscent of the pale-coloured layers worn by men on cricket fields, and I commend the design. Again, though, I wonder at its versatility, similar to the builder’s pullover above.

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This Flowerdew camisole is, I think, one of the strongest pieces in this collection. It is feminine, delicate, and includes delicate stitches, beads and YO frills around the edges, and a lacy hem. It is knit in fingering weight and I am imagining the decadence of making this in a merino-silk or merino-cashmere blend. Another strong piece is the Garden Jacket (below), worked in a DK blend from Rowan that could be easily substituted with the DK blend of your preference.

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And tea cosies? Well, we’ve got your tea cosies right here. There are sparkly ones, pom pom ones, a tea-cosy made to look like a cupcake and another with tassels on top. These, like some other patterns in the book, will be entirely up to individual knitter style preferences. I would recommend a nice browse through this book before deciding whether to purchase, but overall there is a broad range of patterns here, an intriguing theme, and delicious recipes as a bonus.

The only thing that leaves me less enthusiastic about this book is the way the models are used to showcase the garments. According to theme, the chapters are organized according to the location of tea consumption or tea production, which affords 2 chapters in India and ‘Ceylon’ (now Sri Lanka), and several more located in the imaginative space of the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. It is clear that the models have been chosen for each of these chapters with the same kind of visual homogeneity in mind – chapters ‘set’ in England use models are pale-skinned, and often pale-haired, and chapters ‘set’ in India use models with darker skin likely of South Asian ethnicities. The two sets of models do not overlap in either set of ‘locations’.

This leaves me wondering how appropriate this is to visually represent people according to the sites of colonial history in this way. On the one hand, the history of tea is a colonial one, which includes a hefty share of power imbalance and trading relationships across the British Empire. On the other hand, how does it help us to so casually reinforce the assumption that people’s skin colour must always locate them in a specific part of the world? Particularly when such assumptions are more and more difficult to hold, in our present day world. I wonder if the Gotteliers considered such questions in their process of producing this book.

If you’ve had a chance to look at this book I’d be pleased to know your thoughts as well. As a collection of knitting patterns alone, this is worth looking at, but in many ways leaves me uncertain if such a theme would have been better approached with different organization.

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Book Review: Continuous Cables

My first book review of 2009 is a selection which has been waiting for me ever so patiently for the last few months of 2008. This is Melissa Leapman’s follow-up to Cables Untangled, Continuous Cables.

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Having read both Continuous Cables and the earlier Cables Untangled, I must admit I have higher praise for this latest effort. While CC had a strong stitch dictionary and no lack of ambition, stylistically I didn’t quite go for the all-over cable pattern effects that the first book tended to emphasize – but then again, you might love it. In this newer volume, Leapman uses cables with more diversity, placing them alone in single panels, in combination with other patterns similar to the aran sweater style, as well as a few all-over patterns thrown in for good measure.

Some good examples of the placed single motif are in the children’s pieces, of which there are many. This may well be a selling point for some knitters – often knitting books concentrate solely on adult garments and toss in one or two children’s pieces as an afterthought, but here there is a fairly equal division between knitting for adults, children, and for the home.

First off, how about some baby blocks? I think these are brilliant. Useful, suitable for an infinite variation of colours, and a nice small canvas to practice single cable patterns as well as toy-making. How often can you say that about a project?

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The children’s sweaters offer similar appeal, using different combinations of cables on a relatively smaller canvas than would be required for an adult piece. This wee baby sweater does have a pretty gnarly cable on the front, but just think…Once you’re done the front, it’s stockinette and straight on until morning. The pink girls’ sweater below is one that caught my eye. I might even be inclined to up-size it…why must the adorable come only in child size?

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I did mention there are some style selections that may or may not agree with you, depending on your preference. For example, this Swirl Pullover almost hits the mark for me but not quite. I love the texture at the sides, but the extra-large centre cable isn’t for me.

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On the other hand, I quite like this tank top sweater, made with the improbable yarn selection of ‘Cornucopia’, a 100% corn yarn. Who says cables need to be wool-only?

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The women’s sweaters fit a bust size of about 34 ins on up to 48 ins or so, depending on the desired amount of negative ease. There are quite a few blankets and throws, as well as two ‘beginner’ cable pieces at the beginning of the book – a hat and a throw pillow. The opening pages devote a lot of attention towards technique and explaining to you Why Cables Are Easier Than They Look. I’m a big fan of that. And the stitch dictionary at the end? Well. You’ll have to read that for yourself, it’s enough to make you drool over all the twists and turns. And I can’t stop thinking about the hooded cardigan sweater on the cover.

All in all I think the stitch dictionary combined with a good diversity of patterns makes this a fun selection to have in a knitting library. Having said that, I’d recommend having a flip through the book in person before making your decision. I think any book which relies on a single stitch technique is going to depend on some stylistic preferences, which may not match your own. And if you want to come over and tell me what colour I should knit the cover hoodie in, please do. I’ll have tea waiting.

Happy cabling! More reviews to come in 2009.

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Book Review: Knitting for Good

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short while, you know that I tend to consider my knitting a relatively selfish pursuit. By ‘selfish’ I mean that I mostly (though not exclusively – my sock-knitting list and current Christmas knitting are testaments to that) tend to knit things for myself, and I orient myself towards knitting based on what I want to make and what I will get out of it. I am generally pretty comfortable with this. Here is why.

I came to knitting at the beginning of the 5-year journey that was the completion of my PhD, and it made a lot of sense to me because unlike the long, often isolating and distressing, and very nebulous experience of finishing a degree, knitting was extremely gratifying because it gave me a sense of accomplishment (I could quite literally see my progress, then wear or use the results almost instantly), and small boosts of confidence (there was once a time when I was alternately afraid of cables, socks, fair isle, and big enormous commitment-heavy blankets. Now my knitting eats fair isle for breakfast. HAH).

I also came to knitting at a time when I was coming to the end of a long series of commitments within my membership of an organization highly dedicated to volunteer work. I did this work for so many years because I believed it was good work (and I still do), but I came to the point of needing to step away. It had become something that exhausted me and for which I could no longer explain my motivation. I was spending huge amounts of my own time, energy, and sense of self doing something that I wasn’t fully committed to, and I needed a time-out. Knitting filled that void. With knitting I could be as self-directed as I wished, set my own challenges, and even connect to other human beings outside of my own living room, whether in person or online. Knitting has connected me to a great many of the friends I have now. It has also meant that I can wear handmade socks and sweaters every single day of the fall and winter. I can’t remember the last time I purchased a commercial pair of wool socks.

I buy a lot of yarn. By ‘a lot’, I mean that, while I don’t buy it every week, yarn is the consumer product that I purchase more often than anything else (even clothing), I have more yarn than one knitter reasonably needs, my sock yarn basket overfloweth, and if I didn’t see the inside of a yarn shop for the next few years I would probably manage just fine. Although I occasionally still shop from discount retailers (have I told you about my arsenal of Knit Picks Palette stash that will quite possibly never get smaller?), more and more often I purchase from smaller local yarn shops in Toronto or on my travels. This is a balance that works for me, personally.

So, why am I telling you all of this in a post that is labelled as a book review? It is because the book in question is a book that will start you thinking about what your personal knitting story is, and whether or not you would like to change it. This book is Knitting for Good!, by Betsy Greer.

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This book is written in three sections: Knitting for Yourself, Knitting for Your Community, and Knitting for the World. Greer writes very much from the perspective of her own trajectory of knitting, and each section is filtered through her own stories as well as those of other knitters she has consulted in the process of writing the book. These other stories are, I would argue, some of the high points of the book. There is one story, for example, of a woman who started a project to knit cozies for walking canes, because when she covered her own walking cane with knitting it immediately changed the way people perceived her disability. Another is from a woman who lived for a year on the barter system and learned a lot about contemporary cultures of consumption as a result.

Many of us in the knitting blogosphere are already familiar with much of what Greer writes in the first and second sections of this book. We know that knitting can be a gateway to self-confidence and meditative action. We know that the DIY experience is about more than the sum of its parts, and that creating handmade items can stand in direct contrast to the consumer culture we live in. We know that knitting is about more than individual human beings working in isolation. We know that knitting is often representative of contemporary feminist identity, as an affirmation of the significance of traditionally domestic activity and the power of collective action. We know that knitters can be extremely generous people. We know that knitters are capable of effecting great change at multiple scales.

As a result, I found myself reading the first several chapters and thinking, “I know this. Tell me something I don’t know.” By the time I reached the end of the book, however, I came to the conclusion that even if much of this is repetitive, it is still worth repeating. The ultimate statement behind this book is to consider how the ‘personal is political’ is relevant to the world of knitting, and if I’m being honest with myself I know that just because I agree that this statement is true, it doesn’t mean that I actually think about it all the time when I’m knitting.

This is a short and reflective read, and I think it would be an interesting gift for knitters who are perhaps less “connected” than others, and who are open to thinking about knitting beyond the skills they are learning. It might also be an effective “recruitment tool” into knitting for people who are interested in the world of craft and community, but who haven’t yet been introduced to knitting. There are even a few simple patterns scattered throughout the book, for things like blankets, hats, and socks.

Greer asks her readers – in the third section especially – to consider how knitting fits into the contemporary consumer world, and how the potentially isolating act of knitting individually can be transformed into local and global activism. It is very hard to be presented with questions about these sorts of things and not start to answer them for yourself as you read. And, just because the questions are familiar doesn’t mean that I’ve come up with an answer yet for myself. I’m going to work on that.

Still to come in book reviews: ‘Continuous Cables’, and ‘Shear Spirit’.

May your knitting be close by!

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Book Review: Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines

I’ll admit it, during the first moments when I started to catch wind of the new Mason-Dixon Knitting book, I became a little skeptical. I heard it contained patterns for things like knitted liners for rubber gloves and re-usable knitted Swiffer covers. I started to wonder if the awesome Kay Gardiner & Ann Shayne had suddenly veered off into full-on Holly Housewife territory, forsaking the knitted garment altogether and ditching the beautiful use of colour and whimsy I had grown to love from their first book.

And, well, as you might have guessed, I was wrong to despair. As soon as I started looking through a copy of it in my own hands, my whole opinion changed. This, my friends, is a sequel that does its precursor justice.

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The first hint I had that Mason-Dixon Knitting Outside the Lines might, in fact, be a pretty kick-ass book, was when my friend Liz messaged me out of the blue on Ravelry, pointing at the Liberty throw (below), and blubbering something incoherent about the sudden need to knit this throw and oh wow it involves STEEKS and that’s a bit scary but she really NEEDED to make the blanket and could I please talk her down from whatever Crazy Ledge she was on.

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Well, of course I didn’t talk her down. Have you seen this blanket? I think I might need one. You might need one too, and there will be no talk of how scary it is to do steeks or stranded colour-work or fair isle either, because Ann and Kay devote pretty much an entire section of the book to talking everyone down from whatever collective ledge they may have gotten onto about those sorts of things. This is something my sister responded to pretty instantaneously, as the colour-work blankets were what made her stop and fondle the book lovingly. “They tell you how to do steeks! They show you with technical pictures and everything!” she said.

I looked at her sort of dumbfounded and said, “But but but Martha I could show you how to do that! I’ve done steeks, I could totally explain it all to you!” And she continued to clutch the book a little bit sheepishly but devotedly and said “well yes, I know. But sometimes you need a book to explain it all to you.”

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And I think this, in essence, is what this book is about. Because it’s not just about the technique – there are plenty of other publications in existence which will explain things to you like steeks or colour-work or sweater sizing or top-down construction or knitting for the household or knitting for children or knitting for comfort and style. What Ann and Kay manage to do is absorb all of this information and turn it back out again in a way that is comforting and funny and says, “we see what you’re saying with this fair isle thing. But we’re going to take it over here for a sec and see what happens. Please come along, it will be more fun that way.”

The ‘Dotty’ blanket above is another example from their colour-work chapter, a Kaffe-Fassett-esque foray into stranded knitting that is easily adaptable for a range of yarns (though I admit I like the Silk Garden sample they have there, and would require very little convincing to drop the cash required to purchase materials for same). I am quite sure that Martha is also entertaining visions of knitting a queen-size version of this, despite the fact that she is (possibly as I type this) currently casting off a 6-foot circular blanket and needs no reminders about the mental commitment required for blanket knitting.

But the new MDK book is not just about knitting blankets, or colour-work. It is divided into five sections: Decorating Yourself (women’s scarves, socks, jackets, and sweaters), The Fairest Isle of All, Covering the Small Human (children’s knits), Occasional Knitting (home knits), and The Sophisticated Kitchen (new things to do with dishcloth cotton). I am if nothing else, a sweater knitter, and make a pretty direct beeline to the sweater patterns in any new knitting book I encounter.

This brings me to this:

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This is the “Margaret” sweater, by Mary Neal Meador. It made me genuinely stop and boggle a little bit. This is a fairly simple skirted sweater that requires a base-line skill level that is no more complicated than the average sweater (in other words, all of you sitting there could make this). What makes this art is the chain-stitch words added onto the bodice, both front and back. It’s so beautiful and yet so simple, and open to infinite variety. You could choose whatever words you want, poetry or political statements or your favourite film quotation, or just ABCs if that’s what you feel like. I think it is only a matter of time before I knit this.

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Another great piece in this collection is the ‘Daily Sweater’ (above), which is a top-down raglan sweater inspired by the comfort and versatility of sweatshirts, and comes in 7 sizes from 38 inches to 58 inches. Seriously, beat that.

The children’s knits are fantastic, too. There’s also a Sk8R sweater for young boys which is pretty darned cool, and an ‘Emma Peel’ dress for girls which is also just about as cool as you might think it is. In general the ‘Covering the Small Human’ section sort of makes me want to weep a little bit, because the sweaters here are all so great but they are all sized for children which means they don’t come in my size. (Well OK, yes, I could do the thinking and the math to make them adult-sized…but you understand). I mean, look at how adorable this Fern cardigan is:

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And just in case you haven’t put enough gift knitting on your list, there are these felted Christmas trees, suitable for standing in groups of 3-4, or as a full set of Advent Calendar pieces to cover-up gifts or written words:

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So yes, all in all I call this book a winner. The written text is a good read all on its own, as you might expect from the humour of the first Mason-Dixon book. I think it’s safe to say that the average reader won’t like every pattern equally, but that you’ll find something in here that you’ll want to knit just the same. The versatility of this book is pretty impressive all around. (Oh yeah – and the rubber glove liners and the re-usable knitted Swiffer covers…well, those are actually pretty whimsical and okay, too).

Coming up for knitting book reviews, Shear Spirit, and Continuous Cables.

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Other things to make with your hands

If I wasn’t knitting, I would probably be cooking or baking. I sometimes watch the Food Network (Hi Alton! Call me!), and often spend a chunk of time on the weekend in the kitchen the same way I would put in a weekend warrior attempt at finishing a piece of knitting. I am generally a big fan of making stuff, and the triumph of getting to actually wear, use, or eat the things I make is sort of the side bonus. The downside to cooking or baking is that it’s really hard to do that while you’re sitting on a subway or at a streetcorner cafe. But there are few knitting projects that result in chocolate cakes or loaves of bread, so I think the benefits are probably on par for each.

So, a month ago when there was a lull in the knitting books that were coming through the publishing world, I asked to look at a couple of cookbooks instead, and Random House happily obliged me. This one is from popular television chef Giada DiLaurentis, appropriately named Giada’s Kitchen.

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Now, all skepticism aside about how Giada actually manages to eat all the food she makes and still remain the cute pocket-sized television personality that she is, I have to give this book major props. I’m the sort of person who has flirted with taking Italian cooking seriously enough to have actually made my own pasta (and without a pasta maker, too…and you thought knitting was rough on the hands, HAH), attempted those almond-egg-white cakes that never seem to rise properly, and generally started to wonder what the big deal was about pasta because it is everywhere and seems kind of boring when you make it yourself.

Last night I tried two recipes from this collection; the White Bean and Garlic soup and Linguine with Green Beans and Ricotta, with some garlicy Calabrese bread on the side. It took less than an hour to get both dishes on the table from start to finish, and it is a crying shame only two of us were eating them because it was so good. I was left with a pleasant combination of flavours in my mouth afterwards, not to mention a nice fridge full of leftovers to get me through a few lunches this week.

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Giada’s recipes are, I have to say, an excellent set of everyday recipes. Most of the ingredients she uses are familar and will not have you scouring specialty markets (Naked Chef, I’m looking at you), and they are simple enough not to take up more than a page each of the book (Martha Stewart, I’m looking at YOU). There is also enough variety in here to take you through an entire multi-course meal if you want, right from cocktails to dessert, and also uses a lot of vegetarian recipes as well as meat courses. I’m flirting with the Appetizer Red Pepper Cheesecake and the Lamb Ragu for next attempts, I think.

Thankfully a lot of her recipes are available on the Food Network website (as the recipe I link to above), so you can try some before committing to the whole book. For me though, I don’t think this book is going to gather a whole lot of dust any time soon.

Next up in reviewing over the next couple of months: The Canadian Living Baking Book, Shear Spirit, and Mason-Dixon: Knitting Outside the Lines. Can’t wait!

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Book Review: Tweed

There are times when I get books for review and can’t wait to tell you about them. A Fine Fleece and The Knitter’s Book of Yarn are a couple of recent examples of this. Not only did I drool over them as I flipped through the pages but they are two books that still take up occasional residence on my nightstand for project planning and stash shopping.

And then there are other times when I get a book and am so mystified as to what to write about it, that it just sits there on my desk for months as I endlessly say “I’ll get to that review next week.” Tweed is one of these books. I’ll admit that this isn’t my favourite knitting book I’ve received, but the thing is it does have a few strong points, and it deserves to be written about just like any other book that comes across my desk.

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I’m going to start out with what I think are this book’s flaws, because I think they are fairly significant and hard to ignore. The first is that the patterns are, essentially, a big enormous advertisement for Takhi/Stacy Charles Yarns. All of the projects use yarns by this company, most predominantly Takhi Donegal Tweed and Takhi Soho Tweed. Now, these are lovely yarns to be sure, and I know it’s not uncommon for books to favour certain yarn purveyors in a single collection. But in this case the book promises its scope to be about tweed yarns, which don’t belong to one single company. It’s true that Donegal tweed carries much of the historical legacy of tweed, but many yarns now achieve or imitate the tweed effect, and it would be refreshing to be able to compare the different looks of different yarn companies’ versions of tweed. Heck, when even priced-to-own labels like Patons, Elann, and Knit Picks now all offer tweed versions of their popular yarns, it’s safe to say that tweed is no longer the domain of one company. There’s a big missed opportunity here to compare and contrast.

My second gripe with this book is the way it uses tweed yarns in combination with each other, specifically the way the patterns combine different colours. Maybe I’m missing something, and if these are patterns y’all would make happily then please correct me if I’m wrong – but something’s not working for me in a few of these samples:

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Folks, I just don’t know about these. With this many colours used in combination in a single piece, how is it possible to still celebrate the tweedy qualities of any single one? It seems to me that in a piece like the Hebrides Sampler Throw (middle), a more muted colour range would do more to show off an individual yarn’s texture and stitch quality.

But the thing is, I just can’t deep-six this book altogether, in fact I think I’ll be passing it on to a friend of mine who is a relatively new knitter, and there are two big high points that explain why. The first is that the opening chapters really do provide a concise and interesting history of what ‘tweed’ really is – in both fabric and yarns. Did you know, for example, that the little colourful flecks are also called “nepps” or “burrs”? and that they were originally inspired by the bright colours found in the natural landscape, to provide contrast to the naturally gray, brown and off-white shades of the sheepswool? Call me a knitting geek, but that kind of information is sort of cool.

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Aside from a bit of knitting history, the book approaches knitting and working with yarn in general from a perspective that would be very useful for a new knitter. There are explanations of how to care for woolen yarns, how to felt, and how to substitute yarns. All of the projects make use of yarns which are worsted, aran, or bulky weight, which makes it pretty darned easy to find substitute yarns for the projects involved, in case your pocketbook or local selection can’t supply the prescribed Takhi collection.

My favourite knitting medium is sweaters, and there are few in here that I love. They are simple but interesting, modern enough to fit into your current wardrobe, and not too intimidating for someone new to cables. The Moss Cabled Cardigan and Scottish Isles Pullover are two examples:

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I also rather like the ‘Kilt Bag’ knitting bag pattern (above), which would be pretty useful as a project for small quantities of similarly weighted yarns.

So all in all I think this book comes down to personal preference – whether or not you like the patterns, and whether your tweed love is enough to make the history pieces worthwhile. For me, some of the patterns do have merit and practicality, and tend to include a wide range from 36-50″ bust size of the finished garments, which is a non-negligible plus. But I was disappointed not to see more variety of yarns in the samples, and for a book which promises to hold “contemporary designs to knit”, I’d like to call for a review of some of the more questionable ones, above. Contemporary does not automatically mean ‘colourful’.

This book has been on the market for a few months, so I’d be curious to hear from anyone else who has used it or read it.

What knitting books are on your bedside table right now?

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Book Review: More Big Girl Knits

Here we are folks, my third of four spring spring/summer knitting book reviews. I have been meaning to complete this mostly-done review for quite some time, and time got away from me. May got sucked up with defense prep/recovery, then I’ve spent June avoiding things requiring Thinking Thoughts, and there you have it. But I’m finding myself ready to re-join the world of people who Think Thoughts, and that means the book reviews can return.

This one’s been out since the beginning of April, and I know many of you out there are already loving it to pieces, and you should keep on loving it to pieces if that’s the case for you. But I’ll be honest with you – I’m having trouble falling deeply in love with More Big Girl Knits. After looking at it for a few weeks and showing it to a few knitting friends, I did a lot of hemming and hawing over what to write in this review. There are some things that I do quite like, but overall this book leaves me wanting more. So, I enlisted a co-reviewer this time.

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For this review I recruited the help of my knitting friend Steph, who is of the ‘big girl’ demographic (well, she said I could refer to her as “resident fat girl knitter”, but I went in a different direction there). Because as much as I feel confident reviewing books, I know that I’m not in the XL and up category, so it felt good to have some support on this one. (As per usual, my photographs here are lo-tech photographs from the book itself, so I apologize for any mediocre quality.)

If you’re familiar with Big Girl Knits, there will be a lot of familiar things for you in More Big Girl Knits – more of the same “boob, butt, and belly” discussion, more patterns, more of the same kind of discussion about knitting to fit and flatter. The book is divided into an opening couple of chapters on this kind of chatter, a chapter for making your own “sweater worksheet”, and then the patterns themselves.

When Steph and I each looked at this we found our opinions overlapped quite a bit. I’ll start with the things we liked. The strengths of this book are in the patterns which create drape, attractive shaping, and classic style. Many of these are also patterns which I’ve seen popping up in my Ravelry friends queues for the last little while, so clearly many of you are in agreement as well. This Susie hoodie? Gorgeous.

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This is a versatile hoodie jacket (which we are both considering making – yes, sometimes even non-big girls do math too) with beautiful cable accent. The cables along the edges work well decoratively and also won’t scare off anyone who’s new to cables, and the worsted/aran weight gauge will also lend you a bit more speed than DK or sport weight would. It also comes with a great deal of shaping, over the hips to a defined waistline. Proportion that out with the hood on top and we’re good to go.

The Susie hoodie is right next to the ‘Bountiful Bohus’ cardigan which is just darned beautiful in Cascade 200 heathers:

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I’d knit that any day of the week, and so would many of my knitting friends. Comfortable, nice bit of flattering colour-work, and upping the challenge with a bit of knitting skills. The ‘No Gap Wrap’ (below) is also a winner. The v-neck is a flattering style and the faux-wrap line creates some shape and styling without too much difficulty. This would be a good pattern for knitters of any skill level.

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Steph registered her confusion over the emphasis on sock patterns in the later part of the book, since she finds that sock patterns are the ones that still fit her regardless of size. (Also, we are confused at the application of the “boob, belly, and butt” labels to the sock patterns…any socks that enhance those parts of your body must be hard working socks indeed…) Still, some are quite nice, including these trellis diamond ones which both Steph and I would knit:

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They’re attractive and a little stretchy because of the lace, and also come in two separate sizes. I like the bright colour, shown here with Lorna’s Laces which is one of my favourite sock yarns. On the other hand, there is another pair of socks in here that Steph and I were not so charitable with. We don’t understand these:

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The sock part itself is lovely, is sized 3 ways and uses cushy soft Fleece Artist merino. But we’re baffled by the small bandana-like tag on top. In such a contrasting colour it seems like something that could cut your leg at a bad angle, depending on the shape of your calf, and we don’t understand how this is a flattering look for any ‘girl’, big or no.

To get right down to it, the selection of patterns is versatile and set at a variety of skill levels, and should please most readers. We’d be surprised if there was nothing in this book that you wanted to knit. There are a lot of good tips in the opening chapters, and we think any knitter can benefit from reminders about ease, proper measurement, and flattering fit. Chapter 4 has a worksheet to construct a ‘plain vanilla’ sweater pattern in aran-weight yarn to help you customize one that fights right for you, and that would be a solid piece of knitting for any wardrobe (although we wonder why it only uses 4 sizes instead of the 5-6 sizes many of the patterns in the book use).

However, it’s these opening pages that caused both me and Steph some ambivalence. They present so many different ‘rules’ for plus size knitting that it made us uncertain which to hold on to first. And, more significantly, the challenge with a book that paints so many broad-stroke themes for ‘big girls’ is that there will always be exceptions to the rules. One such rule is to create vertical lines, never horizontal. Some of the patterns in the book accomplish this well, but other times we were confused, such as with this cardigan:

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We can understand the attempt at creating vertical lines, but the self-striping effect of the Noro Silk Garden seems to cancel that out with many more horizontals in many different colours. Perhaps fit is a problem with the size of this sample here, since the shoulders seem to be falling off of the model. I was very surprised to look more closely at the schematic and discover that this sweater does include waist shaping, because the photographs here don’t reveal this shapeliness at all. This model is beautiful and looks fantastic in so many of the other pieces, but here the shape of her body is hidden by a mishmash of brightly coloured lines running in different directions.

Another truism that the opening chapters rely on is that colour should be used carefully, to contrast and to showcase parts of your body that you want noticed. Cables and texture are treated similarly, with warnings over not to create volume and bulk, but to visually lighten and create lines. As a result, we’re not entirely sure what to do with this pattern:

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On the one hand, I sort of like the open neckline and the friendly tone of the bright green. But it’s a lot of bright green, on a jacket with no defined shape. Then Steph saw all the bobbles and her mind was made up. Then we checked the yardage – even in the smallest size this piece is going to knit up with a minimum of 3,000 yards of wool (almost 50% more than the figure flattering Susie hoodie, for example – or the ‘Hot Cocoa’ jacket, pictured below, which is a beautifully textured piece that is intended to flatter the same kind of body as this Peapod Aran). We believe that the Peapod Aran would be a comfortable piece, but find it hard to believe the wearer will feel flattered or visually lightened while carrying around that over 3 kilometres of wool.

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Our ambivalence with this book comes largely from these opening chapters and their somewhat scattered feel. There are a lot of valid tips in here and they have clearly been assembled with the best of intentions. However, looking back at this book, there is a lack of unifying theme or organization overall, other than ‘more for big girls’. There are so many lists, and so many subsections of tips and tricks, and so many provisos about choosing what works for you if the rules don’t work, that it’s hard to know what to grasp onto first. Do plus size knitters need more knitting patterns? Absolutely. But there are some missed opportunities here.

What about showing us the same piece on several different women, who are differently proportioned? Show us a woman with small hips, big bust, and round shoulders, and support her with some sample worksheet measurements and patterns. How about a woman with tiny shoulders, large bust, and an undefined waist? Will all the ‘boob’ patterns fit the same on her? Steph closed the book and said “I want to see someone who’s a circle”, and that made me stop and think, too.

At the end of the day, we want a knitting vision that promises something more for big girls than overly-fun notes about ‘woo woo’ shawls and ‘motif mania’ and ‘combo platters’, and conflicting messages about loving your body but hiding the parts you don’t love. Rather than a sidebar on how to work with a ‘combo platter’ of more than one ‘B’ (boob, butt, belly) that stands out (and also, how is it helping anyone to compare women’s bodies to food?), what about devoting some attention to real shapes which quite literally embody the issues that ‘big girl’ knitters are working with? There is a chance here to get into real details about body types and body shapes, over and above single-body-part generalizations. Talk to us about whole bodies and not just the ‘Bs’, about why the same rectangular sweater hem can look horrible on one ‘big girl’ and incredible on the ‘big girl’ next to her.

There are many beautiful patterns in this book and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the FOs pop up out there on Ravelry, the blogosphere, and in person. I’ve seen some Susie hoodies out walking around in Toronto, and they are stunning. As a thank you for helping me look at this book, I’m passing on my copy of More Big Girl Knits to Steph, who I know has her eye on a few of the patterns already and has probably been waiting for me to finish typing up the review already. Thank you, Steph!

The fourth and final book I have for review is Tweed, which I’ll aim to look at some time before the end of time. Until then, I have plenty of summer knitting to keep me busy. Hopefully I’ll get enough done to report on that in my next posts.

Happy knitting!

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