Friday, August 2, 2013

Book review: Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously

Long time readers of my blog may remember my first mention of Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously back in September 2010 in my Stop me!!! post.  The author, Adrienne Martini, commented on my post and difficulty with knitting: "Keep at it. You'll get it!"  I squeed about this in my By Jove... post the next day.

We had a brief e-mail exchange, and in January 2011 I asked if I could do a book review and quote a few passages from the book.  I also sent her a link to my post about my second knitting project.  That's about the hooded sweater I had so many problems getting started (and which I'm still working on and will be posting about when the damned thing is finally done).  She replied, "Please review away! And I admire your determination of project #2. I believe I would have just set the thing on fire."

So before I get to the book, I want to do a little "author review".  Adrienne Martini is awesome!  It used to be (not all that long ago, actually) that authors were (to me, anyway) untouchable and  unreachable.  The Interwebs have changed all that.  It's one thing to follow an author on Facebook (which was essential when Brandon Sanderson was finishing up Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series), but for an author to find a blog post and comment on it and also to be so cool in e-mails really blew my mind.  She's encouraging and funny, and I want to be just like her when I grow up.

And now for the book review, two and a half years later than I had planned.  As I mentioned in Stop me!!!, I had seen Sweater Quest in a bookstore but purchased it for the Kindle.  I do feel a bit bad about that, but we like to save money as well as space in our house.

The basic premise of the book is that Adrienne Martini decided to knit a Fair Isle sweater (Starmore's Mary Tudor) in one year.  That seems like an awfully long period of time - if you really concentrate and knit every day, it should take far less time to knit a sweater.  My husband and my mother are laughing at me right now - I've been working on that damned hooded sweater for almost three years, and it still has quite a ways to go.  But to be fair, there have been many months where I haven't even touched it.

What makes Adrienne's quest so daunting is that Fair Isle is an extremely complicated style of knitting.  Take a look here for a Google image search on the style.  Not only was she going to do a sweater, which is complicated to begin with, she was going to do fancy colorwork that puts the train hat I just made to shame.  She had never knit in this style before, so she had to learn an awful lot before she could even start despite already being an accomplished knitter.

After a bit of an introduction on her and why she chose to knit the Mary Tudor, she explains the mechanics of knitting, which I found most useful when I picked up the needles to try knitting for the 5,000th time.  She discussed different ways of holding the yarn which made me question why I was doing what I was trying to do.  I did it the other way, and voila! I'm able to knit.

For those of you who do not knit, here's an accurate description of what it's like when you start:
At first, knitting feels like the most awkward thing you could be doing with your hands.  The needles jump out of your hands.  The yarn ties itself in knots.  Your fingers act like an infant's when he tries to pick up a Cheerio.  Knitting feels like the hardest easiest craft in the world.  Practice, coupled with a willingness to look foolish, is what separates knitters from nonknitters.

There's quite the feeling of accomplishment when you can actually create a piece of fabric that looks like the ones you get in the stores, I must say.  Those first few rows where it "looked right" had me hooked.  Wait, not hooked - that's crochet.  Needled.  Yeah - that's the word.  Knitting has me needled in many senses of the word.

She then discusses the different ways to add different colors to your work (as if knitting single-colored pieces isn't difficult enough):  Intarsia and stranded.  I am impressed with how she describes each of the methods using every day objects that nonknitters can understand (provided people remember what a dot matrix printer is).  The Mary Tudor uses stranded knitting - holding one color of yarn in each hand, and Adrienne practiced by learning how to knit while holding the yarn in the "other" hand (the one she's not used to using).  It was stressful, to say the least, but she writes about it with a sense of humor.

At this point you'd think the book would go into a detailed description of each row of the knitting itself:  "Row 2 - Lost track of the pattern and had to rip it out.  Row 19 - Ran out of yarn and had to add a new ball."  Yes, there are times when she discusses the actual knitting, but there is so much more - history and insight into the process from her point of view and from other knitters' experiences - that I came away with an understanding of just how rich and varied this craft is.

Since Adrienne knit a Fair Isle sweater, she explained the history of Fair Isle knitting and how it became a distinct style.  She also wrote about the author of the pattern and the huge legal battles She Who Must Not Be Named fought protecting her brand.  There are discussions about copyrighting and branding that every designer (of any sort of craft) should read and consider.  How much of a change from your design is needed before it's no longer your design?

One big impediment to knitting a true Mary Tudor is the yarn.  The specific yarns needed for the pattern are no longer made.  Appropriate substitutes are difficult if not impossible.  She found out just how wrong one of her substitutions was by making a swatch:
All knitting designers insist that swatches are a necessary evil.  If you don't swatch, you are a bad knitter.  You'll get the gout, they warn.  Asteroids will crash into your backyard.  Chaos will rule the land.
She knits the swatch, ditches math after trying to calculate how long the sweater will take based on how long the swatch took, blocks the swatch for testing the size, and wrenches it away from her cat who "is so angry about damp handknits".  She realizes that she needs to go up a needle size (which is why you do swatches in the first place), but then she makes a startling color discovery:
Eucalyptus is not a substitute for Marjoram.  It's not even close enough that you could squint your eyes and mumble, "It'll do."  Eucalyptus leaps out of the design like a naked lady at a nun convention.  So much so that my husband, when I show him the swatch, gently asks, "Before I say this, are you beyond the point where you could change anything?"
"Not at all," I say.  "It's just a swatch.  I was staving off gout."
"Anything you can do about that ugly green?"
"Get a different one." I explain that I was trying to find a substitute for a color that no longer exists.
The main reason I included that section is because I nearly peed myself laughing about swatching to stave off gout.  I hate swatching, which is how I got into all sorts of trouble with that damned hooded sweater that will never be done.

She lucked out that a friend of hers happened to have the exact yarn needed and sent it to her immediately.  Crisis averted!

Adrienne wrote about people, too: Mary Tudor (yes, THE Mary Tudor, since she's the inspiration for the sweater's design), the woman Adrienne bought the design book from on eBay, her friend Ann who sent her the much-needed Marjoram yarn, Susette Newberry (who knit an abecedarium - check out her blog for what that means and for what she does), Cyndi Lee (who knits and teaches yoga), Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (who also writes about knitting and who also has made me almost pee myself laughing), and so many more.  She traveled to New York, Canada, the Knitter's Review Retreat in Massachusetts, and a few other places throughout the year while knitting the sweater and writing the book.  Everywhere she went she talked to knitters about why they do what they do, and it's all interesting.  When you knit you're in your own head, and I found it fascinating to get insight into why others knit and what they think about it.  Interspersed throughout it all are glimpses into everyday life with her husband, kids, and the damp-knit-hating cat.

And, of course, she writes about the sweater.  Did she finish it in time?  Does it fit?  Is it beautiful?  Does it look remotely like it's supposed to?  These are all questions answered in the book, and you won't get any hints from me!  If you like a dry sense of humor, knitting, history, people-watching, cats, and more knitting, I think you'll love Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini.  Even if you don't knit, I think it's a great read.  You never know, it may turn you into a knitter as it did me!

(If you click the above graphic, it'll bring you to the Amazon page, and it seems that the paperback version is on sale for $6!  Such a bargain!)

I have to say that blogging today has been quite difficult.  First Frisco the bitey-kitten wanted to eat the words I was typing - no joke! - then he crawled all over the keyboard, then he latched onto my arm to nom on my hand.  I tried to get a picture of him trying to eat the words off of the screen, but he stopped being cute the second I picked up the camera.  And then... when he finally became quiet and fell asleep, he used my iPad as a pillow.  The same iPad I needed to write the review.  I got that picture.  :)

Fortunately kittens don't sleep for long, and fortunately when he woke up he decided to wander around the kitchen, leaving me to write my review in peace.

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