When I was at Winners last week I happened to spy a book on knitting in the bargain bin. I ran over to look at it, moth to flame-style, and it turned out not to be a book of patterns, as I had hoped, but a glossy, hardcover, quasi-coffeetable book (does that make it an endtable book?) called For the Love of Knitting: A Celebration of the Knitter’s Art, which featured articles on knitting written by the “names” of the knitting world, and a lot of pictures. Disappointed, I turned it over to look at the price, and found the sticker said $2. If the book had been $20 or even $10, I would have left it in the bin, but I felt it was worth $2 to get possession of all those lovely pictures of vintage knitting patterns and contemporary knitted art and I hoped there might be interesting bits of trivia buried somewhere in the articles. But I didn’t expect much from the articles themselves.
I’m an avid knitter and rarely leave the house without a knitting project tucked into my handbag. I’ve been knitting since I was eight. If I’d had my way, I’d have begun knitting at the age of six, but I had to waste two long years begging my mother to show me how to knit. (I was basically pure id as a child. Mum, knowing my high-strung, easily frustrated temperament, postponed the dreaded ordeal of teaching me for as long as she could stand my pestering her about it.) I’m an even more avid reader. But I don’t like reading about knitting.
As I read and perused For the Love of Knitting I wondered why. It’s probably at least partly for the same reason I don’t have the patience to watch cooking or decorating shows or have much interest in porn. Some things are meant to be done rather than passively watched or read about. So, though I am usually all about text, and I have a three-foot shelf full of knitting books and magazines, I don’t often read the articles therein.
I have realized lately that this is at least partly a mistake. For years I considered myself an expert knitter because I could make an item from a pattern rated at the expert level of difficulty without any trouble, write a pattern for a pictured sweater, and design my own items, usually by just making them up as I go along. But it’s since dawned on me that I’m not an expert knitter. I have much the same attitude towards the technical aspects of knitting as I do about computers – meaning I learn the bare minimum of how-to stuff that will enable to me to do what I specifically want to do. I only know one way to cast on and one way to cast off. Many knitting techniques are as Greek to me. I also have bad form (meaning I hold the needles and the yarn wrong), which slows me down considerably. And meanwhile, in both fields, there could be much faster and better ways of doing the things I already do, and so much more that I would like to do if I only knew it were possible. So I’ve resolved to correct this, though the prospect of having to overcome a 25-year-old muscle memory is less than welcome.
But my attitude towards the human interest sort of knit lit remains the same. Most of it is so boring and inane. For all the articles rhapsodizing about the joy of knitting or waxing philosophical about knitting or reminiscing about their childhood memories of knitting, and the jokey accounts of yarn stashes grown to mammoth proportions, I can summon no interest whatsoever. I even dislike patterns written in a chatty style. I suppose this is because I primarily read to learn, and there is nothing new anyone can tell me about the addictive rhythm of knitting or the tactile and visual pleasures of beautiful wool. I might like intelligent articles about the Zen or Dao of knitting if they were written by someone who actually knew something about Zen or Dao philosophies, but those sorts of articles are always written by someone who knows lots about knitting and only the merest scrapings of philosophy.
The jokey articles about knitting are some of the most painful, because they’re plainly intended to be funny and practically never are. I’ve read Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl McPhee’s two books Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, and At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, and the cutesy “OMG I am so obsessed with knitting that I have yarn stuffed into my piano and will spend two hours searching for a lost needle” shtick wears pretty thin after the first page or so. Yes, I recognize this is just my opinion. McPhee’s blog does seem to be very popular, and she’s so well-known to knitters that the staff at Toronto’s yarn store Romni Wool freely quote her at me. And I will say that it was McPhee’s books that brought me to my epiphany about not being the great knitter I thought I was, that it was pretty funny when a neurosurgeon told McPhee that she could never learn to knit because it was too hard, and that I find McPhee’s practice of knitting during the down times of her midwifery patients’ deliveries and then presenting mother and baby with the finished items unqualifiedly charming.
For the Love of Knitting’s editor Kari Cornell has shown a certain amount of taste in gathering materials for the book, because the essays and stories in For the Love of Knitting are among the less tiresome examples of the genre. The book does have a number of the ubiquitous nostalgic, rhapsodic, saccharine, and pseudo-comic material about learning to knit, the amibience at favourite yarn shops, the impossibly complex knitting projects that take over one’s life, and places to keep one’s hoard of yarn, but there were also some more interesting and original articles.
I liked the article about a woman who, during a scarf-knitting marathon for Christmas, devised a way of knitting while standing up on a crowded subway (feet wide apart and parallel, knees slightly bent, body facing 45 degree angle to the direction of the train). I tried it myself this past week, and it does work. I also liked Naomi Dagen Bloom’s account of how her husband took up spinning because I got learn something about a craft I know next to nothing about (and I did my best to crush any spinning temptations that arose in me). Perri Klass’s article about the sweaters she did and did not knit for her father was fairly well-written. I’ve read some of her articles in Vogue Knitting before and somehow they always stay with me. Also readable was knitting artists Teva Durham's and Pam Allen’s articles about knitting’s stepchild status in the art world, and Sigrid Arnott’s article about knitting as an anti-capitalist act, and Clinton W. Trowbridge’s piece about the history of male knitters, and the tribute to Elizabeth Zimmerman. And of course, the pictures in this book are the visual feast my quick flip through at Winners promised: the vintage postcards, magazine covers, knitting patterns, and Red Cross posters; the photos of knitted art (which include teacups and the coracle that actually floats); the still lifes of yarn and needles, and the paintings that depict knitting through the ages. (Though Cornell neglected to include one of my sentimental favourite knitting paintings, "Les Sabot" by François Boucher. When I fist saw "Les Sabot" at the Art Gallery of Ontario seven or eight years ago, I informed the man I was seeing at the time that it was “our painting”.)
But though I managed to get through this knitting book with a modicum of enjoyment, I am still not convinced to join the readership of this softer side of knitting writing. I’m sure it’s only a personal preference. Knitting is an art, and I am the sort of person who wants only to enjoy making and looking at art, and to know how to create it, and to know something about its history, while the esoteric words, words, words criticism of it and the amateurish, gushing, navel-gazing prose the artistic community churns out interests me not at all.
I do have a passion for books of patterns, and I like to look at patterns and pictures online (especially those with a sense of humour, such as those at Knitty.com) but the only kinds of knitting blogs I visit are those which mock the bad patterns turned out by professional designers who presumably should know better. Every issue of Knit.1 and Vogue Knitting gives them fresh fodder. Knit.1 seems to be targeted at people who don't know how to knit and presumably are so carried away by the prospect of making anything that they'll actually use a cellphone cosy pattern. But dear Vogue Knitting, you are trying far too hard to reinvent the wheel and you are resorting to patterns that aren't attractive or even wearable. Moreover, knitted pants soon stretch out to the point of being unwearable. Relentless mocking shall be your portion until you understand these things.
You Knit What?? seems to have been the original of these pattern debunking sites, and I enjoyed it so much I created a Metafilter front page post about it. Then, after the people who created You Knit What?? stopped updating it, worthy imitators took up the cause. If you like this sort of thing, try visiting:
You Knit What, Part 2
The Needle and the Damage Done
What the Fugly
There’s also What Not To Crochet.
I confine my knitting reading to pictures and patterns, to technical information, to interesting historical trivia, and to the fun of those point-and-laugh websites featuring awful knitting patterns. And then I have more time to actually knit. Or to read some really satisfying novels and non-fiction. Which is the way it should be. Knitting and reading don't mix that well.