Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No-Bull Book Review: Silk Knits, by Elaine Eskesen

Elaine Eskesen is a knitting-shop owner, hand-dyer and designer, and author of 2005’s Dyeing to Knit. Her new book is Silk Knits: 20 Designs in Fabulous Fibers (Martingale Press 2007).

Silk Knits is a paperback, 95 pages long, with lots of color photos and twenty patterns.* The retail price -- $27.95 – seems high to me, but at this writing, you could score it on Amazon for less than twenty dollars. (I wonder if the pumping-up of the MSRP, which I've noticed often lately, is a way to compensate for the discounts that retailers like regularly provide.)

I was charmed by the dedication, which features a vintage photograph of the author, her mother and her grandmother (all named Elaine). I liked the first section – though it was brief, less than ten pages of text – which talks about silk: its characteristics, a brief history of silk, how to swatch with silk, explanations of the various types of silk. This section contains some good, practical tips for working with silk yarns.

The remainder of the book consists of twenty patterns, which for the most part, did not appeal to me. The table of contents suggests that the patterns are divided according to seasons, but they are (oddly, I think) not presented in four separate chapters, but rather randomly, with small icons in the bottom corner to tell you that, say, the sleeveless top is for summer. The patterns consist of two shells, three cardigans (one with a rolled neck, one knit side-to-side to form vertical stripes (the cover pattern), the third oversized), four vests (a rib vest knit circularly thus forming a huge bull’s-eye on the back -- oh, the Lyme Disease rash flashbacks;

a ribbon-yarn vest worn like a shell, a slip-stitch vest and a textured vest); four pullovers (one yoked, two textured, one with an asymmetric tab closure), a simple stole (not knitted in lace), a shrug, a poncho, a mobius scarf/neckwarmer, a lace shawl and a scarf/hat combination.

In the introduction, the author writes “I don’t believe in complicated knitting,” and to be quite frank, it shows. Simple isn't necessarily bad, but very little about these patterns was unique or interesting to me (with the exception of the circularly-knit rib vest, which is creative). You’ll see a fair bit of dropped shoulders, not a lot of shaping, and so on; for example, here's the oversized cardigan, which doesn't have anything particularly unique about it and adds visual pounds.

I liked the use of the eyelets in the yoke of this sweater

and this is a lovely lace shawl -- by far the most complex and original pattern in the book.

The sensibility is directed, I think, toward a certain demographic of middle-aged women, and I think younger and more fashion-conscious knitters will find few "must-make" garments.

The yarn selection is odd: I had hoped for more attention devoted to knitting pure or mostly silk yarns and tapes that challenge knitters with their slipperiness and potential for sagging. But many of the designs are done in yarns that merely have silk content: for example, Garnestudio’s Silke Tweed (about half silk, half lambswool) – and some of the yarns used have less than a third silk content. If the book is devoted to the challenges and joys of knitting with silk, I’m not sure it adds anything to include, say, a pattern in Noro’s Silk Garden or Debbie Bliss' Alpaca Silk (only twenty percent silk), blends that have other fibers to compensate for the silk's challenges (and already have great pattern support).

When it comes to sizing, the finished bust measurement for the patterns varies from a minimum of 33 inches to a maximum of 60 inches (for the oversized cardigan), a very generous range, but not all designs include all sizes. There are schematics, a few charts, and some helpful text boxes with tips (like doing an intarsia join). There are lots of color photographs, including some good clear shots of each design. The patterns themselves are remarkably short and (except for the lace shawl) quite simple and direct. You know what I always say: when it comes to patterns, it all comes down to your taste. These patterns weren't mine, but they may be yours.

Silk can be a tough fiber to knit with, although its sheen, softness and drape are superlative. Those who haven't worked much with pure silks may find the introductory sections helpful, but I would not buy this book sight unseen; you'll need to judge for yourself whether you like the patterns enough to invest in it.

*Eskesen did not design all the patterns; the work of several other designers is featured, too.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the "no bull" review...I live out in the boonies, and order most of my books. I likely would have ordered this one based on the title, expecting it to be about knitting with pure silk.
Barb B.

Anonymous said...

You said "I wonder if the pumping-up of the MSRP, which I've noticed often lately, is a way to compensate for the discounts that retailers like regularly provide."
Actually, no, the increases in prices of books are not directly related to discounts from retailers like Those discounts are having drastic effects on the book world as a whole, but the publisher receives very close to the same amount for a book whether it sells through at discount or a neighborhood yarn shop at its posted retail price.

The increases have to do with other factors, including the costs of printing, paper, and--especially in the past twelve months or so--freight (gas costs). A cover-price increase to take care of those expenses only partially comes back to the publisher. Because the business works on percentages (wholesaler buys from publisher at X% discount from MSRP; retailer buys from wholesaler at Y% discount from MSRP), the other part goes to the various participants in the supply chain--distributor and/or wholesaler, plus retailer. (All of whom do good service at making books readily and widely available.)

Some publishers are also raising prices a bit so that authors (who most often these days are paid a percentage of cash received by the publisher) get slightly larger royalty checks--enough that they'll want to write more books.

Once a publisher sets a price, too, that price has to be lived with for years, even though many of the costs involved in producing and transporting and publicizing can't be either predicted or controlled. Publishing is a business with very narrow margins: for the publisher, pennies per copy can make the difference between success and failure. The middle people don't make much either. It's fascinating to read about the effect of the behemoths like and Wal-Mart on the economy as a whole.

It might be good if publishers did not set retail prices at all: if they set wholesale prices and the retailers set their to-the-consumer prices. In a way, that's what's happening anyway.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. When I heard the title, I was expecting some neat Asian-inspired designs, but when I saw the cover I could tell the patterns inside were far from it.

Anonymous said...

Because I collect knitting books, I love your reviews! In my experience, Martingale is simply a high-priced publisher. Their books are always priced at least $10 more than an equivalent book of designer patterns from any other publisher, and they don't seem to price any books below $29.95. A lot of their books aren't worth that, and I always look--or read a good review like yours-- before purchasing a new Martingale book.

Anonymous said...

The "Rib Circle Vest" certainly is interesting, however, I found there is a similar type of pattern on for free. Hate to pay $27 for one design I can get for free! Thanks for your reviews, I find them extremely helpful when looking to expand my library.

Carol said...

I really like your reviews since I'm having a hard time looking at books in the shops. Have you seen any of the glut of new ones like Lace Style, Fitted Knits by S. Japel, or Jean Moss's Couture Knits?

Carol said...

Rosie's has a preview copy of Lace Style but I didn't get a chance to look at it last week. I haven't seen the other two yet, although I'm going to start looking for them since they appear to be on sale now. I'll keep you posted...

Anonymous said...

Actually, that circular rib-knit vest reminded me very much of Shelley Mackie's pinwheel sweater patterns, which are offered as freebies on Elann.

This is one of them, there are three others too. Make it in rib instead of stickinette, bind off the sleeve stitches rather than putting them on a holder, and you've got that vest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I love being able to google for reviews such as yours before setting out to buy a book.

However, I unequivocally qualify as 'middle aged' but nothing you showed appeals to me except the shawl. I tend to think of oversized or odd looking knits as pitched toward the under-30 knitter. Isn't it funny how prejudices of this nature work!