One of my birthday presents was The Natural Knitter: How to Choose, Use, and Knit Natural Fibers from Alpaca to Yak -- a book I'd been anticipating for a while. I'm happy to report that I am not disappointed.
Barbara Albright was a writer of both knitting and cooking books. I say "was" because, sadly, she died last fall of a brain tumor at the age of 51. This was her last knitting book, and it's a shame she missed being able to hold it in her hands and gaze at it, because it's a big and beautiful book, of which she would have been justifiably proud.
The Natural Knitter is a hardcover book, full of lovely color photographs (taken by Alexandra Grablewski), just under two hundred pages, put out by PotterCraft (remember when I told you to watch out for PotterCraft, since they were putting out some good books?). MSRP is $32.50 and you can find it for just over twenty dollars on places like Amazon.
As the title suggests, the theme of the book is natural fiber, both plant- and animal-derived. The book contains technical information about the characteristics of different fibers, including wool, yak, cotton, hemp, silk, and more, as well as a selection of patterns -- about twenty-three or so -- showcasing these fibers. You can tell that this book was lovingly created by people who adore fiber: the book is full of eye-candy shots of both the living things that produce the fiber,
(Okay, he's awfully cute, but he's no Charcoal...)
and of the fiber itself. In fact, there are so many photographs packed into this book, sometimes several to a page, that it looks like the editors had the pleasure of getting more good photographs than they had room for. And cleverly, they managed to sneak in shots like this one, used opposite the table of contents:
As for content, the book begins with an introduction extolling the virtues of natural fibers; discussing what makes a fiber "natural" and "organic"; demonstrating the benefits of going organic; and giving a playful pattern for some little doll-like creatures. The meat of the book begins, though, with the middle sections, organized by type of fiber: first, wool; then other animal-derived fibers; and finally, plant fibers.
The section on wool is first and Albright's enthusiasm for wool comes through loud and clear. The first project, a yoga mat made from Philosopher's Wool, wasn't my cup of tea but the second project, a shetland sweater in neutral colors, with patterning based on the growth of ferns on a North Sea island, is gorgeous.
The next sweater -- a Swedish-inspired stranded sweater by Beth Brown-Reinsel -- is another beaut, knit in Morehouse Merino wool. Other designs in this chapter are a top-down cabled/rib pattern and a child's gansey-style sweater. One feature I particularly like is the book's focus on producers (mainly small) of natural fibers, with an emphasis on those using environmentally-conscious processes. Text boxes throughout the book showcase Morehouse Merino, Hand Jive Knits, Harrisville Designs and other interesting (and perhaps less well-known to some knitters) companies making gorgeous yarns, with descriptions of the company's philosophies and products.
Next are the remaining animal-derived fibers, including camel, angora, mohair, and llama. Information about fiber characteristics start the chapter, and cover less obvious fibers like buffalo and camel. Patterns include a zigazag cable sweater and hat for women by Kathy Zimmerman and a man's textured pullover (both done in llama/wool blends); a scarf in a wool/mohair blend; a fascinating twisted rib pullover by Norah Gaughan in a cashmere/wool blend;
a lovely lace twin set in a qiviut blend;
a baby sweater in an angora blend; and a garter-stitch silk sweater for women, knit side-to-side in pure silk. It's interesting that nearly all the non-wool animal fibers in this section -- except for the silk -- are blended with wool and sometimes another fiber in the yarns used for the patterns. I suppose this helps balance some of the disadvantages of these fibers, like lack of elasticity and memory, with the advantages of wool, but it would have been interesting to see at least a few patterns knit in a pure form of some of these fibers (other than the silk). Likewise, it would have been nice to see a pattern or two using some of the less-readily-available fibers, like, say, buffalo or camel, but I imagine cost and space constraints are always a concern.
The plant section features cotton (a girl's poncho; a cotton chenille robe by Valentina Devine); linen (a fascinating linen yoked sweater, knit in a lace pattern from the neck down by the talented Lidia Karabinich);
a sweater knit in hemp in an unusual stitch pattern using cast-off rows, by Debbie New; and a pineapple-fiber lacy top.
The next section discusses fibers dyed using plant-based extracts, an interesting and not necessarily obvious choice to follow the previous sections. Instructions for a simple dye derived from onion skins start out the chapter (if you don't feel like trying it on yarn, how about doing Easter eggs instead?); followed by a modular hat, socks and gloves combo by the owner of Hand Jive Fibers, whose lovely subtle colors are derived solely from natural dyestuffs (you can find some of their fingering weight yarns at Rosie's); a southwestern-style jacket from La Lana wool/silk; and one of my favorites, an Anna Zilboorg mitten pattern, knit in Snow Star Farms wool.
The last section is called "Natural Next Steps," and seems a little bit of an afterthought. It gives a brief introduction to spinning (including a discussion of crimp) followed by a pattern and instructions for making felt flowers.
Patterns are written for, on average, three or four sizes, and they tend toward larger bust circumferences, so if you're a gal who wears sweaters with a finished bust of less than, say, 38 inches, you're going to have to fiddle with some of these to size them down (although the qiviut twin set and the lace yoke pullover are thankful exceptions, starting at size 32). The accessories are flexible enough to fit most adults, and the men's garments look pretty generously sized. Schematics are included.
Overall, I quite like this book and think it's a worthwhile addition to your knitting library. It's lush, beautifully-photographed and well-produced. The suggested price tag is on the higher side (even though the book contains only 23 or so patterns) but remember, you're getting high production values, lots of photos, and several complex patterns. (Patterns using lace or stranded colorwork take more time to draft and knit than simple stockinette pullovers, and there are several such complex designs in this book.) The selection of patterns is good overall, with a mix of a few simpler items for newer or time-crunched knitters and a few complex ones to challenge knitters. There is also a mix of sweaters and accessories, with a couple of men's and child's patterns thrown in. I especially like the book's focus on providing background information, giving knitters insight into some of the characteristics and advantages/disadvantages of various fibers other than wool, and even fun information about the "personalities" of the animals.
What may appeal most to rabid knitters, however, is something more elemental and emotional: this book was written by someone who clearly loved fiber, and knitting, and fiber animals, someone who had a passion for using natural fibers and organic processes where possible. And this underscores what for me was the saddest aspect of the book: the knowledge that given her untimely death, we won't have any more big, info-packed books like this to look forward to from Barbara Albright.