Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No-Bull Book Review: Pretty Knits, by Susan Cropper

Susan Cropper had a vision: she wanted to create a warm, inviting knitting shop in London that stocked a wide selection of yarns, provided instruction for more advanced knitters, and sold finished knitted-related objects -- housewares, accessories, clothes -- created by designers. Cropper opened "Loop" in 2005, and met with great success. Pretty Knits: 30 Designs from Loop in London (PotterCraft 2007) is her collection of patterns for knitted items created by designers with some sort of connection to London Loop: they teach workshops, or sell their finished items there, or their yarns and patterns are stocked there.

Pretty Knits is a large book, hardcover, full of sumptuous color photography, approximately 144 pages long. It includes thirty projects by designers you've heard of -- Debbie Bliss, Louisa Harding, Leigh Radford; designers you may have heard of -- Catherine Tough, Claire Montgomerie; and designers who may be new to you -- Nicki Trench, Juju Vail, Donna Wilson. Personally, I enjoy books that cherry-pick from a host of talented designers. You get variety and instead of one person having to produce many designs in a relatively short time, each designer must only produce one or two in the same period of time, easing the pressure. Pretty Things has a MSRP of $30.00(CAN $38.00) but can be had at the time of this writing for just under twenty dollars by clicking on the link above.

The book begins with a short introduction, in which Cropper tells a little about her shop and what motivated her to create this collection of patterns. The introduction is followed by a brief section discussing the joys of yarn (not much substantive content there), then four pattern sections: Flirty Fashionista (garments for women); Divine Accessories (accessories for women); Beautiful Boudoirs (home dec items for bedrooms); and Feminine Fripperies (home dec items for the rest of the house). The pattern sections are followed by a ten-plus page Techniques section, which avoids the "how to knit" instruction, instead including specific directions for relevant skills that newbie knitters might want help with, such as reading charts, alternative methods of casting on, knitting with beads, various buttonhole techniques, methods of embellishment, and finishing tips. Brief biographies of the contributing designers are included, too, along with links to their websites. (I found this helpful for learning more about some of the lesser-known-to-me designers featured in the book.)

The first pattern section, Flirty Fashionista, contains sweaters for women. The chapter title, if a bit much, doesn't lie: these are garments which have trend-conscious styling, rather than classic or traditional styling. You'll find a beaded camisole (very pretty);

an empire-waist top by Debbie Bliss; a swing cardigan (not real keen on how this one looks; the bulky yarn -- Rowan Big Wool -- and the loose silhouette end up looking baggy rather than funky; photo below); a sweater that is called a "shrug" but looks more like a cap-sleeve cropped cardigan (to the extent that the two are different....; see photo of the blue sweater above); a "gilet," which is essentially a short-sleeved v-neck cardigan, tunic length, with a tie front; two dresses, one with ruffles and the other with a chevron pattern; a simple pullover with looped fringe; and another chevron-stitch top with 3/4 length sleeves. Interestingly, none of the garments have long sleeves, whereas if you'll notice, most pattern books feature the opposite (plenty of long-sleeve but little in the way of short-sleeve).

Chapter 2 (Divine Accessories -- although, sadly, the late great Divine was for obvious reasons unable to model any of them) is devoted to women's accessories: a very pretty lace stole or wrap (I'm going to queue that one; I'm envisioning it in Black Bunny, although it is shown in gorgeous Kid Silk Haze);

two bags, one a smaller square version, the other a larger rectangle; a shawl made of nubby mohair (looks a bit small for the intended purpose); the cover pattern, a sort of capelet by Louisa Harding in several of her yarns; a neck warmer (i.e. a short scarf that is tied in the front instead of wrapped); a "brooch"; flower pins; and a "necklace" featuring knitted bows.

Chapter 3 contains items for your Beautiful Boudoir (or for the rest of us who don't have a boudoir, the bedroom): two pillow covers (one rectangular, one for a tube-shaped bolster); a hot water bottle cover; a cabled wrap (another nice one by Debbie Bliss); a pair of cashmere bed socks with a ruffle at the ankle; I suspect the ruffle would irk the sh*t out of me were I to wear them, but it's still a pretty pattern);

and a simple throw embellished with flowers.

The last chapter ("Feminine Fripperies" -- ugh) contains more home dec items: a scalloped-edge wrap (another one going into the queue); another pillow cover; a very large circular floor pillow; a table runner with embellishment; a heart-shaped sachet/pillow; and a tea cozy shaped like (I'm sorry, Kathy, I fear this will trigger your twee sensor) a cupcake.*

For the statisticians amongst you, the tally is:
  • 4 shawls and wraps (including the capelet)
  • 3 pullovers
  • 3 cardigan-style sweaters
  • 5 pillows (including the sachet)
  • 2 dresses
  • 1 camisole
  • 1 afghan
  • 2 bags
  • 3 pieces of knitted jewelry
  • 1 pair of bed socks
  • 1 neck warmer; and
  • 1 hot water bottle cover.

Note that everything in the book is aimed at women; even the home items are likely to be too frilly for most men, and that there isn't a single scarf in the book (not complaining; just observing). Personally, I would have liked more garment patterns, since I am sure I have more pillow cover patterns than I will ever knit in this lifetime, but it's a pretty varied mix overall. The items range from small, quick-knitting pieces to larger, more time-intensive ones, and are aimed at different skill levels. The yarns are all higher-end choices (not that this is a bad thing, mind you), ranging from selections from bigger companies like Rowan and Debbie Bliss, to some smaller, but still-widely-available yarn companies like Blue Sky Alpacas, Frog Tree and Be Sweet. Gauges range from about 3 or 3.5 sts per inch (a couple of patterns in Rowan Big Wool) to 7.75 sts per inch (for the camisole).

One interesting aspect is that several of the patterns mix various types of yarn (different fibers, different weights, and so on) together in single garments, like the cover capelet, and the dress with the ruffles on the front (photo in the next paragraph). You can get some very interesting effects doing this, and when I met Louisa Harding in 2005, she talked about trying to create in her yarn collection yarns that were conducive to being mixed and matched. You'll see several patterns in this collection that take advantage of this compatibility.

Cost for some of the projects will be steep if you choose to use the exact yarns that the designers used. For example, one item requires ten to twelve skeins of Alchemy Synchronicity; at $24.50 per skein, that's going to cost you. (Not to mention the contrasting yarn that the pattern requires, a Habu tape that costs $19 for a mere 18 yards. Better eat macaroni for the next couple of months to save up for that baby.) Overall, most of the yarns will be pretty easy to substitute for should you so choose; but the handful of patterns that use yarns with distinctive characteristics (for example, the aforementioned tape ribbon from Habu)

may be tougher when it comes to substitutions. The designs which mix different types of yarns also may challenge you when it comes to substitution, requiring trial and error to find colors and textures that work. On the other hand, many of the smaller patterns would be perfect for using up leftover single skeins and remnants from your stash, since they require relatively few yards.

Sizing is on the limited side. Most of the garments come in three, sometimes four sizes, which range from around 32 to around 38 or 40 inches bust size. I didn't see any smaller than 32 inches bust size, and the largest patterns are to fit bust size 42-44 (with about two or three inches of ease). (Full-figured gals should note that not all the patterns go up to the 42-44 size either; some stop at 38.) Many of the items do not require precise fit, however, like the accessories and home dec items.

The color photography is lovely, romantic and sumptuous, definitely reflecting the target audience of women who enjoy feminine garments (if feminine means ruffled, embellished, pastel). There are close-ups of many of the stitch patterns and design details. I would have liked some better full-length overviews of all the items, rather than close-ups only for some of the patterns. I would also have liked schematics of the garments. It also bears considering that some of the garments are shown on seated models only, including both of the dresses; take that into account when considering what these garments might look like when the wearer is actually standing up. See what I mean?

There's also a photograph of a bag that is somewhat similar to the cover of Louisa Harding's new book:

I am in no way suggesting this is anything more than coincidence; I just found it an interesting visual parallel and a striking shot in both contexts.

Overall, Pretty Knits is a good but maybe not great book. There are some interesting sweaters in it, using stitch patterns and creative embellishment, and featuring some silhouettes and other design features that aren't the same old same old. I also gravitated toward several of the shawl and wrap patterns. However, I couldn't help but wonder at some of the design choices (e.g., ought one to make a knitted dress out of pure silk, known for its stre-e-e-e-etch and sagging and lack of durability? I think not). In addition, some of smaller projects (like the pillows) didn't strike me as being particularly unusual or different from some of the other designs out there. Indeed, a few, like the bow necklace, seemed rather silly.

There's no doubt about the fact that Pretty Knits is a, well, pretty book, full of pretty items. With some hits and some misses, you'll have to decide for yourself if you think it's pretty enough to invest twenty or thirty bucks in.

*A cupcake question: why is there a horizontal line going across the center of the cupcake? Is it meant to signify icing between layers? For I, no stranger to cupcakes, have never seen a two-layer cupcake residing in a pleated cupcake paper. Have you?


mindy said...

Well, if I had infinite spare time, I would have to figure out how to do a layered cupcake in the papers- cuz I do love yummy cakes w/ lots of sugary icing...

Oh yea, we were talking about a book. Looks pretty- fun for coffee browsing. This may have to go on the Christmas list for people who absolutely cannot stand to contribute to even one more millimeter of yarn in my stash.

Thanks once again for a very detailed, well thought out book review.

Anonymous said...

These book reviews from you are a real service to the rest of us - thanks once again. Looks pretty, but think I can live without this one.

Lynne E. said...

Another spot-on review! I enjoyed reading it, even though I already have the book.

Unknown said...

I took a quick look at the book about a week ago. I liked some of the patterns but found it hard to tell how things would fit if they were on a hanger and not a model. Also, I didn't notice any schematics. I much prefer that to written measurements. I can pass on this one. Too much to do anyway.

Bridget said...

It does look like a book that would be a pleasure to leaf through, but unless someone gives it to me "because I know you knit," I probably won't buy it for myself.

Layered cupcakes? It is my opinion that cupcakes are fine the way they are, thank you ...

Carol said...

Maybe the cupcake thing was trying to replicate 'butterfly cakes' which are all the rage in the UK.

Another observation - the cover capelet looks very similar to LH's 'Button Wrap' done in the Gathering of Roses accessories booklet. Just sayin.

Carol said...

Before you all run off to google - here is the butterfly cake:

Margaret said...

Well, this is certainly the first knitting book review I've seen that includes a wikipedia link to Divine!

Anonymous said...

Doesn't look like a book I'd need to own, but I certainly enjoyed hearing that the ruffled socks would irk you(excessively and in a specific manner). Thanks for the reviews. I enjoy knowing a bit about the new books to know which ones I should look for.

Anonymous said...

So, what, I'm so mean and bitter I'd complain about a cute cupcake cosy?
Well, shite, you're quite correct--I hate it.
And that dorky bow "necklace".

But I love the yellow thing with the white stuff on it.
Whatever it is.

Carol said...

Now Kathy, I too would never make the cupcake cozy. Haven't you figured out by now that when I include your name in a blog post, it's a sick cry for attention from someone who loves you very much?

Anonymous said...


That bow necklace is not silly. It's idiotic.


Linda said...

Great reveiw, thank you! I was looking at that book on Amazon and couldn't decide whether it was for me or not. Its not, now if Divine had modeled the stuff it may have been a bit more interesting!!!

Evelyn said...

"For I, no stranger to cupcakes, have never seen a two-layer cupcake residing in a pleated cupcake paper. Have you?"

No, but wouldn't it be yummy? (The logistics seem a little impossible however.)

Sherry W said...

Shit, now I want a cupcake.

fillyjonk said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who questions the comfort/utility of big ruffles on socks. They seem to be the rage these days (I suppose it's one of those "Well, we've done everything else; what can we do to make these different"). But I usually wear socks with slacks (and not high-waters, either), so it would certainly be a weird look./

Unknown said...

I'm just googling this book and your review is the most useful I have found, thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I wish someone would publish patterns for knitted cupcake tea cosies. Who says they are twee? You should sit on the wide verandah of the lovely Sprigs Tea restaurant in Kloof, Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa and every guest has a tea pot with a different cupcake tea cosy. They look so colourful and quite delightful - the colours and designs are superbly chosen.