Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No-Bull Book Review: Son of Stitch-N-Bitch, by Debbie Stoller

Update: Thanks for all of your comments and emails about sock and other fiber clubs. I'm mulling over what you've all said and will let you know what I decide to do later this week. Now, on to today's book review:

You’d be hard-pressed to find a knitter today who hasn’t heard of Debbie Stoller. Editor of Bust Magazine, Stoller achieved major success with her 2003 release, Stitch 'N Bitch. According to Wikipedia, SnB sold over 200,000 copies in its first six months; the book has already spawned two sequels (Stitch 'n Bitch Nation and The Happy Hooker) and more are in the works. The book also gave rise to trademark litigation over who, if anyone, owns the trademark rights to the phrase "Stitch N Bitch." (The litigation -- which Jenna admirably keeps us informed about -- remains unresolved.) Love Stoller or not – and there are plenty on both sides – you have to give her credit for writing a book that struck a chord with so many knitters out there. Stoller got a lot of people excited about knitting (for some, excited about knitting again), and also reminded a lot of knitters why the crafty klatsch has been an important part of women’s lives for generations -- regardless what you call it, and whether the name is trademarked or not.

Stoller’s new book is called Son of Stitch 'n Bitch: 45 Projects to Knit and Crochet for Men (Workman Publishing 2007). As the name suggests, it is not only another sequel to SnB but it is a sequel that focuses on garments to be worn by men.SOSnB looks much like its predecessors: paperback, about 8 inches square, same color scheme and typefaces, same almost-self-consciously-droll tone (e.g., a section on measurements and fit is called "Size Matters"). One improvement over the first SnB: you’ll find more color -- photographs, color drawings and color charts -- and no doubt Stoller’s track record for selling books is partly the reason. SOSnB is approximately 216 pages long, and retails for $15.95 US/19.95 CAN but by clicking on the link above, you’ll find it for just under eleven bucks. That's quite reasonable for a book containing over 40 patterns.

Part I of SOSnB is coyly titled “I Know What Boys Like” and begins with a thoughtful discussion of why knitting for men can go so wrong. Stoller cautions the well-intentioned knitter to figure out what the recipient wants to wear instead of making what the knitter wants to knit, and discusses how the two are not always the same:

[Of] the patterns [for men] that are available, many are overwrought with bobbles and cables or too many color panels or are just plain wrong in some way. That’s often because these projects have been designed from the perspective of the knitter or crocheter rather than that of the wearer: They may be satisfying and fun to make because of their intricate cabling or challenging color work, but unfortunately, they are not necessarily what most men are willing to wear.

Stoller gives good, if seemingly obvious advice to this dilemma (look at what he likes to wear, make sure you knit the right size). She gives helpful advice on sweater measurements and what they mean, and discusses how to select colors and fibers. She includes a text box (directed at the wearers of the garments) on how to wash hand-knit items. One of my favorite parts was a four-page inset containing a brief history of men and knitting, including some interesting historical photos. (I will let the knitting historians pass on the historical accuracy of the summary: I had thought that the notion that fisherman's motifs were intended to help identify drowned sailors had been debunked as myth, but I'm sure my erudite readers will be able to chime in on that.) Sprinkled throughout this section are anecdotes from real knitters, telling success and failure stories about knitting for the men in their lives. So far, so good.

This is primarily a pattern book, however. And that means it’s the pattern section that will make or break this book for most knitters. So let's look closely at each of the three pattern chapters:

1. Scarves/Hats/Mittens

This section contains twelve patterns, broken down as follows:
  • one hat and mittens set;
  • four hats;
  • six scarves; and
  • 1 pair fingerless gloves.
The patterns in this section range from the simple, like a lo-o-o-ong double-crocheted striped scarf, to the highly patterned, like the Uncle Argyle Scarf;

from the hipster, like this crocheted newsboy's cap,

to the eclectic, like the Brooklyn Bridge scarf.

2. Sweaters

The second section is devoted mainly to pullovers (I counted 12), along with three vests and four cardigans. Again, the patterns range from the basic, like this smoking jacket (knit in Rowan Scottish Tweed Chunky, mmmm):

to the more intricately patterned, like this sailboat vest;

to the eclectic, the "Ernie" sweater.*

3. Socks and Accessories

The Socks and Accessories section contains four sock patterns, again ranging from the simple, like the 70s-style "tube" sock (they are not knitted as plain tubes, however, but have a turned heel and shaped toe)

to the more elegant and patterned, like these cable mid-calf socks,

to the, um, eclectic:

Even my verbose self cannot find a catchall term to describe the wide range of items that round out this section, so I'll just recite them: pillows shaped like bottles of booze; a messenger bag with a cassette tape motif; a steering wheel cover; ties with intarsia motifs (a robot and a skull); a Nacho Libre-like balaclava; and the ultimate bizzarity, a dead teddy bear with a bee in a pool of blood on its stomach.

(Don't you hate when your teddy bear goes to the park without his Epi-pen?)

You can probably now see why I am ambivalent about this book. While Stoller says all the right things in the beginning, the patterns make clear that she -- a forty-something urban hipster magazine editor in New York City-- and I -- a forty-something suburban soccer mom living outside of Philadelphia -- have completely different kinds of men in their lives. The men in my life would find the majority of patterns in this book to be at best, not their taste, and at worst, hideous and unwearable. But maybe my circle of friends and family are simply a minority. Maybe there are lots of knitters out there whose male intimates consist solely of frat boys who'd like nothing better than a handknit throw pillow in the shape of a beer bottle.

If I'm starting to slip over into the snide, it's because I can't help but feel frustrated that the view of men in SOSnB is so narrow. Either a man is a slave to technology (steering wheel cover anyone?) and bordering on the geeky, or he is full of stereotypically-macho male-vice, like gambling or likker or wrestling

or nekkid girlz.

Yes, that is a shadow-knitting scarf of a naked women dancing around a pole.** (Or as my husband said after flipping through this section, "What? No bong cozy?") The guys I know simply aren't so one-dimensional or stereotypic.

Looking at the other criteria that I usually consider in my book reviews, you'll find a generous 45 patterns in the book. The breakdown of knit to crochet patterns falls heavily on the side of knitting: all but four of the projects are knit (a hat, a scarf, a vest and a sweater are crocheted). Sizing is generous but limited to adult sizes (an older kid or teen who wears a small adult size could wear some, but not all of the garments; younger boys are out of luck). Accessories are one-size-fits-most, and look pretty typical in size (e.g., head circumference of 20-22 inches finished size for a hat, sock circumference of 8 to 9 inches). For sweaters, there doesn't seem to be a consistent size range, as each pattern starts and ends at a different measurement, but the range is impressive. Most have four or five sizes, with the finished chest size starting anywhere from 38 to 44 inches (one starts at 35 inches), and the largest falling anywhere from 50 to 58 inches (the largest size I saw was a 61-inch finished chest). Gauges seem to hover in the chunky to DK-weight range, and the yarns include luxurious (Alchemy Synchronicity, for one of the scarves) to the more economical (like KnitPicks).

As I mentioned before, production values are similar to those in the earlier SnB books, with the addition of much more color throughout (the first SnB had a color insert in the center and the remainder was black and white) and slightly more glossy and substantial paper for the pages. Each garment is shown several times, from different views and angles, and the photography is clear and no-nonsense (if not terribly well lit). You can tell that effort was made to include close-ups of some of the colorwork motifs and/or stitch patterns, too, which is always helpful. You'll find color charts and schematics for the patterns that require them -- including a six-page whopper of a chart for that lervely pole dancer.

Whenever a book as popular as Stitch N Bitch is published, the author immediately becomes the center of a lot of debate. You’ll find many knitters who adore Stoller and her urban-funkster sensibility; and that means you’ll also find knitters who actively dislike them, too. Me, I fall into a third category. Neither devotee nor hater, I sometimes find a pattern in a SnB book that I like, but most of the time I’m not tempted. No big deal: it’s a big knitting world and there’s plenty of room for me to admire someone’s accomplishments even if I rarely make one of her patterns.

That about sums up my reaction to SoSnB. Stoller correctly perceives that there aren’t enough good patterns for men out there, and has some insightful ideas about why knitting for men can be so fraught with disappointment. However, I have serious doubts that I will make more than one or two patterns from Son of SnB, if that. They just aren’t to my taste or the taste of the men I know. I’m okay with that: tastes differ and everybody doesn’t have to like everything. For purposes of the knitter considering whether to buy this book, though, I’d say this is especially a case where you’ll want to flip through the book rather than ordering sight unseen unless you are such a devoted fan of Stoller that you just don’t care what the patterns inside look like.

*Rumor has it that Ernie is seeking legal representation to investigate the possibility of a lawsuit for trademark infringement of his sweater.

**And reflect: isn't there something bizarre about knitting a scarf for someone that includes a prominent motif that encapsulates the oppression of the knitter by the wearer? Is there a significant difference between a woman knitting a man a scarf with a naked pole dancer on it and an African-American knitting a scarf with a confederate flag on it for a white friend, or a Jew knitting a hat with a swastika on it for an Aryan friend? Just sayin', dudes.


Unknown said...

Having been on a radio interview with Ms. Stoller, I can honestly say that she is extremely bright and well-spoken, and I could almost guarantee that folks will buy her book.

As for her knitting books, I find them tired and so pseudo. Her writing and designs always appear to be trying way too freakin' hard.

I bet this will be a big gift item for women knitters from their spouses or opposite sex partners who don't know any better. If nothing else, Debbie has perfect timing.

Katie K said...

Thanks for writing such a thorough review.

Joan said...

And such a thoughtful one. I'm especially glad you added your "PPS". A joke is no less offensive when told by a member of the minority it disparages!

Rana said...

Maybe it's for men to knit for other men? Or themselves?

Although, I don't know if these are the sort of men who do "girly" things like knit.

I agree about the style factor - it seems that the vast majority of books featuring patterns for men are either (a) all about Aran sweaters and old-fogey vests, or (b) weirdly urban hipster. There's a niche out there for someone who wants to design nice, non-flamboyant patterns for ordinary men who don't want to look like they fell off a boat in Scotland somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Great review as always! Rana, your remark about Scotland is dead on.

Sherry W said...

I really think Debbie's books have great instruction sections. That the patterns sometime try too hard is unfortunate, but I admit I sometimes find a few of them kitchy fun. (The astroturf twine rug in Happy Hooker, and I do like the Mexican masks.)

Lynne E. said...

As usual, your review hits the nail squarely on the head. I was extremely disappointed in the book when it arrived last week. The pole dancer would be okay with me, if the charted pattern itself were good, but you almost have to be told what the "picture" is supposed to be. The booze bottles are something that only a college boy would want, and seem like a colossal waste of knitting time for a college girl. The teddy bear is way over the top--not only something you'd never knit, but not even amusing. The garment patterns are nothing to shout home about. I'm in the Stoller third category, too, and bought the book sight unseen because of the popularity of the earlier SnB books. Now I doubt that I'll buy any more, even after inspection, even though I collect knitting books.

Anonymous said...

I guess the story is if you, the feminist knitter, knit the girl on the pole you have reclaimed her identity and she is no longer simply an object of lust. Horse-pucky. Get that girl off the pole. Debbie, we get own your identity...good for don't own mine.
Sorry for the snark, it just wears me out sometimes.

bellamoden said...

Thank you for saving me money! I'd been so excited about this book, with male knitter friends in mind... but wtf? The men I know don't go for kitsch. Or overwrought. They want simple, well thought out patterns. Gah. So disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Oh, buggery, me too, me too. I have never liked Debbie Stoller's style at all (yeah, Joe, I know, she's NICE). Her attitude comes off as knitting and crocheting became when she noticed them.
I have seen enough of her tired hipster gear to last me a trip to the moon.

Margaret said...

Thanks for your review. Put me in the third category as well - I don't hate her at all, just don't find her amusing at all either. I can't see my button-down husband in any of these, nor my 21-yo hipster slacker stepson. Well, maybe he'd like a bong cozy, too bad it's not in there.

Anonymous said...

Will use this comment to thank you for both this review & the Louisa Harding one. As usual, comprehensive & informative. Thanks for this work on our behalf (behalves?)

Sherry W said...

Krista, I know some erotic dancers who do not feel disparaged at all, enjoy what they do (and teach) and who would wear that scarf with pride (if it wasn't bad intarsia). Each her own.

Siobhan said...

I'm way over this third-wave feminist claptrap about how it's totally cool now to objectify yourself, because we're all snowflakes, and irony makes it hip!

I am, or was, a mere couple years ago, in the demographic for the whole Stitch n' Bitch thing, but after making a terrible version of the Skull sweater for my husband from the first one with tiiiight and loooong sleeves (my first sweater!) , I moved on and never looked back.

There's something so inherently "beginner" about all her patterns.

Also, I eagerly, eagerly await the day that the fingerless gloves go the way of the poncho and fun fur.

Anonymous said...

Your husband actually said that? Will you bring him to Rhinebeck next year? I really don't believe that he exists.

Those dice socks are a real trip back in time. I knitted socks with bowling pins on them. Grace Ennis, living in California in the 1940s - 1960s, did a slew of patterns for men's socks with various images on them: sailfish, fishing lures, downhill skiers, a dog with doghouse, a hot-air balloon and others. Quite amazing, really.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the honest review. There are not many places where you can see objective (and critical if needs be) reviews of knitting books.

Big Alice said...

I have to add (because I cannot resist), that Marianne Kinzel's Modern Book of Lace Knitting #2 includes lace place settings in both a) a dice motif, and b) playing card suits (maybe this is what makes it 'modern'?) So I am not so weirded out by the dice socks.

I think the bee & teddy bear is just bizarre, though. On the other hand, intarsia blood spots is kind of a unexplored design option, isn't it?

Thanks for the review.

Aponia said...

I guess I'm the ultimate demographic for the Stitch and Bitch series. I'm in my early 30's, I'm married, I'm a "hipster" (although I hate the term, but it fits), I have tattoos and I work for a trendy fashionable company. But I just really have never been a huge fan of the Stitch and Bitch books. I've been reading Bust since it launched ages ago, and even that has kind of gotten tired. I hate to say this, but she really has gotten too old to be putting skulls on every piece of clothing. I love skulls, but I love classic, simple and tasteful garments more. It seems like she's finally kind of going in the right direction with this book by toning down most of the patterns, but seriously...the Ernie sweater?? What grown man would wear that?
I don't think that hip clothing needs to necessarily be ridiculous. I think you can have edgy fashion without having bizarre patterns and odd color choices. I just wish someone would explain this to Ms. Stoller. There can be a happy medium between edgy urban and simple suburban.

Anonymous said...

You seem like just about the only person who's grasped that, in knitting as in life, there's a bell curve.

A little stuff is truly awful, a lot of stuff is mediocre, and a tiny percentage is terrific. To praise all of it, as is the custom of the knitting culture, encourages people who shouldn't be encouraged, and doesn't do enough to praise truly good work.

I hadn't considered buying this book, for me or anyone else, but if I had, you would just have saved me between $11 and $16. Thank you.

I do own Tara Jon Manning's Men in Knits, which is good on knitting what the other half of the species will actually wear (as opposed to what knitters most enjoy knitting), and good information on measuring for fit, and reckoning for style. Her patterns are mostly traditional.

But for men, and for myself, I usually look to Knitting in the Old Way (Priscilla Gibson Roberts and Deb Robson)for inspiration, and often to Knitting Ganseys (Mary Beth Brown Reinsel)for technique.

The magazines seldom publish patterns for men, but most of them most of them are unwearable. I agree that things for men are a neglected category. Elle always had good ones, back in the day, including great stuff for kids.

Since it's the season, I've found that the most welcome gift for men is a good pair of plain fingerless mittens, so they can juggle car keys, coffee, and laptop; a matching scarf (or not-a-scarf) is an appreciated bonus. Great socks that will hold up in my climate (cold in winter) are another possibility.

I do not do beer bottles or theme socks, much less 50s theme socks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a late-30's knitter who has contemplated knitting an Ernie sweater for a Halloween costume or as an elaborate joke, but the design is so basic that it seems like a waste of ink to write up an actual pattern.

As for "hipster," "edgy," and "urban," it takes me so much time and energy to knit anything, I'm damned well not going to let it go to waste on something which went out of style five minutes before the book went to press and cannot even qualify as good kitsch.

Anonymous said...

Nitpick: I think when you write "eclectic" you mean something more like "eccentric" or "off the wall".
The word for a catchall category _is_ "eclectic".

As for the WTF patterns, they remind me of the WTF garments that the major French designers create solely for that response at the show; they don't expect anyone to actually wear them. Maybe the jacket with the offensive intarisa might be an acceptable jacket if knitted plain. I'd prefer the pattern written plain with the intarsia chart offered as an option.

Helen said...

Thanks for saving me some money! I sort of went off Debbie after reading an interview where she admitted accosting people on the subway for "knitting wrong" - wtf? Who do you think you are, lady? I guess I don't really like the way she's positioned as the saviour of knitting. (whether that's her choice or the media / publishers whatever, I just don't like it. Sorry.) Anyhow, the only pattern I really like is the argyle scarf, which is in one of the UK magazines this month, so I've got it already. As for my husband? He wouldn't wear a knitted sweater of any kind if you paid him. Saves me acres of stocking stitch! I'll spend my money on EZ's books instead I think.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

The pole dancer exemplifies the reason I stopped subscribing to both Bust and Bitch magazines. I had tired of the "sex workers are EMPOWERED feminists, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn't hip to our third-wave wisdom" rhetoric.


Yarn or Death said...

Thanks for the review. It comes too late to help me; I ordered from Amazon the minute I saw it was available and was sorely disappointed to discover my jokes to my knitting group (I'm the only crocheter) about "45 projects to knit and crochet" actually meaning "42 projects to knit and 3 to crochet" were all too accurate. However, I will say that the beautiful Gatsby sweater pattern is something I probably would have paid ten bucks for anyway, so I can't really say I regret it.

Dharma said...

Thanks for the review. I might consider picking up the book (probably used) because my partner is a soft butch and more of the patterns might appeal to her. Truthfully she would probably get a kick out of the pole dancer scarf. One can not accuse of being politically correct, says the femme who adores pin up art.

Anonymous said...

One of my close, straight, guy friends is 18 and loves to knit. I think this book is really great for the male audiences out there who love to knit but are forgotten in the shuffle of a women dominated craft. Although many of the patterns are geared towards women making things for men, many of the patterns can be used for male knitters to make for themselves.