Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No-Bull Book Review: Custom Knits, by Wendy Bernard

It is embarrassing how long ago I started this book review. However, I like the book, and the review was mostly written, so I finished it off and here you go, the first No-Bull Book Review of 2009:

Wendy Bernard writes the popular knitting blog Knit and Tonic. When she began writing about her attempts to design her own sweaters, her blog-readers responded with great enthusiasm, urging her to keep designing and to begin selling her patterns. Last fall, Wendy released her first book, Custom Knits (Stewart Tabori & Chang 2008), subtitled “Unleash Your Inner Designer with Top-Down and Improvisational Techniques” (which is quite a mouthful, albeit an accurate description). As of this writing, the book has a MSRP of $27.50 but can be purchased for $18.15 through the link above.

Bernard’s take on knitwear is one that many of us can sympathize with. She discusses the first sweater she made for herself: “I spent many hours knitting and many more seaming, but when I finished it and pulled it over my head, I discovered, to my horror, that it didn’t fit, and the shoulder seams looked awful.” Happily, Bernard was not deterred, and continued to experiment with different knitting techniques. Her epiphany came when she learned how to knit sweaters in the round:

[O]ne day I discovered that sweaters could be knit from the top down and in one piece, which basically means you start working the front and back at the top of the sweater, connect them when you get below the armholes, and then work in the round down to the hem. Sleeves are added next and are worked in the round from the shoulder to the cuffs. And then a collar of your choice can be added on last. Knitting this way allows you to try on as you go, change your mind in the process, and essentially design on the fly. Because you’re picking up stitches at the shoulder and working down, you can add sleeves to a garment that you thought would be a shell. You can lengthen or add shaping to an otherwise boxy sweater, or change the look of a collar entirely, with only a little bit of know-how. And because you’re working the front and back at the same time on a circular needle, all of your design elements and shaping happen at the same time, so you don’t need to take meticulous notes and remember exactly what you did on one piece in order to mimic it on another – maybe a month later. And the best thing is, except for weaving in some loose ends, there’s little to no seaming, so after binding off your last stitch, your sweater is pretty much complete.

Bernard presents her preferred method quite nicely in the book, including technical information about fit and construction; providing patterns that can be followed either as shown in the book, or with modifications; and adding tips and suggestions for how to tweak the garments to suit the knitter’s individual style. Let’s take a closer look at the content of the book, chapter by chapter.

Chapter 1 -- “Understanding Your Style, Size and Fit So You Can Make Sweaters You Love To Wear” -- is arguably the most important one in the book. It presents the technical background that a novice knitter will need to plan sweaters to ensure that they fit the wearer in both size and style. Bernard starts by explaining her design philosophy (see the lengthy quote above), and reminds us that not every sweater that we want to knit is going to look good on us, so we need to think it through before we cast on for that fantasy sweater. (Excellent advice that we don't always want to think about.) Her exhaustive “Reality Checklist” contains common-sense reminders -- e.g., is the color right for me? -- as well as some questions designed to make you think realistically, and a bit psychologically, about your knitting experience (“Will I complain so much that my friends and those close to me will beg me to stop knitting it?” made me laugh). Certainly spending some time with the checklist (which may then require a session or two with your therapist) is a good and thoughtful way to maximize the likelihood that you’ll love knitting and wearing your next project.

Bernard then addresses several other good things to know before casting on for a sweater: how to take accurate body measurements, how to read a schematic, understanding ease, and how to modify a dress form to match your own exact body measurements, so that you can use the mannequin to fit your own sweaters. Experienced knitters may be familiar with much of this information, but it will be a gold mine for newer knitters who haven’t encountered this sort of technical background before.

Chapter 2 is devoted to “Top-Down Raglan Sweaters,” and contains 7 patterns: a v-neck pullover with optional sleeve striping; a belted long cardigan (inspired by smoking jackets); a pullover with a cabled detailing that can be worn with the cable in the front or with the opposite side, a deep v-neck, as the front; a wide-collared pullover; another long cardigan with a ruffled collar; an empire-waist top with ruffled edging; and a button-front cape with ribbon edging.

Chapter 3 is devoted to “Top-Down Set-In Sleeve Sweaters,” and contains a simple crewneck; an empire-styled cardigan with ribbon tie; a short-sleeved turtleneck with saddle shoulders; a button front short-sleeve top with a stacked rib pattern; a scoop-neck short-sleeved sweater with ribbing on the top half; another long cardigan or coat; a shell with cable detailing at the neckline; a tuxedo-styled vest with deep, deep scoop (it’s boobtastic!); a beach cover-up that could also, I suppose, be worn as a short overlayered dress.

Chapter 4 are the “Round-Yoke Sweaters,” and oddly it only contains two patterns: you’ll find a round-necked cropped cardigan with single-button closure; the cover sweater, which is probably my favorite in the book, a yoke sweater with lace-up front.

Chapter 5 is titled “Designing on the Fly,” and includes patterns that Bernard says she designed without as much formal prepwork. Some of the patterns are, indeed, simple: a ribbed wrap, a scarf or rectangular wrap, a tank. Others are bit more detailed, such as a cabled-button-front cardigan, a beret with some stranded colorwork; a tank with a herringbone stitch that can double as a skirt (unless your butt is bigger than your boobs, which, alas, is the case with me).

The last chapter is called “Unleash Your Inner Designer” and contains even more technical information designed to help the knitter alter patterns or create her own designs. You’ll find helpful schematics that show how sweaters lay on the needles when knit top-down; tips on changing various types of necklines (i.e., changing a crewneck to a v-neck); common neckbands and collars; tweaking armhole depth; length and shaping tips; adding sleeves as an afterthought; changing pullovers to cardigans; substituting edgings; formulas for knitting circular sweaters; and a chart on how to determine how much yarn you’ll need. Lots of good technical info there.

Here are some breakdowns for you:
  • This is all knitting – no crocheted garments (an occasional crocheted edging is all you’ll find).
  • All of the patterns are for women.
  • Generous size ranges go from finished garment sizes of 20-some inches through 50-some and in at least one case 60-plus inches finished chest size.
  • Most garments are knit in worsted or heavy worsted/aran gauge (4.5 sts per inch was the most common gauge), with two knit at 6 sts per inch; two at 5.5 sts per inch; and two at around 3/3.5 sts per inch).
  • A total of 24 patterns (although most include tips on variations, and one thing I love to see: variations of the same pattern knit in different yarns to give the knitter a sense for how variations will actually look).
  • Of those patterns, all but four are for some sort of sweater; the remainder are the cape, beret, and two scarves/wraps. Of the sweaters, approximately eight are pullovers of some kind; seven are cardigans (three of which are long); three are tanks or shells (one of which doubles as a skirt); one cape; two scarf/shawls; one beret; and one cape.

When it comes to quality, once again, Stewart Tabori & Chang is top-notch: You'll get a hardcover book, with color throughout; beautiful clear photographs by Kimball Hall; lots of schematics; and insets with additional tips and techniques to accompany specific patterns. There was something vaguely reminiscent of 50s pinup girls about the photos and styling.

This was perhaps inspired by the garments, which are worn without much ease (or as my husband said, “I like the titty sweaters!”).

What about style? Well, you know my philosophy: style is a very individual and idiosyncratic thing when it comes to sweater design, and people have different reasons for buying knitting patterns and books. Very experienced knitters may feel that they already have the skills to create top-down sweaters in the round, and with many of these sweaters knit in stockinette stitch, they may want to take a close look to see if the patterns, the technical info or both make it worth their while to add to their collections. Newbie knitters should find a wealth of technical information that makes the purchase worthwhile – not to mention patterns that are stylish and fitted without looking excessively trendy. Of course, if you have a strong preference for seamed sweaters, or you want sweaters that feature a lot of complex patterning, colorwork or stitches, or you prefer boxy rather than fitted garments, this book – full of seamless fitted sweaters with a minimum of patterning – may not be for you.

As someone who designs knitwear, I find books like these to be refreshing. I love the emphasis on fitting the garment to the individual wearer, and I love the fact that the book helps give you the technical tools to be able to do so. I started the v-neck raglan called "Pink"

a while back (I'm still plugging away on it, shut up), and there are several other lovely sweaters in this book that I will be adding to my Ravelry queue. I've said before that there are, quite honestly, a lot of times when I just want to sit back and follow someone else’s directions rather than figure things out on my own. I’m glad to add Custom Knits to my knitting library, and I suspect I will refer back to it on many occasions.


JelliDonut said...

Thanks for the thorough review. It just might have swayed me toward buying this book, as I'm looking for something to help me come up with my own top-down sweaters or at least to be able to customize some patterns I already have that don't quite work.

Your husband is a crackup, btw!

gayle said...

I love the tech-heavy books most of all. One of the best things about knitting is that, no matter how long you've been at it, there's always something new to learn.
Thanks for your review!

Bridget said...

I bought this book last fall, and it's one of my favorites, for the reasons you outlines so well.

But I must say that I am shocked - yes SHOCKED - that Tom would use such language! And during Speranz'a, to boot!

Anonymous said...

Once again, many thanks for a review that answers all my questions and provides some photos. Don't know whether I'll buy this - gauge is a bit thick for my taste nowadays - but will definitely seek it out to have a look and think about getting it for the technical info.
- Beth

Anonymous said...

Fantastically in-depth review, once again. Adding to wish list. (wish list that is built from your reviews- can ya tell I don't get out much)

Anonymous said...

Great review. Thanks for giving me enough info to take a closer look at this one. I'm leery of buying books (instead of mags) because you don't get much value for the $$ with the average "pattern" book. This one, with a focus on custom fitting and technique, sounds like a real value.

Anonymous said...

Next from Interweave Press: TITTY STYLE. Wah!

In all seriousness, I was wondering about this book and your review will make me give it a second look.

somebunnysloveDOTcom said...

Many thanks for a concise review. Now if you will excuse me, I have some book shopping to do... Bunny hugs to Elvis!! =:8

Anonymous said...

I have this book and I agree re the cover sweater! I have yarn on order for your lovely Ella Rae/Noro yoke sweater in Knitscene and I may so modify the front. I can't wait till the rest of my yarn arrives!