Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No-Bull Book Review: Indigo Knits

It's the time of year when spring starts bursting out all over in my part of the U.S., and so this seems like a good time to take a look at a book devoted to knitting with cotton yarn. Indigo Knits: The Quintessential Guide to Denim Yarn from the Founders of Artwork, by Jane Gottelier, photographs by Patrick Gottelier, (PotterCraft 2007), will definitely get you in the mood for rocky beaches and lightweight cottons, and may convince you to play around with some denim-dyed yarn.

One nugget of conventional wisdom in book publishing is that publishers (as distinguished from yarn companies producing their own booklets for pattern support) can't publish a book that uses only one or two specific brands of yarn, especially ones that are hard to find. Many knitters stubbornly insist on buying only the yarn shown in the original pattern; plus, publishers try to accommodate as many yarn companies (i.e., advertisers) by using as many different brands as possible. Indigo Knits breaks with that convention by presenting projects that are all knit in the same kind and weight of yarn: worsted/DK weight, indigo-dyed yarn. There are only about three companies that make this exact kind of yarn; Rowan Denim is the most widely available of the three. Elann has Den-M-Nit, but it often sells out, and there is a third brand, Elle, which produces True Blue yarn, but I have never seen this brand of yarn in any of the umpteen yarn shops I've visited in my knitting life.

Why publish a book with such a narrow selection of yarns? Well, indigo yarns are different from other handknitting yarns for several reasons. The dye takes to the fabric inconsistently, it fades, it can rub off on whatever's next to it, it wears off excessively -- sometimes irregularly -- at seams and other friction points. And if you’ve ever put on a pair of jeans that spent a long time in the clothes dryer, you know the critical thing about indigo yarn or fabric: it shrinks. Often quite a lot.

Indigo Knits acknowledges all the idiosyncrasies of indigo-dyed yarn and embraces them. After a brief introduction (describing the authors’ beginnings in the boutique knitwear business), the book contains ten pages of technical material discussing indigo yarn: a brief history, discussion of the characteristics of indigo yarn, how to distress and bleach indigo garments, and how to decorate indigo knitwear. I liked that this section included several clear photos of the distressing and bleaching processes used later in the book.

One aspects of the book that I found particularly charming was the focus on the Cornwall area of the UK, home of the authors. Each chapter is named after a place in Cornwall; includes photos and descriptions of that area; and even recommends methods of transportation, restaurants, and gardens to visit. You get a great sense of the beauty and unique attractions of Cornwall -- a real treat for us Anglophiles.

The remainder of the book is devoted to patterns, so let’s look at the seven chapters containing the patterns:

  • Chapter 1 (“Newlyn Blue”) is named after Newlyn, a fishing town and appropriately features traditional ganseys: two pullovers for men (but if you don’t mind the boxy shoulders, they could easily be unisex); a women’s jacket; and a child’s pullover. All are lovely examples of the traditional cabled and textured fishermen’s sweaters, like this men's sweater:

    If you made this sweater and washed it, you'd be able to see the indigo dye fade and wear in an interesting way around all the textured stitching and cables.

  • Chapter 2 (“Gwithian Blue”) is named after a beach (home to the lighthouse which is the setting for the Woolf novel To the Lighthouse) and all of the projects have a beach theme: a unisex striped hoodie, a fringed off-the-shoulder top; a slouchy beach bag; a beach blanket; and a beaded I-pod carrier.

  • Chapter 3 (“Lamorna Blue”) is named for a village that is the site of an artist’s colony, and you can see where this is going, I bet: all the projects loosely relate to the artist theme. There’s a buttoned vest for women (called the Artist’s Waistcoat); a cute women’s sweater with pockets called the Artist’s Smock; and a “satchel” or what Americans might call a messenger bag.
  • Chapter 4 (“Frenchman’s White”) is named after Frenchman's Creek – an actual creek as well as the title of a Daphne DuMaurier novel, for those who like their Gothics – and contains designs which relate to the creek: a crocheted skirt, an adorable ruffle-neck top, and crocheted slippers made of granny squares. (Okay, this chapter is reaching a bit for its theme, but I’m not gonna quibble.)

  • Chapter 5 is “St. Ives Blue” and refers to the village and bay noted for ties to the Abstract Art movement of the 1950s & 1960s. So we’ve got the Abstract Art Sweater (shown for women; possibly unisex); the Abstract Art cushion; and the men’s Painterly Stripe Sweater.

  • The design is created by application of bleach to the sweater in the pattern shown. (If you think cutting a steek is stressful, try applying bleach to your hand-knit sweater!)

  • Chapter 6 – “Tresco Blue” – is named for one of the islands southwest of Cornwall, renowned for its gardens and beaches. All of these projects are, again, beach-themed: a key-hole front top with thin straps and a flared bottom; a fringed and beaded crochet skirt; a crocheted bikini (the author notes it is “strictly for sunbathing” and designed to “dispel[] notions of crochet’s sometimes frumpy image”); sequined throw and cushion cover; and embellishment for flip-flops.
  • “Penzance Blue,” Chapter 7, refers to a harbor town most famous for the Gilbert & Sullivan opera. The pirate theme is played out in a women’s striped top with Henley-style button front; a large beaded bag; a cropped woman’s jacket with a patchwork motif inspired by ship’s sails; the women’s “Grandad” cardigan, with long slim lines and front pockets; and the women’s Prussian Naval Jacket, with large bead embellishment.

To sum up, you’ll find 3 patterns for men (which could be unisex depending on taste); 1 unisex pattern; 15 designs for women; 1 child’s sweater; 3 bags; and 5 miscellaneous items. The knitting/crochet breakdown falls heavily on the side of knitting, with 22 knitted items, 5 crocheted, and 2 bags that use both knitting and crochet.

If you are interested in the specifics of construction, the book contains a variety: Of the sweaters, the 3 men’s designs are pullover style; the unisex sweater is a hoodie with an open-placket front and ties; 4 women’s button-front sweaters (variously called cardigans or jackets); 2 women’s sweaters with Henley-style button plackets; 2 women’s pullovers with round necks; 3 unconventionally-styled sweaters, for lack of a better word (the flared strap top; the ruffled scoopneck sweater; and the off-the-shoulder top);

one women’s button-front vest; and the child’s pullover gansey.

The No-Bull technical checklist:
  • Color photographs – yes, all over the place, with lots of inviting seaside shots.
  • Charts – yes, some in black-and-white, some in color.
  • Schematics for every sweater – no, only a few have schematics, and they tend to be ones that have some sort of color patterning which is charted; most do not, although most have sketches to give a better sense of the lines

  • Size ranges – generally extensive. While some of the sweaters, like the strappy flared top, go from around 35 to just under 38 inches finished bust, many of the more forgiving styles range from 37.75 to 57.5 inch finished chest. Even the bikini is designed for a range from 32 inch finished bust to 51 inch finished bust.

  • Yarns used – all are indigo/denim yarns that knit up at around DK or light worsted weight and – this is really important – all feature approximately 20 percent shrinkage in length after washing. The patterns are designed to take this shrinkage into account. For substitution, you’ll have to swatch carefully if you don’t use one of the 3 indigo yarns specified, including knitting a swatch, measuring shrinkage carefully to ensure that it’s comparable, or adapting the vertical lengths of the pattern to compensate for the lack of shrinkage if you use a non-shrinking yarn.
  • Book construction – Hardcover with paper dust jacket; high quality, full-color pages; relatively large size; regular index and Project Index featuring photographs of each finished project; list of sources for indigo yarn and notes on substitution; sturdy binding; color photographs in the technical section illustrating some of the distressing techniques.

MSRP is a whopping thirty bucks, but you can score it for under twenty dollars (at the time of this writing) by using the above link.

Overall, this is a nice and creatively-produced book that will entice you both to knit with indigo yarn AND to visit the seaside of Cornwall. The designs are a mix of the traditional-styled gansey – including the boxy fit – and the more trendy (i.e. crocheted skirt and bikini, I-pod cozy), some sexier tops with scoop necks or straps, as well as some simple home dec items. You’ll have to examine the patterns closely to see if the sweaters you like are knit in the style you like; some have set-in sleeves, others don’t; most do not feature any nipping in at the waist and are shown on the models with a generous rather than close fit. Indeed, the variety of styles shown is almost mind-boggling: you can knit a very traditional gansey OR crochet a bikini from the same book? I suppose time will tell whether there are crafters who are interested in knitting both very classically styled garments and very trendy ones.

It bears mentioning that there is at least one other book devoted to denim yarns: Kim Hargreaves' Denim People. This is from 2004, and features only Rowan Denim yarn, but if you are interested in more indigo-yarn patterns, you might want to check it out. There are other Rowan publications, like the biannual Rowan Magazine, that occasionally have featured designs knit in Rowan Denim, too.

Indigo Knits helps you appreciate the unique qualities of this kind of yarn: yes, it shrinks the first time you wash it, but how many knitted items can you throw with abandon into machine washer and dryer, knowing the garment won’t be ruined? And if you’ve ever seen the unique way that indigo yarn fades and weathers, especially if you use textured stitching, you will come to appreciate why some knitters, including the authors of Indigo Knits, are fascinated with this kind of yarn.


Cynthia said...

Wow that off the shoulder fringed top is horrible (well, for my body type)--fluff at the chest and horizontal garter ribs is not a look I can see working on most people. That said, this is a really interesting fiber and I want to try working with it.

Once again, your book reviews are what the knitting magazines should be doing. In fact, I wouldn't even care if they only published positive, in-depth reviews of one book an issue, surrounded by the crappy advertising blurbs they currently provide. You have saved me tons of money and cost me even more!

You Rock....

Janice in GA said...

It's the cotton the shrinks, not the indigo. But you know that.

There must not be much indigo dyed wool out there. Wonder why, because I don't know any reason why that wouldn't work.

Emily said...

Thanks. i think I'll get this. I'll have to adjust it (I have a pile of indigo dyed hemp from the House of Hemp in Devon, near Cornwall, which will wear similarly but not, i think, shrink similarly).

Love all the Cornwall-ness, it's a beautiful place.

As usual a really helpful review.

Unknown said...

For that Aran alone, it might be worthwhile. I still have in my stash some of the old, discontinued Classic Elite Denim. Enough for a sweater, definitely.

With cotton, the best way of dealing with the stretch is to measure the gauge swatch dry, then wash the swatch and hang it to dry. This hanging gives you a finished measurement that takes the gravity that will affect the finished garment into consideration. I sometimes even weight the swatch slightly. When dry, compare the two sets of measurements for length variation. You will then have a pretty good idea of how much the finished sweater will drop.

Width is another problem. I like to knit cotton on as small a needle size as I can. Loosely knit cotton is asking for sag 'n' bag trouble.

Sherry W said...

Trendy it may be, but I'll be looking twice at that crocheted skirt.

Kate in Somerset said...

I have used the Elle yarn. I found it sadly lacking in oomph compared with Rowan Denim. I finished up using it for a stole where the lack of body didn't matter. (Elle is a South African company the Gotteliers have designed for).

in Somerset, UK

eLoomanator said...

There is another denim yarn, Twilley's Freedom Denim. http://www.texere.co.uk/shades.php?reference=648
It's a direct substitute for Rowan Denim, although there are at least two pattern booklets to support the Twilley's brand.