Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No-Bull Book Review: Haiku Knits, by Tanya Alpert

Pretty book inspired
By Japanese design

When presented with a review copy of a book called Haiku Knits (Watson-Guptill 2009; MSRP $29.99, available for pre-order at $19.79 via the link), I could not stop myself from breaking into the ancient Japanese form of verse. So, you ask, what does Japanese poetry have to do with knitting? Well, inspiration is where you find it, and author Tanya Alpert has found inspiration in combining Japanese yarns with elements of Japanese aesthetics:
Two of the main tenets of Japanese aesthetics are economy in the use of space and materials, and asymmetry. As in a haiku, in the expression of emotion and thought, an economical use of space and time seems especially appropriate today. As for asymmetry, it suggests fluidity and motion. Bridging elements of Japanese aesthetics with our Western fashion was very exciting to me and became the genesis for Haiku Knits.
Alpert points to a few specific characteristics of her vision: combining different textures, using twisted cables, asymmetric shapes, and using decorative seams. She describes her style as "feminine without being frilly and minimalist without being severe." So bearing Alpert's vision in mind, let's take a look at the patterns.


Alpert presents 25 patterns in Haiku Knits, organized into five chapters. Each chapter is named after a haiku that appears on the first page, which acts as an organizing theme. For example, the first section is titled "Lingering Snow," and features the following verse:
Soft winter wrap
Yochino cherry petals
Caress the waiting earth
The patterns in that section are "Snowflake," a rectangular wrap with sleeves kit in an openwork stitch; a 3/4 sleeve cabled pullover called "Cocoon"; "Pagoda," a looped hat and scarf combo; and "Fallen Leaves," a cabled short vest/wrap.

Fallen Leaves

The second section, titled "Wind and Stream," contains an interesting kimono-style cardigan knit with a cashmerino aran yarn and a laceweight linen-mohair blend (the cover sweater); a pretty lace scarf with diagonal edges; a simple sweater with asymmetrical lapel; a vest or shell made with both Noro Kochoran and a bulky-weight Rowan Cocoon (which, by the way, is a gorgeous, gorgeous yarn);

Half-Moon Rising

and a pullover knit with Rowan KidSilk Haze and a Habu silk yarn for the large shawl collar and ruffly bottom edge.

Next you'll find "Ocean Breeze," which features a tank-sleeved tunic with an asymmetric edging and a tie;a cap-sleeve pullover knit in a very lacy stitch with a textured Habu yarn; a fringed wrap knit with 3 different Habu yarns to create a kind of scribble lace-ish effect;

Fisherman's Net

a simple summer tank top with side button closure and a decorative back seam.


"Fading Light" contains an eclectic assortment, beginning with a filmy scarf with a ribbon edging to mimic petals; a top described as a "shift," knit in a very fine mesh created with wool/stainless steel yarn; a felted top and skirt combo, using a merino wool in fingering weight, plus a silk/stainless steel blend for trim;

Lantern Floating

and an unusually-constructed capelet, which gets its style and shape from strategic increases and decreases.

Long Night

Last, "Beauty in Motion" contains a cropped jumper ("jumper" in the American sense of a scoop-neck, tank-sleeved tunic layered over an undershirt), a second tunic but longer and flared at the hem, with a racerback;

Running Brook

a drapey cardigan with raglan lines and a large tab closure; a long-sleeved pullover with a wide v-neck (the model wears it over one shoulder, a la Flashdance); and a mohair cardigan with a ruffled ascot (shown below).

I know that you, my clever readers, have already figured out that the book contains all patterns for adult women -- nothing for the menfolk or kids or even home here. By type of garment, you'll find:
  • 5 cardigans/jackets;
  • 4 long-sleeved or in one case 3/4-length sleeved pullovers;
  • one wrap;
  • one hat;
  • three scarves;
  • 2 vest or wrap layering pieces;
  • 6 tank or sleeveless tops, some of which also might fit into the vest/wrap category depending on how you wear them.
As you can see, these pieces have their own sensibility: many of them have untraditional shapes or are made to allow the fabric's drape to be a prominent part of the design, and many of them are designed to be worn as layering pieces. This makes it hard to assign them to a specific "category" such as "cardigan" or "vest."

Flickering Flame

When it comes to sizing, you'll find that the untraditional construction and shaping of these garments makes sizing difficult. Leaving aside hat, scarves and wrap, which are one-size-fits-all, the sweaters are a mixed bag. Finished measurements start at around 34 inches as a size Small for most of them, running up to 38, 40 or occasionally 42 inches (finished measurement) for a size Large. Even taking into account the flexibility due to their less fitted construction, the very petite and the very large-bosomed may find themselves out of luck unless they are adventurous enough to experiment with altering size and fit. In the same vein, you would do well to take a closer look at the patterns, including the schematics and instructions, if you prefer to wear close-fitting garments. Most of these garments are not body-hugging and most do not feature set-in sleeves, or even traditional sleeves at all in some cases. That means that some people will love them and others will not feel comfortable wearing them.

Bird of Passage

Alpert has selected lovely yarns, predominantly Rowan/RYC and Habu Textiles (with an occasional Louet, Sublime or Berroco thrown in for good measure). While it may not be particularly hard to substitute for a yarn like Berroco's Pure Merino, a heavy worsted -- although it's such a nice yarn I don't know why you'd want to -- it will prove difficult, even impossible, to substitute for many of the less mainstream choices. For example, the Hazy Moon scarf uses a Habu yarn described as "paper moire," consisting of 50% linen/50% nylon, at a lightweight gauge, combined with another Habu yarn described as "fringe tape," an acetate novelty yarn.

Hazy Moon

Together, they are striking and create a lovely ethereal effect in the scarf, but if you aren't inclined to order the exact yarns from Habu, you may find substituting for these yarns to be a bit challenging, at least if you want to achieve the same kind of ethereal effect. The same goes for the stainless steel blends, for example. You may even find that substituting for a widely available yarn like Louet Euroflax has a more significant effect than usual on your finished garment, since texture is such an integral part of many of the designs. Please note, however, that people have vastly different attitudes toward yarn substitution, and by observing that it may be hard to substitute yarns, I'm only making an observation, not a value judgment. Alpert obviously selected the yarns that she did for aesthetic reasons: texture, feel, the play of light, contrast. Let's not hold her artistic adventure against her simply because it makes the yarns harder to swap for.

When it comes to thinness and thickness of the yarns used, Alpert is all over the map. The fine-yarn-lover in me was pleased to see lots of finer yarns, and clever use of the fine yarns to create interesting effects like drape, gauziness and sheer mesh. But there are also garments featuring some thicker yarns, including the luscious Rowan Cocoon.

Last but not least, the technical stuff: Haiku Knits is a hardcover book, about 144 pages, with a clean, almost minimalist (well, for a knitting book!) layout, in keeping with the author's design mission. The lovely color photographs by Michael Turek are also minimalist, featuring models shot against muted, hazy backgrounds. There are close-ups of some of the garment details, and most garments are seen in at least two full-length photographs - both very helpful features. There are large charts and schematics for the non-accessory garments, essential in many cases where the garment is knit in one piece side-to-side or features some other unusual structural element. There are a few pages of specific techniques illustrated in the back, along with some handy conversion charts.

My overall impression? Haiku Knits is a very pretty book with a unique and distinctive style. I really like that Alpert's publisher was willing to take a chance on a book that does some things that are often frowned upon in pattern publishing -- mixing yarns of different weights and textures, for example; using yarns that aren't available at every knitting or craft shop in the world; and playing with unusual structure and design features -- for by and large, Alpert succeeds beautifully. The flip side for the knitter is that you'll want to take a good look at this book before purchasing to make sure that the style and the size range of the garments will suit you. I suspect that some knitters will ooh and aah over every pattern in the book, especially those who like Eileen Fisher, Hanne Falkenberg and Carol Lapin. I suspect that some knitters will find the garments less appealing given their body type or personal style, but I hope that even these knitters will give Haiku Knits its due for creativity, fresh style and adventurous spirit.

Photographs copyright 2009 by Michael Turek


puffthemagicrabbit said...

It looks like a very pretty book, and maybe one that, even if you didn't plan on making much from it, would be nice to have around when you have a cup of coffee and want something pretty to look at- I've got alot of book that I've had for over 10 years that still come out to play like that. Thanks for showing us something that I might not have found on my own.

Barb B. said...

Well, there is not one thing that would look good on my sturdy little Shetland pony frame (which reflects my generous nature in it's measurements)
HOWEVER, I love the look of every single thing you've showed. And they would all suit the DIL's. I rarely get around to knitting anything for myself, so that book is going on my wish list...which I email to the family every year so they know what to get me for Christmas.
Barb B.

HissyStitch said...

Hmm, Long Night and Running Brook are pretty, and Bird of Passage is okay, but for some of the others, well, artistic to look at but I'm not good at wearing the "drape random chunks of knitting on an artfully posed model" look without it all falling off minutes later.

Helen said...

Many thanks for the review! Just when I'm thinking Oh, to be tall and lanky so I could pull off these knits, that Hazy Moon scarf swam into view - beautiful!

Allison said...

Cool - I've been wondering about this one b/c there haven't been any images of the patterns anywhere on the interwebs, and I LOVE the one on the cover. Thank you Auntie Carol!

Tracy said...

Good review, Carol!
I see quite a bit of inspiration here. And it's very tempting to, as you say, support her efforts to experiment with texture, light and shape. I may even be able to wear a few of the designs....
This will go on my next wish list.

tanyadiva said...

I appreciate books like this, or the recent Luxe Knits, that come at design from a more architectural stance. Coming back to these books gives me inspiration for my own design, and lets be frank, it's eye candy for a rainy day.

I'd buy this if I wasn't broke and unemployed...I agree with the Christmas list suggestion for relatives, though

soknitpicky said...

I came across your blog because I was searching for a preview/review of this book. This is a well-written, well-thought-out review. I'll definitely be looking for this book. Thank you!

Linda said...

Just want to add my voice to the existing compliments on your comprehensive and well-written review. Much appreciated!

Marjorie Dawson said...

The patterns all look wonderful. So glad to find something feminine and not to plough through acres of kid's stuff!