Whenever I run into Kristin Nicholas, I always get a huge smile on my face. She is one of the most genuine and nicest people you'll ever find in the knitting world, and she is incredibly talented. Kristin paints, she designs embroidery as well as knitwear, illustrates, is a photographer, has a great kid and raises sheep and cats on her farm. (I suspect she's one of those people who would excel at anything she tried her hand at, whether an artistic endeavor, construction work, neurosurgery, macrame...) So when I heard Kristin had a new book out, I was all over it like a donkey on a waffle. (I regret to confess that I've been meaning to do this book review for weeks -- weeks, I tell you! -- but, sigh, you know how it goes with me.)
Color by Kristin: How to Design Your Own Beautiful Knits (Sixth & Spring 2009; MSRP $24.95, available at the time of this writing for $16.47 via the link), was released this November, and it is a feast for the eyes, teeming with color and inspiration. It's a hardback book, about 172 pages long, and (obvy, as the young kids say) full-color. One thing that I do love about the book is how very jam-packed with color it is: the end papers are photographs of swatches, there are close-ups of knitwear all over the place, there are lots of photographs of colorful yarn and nature and collages and all sorts of pretty things, many of them taken on Kristin's farm.
The book begins with Kristin's introduction, called "A Life in Color." In it, she describes her fascination with color, tracing her involvement with textiles beginning with sewing, progressing through studying textile design, serving as Creative Director of Classic Elite Yarns, and currently running a sheep farm in Western Massachusetts. Kristin describes how she likes to mix up colors "with wild abandon," as she puts in, adding embroidery to the stranded designs she favors.
Chapter 1 is a brief introduction to Kristin's interpretation of color theory. I say "Kristen's interpretation" because I think that different people like to work with color in different ways. For example, Kristin tends not to work with white or black, even as accents, because she feels "they make things stagnant." She presents, instead, a loosely-structured color wheel (with yarn pompoms instead of swatches or chips) and explains the difference between complementary, analogous and tertiary color combinations. If you are looking for traditional color theory, this isn't the place for you; what makes Kristin's style unique is that she is guided not by strict principles but by intuition and inspiration. Her approach to color "theory" is more an attempt to give the reader a very basic understanding of the general rules, and let the reader play with color herself. Accordingly, she includes a page showing the importance of swatching, with five swatches of the same motif knit in different color combinations. I love illustrations like this, that bring home in a visually arresting way how the same motif or stitch pattern can look vastly different depending on color choice. (Swatches are also included for alternate colorways in some of the patterns, a great way for a timid knitter to envision different color combinations.) Kristin ends this chapter by urging the reader to explore color, keeping track of color combinations that appeal and working with color on a regular basis.
Chapter 3 is devoted to designing with stranded knitting, using charts to ease the knitter into creating her own designs. This is a brief section, intended for an adventurous knitter who wants to plunge in and experiment with her own designs and motifs.
The book then turns to Kristin's patterns, well over twenty of them. The patterns consist of a combination of items for kids, women and the home. They're presented sequentially, rather than broken down into chapters, so I've grouped them myself.
Norwegian Dreams Pullover
We'll start with women's sweaters; you'll find the Hen Party Pullover, a yoke-sweater with colorwork around hem and cuffs; and the Norwegian Dreams pullover (above), both highly-patterned and very colorful. You'll also find the wild "Over the top Shawl," featuring lots of color and pattern; and the Southwest-Style Sleeved Wrap, a kind of ruana with sleeves sewn in (the boxy shape is a great palette for color design, while the sleeves enable the garment to stay on better than a wrap would).
Women's accessories are a great place to experiment with bright colors and wild combinations, and those with more conservative style might feel more comfortable starting with smaller objects before plunging into a full-size garment. Great starting points are the charming Bloomsbury Gauntlets, the Mad For Plaid Mittens (sized for the whole family); the Extra-Long Scarf (designed for using up yarn odds and ends); the Last-Minute Mittens and Hat combo; and a cute set of cuffed mittens with matching socks (shown near the top of this post).
Using bright color combinations is a perfect way to design for kids. For babies, there is the Many Hearts Baby Afghan, consisting of blocks which are then joined so that a border can be knit on; Kristin suggests that several knitters can each knit a block and then present the blanket as a joint gift; the Child's Zip-up Cardigan (shown toward the top of this post); the Scrap-Yarn Scarf; and the charming Best Friends Pullovers, two coordinating sweaters using different designs to reflect the differing personalities of best friends. In adult and child's sizes are the Greek-antique-inspired Family of Slipper Socks; and the Mother-Daughter Mittens,
as well as the Mad for Plaid mittens mentioned above.
Rounding out the patterns are the home dec and bags: the On-the-Go Knitter's Tote, with lining and leather handles (above); a cover for a French press; a felted laptop cozy; a cylinder-shaped bolster;
the Marrakesh Market Pillows, a set of four pillow covers in different sizes (some of them are shown with the bolster, above); a huge ottoman cover; and a sweet teapot cozy.
When it comes to yarn and gauge, all the projects are knit in Julia, the worsted-weight, wool/mohair/alpaca yarn that Kristin created and which is produced by Nashua Handknits. (You can see that Kristin designed the palette, as it is full of the vivid colors she favors.) Sizing for most of the items isn't a big deal; all the home dec-type items and many of the accessories, like the scarves, are not dependent on the knitter's size. The women's sweaters run from the smallest size of around 36-inch finished bust to the largest size of a 52-inch finished bust -- generous sizing. The child's sizes run from around a 24-inch finished chest to a 36-inch finished chest. The handgear varies; some are sized, others are one-size-fits most.
After the pattern section, there are more goodies: a series of different edgings with directions; a set of colorwork charts with repeats of different stitch numbers, which allows the knitter both to substitute different motifs into the existing patterns, and to experiment with her own designs; and instructions on a few basic skills (like Kitchener stitch) and embroidery stitches.
I really enjoyed looking through this book, and not just because I adore Kristin Nicholas as a person. Of course, I love the use of color and the way that sources of inspiration -- flowers, swatches, color combinations -- are placed throughout. I like the way that alternate color palettes and charts are provided to let the knitter riff on the designs, making them her own. I like the way that the stranded knitting projects in this book will help introduce knitters scared of super-skinny yarns to experience the pleasure of making colorful stranded projects.
But what struck me the most about the book was how unique, and uniquely American, Kristin's style is. She uses a fresh and bright color palette based in large part on the countryside of her New England farm; she takes Scandinavian-style stranded knitting and gives it her own spin, using thicker yarns and different color combinations, and adding embroidery; she is inspired by all sorts of ethnic textiles and traditions -- you can see the influence of Greek and Turkish textiles in some of her patterns, the bold color combinations are reminiscent of African and Carribean cloth, the symmetry and borders and two-color motifs of Fair Isle knitting -- and like the proverbial melting pot, she mixes them all together and creates something new and striking.
Maybe Kristin's bold color combinations aren't for you, or maybe you prefer to work with skinnier yarns or make more tailored garments, or maybe muted colors and lots of neutrals are your thing. That's great. But there is certainly something for you to take from Kristin's work no matter what you prefer to knit for yourself: her sense of adventure, her willingness to play with color to see where it takes you, the boldness of unexpected combinations, and in the most general sense, the courage to trust one's own instincts when it comes to artistic pursuits.