Monday, October 02, 2006

No-Bull Book Review: Modern Classics

I had the great pleasure of meeting Louisa Harding at TNNA in June. My first reaction was how young she seemed: I mean, this woman has already had an illustrious design career at Rowan, has her own yarn line, and is putting out two books this year. My second reaction was how charming and personable she was. She radiated enthusiasm for her yarns and seemed thrilled to be following her own creative muse, designing yarns that would exactly match her mind's eye view of garments knit in them.

Hot off the presses (from our old friend Martingale, no less) is Modern Classics (Martingale MSRP$31.95 but the current Amazon price is $21.09*).

I quite like this book and I have the feeling I'll be making many of the patterns over the course of the next few mon years.

First, let me get this out of my system: I absolutely loathe this model:

Okay, now that the petty is out of my system, I feel better. Overall, the book is stylish and nicely put together: lots of color photos, good schematics, photographs that let you get a pretty good idea of what the finished garment is supposed to look like. I might have chosen a slightly darker ink (the patterns are printed in a taupe color that might require a good reading lamp for some) but this is a minor quibble. There is a brief how-to-knit section but it doesn't monopolize the book, and since many of these patterns are user-friendly for beginner knitters, this seems appropriate. There are also brief sections on finishing, how to read charts and other skills beyond knitting and purling which will help a newer knitter achieve more professional results.

On to the patterns. The patterns are organized into three sections, by yarn weight. The first set of patterns use DK-weight yarn (5.5 sts to the inch), the second worsted (5 to the inch), and the third use aran-weight yarn (4.5 to the inch). All the designs in the book are shown in Louisa Harding's yarns, several of which I've seen at Rosie's and look to be quite nice. But since these are probably the three most popular weights of yarn, substitution should be very easy and I'd be surprised if you couldn't find at least one pattern that you could readily make from your stash. I never really thought about categorizing designs by weight but I like it. It saves you the bother of flipping through each section trying to remember which pattern might match the gauge on which yarn.

The patterns are indeed classic in the sense that they don't feature excessively trendy design elements. These are the kinds of basic sweaters that may not be the most challenging knitting, and may not have the masterpiece cachet of an Alice Starmore fair isle or an intricate lace shawl, but I suspect they will be the garments you reach for time and time again, the old faithfuls. I see armholes that are nipped in, some patterns with body shaping while others are straight, and design touches that will add some interest to the knitting while not requiring superhuman powers of concentration, such as a single cable that runs down the front of a sweater, or a band of stranded colorwork (especially lovely) that runs across the bottom hem and sleeve cuffs like so:

The size ranges are excellent: Harding gives a whopping six sizes for each pattern, to fit bust size 32 through 42 (even numbers). Rock on, Louisa. The patterns are rated on a scale of 1 to 3 for difficulty, which will also help newer knitters select a suitable pattern.

Another feature that I like about this book, and which will increase its utility, is that different variations are given for some of the patterns. For example, a fairly simple fitted sweater is shown in three versions: turtleneck in a mohair blend multicolor, a V-neck in a multicolor angora blend, and a short-sleeve version with a scoop neck in a merino/cashmere solid-color blend. Even some of the patterns that don't feature variations in the neckline or length are shown in two different yarns, e.g., one solid and one multi. This creates a bit of extra work for the designer and her staff, requiring the knitting of a second version of the sweater for photographing, but is a nice touch for knitters who have trouble envisioning what a garment will look like in a different style of yarn.

If these sweaters are not especially cutting-edge, if they don't push the boundaries of knitting like, say, Teva Durham's Loop-d-Loop or Norah Gaughan's Knitting Nature, well, that's okay with me. These aren't meant to be boundary-busting garments; they're meant to be user-friendly, versatile patterns that you can make over and over, in different variations and with different yarns. Seasoned knitters who like designing their own stuff may want to check out the book before purchasing to see if it's worthwhile for them, or if they feel that they could whip up their own similar garments without a pattern. Knitters interested in extremely trendy looks or who want challenging garments to test their knitting mettle will also be advised to look before purchasing. But if you're like me, and sometimes you just want to turn your brain off, watch "Law and Order" and knit along with someone else's pattern, you may find this book a useful addition to your knitting library.

*Okay, what's with the MSRP of thirty-two bucks for a paperback book with twenty patterns? Hmm? Luckily, you can find it way cheaper if you look around. Don't piss me off, Martingale.


Bridget said...

I will definitely take a look at this one, thanks for the review! (P.S. I agree with you about that one model ...)

Re - your asterisked comment: and to think you made fun of me and the BMST!

Sherry W said...

Oh! I like that fair isle sweater! I've been wanted to make one, but have only done fiddly mittens and the like with colorwork. I wanted to start with something that wasn't panic-attack inducing.

Leanne said...

Thanks for another great review. This looks like a book worth taking a look at. I've been thinking of doing a fair isle soon - the one you showed from the book is lovely.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the model. What's on her face in that second photo is the definitive shiteating grin.

I'll check out the book -- thanks for the honest review!

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

I saw the book advertised somewhere in some sidebar while googling around this weekend. Enjoying the classics as well as some of her other patterns, this looks like a book I'd be interested in. I just couldn't wait to read your review before bothering to hunt it down myself so that I could flip through it and decide...perfect timing. Thanks for another informative review.

Dallas Schulze said...

I bought the book this weekend and agree with your review - although I can't say that model sparked any particular loathing. Like you, I'm pretty sure I'll be knitting several of these patterns.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I have totally lost interest in knitting sweaters lately and have been knitting socks instead. This book looks like something to get me out of my sweater funk.

I saw it listed for $20 at I like checking out books at their site because they have a nice preview feature. You can usually see quite a few preview pages on their site. They do have several images from this book and they all look promising.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Anonymous for the tip about I checked out the website and saw 10 pictures .. more than enough with Carol's review to make me buy it straight off. I love sweaters but it's been a while since I've knitted one. This book may change all that. Thanks for the review, Carol, and thanks to Anonymous for sending me to knitpicks.

Mary Kay

Anonymous said...

Oooh I love, LOVE your blog (and especially when your petty! haha LOVE IT!) I have read it for a while now and never commented, but I just wanted to know how much I (and my knitting friends) love what you write. I hope my own little knitting blog could one day be half as entertaining and helpful as yours. Keep up the awesome job!

Amy Burgess

Anonymous said...

Yo, Caro, I saw Brandon Mably's book today and it is wonderful.
The designs, the colors B's chosen, the photos, the styling.
Might I be able to get one at Rosie's on Thursday?
Brandon only had the one and I should've nicked it...

Anonymous said...

A perfect example of why I enjoy your reveiws. It reminds me of how I often enjoy a great reveiw/essay in the NYTimes or NY Review of Books--I may not read the book under discussion but the review has given me alot to think about.

Re: the price. I agree it seems high for the content. I try very hard (despite being "not well off") to avoid being tempted to by discounted--I just bought Janet Szabo's "Aran Sweater Design" and her finishing book directly from her web site for that reason. Martingale listed Charlene Schurch's "Sensational Socks" at $24.95 (I got a used one) which doesn't seem unreasonable because of the big job of editing required by all the charts. Don't piss us off, Martingale, just because you've got a high profile designer on your list.

Jude in obscureknitty

Carol said...

Kath, I don't think that they are in the US yet in any quantity. They are supposed to be rushing copies over here for the book promos, but I was told the earliest shipment will be around 10/15, so probably no luck. Personally I have found that has books earlier than most other on-line and bricks and mortar booksellers, so I'd try there unless you can get one from Himself. (Seems a fair trade for being his chauffeur....)

Holly said...

I recently purchased this book at Barnes and Noble and I am now realizing I paid way too much for it. Darn! But I love it. The designs are timeless for sure. I love the Cable Edge Tunic but I hate the ridge that the set-in sleeves make at the shoulders. It looks like something from Star Trek. Other than that, the patterns are great.