Wednesday, March 21, 2007

No-Bull Book Review: The Natural Knitter, by Barbara Albright

One of my birthday presents was The Natural Knitter: How to Choose, Use, and Knit Natural Fibers from Alpaca to Yak -- a book I'd been anticipating for a while. I'm happy to report that I am not disappointed.

Barbara Albright was a writer of both knitting and cooking books. I say "was" because, sadly, she died last fall of a brain tumor at the age of 51. This was her last knitting book, and it's a shame she missed being able to hold it in her hands and gaze at it, because it's a big and beautiful book, of which she would have been justifiably proud.

The Natural Knitter is a hardcover book, full of lovely color photographs (taken by Alexandra Grablewski), just under two hundred pages, put out by PotterCraft (remember when I told you to watch out for PotterCraft, since they were putting out some good books?). MSRP is $32.50 and you can find it for just over twenty dollars on places like Amazon.

As the title suggests, the theme of the book is natural fiber, both plant- and animal-derived. The book contains technical information about the characteristics of different fibers, including wool, yak, cotton, hemp, silk, and more, as well as a selection of patterns -- about twenty-three or so -- showcasing these fibers. You can tell that this book was lovingly created by people who adore fiber: the book is full of eye-candy shots of both the living things that produce the fiber,

(Okay, he's awfully cute, but he's no Charcoal...)

and of the fiber itself. In fact, there are so many photographs packed into this book, sometimes several to a page, that it looks like the editors had the pleasure of getting more good photographs than they had room for. And cleverly, they managed to sneak in shots like this one, used opposite the table of contents:

As for content, the book begins with an introduction extolling the virtues of natural fibers; discussing what makes a fiber "natural" and "organic"; demonstrating the benefits of going organic; and giving a playful pattern for some little doll-like creatures. The meat of the book begins, though, with the middle sections, organized by type of fiber: first, wool; then other animal-derived fibers; and finally, plant fibers.

The section on wool is first and Albright's enthusiasm for wool comes through loud and clear. The first project, a yoga mat made from Philosopher's Wool, wasn't my cup of tea but the second project, a shetland sweater in neutral colors, with patterning based on the growth of ferns on a North Sea island, is gorgeous.

The next sweater -- a Swedish-inspired stranded sweater by Beth Brown-Reinsel -- is another beaut, knit in Morehouse Merino wool. Other designs in this chapter are a top-down cabled/rib pattern and a child's gansey-style sweater. One feature I particularly like is the book's focus on producers (mainly small) of natural fibers, with an emphasis on those using environmentally-conscious processes. Text boxes throughout the book showcase Morehouse Merino, Hand Jive Knits, Harrisville Designs and other interesting (and perhaps less well-known to some knitters) companies making gorgeous yarns, with descriptions of the company's philosophies and products.

Next are the remaining animal-derived fibers, including camel, angora, mohair, and llama. Information about fiber characteristics start the chapter, and cover less obvious fibers like buffalo and camel. Patterns include a zigazag cable sweater and hat for women by Kathy Zimmerman and a man's textured pullover (both done in llama/wool blends); a scarf in a wool/mohair blend; a fascinating twisted rib pullover by Norah Gaughan in a cashmere/wool blend;

a lovely lace twin set in a qiviut blend;

a baby sweater in an angora blend; and a garter-stitch silk sweater for women, knit side-to-side in pure silk. It's interesting that nearly all the non-wool animal fibers in this section -- except for the silk -- are blended with wool and sometimes another fiber in the yarns used for the patterns. I suppose this helps balance some of the disadvantages of these fibers, like lack of elasticity and memory, with the advantages of wool, but it would have been interesting to see at least a few patterns knit in a pure form of some of these fibers (other than the silk). Likewise, it would have been nice to see a pattern or two using some of the less-readily-available fibers, like, say, buffalo or camel, but I imagine cost and space constraints are always a concern.

The plant section features cotton (a girl's poncho; a cotton chenille robe by Valentina Devine); linen (a fascinating linen yoked sweater, knit in a lace pattern from the neck down by the talented Lidia Karabinich);

a sweater knit in hemp in an unusual stitch pattern using cast-off rows, by Debbie New; and a pineapple-fiber lacy top.

The next section discusses fibers dyed using plant-based extracts, an interesting and not necessarily obvious choice to follow the previous sections. Instructions for a simple dye derived from onion skins start out the chapter (if you don't feel like trying it on yarn, how about doing Easter eggs instead?); followed by a modular hat, socks and gloves combo by the owner of Hand Jive Fibers, whose lovely subtle colors are derived solely from natural dyestuffs (you can find some of their fingering weight yarns at Rosie's); a southwestern-style jacket from La Lana wool/silk; and one of my favorites, an Anna Zilboorg mitten pattern, knit in Snow Star Farms wool.

The last section is called "Natural Next Steps," and seems a little bit of an afterthought. It gives a brief introduction to spinning (including a discussion of crimp) followed by a pattern and instructions for making felt flowers.

Patterns are written for, on average, three or four sizes, and they tend toward larger bust circumferences, so if you're a gal who wears sweaters with a finished bust of less than, say, 38 inches, you're going to have to fiddle with some of these to size them down (although the qiviut twin set and the lace yoke pullover are thankful exceptions, starting at size 32). The accessories are flexible enough to fit most adults, and the men's garments look pretty generously sized. Schematics are included.

Overall, I quite like this book and think it's a worthwhile addition to your knitting library. It's lush, beautifully-photographed and well-produced. The suggested price tag is on the higher side (even though the book contains only 23 or so patterns) but remember, you're getting high production values, lots of photos, and several complex patterns. (Patterns using lace or stranded colorwork take more time to draft and knit than simple stockinette pullovers, and there are several such complex designs in this book.) The selection of patterns is good overall, with a mix of a few simpler items for newer or time-crunched knitters and a few complex ones to challenge knitters. There is also a mix of sweaters and accessories, with a couple of men's and child's patterns thrown in. I especially like the book's focus on providing background information, giving knitters insight into some of the characteristics and advantages/disadvantages of various fibers other than wool, and even fun information about the "personalities" of the animals.

What may appeal most to rabid knitters, however, is something more elemental and emotional: this book was written by someone who clearly loved fiber, and knitting, and fiber animals, someone who had a passion for using natural fibers and organic processes where possible. And this underscores what for me was the saddest aspect of the book: the knowledge that given her untimely death, we won't have any more big, info-packed books like this to look forward to from Barbara Albright.


Anonymous said...

Great, balanced review. Thanks a lot. I've been wondering about ordering this book, and now I will be heading on over to do just that.

Hope your feeling better, either now, or soon.
Barb B.

Bridget said...

I totally agree with you! I too got the book last week, and was pretty blown away. Some of the patterns are way beyond my abilities right now, but between the ones that I liked and could do, and all of the great information, I was immediately sold. Plus, anytime there are great pictures of animals and fibers, I'm there ...

I don't know if you have ever seen this site, but my friend Eileen forwarded it to me. It seemed most appropriate after reading her encouragements to try and support local vendors:

Hope you're feeling better.

Wendy said...

Thanks for the no-bull review. I was just looking at this book on Amazon last night, trying to decide if I needed it. Now I think yeah, I do.

Kathy said...

It happens to me every time...I look at a new knitting book title and think to myself that I have enough...I don't need to buy another one. And then I innocently read a review...thanks a lot...and I am on Amazon ordering it!!! Maybe I'll put it on my birthday wish list...I'd only have to wait until July.

Anonymous said...

Another great review (by great I mean useful and helpful!). I'm surfing over to Amazon to add this one to the wish list.

mindy said...

Yup, you've seen to it that I'm getting this one.

Sherry W said...

Just the patterns you show are spectacular. I can't wait to see it!

Angela said...

I saw this book last week and had many of the same thoughts that you did.

I particularly enjoyed the backgrouhd information and think that even if the spinning section was sparse, the preceding fiber specific information might tempt a knitter into the spinning fold.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review! I'm on my way to order the book ASAP!

maryse said...

i purchased this book a couple of weeks ago and have to agree with your review. i haven't bought any knitting books in quite some time because i feel that they all look the same, but this one has beautiful unique patterns -- there are several that i would love to try and that hasn't happened in a long time -- interesting information and gorgeous photographs.

this is one of those books that would make it to my coffee table.

Kate said...

Thank you for this in-depth interesting review. More fodder for the book wishlist.

Sarah said...

Thank you for the well-written book review. I am quite fond of the twin set.

Beth said...

I agree with everything you said. I especially am loving the crossover pullover. Norah did it again.

Jennifer said...

I ran across this book at the bookstore last week and I was also impressed. I totally agree with your review.

Also - Happy Belated Birthday.

bellamoden said...

Wow, this book sounds incredible. Thanks so much for your review. I'm sold!

Unknown said...

I echo your thoughts on the love of fiber that is evident throughout the book. I knew that the author has passed away and every time I marveled, I sighed at her passing. I love the highlighting of organic yarns, now that I understand why organic. I used to think, I am not eating it...but now I know that it's about choosing to support green methods everywhere. great review.

Anonymous said...

Great book and must give kudos to the photographer, Alexandra Grablewski. She and I lived in the same apartment building in NY and would often cat sit for each other. I remember several years ago when she told me about the project. Lo and behold, I see the book and her name. The content is wonderful and enhanced by Alex's great pictures. Good news is that she has been contracted to contribute to two more.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to commenting, but I had to thank you for your review. Based on it, I ordered the book and it is as beautiful and informative as you say. I think while there aren't many patterns, most of them will stand the test of time. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Kristin Nicholas said...

This was Barb's dream book and I'm so happy it has turned out so beautifully. I don't buy many books, but I am definitely going to purchase this one to keep as a memory of Barb's wonderful spirit, laugh, generous nature and love of knitting. She was a wonderful woman and I think she would have been so happy with the outcome of The Natural Knitter.