Friday, September 21, 2007

No-Bull Book Review: The Twisted Sisters Knit Sweaters

After the success of their dyeing/handspinning/sockknitting book of five years ago, the "Twisted Sisters” -- a group of handspinners that originated in Portland -- are back with The Twisted Sisters Knit Sweaters: A Knit-to-Fit Workshop(Interweave Press 2007; MSRP $24.95, currently $16.47 by clicking on this link). The Twisted Sisters' first book showed, in glorious color photography, their methods of dyeing fiber, spinning it via spindle or wheel, then knitting the resulting yarn into socks. Their follow-up book tackles the more difficult problem presented by using one’s handspun yarn to knit sweaters.

The Twisted Sisters Knit Sweaters is not a traditionally-styled pattern book, and you’d best know that going in. This is not the kind of book where you flip to the pattern section, find your favorite, figure out what commercial yarn you’re going to use and immediately cast on. If you’re looking for such a book, and want a very straightforward, you-follow-the-pattern-exactly-as-written experience, you’ll be disappointed. Very disappointed, since there isn’t a single complete “pattern” in the book in the way we usually think of them.

That's not to say it isn't a good book, though. The aim of the book is more ambitious, and is best explained by the fact that the group who inspired it consist of spinners (extremely talented spinners by the look of the yarns) who want to knit beautiful garments with the yarn they've created. As Vogel explains in the Introduction:

[A]s handspinners, most of us had to adapt either our yarn to fit a pattern or the pattern to fit our yarn. So we agreed to meet this challenge. Knit an original sweater by altering a basic drop-shoulder pullover – expand, shrink, shape, and decorate it to meet your practical requirements and express your personal style.

You’ll learn several important things about the book from these sentences: the main goal is to allow a handspinner to adapt handspun yarn for knitting into a sweater; the basic sweater style is a drop-shoulder pullover (although variations are included, which I’ll get to later); and the sweater that you knit will be custom-tailored to meet your measurements. And the book admirably arms the reader with the information required to do those three things. Looking at it chapter by chapter:

The first chapter of the book is called “Yarn and Fabric,” and it discusses some of the basics that any knitter will benefit from knowing: yarn weight (including the Craft Yarn Council’s new system for standardizing (ha!) yarn weight, wraps per inch and gauge); a discussion of drape; a brief section on knitting with variegated yarns; and a section on calculating yardage. Especially helpful is a chart which lists the traditional yarn weight names (e.g. worsted), yards per pound, wraps per inch, gauge, and a comparison of the kind of fabric the yarn will make when knit at regular, tighter-than-normal and looser-than-normal gauges. Very experienced knitters may know all or most of this; less experienced knitters should find this information extremely helpful if they haven’t encountered it before.

The next chapter introduces the “Knitter Fitter System,” which is basically consists of (1) a list of important measurements (“Fitter List”) and (2) a general guideline or map (including schematic) for the sweater (“Sweater Map”). This chapter is brief, the meat of it contained in the two pages of the Knitter Fitter System. (There is also a brief discussion of ease.)

Chapters 3 and 4 walk the reader through the construction of sweaters, first up/down, and then side-to-side, using a basic crewneck pullover pattern with drop shoulders as the example. These chapters tell you how to calculate some of the measurements you’ll need to knit your custom sweater, with charts and diagrams. Chapter 5 covers variations on the crewneck: making it a cardigan, different necklines, different sleeve configurations (so if you hate drop sleeves, you can check out the sleeve and shoulder variants) and edgings. Tips – like using selvedge stitches or how to incorporate stitch patterns – are sprinkled throughout these chapters. There’s a lot of valuable information packed into these chapters, even though they fill only about 30 pages.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the Twisted Sisters’ projects. Ten specific projects are shown in detail, each with color photos, designer notes and description, a completed Fitter List and Sweater Map, along with a general list of steps in knitting the sweater. These are intended to illustrate some of the ways that you can tweak the basic sweater to meet your own individual taste and needs – for example, knitting a turtleneck in one piece from back hem up to the shoulders and down the front, or adding all-over cables,

or by working from cutt to cuff with a v-neck and added length. They aren’t really intended to provide you with a written-out pattern for the sweater so you can duplicate it – unless you just so happen to be the same size as the original maker (although even if you are, many of the yarns used are handspun or handdyed, so cookie-cutter knitters may well be out of luck).

Last, a “Gallery of Inspiration” shows photographs of additional sweaters (photographed flat rather than on models) to show even more variants.

In terms of the basics, the book has all the quality that one would associate with Interweave Press: lots of color photographs: plenty of charts, tables, drawings and schematics; good technical information; a glossary of techniques used, nice photography; quality paper; easy to read type and sufficient white space on the pages. The book is paperback, about 144 pages, with color throughout. Many of my usual benchmarks just aren’t applicable here: for example, since the goal is for the knitter to create her own custom-sized sweater, there are no size ranges and the potential for sizing is really limitless so long as you are willing to do the math. All the garments shown are for women and kids, but theoretically there’d be no reason why you couldn’t apply this fitting information to men. The photography is clear and pleasant but this really isn’t a book that relies on extensive fashion photography to set a mood – it’s much more pragmatic in nature (and I don’t mean that as a criticism, simply a reflection of this book’s unique approach).

So…. how to tell if you should buy this book?

If you have trouble finding patterns that fit you well, or are in a size that isn’t often covered by commercial patterns; if you would like to know how to create your own designs but aren’t sure where or how to begin; if you are a spinner who’d like some ideas for how to use your handspun in creating sweaters or even just to get some inspiration from what other spinners have done; if you are a new knitter and/or don’t feel you adequately understand sweater construction or the math that goes into calculating a pattern; then I think you are likely to benefit greatly from reading and using this book.

On the other hand, if you are a very experienced knitter, if you already have several comprehensive books in your knitting library that cover sweater construction and design, if boxier garments with variegated or multiple colors/textures of yarns don’t appeal to you, or if you simply don’t want to mess around with creating your own designs, then you might want to take a pass. Twisted Sisters Knit Sweaters is an excellent book, full of helpful information, but their approach – while informative and valuable – won’t be everyone's cup of tea.

If I could only use the Vulcan mind meld to figure out how to spin like that...


Big Alice said...

Thanks for the review, it's very interesting. Design-your-own appeals to me greatly because I seem to always find myself altering patterns for better fit. I thought this book might not be all that helpful because I don't spin, but now I think I'll take a look.

Unknown said...

I'll pass. This information is out there already. I don't know why knitting writers keep trying to reinvent the wheel, since they don't make all that much from these books. So it can't be the money. I loved their first book. This one seems to be somewhat gratuitous. Perhaps beginners will like it.

As far as what to knit from your handspun, that's really not an issue, in my opinion. Doing a WPI is always smart. And if you have some knitting miles behind you, you'll pretty much know what you can knit with your handspun. Creating your own "custom" sweater has been done many, many times by other authors, EZ was not the first, either. Ida Duncan Riley came before her, I believe. And then there's Jacqueline Fee, Maggie Righetti and a bunch more.

Listen, C, I can teach you how to spin like that. A lesson at Rhinebeck, perhaps?

Carol said...

Yes, teach me... I'll bring my li'l wheel.

Anonymous said...

For those who don't like boxy sweaters, they have started a companion blog called Fit Central to look at fitted sweaters. I am appreciating the section on calculating fitted sleeve caps.


Carol said...

Thank you, Tara, that's great to know. I really do think there is a lot of good information in this book for less experienced knitters.

Anonymous said...

I got this book out of the library and so have had a good look at it - and I'm going to buy it. I've been knitting for years, making up my own patterns, yet still found this inspiring. I also really like the section in the back of different ways to cast on and off, join up sections of open knitting etc, etc. Yes you can teach an old knitter new tricks...