Friday, January 18, 2008

No-Bull Book Reviewtm Twofer: Stitch Style Socks & Stitch Style Mittens

Don't forget to stop by the Black Bunny Fibers update today at 2 p.m. EST. Until then, please enjoy the following book review:

I will confess that I think it’s quite the coincidence that another publishing company has come up with a series of knitting books featuring the word “Style” in the title, after Interweave Press’s phenomenally popular “Style” series (see, e.g., Lace Style and Scarf Style ). Craft books, “style” in the title, devoted to one general category of knitting/crochet, multicontributors. Yep, very coincidental.

However, I am ready to cast aside this cynicism and with an open mind, road test Stitch Style Socks: Twenty Fashion Knit and Crochet Styles and Stitch Style, Mittens: Twenty Fashion Knit and Crochet Styles (both Martingale Press 2008), subjecting them to the rigors of the patented No-Bull Book Reviewtm .

Let’s begin with the externals. We’ve got two paperbacks, each about seven inches square, each just under one hundred pages. MSRP for each is $17.95 (available for $12.21 by clicking on the links above). Each features twenty patterns to knit and crochet. Each is full color, with lots of photographs throughout. Each features a fold-out flyleaf in lieu of a dust jacket. The books are designed, like the Vogue On-The-Go series, to be a convenient size for carrying around in a knitting (or crochet) bag.

The Introduction to Mittens tells us breathlessly: “From trendy teenage girls to thirtysomething professionals, everyone is hand stitching these days.” Striving vigorously to maintain my open mind, I will refrain from commenting on a definition of “everybody” that goes all the way from age 13 to 39. The introduction goes on to promise “a collection of contemporary and urban projects that’ll keep you constantly inspired and motivated!” with “memorable styles inspired by everything from catwalks to street fashion.” These designs, the Introduction assures us, have been created “by young urban knitters and trendsetters with a penchant for craft.” Once again, I will refrain from questioning whether trend-apathetic knitters who are not young and urban might also have something to contribute. Open mind, open mind.*

The book contains exactly twenty patterns for handgear. I say “handgear,” because there are more variations on the traditional mitten included in this collection than there are regular mittens. You'll find gloves with fingers, gloves without fingers, wristwarmers, armwarmers, gauntlets, even two muffs.

(Please don’t ask me to tell you the precise difference between wristwarmers, fingerless gloves, armwarmers and gauntlets. Not to mention pulsewarmers. As best as I can tell, they are all just tubes for your lower arms, with or without fingerholes.).**

The book is not divided into sections, so here's a quick walk-through of what you'll find (including the name of the designer, so you can see if any of your favorites are included):
  • mittens with a polka-dot pattern done via stranded colorwork (Judy Furlong);

  • wristwarmers with a slip-stitch color pattern (Jennifer Appleby);

  • textured elbow-length gloves; they're the gold ones in the photo above the cabled muff (Malgosia Dzik-Holden);

  • crocheted gauntlets with crocheted rose buttons at the wrist (Claire Garland);

  • openwork fingerless gloves (kind of defeats the purpose of gloves, no?) (Carol Meldrum):

  • mittens with sequins on the cuffs (Melissa Halvorsen);

  • long wristwarmers with an eyelet pattern (Lynne Serpe);

  • long armwarmers with satin ribbons threaded through them (Sue Bradley);
  • striped mittens (Katherine Hunt);

  • lacy black fingerless gloves suitable for more formal attire (also Furlong);

  • colorful fair isle-style wrist warmers, the cover photo (knit in aran-weight yarn; Gabrielle Carter);

  • a striped muff with a cord to hold it around your neck (Sophie Britten);

  • “flip-top” mittens done in crochet (Carol Meldrum); forgive me, but these look to me like fancy oven mitts;

  • long mittens with a cable motif on the back (another by Hunt);

  • long gloves knit with cuffs that have accordion-style pleating (Gryphon Perkins);

  • mittens with knitted ribbon bows (another by Britten);

  • flip mittens with a scallop motif (Carter);

  • wrist warmers with a clock motif done in intarsia on the back, shown below (Bradley);

  • mittens with stranded colorwork, starting with one color at the cuff and finishing with the other color at the top of the hand (a third by Meldrum);


  • a white cabled muff (above), very long and skinny (Kimberly Cherubin).

The Introduction to Socks tells us breathlessly, “From trendy teenage girls to thirtysomething professionals, everyone is hand stitching these days.” Hey! The Introduction to Socks is exactly the same as the Introduction to Mittens (except the word “Socks” is substituted for “Mittens”). Points will be deducted for the cut and paste job.

Once again, there are no sub-chapters dividing up the patterns, so here is a summary description of each pattern, along with designer name:
  • “socks” (they are really more like slippers) styled like Mary Jane shoes (Tanis Gray);

  • slippers with intarsia fleur-de-lis patterning (Alison Dupernex);

  • striped socks that also feature a checkerboard pattern around the cuff (Lynn Serpe);

  • socks with stranded colorwork featuring a skull motif (Stephanie Mrse); even though I think skull motifs are so commonplace in knitting as to no longer be very subversive, I like these;

  • anklets featuring contrast toe and heel and stranded colorwork hearts around the cuff (Mrse again);

  • socks featuring a houndstooth pattern done in stranded colorwork, the cover photo (Judy Furlong);

  • socks with a textured patern and some embellishment in the form of knitted flowers and leaves, and beads (Simona Merchant-Dest);

  • leg warmers with multicolored beads (Sue Bradley);

  • lace socks with twisted ties at the cuff (Merchant-Dest);

  • socks with satin ribbon threaded vertically (Ellen Mallett);

  • socks with unusual circular appliqu├ęs and a heel flap sewn on at the end (P.D. Cagliastro);

  • slippers with a crown colorwork motif, and sequins used to look like jewels (Bradley);

  • cabled legwarmers (Gray);

  • intarsia floral socks (Sasha Kagan, and classic lovely Kagan at that);

  • flip-flop socks with split toe (Kate Buchanan);

  • socks with slouchy (seriously slouchy) tops (Karen Garlinghouse);

  • crocheted socks done in pure silk, with bead accents and a daisy-style motif (Garland again);

  • thigh-highs knit in pure silk with contrasting trim (Malgosia Dzik-Holden);

  • another pair of slippers with all kinds of er, stuff on them (Bradley); and

  • knee-high “kilt socks” (Sian Luyken).

I did question some of the stylistic or design choices that were made in both books. For example, crocheted socks done in pure silk? Worsted-weight cotton for footwear? I would probably substitute yarns were I to make most of the patterns. Indeed, it struck me as exceedingly odd that a book devoted to sock patterns contains not a single pattern using regular sock yarn. I'm not one of those folks who thinks that socks can't ever be knit in anything other than sock yarn, mind you, but this just seems weird to me. The cynic in me cannot be repressed anymore; I suspect the folks behind this book were underestimating their audience, thinking that young knitters wouldn't want to knit things in 7 or 8 to an inch sock yarns. (I suspect they are wrong.)

If your budget is a constraint for you, and you want to make some of these patterns, you may need to substitute yarns. For example, one sock pattern calls for 10 balls of Rowan Wool-Cotton. Wool-Cotton is one of my favorite all-time yarns; however, 10 balls will set you back approximately a hundred bucks. Pretty expensive socks. You'll want to use scraps of yarn you already have, or look for a more economical alternative. Similarly, the thigh-high stockings are knit in Bliss Pure Silk, at $14 a skein; the pattern calls for 7 skeins.

I also have issues with the way the items were photographed. Put simply, there just aren't enough close-up shots. Most of these patterns feature some sort of patterning, whether an intarsia motif, a stitch pattern or embellishment, yet the photographs are mostly shot from far away. (The better to get long skinny model legs in?) I can understand some faraway shots for stylistic purposes, but knitters need good close-up view of the garments they are making, and this is especially easy to do when they are smaller items like socks and mittens. Likewise, some items aren't shown in their entirety. For example, the thigh-high stockings are shown twice from the back, in nearly identical shots, but not at all from the front.

Maybe the front is plain, but it would be nice to see what it looks like, if for no other reason than to get a better feel for whether you'd want to make them or not. Finally, several items are knit in dark-colored yarns, making it difficult to see any design details or finished stitchwork.

The photography doesn't compensate for this in any way.

There is a concise how-to-knit and how-to-crochet section in the back. However, the Sock book does not explain how to use double-pointed needles, a conspicuous omission, since nearly all of the patterns require them. Instead of including "how to knit" instructions, Martingale would have done better to include a section on how to knit a sock, including DPN instruction, since I think it would be tough for a rank beginner to start with this book.

When it comes to aesthetics, you may have already guessed that not many of the patterns in either book are to my taste. I already have more gauntlet and wrist warmer patterns than I am ever likely to knit in this lifetime, and my taste in mittens and gloves runs more to ethnic and folk-style patterns, like those found in Folk Mittens(an oldie but goodie). Similarly, my taste in socks runs to the more traditional: give me an Ann Budd or Nancy Bush pattern any day, rather than the socks-with-a-gimmick

that seem to fill most of these pages. But what matters is what you think of them, and between my descriptions, the names of the contributing designers, and the photographs, you should get a feel for whether you will like the patterns in the book more than I do. (Because, shockingly, I am forced to conclude that it's not always about me.)

For those who are statistically inclined, allow me to provide you with some figures:

Number of Knitted vs. Crocheted Patterns:
Mittens: 18 knit; 2 crocheted
Socks: 19 knit; 1 crocheted

Gauges/Yarn weights:
Mittens (most use the yarns at the suggested gauge so I've combined them):3 patterns in fingering weight; 0 patterns in sportweight; 4 patterns in DK weight; 2 patterns in worsted weight; 7 patterns in aran weight; 4 patterns in yarns with fewer than 4 sts per inch

Socks (some knit the yarn at a gauge tighter than the ball band recommends):

Gauges: 1 pattern at 8+ sts per inch; 4 at 7 sts per inch; 7 knit at 6 sts per inch; 2 patterns knit a 5.5 sts per inch; 1 at 5 sts per inch; 3 at 4.5 sts per inch; 1 pattern in superchunky yarn (and one crochet pattern).

Yarn weights: 4 in fingering weight yarn; 10 in DK-weight yarn; 1 in worsted weight yarn; 4 in aran; 1 in superchunky.

Techniques used (this is a ballpark; some use more than one technique while others use mostly stockinette so the totals are less than 20):

Stranded colorwork - 3
Intarsia - 1
Cabling - 2
Beading/sequins - 1
Textured stitch - 1
Lace patterning (using the term "lace" very loosely, to include simple eyelets) - 4
Slip stitch pattern - 1

Stranded colorwork: 6 patterns
Intarsia - 2
Cabling - 1
Textured stitchwork - 2
Lace patterning -- 3 (includes simple eyelets)

Sizing is variable and is one size fits most -- or maybe I should say one size will fit some. The socks are designed for a "woman's size 6-9" and the mittens are all over the map, with changing widths and lengths. It's hard to tell how variable the sizing is since, for example, many of the handgear patterns are fingerless or are meant to extend well up to the elbow. I suspect that some of the patterns are on the smaller side, though, so check the measurements if that's a concern for you.

Giving credit where credit is due, I will say that I found these books more aesthetically appealing than I have found most Martingale titles. Model choice and styling were much more pleasing to me than past books, apart from the photography criticisms mentioned above. The layout of the books is fine; charts are included where necessary (in color where appropriate) and the patterns appear to have everything that a pattern ought to have. These are not terribly expensive books, if you buy them discounted and consider that they each contain twenty patterns ($12 divided by twenty is about sixty cents a pattern).

So there you have it. If you're looking for sock or mitten patterns that are not folk-inspired, that feature lots of colorwork, and/or that have less typical design features (say, an intarsia clock),

you may find that sixty cents a pattern isn't a bad deal for these books.

As the cynic in me rises to the surface once again, I can just imagine the powers-that-be in Creative saying "I want patterns that aren't the same old lace or scandinavian colorwork! Something different! Something hip and trendy and cute! Not your grandmother's mittens or socks!"

The only problem for me is that I like my grandmother's mittens and socks.

*In the interests of truth in advertising, and without naming names, I feel obliged to point out that at least one of the designers involved in the two books is verifiably over the age of 40. Just goes to show you that us senior citizens in our 40s and 50s still have something to contribute...

**Rabbitch, please stop snickering. I know I said "muff" and "fingerhole" in the same paragraph, and I know you've only had about four hours of sleep in the last week, but please, dude, get a grip.


Laurel said...

Thank you for the book reviews. Now I don't have to waste my time thumbing through these books the next time I'm out, I can just say, "No thank you," and move on. I'm with you, I like my grandmother's mittens and socks, and gee, I'm even in the "everyone" age group they mention. Guess I'm not hip and urban. Funny, I'm quite OK with that.

Margaret said...

Thank you! I enjoy hearing your thoughts and opinions, as well your comprehensive look at the books' contents. Muff, just think of the Google hits.

Marin (AntiM) said...

I am not everybody. Sucks to be 40.

Thank you -- these feel like cobbled-together collections to me and I may just skip them. Though I am intrigued by the houndstooth socks...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I still fall in the "everybody" range, but I must have a grandmother mentality.

Thanks for having such a great Etsy update right before my birthday. I needed a present for myself. :)

Sherry W said...

"pulsewarmer" sound so....medical. Ick.

Ann said...

Well, I'm certainly not part of the targeted demographic ... being 40 and not-so trendy. The fancy oven mitts are killing me ...

Carol said...

Yuch. They lost me at trendy teenage girls.

Lynne E. said...

Extremely helpful, as always. I'll take a look at the socks book, but I already know I don't want the mitten book.

Big Alice said...

Thank you for the reviews. I think I'm on your side of the fence when it comes to mitten and sock preferences, but I appreciate that you don't dismiss patterns out of hand because you don't care for the look of them.

That said, WHAT is going on with those purple-pink colorwork mitts? The picture is really odd. Like she's wearing socks on her hands or something.

PICAdrienne said...

I am not in the everybody age, but I do have a daughter in the everybody group, and another that will be in the everybody group later this year. From the looks of the pictures, they would not wear any of those socks, mittens, gloves, wristwarmers, legwarmers, etc, on a bet. Maybe if they LOST a bet, but otherwise not a chance.

Rabbitch said...

Heh, you said ... uh. Oh. Nevermind.

And I'll have you know I've slept well TWICE this week and intend to do so at least twice this weekend, also.

Be prepared to be smothered in a veritable mountain of little skinny tiny sock yarns. And some cashmere laceystuff too.

Kate said...

They lost me at "everyone is hand stitching" -- maybe it's just me, but when I see "stitch" used as a verb, I think of embroidery or some other technique employing a needle with an eye -- not knitting, not crochet.

As always, another excellent review.

fillyjonk said...

Thank you again.

I can see I can bypass these, now, judging from the patterns in them.

And from the fact that yet another publishing house is apparently falling prey to the bad old, "Let's make this book seem hip and young by bashing on people who are older."

(It strikes me that this sort of thing - setting oneself apart by subtly hating on those things that one assumes one is different from - is really not all that different from, oh, 85% of the campaign discourse I've heard this month.)

And, maybe this is just me, but: crocheted socks? Ouch. I can't imagine wearing those, it would be like little pebbles on my soles with each step.

Anonymous said...

I googled "free mitten patterns" and "free sock patterns" and in 1.8 seconds I had over 150 free patterns at my fingertips--trendy and old-fashioned. I looked at the mitten book, and it seemed to me that the publisher knocked these out in order to catch the latest big wave, but they are stranded in a wave pool in central Illinois, rather than hanging ten with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves in Austrailia. Dudes--surf's up--but on the Internet.