Friday, May 22, 2009

No-Bull Book Review: Vintage Baby Knits, by Kristen Rengren

Okay, let me get this out of my system first:





Okay, now I can get to work. Today's No-Bull Book Review features lots of babies clad in beautiful, vintage-inspired knitwear -- some even featuring kitties, duckies and bunnies. Yes, today GKIYH takes a look at Vintage Baby Knits: More Than 40 Heirloom Patterns from the 1920s to the 1950s, by Kristen Rengren.

Last year at TNNA, I was fortunate enough to run into Kristen and to see some of the garments that were going to be in the book. I was knocked out by how beautiful they are -- a stuffed elephant, blankets, cardigans, pullovers -- and have been eagerly anticipating this book ever since.

The wait is over. Stewart Tabori & Chang just published Vintage Baby Knits (MSRP $27.50, available for $18.15 by following the above link) and it's every bit as wonderful as I'd expected it to be.

Kristen had been knitting for ten years when she first became fascinated by vintage patterns. Working for a vintage clothing dealer, part of her work day already consisted of haunting estate sales and poring through Ebay listings to find old and retro garments. She began a personal collection of vintage knitting patterns. As she tells in her introduction:
The baby pattern booklets -- loaded with black-and-white photos of babies in handknits, as well as lively illustrations of frolicking tots, friendly zoo animals, and smiling storks -- always intrigued me the most. The projects were classic and simple in style, yet detailed enough to hold even a highly distractable knitter's interest, and I could easily imagine modern babies wearing them.
Upon closer examination, Kristen found that it wasn't as easy as knitting up the patterns. They often called for long-gone brands of yarn (Lady Betty? Germantown Zephyr?), didn't include schematics or charts, and often didn't even include yardage or gauge notations. There were safety concerns (e.g., ill-placed buttons or ties) and issues of convenience (like making sure items were practical, and easy to get off and on modern-sized babies). Some patterns had to be rewritten entirely, while others just didn't make the cut. But when Kristen's hard work was done, she'd pulled together a collection of over forty patterns (yes, forty -- and don't worry, designers, I've already told Kristen to quit being such an overachiever or she'll make the rest of us look bad with only 20 or 25 patterns in our books!).

The book has a very straightforward structure. After a brief introduction, Chapter 1 (called "Getting Ready to Knit") contains tips about issues like sizing; which fiber and type of yarn to use; tools; and the all-important swatching. The section is short and sweet, as is Chapter 3 ("Resources"), which contains details on the yarns used in the samples, hints for choosing and using vintage patterns on your own, and a few techniques (like cabled cast-on, short rows, and fringe). But the heart of the book is Chapter 2, the pattern section: 136 pages full of sweaters, blankets, hats and footgear, among others.

Here's a rough list of what you'll find in Chapter 2 (I may have missed a pair of booties here or a cap there, since did I mention there's SO MANY patterns?):

  • 2 shrugs
  • 3 types of headgear (including a bonnet, beret and cap)
  • 5 pullover sweaters (some short-sleeved, some long, one also doubles as a vest)
  • 11 cardigans
  • 2 soakers (won't someone please think up a less disgusting name for these? can we all agree on "diaper covers" instead?)
  • 3 stuffed animals
  • 3 blankets
  • 2 pair of pants
  • 1 cape with hood
  • 1 pr mittens
  • 2 or 3 pr of socks
  • 1 nursing shawl that also can be used as a blanket
  • 1 christening gown that is also shown as a dress
That's a hell of a lot for one book. If you're concerned about gender-specificity, fear not. I'd say only about half a dozen of these patterns are not unisex. (The shrugs, the dress -- although christening gowns are gender-neutral, the cape, possible the kitty sweaters and one or two of the lacier cardigans, depending on age of the baby and gender-role paranoia of the parents).

Sizing is about as you'd expect. There are a few size-doesn't-matter patterns, like the blankets and toys. The remainder are sized for babies from 0 to 24 months, with chest sizes ranging from 18 to 25 inches. Most patterns come with 3 sizes, a few have only 2 and some have 4.

With regard to yarn choice, skinny yarn fans will jump for joy: approximately half of the forty-odd patterns are written for fingering weight (samples are shown in some of your favorite sock yarns, too, like Socks That Rock, although, alas, nothing (sniffle) in Black Bunny Fibers). The christening dress is knit in Jaggerspun Zephyr, a gorgeous wool-silk laceweight; about 5 patterns call for sportweight yarn; about 3 call for DK weight and 3 for worsted; and about half a dozen for aran-weight yarn. Vintage knitters knew what they were doing when they stuck with fine-gauge yarns; a lighterweight garment, even if knit in wool, helps keep a baby cozy whether it's an autumn breeze or a summer air conditioner that's blowing, and the natural fibers let the garments breathe in the stain-topia that is baby's world.

When it comes to style, well, these are baby patterns and they are vintage-inspired, which should tell you quite a bit. I love the traditional, yet contemporary feel of the patterns as Kristen has reworked them. You'll find a mix of knitting techniques and difficulties, including garter stitch, stockinette, lacy stitches, cabling, and colorwork. As always, your personal taste is everything, but these patterns start out with a leg up, since they've already stood the test of time. I find it hard to imagine any one of them not eliciting major oohs and aahs at a baby shower. I also like the specific yarns chosen for the garments (except the prominent omission of BBF yarn, ahem) -- these are gorgeous yarns like Hand Jive, O-Wool, STR, Rowan 4-ply Soft, Sheep Shop and more. The yarns shown tend to be natural fibers, with complex colors, and it's fun to see baby patterns in colors like brown and cherry red and sunflower gold and olive, as well as the more traditional pastels.

As usual,STC has produced a high-quality book: hardcover, beautiful color photos with adorable, moppet-models, multiple shots of each garment (some worn, some flat), schematics, charts where appropriate. I like the historical text inserts (e.g. "Knitting in the 1920s") that give context to the patterns. Special props to Thayer Allison Gowdy for the spectacular photographs.

If you were looking for snark to send you off on your Memorial Day weekend, sorry; we're fresh out today (but I'm sure we'll be getting a restock next week). Nothing here but praise for this beautiful book, overflowing with elegant, charming patterns. I hope that Kristen will soon turn her needles to patterns for older kids, or even -- dare I suggest it? -- us adults.


Carol said...

Cute! Lots of stuff to knit for gifts. Thanks for the heads-up. (Oh, and 'modern-sized babies' made me laugh. Does that mean fat? skinny? Is that snarky?)

Carol said...

Actually, it wasn't! Nearly everyone my age, who was born in the 1960s, that I know weighed 5 or 6 pounds and change as babies, maybe 7 lbs, but I think that modern babies are bigger as a general rule. It probably has to do with no cigarette smoking, no drinking during pregnancy, better and earlier diagnosis of slow growth, prenatal vitamins/nutrition, and so on. I don't know if there's any scientific data to support my hypothesis, though.

katrog said...

I just got this book, and echo the review--wonderful designs! There were a few I wanted to knit for myself--like the snowsuit jacket and the green and cream pullover.

And, yeah, I think the modern beh-behs are bigger. A friend just gave birth to a girl, who was described, prenatally, by her doctor, as a little baby. Isabella turned out to be 8 pounds, 9 ounces, outweighing her older brother by a pound or so. :)


Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful book! And did I happen to hear a rumor that there would be a toddler version?

Kathleen Dames said...

Guess I'd better pick this up soon before my bebeh gets to big. Would love to see the christening gown. Thanks, as always, for the review, Carol!

Ann said...

Kitteh in manly royal blue.

Just sayin'

Thanks for the review, Carol.

Christening Gowns said...

This seems like a good read for the different knitting projects I want to do.

trin4914 said...

thanks for the no nonsense review. I hate the mentions of books in Vogue knitting that are basically ads for the books and give no useful info. Duckeh! Bunneh! Here I come!

Sandy said...

too cute. love this review so much! I am trying to decide on one of the STC craft books (a gift for me myself and i) and i was actually looking more towards sewing books since my behbeh is now 3 months old and I have no time to knit (like Weekend Sewing by Heather Ross or patchwork/quilting books), but your review just about turned me around to this book! Yes, you have that kind of magic, snarky or not. I do love these images so much...and I agree with an above commenter. I had better get knitting before my behbeh gets too big!