Monday, November 29, 2010

Blog Tour Book Review: Modern Top-Down Knitting, by Kristina McGowan

If you're a die-hard knitter, you undoubtedly know who Barbara G. Walker is: author of seminal knitting books, such as her stitch dictionaries (A Treasury of Knitting Patterns in four volumes), still an unparalleled source for its comprehensiveness and variety. Another of Walker's classic volumes is Knitting from the Top, a relatively slim volume devoted to the joys of knitting garments, just as the title states, from the top down, and generally in the round.

Generations of knitters have been inspired by Walker's work, including NYC resident and knitting designer Kristy McGowan. When McGowan finally immersed herself in "Knitting from the Top," after years of putting it off based on her belief that it was too difficult, she describes the profound effect it had on her knitting:
I quickly discovered that not only were no elaborate skills required, but the ideas were exciting and revelatory, forcing me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about garment construction.

The overall message was an empowering one: measure yourself, dive in, look at your work, think as you go, and take control of your knitting. All of this was new to me and made great sense.
McGowan wrote a letter to Walker, and eventually found herself visiting Walker at her Florida home, looking at photographs of Walker's knitted projects and discussing knitting. McGowan channeled her enthusiasm for Walker's work into a design approach, and spent much time, as she herself puts it, "mining Walker's book for ideas" using the top-down approach. McGowan presents the fruits of her labor, 26 projects inspired by Walker's work in Modern Top-Down Knitting: Sweaters, Dresses, Skirts & Accessories Inspired by the Techniques of Barbara G. Walker (Stewart Tabori & Chang 2010). I'm pleased to be part of the Modern Top-Down Knitting Blog Tour today.

McGowan begins with about 10 pages of introductory material, discussing the methodology of her top-down projects. All but one of the sweaters is worked using Walker's seamless set-in sleeve template, and McGowan describes the benefits of this approach. Next she illustrates the provisional cast-on (necessary for this type of garment structure), covers the basics of short rows (in particular, using them to create shoulder shaping), and gives some tips for creating set-in sleeves using her approach. There are lots of photographs to help the knitter decipher these techniques.

Subway Hat

Next up is the project section. And since this is the meat of the book -- over 100 pages -- let's take a good look. The projects are all contained in one large section, so perhaps it makes sense to look at them in categories. For those of you keeping track, the breakdown of projects looks like this:
  • 6 dresses
  • 2 tunics
  • 2 sets of armwarmers
  • 2 jackets/cardigans
  • 2 pullovers
  • 2 skirts
  • 1 cowl
  • 1 wrap
  • 1 belt
  • 1 set of knitted jewelry.
With 6 dresses, and 2 tunics that could double as short dresses, you'll notice right away that this is a dress-centric book. Indeed, most knitting design books shy away from knitted dresses, mainly due to the quantity of knitting involved in creating a full-length dress (but also because of the practical difficulties of stretch, sag and abrasion). McGowan tells us in the introduction that she's a fan of dresses and felt encouraged enough by Walker's methods to "take chances" in her designs. One of her first dresses, the Soho Smocked Dress, is photographed both intended/right-side out and wrong-side out, since when the dress was finished, McGowan liked the wrong side of the dress as much as the right side.

Soho Smocked Dress

The Feather Dress features a wide v neckline and poufy 3/4 length sleeves, there's a wrap dress in luscious gray Shelridge Farm wool,

Wrap-it-up Dress

while the beige dress shown on the cover features crochet embellishment to mimic the look of seams (ironic that in a book devoted to seamless knitting, the dress uses fake seams as a design element, no?).

Jill's Dress

The Cafe Tunic is a piece that could be worn as a long sweater over pants or the dreaded "jeggings," or as a dress with tights or even legwarmers. The Seaport Skirt, one of two skirts, features a cabled pattern reminiscent of fish scales (or mermaid tails...),

Seaport Skirt

while the Chrysler Skirt features a chevron motif (ah, to be young and free of cellulite enough to wear knitted skirts).

There are four sweaters in the book (excluding the tunics and dresses), two of which are pullovers,

Cecily Sweater

and two of which are jackets or cardigans:

Pavement Jacket

Of the remaining projects -- nearly all accessories -- my favorite is the Keffiyeh Wrap, which uses a striking color combination and an interesting stitch pattern (though not really a knit-in-the-round item):

Keffiyeh Wrap

Other options include the Accordion Cowl

Accordion Cowl

the Mulberry Hat,

Mulberry Hat


Pleated Armwarmers

slippers, and knitted "jewelry."

The pattern section is followed by a ten-page section on finishing, and the book closes with abbreviations, yarn sources, glossary and so on.

When it comes to technical stuff, you'll find all the usuals from our friends at STC: lots of clear yet stylish color photos by Gudrun Georges that capture the urban sensibility of the garments perfectly, schematics, generous size ranges running from XS or 2XL through (in most cases for the sized garments) 2XL, lovely layouts, and a variety of high-quality natural fibers shown for the samples. This is a hardback book, approximately 160 pages long, retailing for $27.50 and available for $18.10 as of this writing, through the link above.

Summing up: Modern Top-Down Knitting is a great choice for fans of knitting-in-the-round, and those who love knitting top-down with its ability to try on as you go -- especially knitters who are interested in experimenting with this technique, but would rather follow a pattern than crunch the numbers themselves. Fans of Barbara Walker's work may also enjoy seeing an assortment of patterns, large and small, inspired by her work. Dress-lovers will rejoice at the number of knitted dresses and tunics in Modern Top-Down Knitting, while fans of McGowan's pared-down urban style will find appealing accessories and other garments.

Win a copy of Modern Top-Down Knitting!

Thanks to the generosity of Stewart Tabori & Chang, I have a copy of Modern Top-Down Knits to give away to a lucky reader! Just leave a comment and I'll pick a random commenter to win a free copy of the book. (I moderate comments to avoid spam, so if you don't see your comment appear immediately, be patient!) I'll draw the name Wednesday, Dec. 1st at noon EST.

Next stop on the blog tour: Visit the lovely Narrating Life, November 30th, link here. Or for full details on all the blog tour stops, check out the STC blog here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

No-Bull Book Review: Warm Knits, Cool Gifts by Sally Melville & Caddie Melville Ledbetter

Some of you may know Sally Melville from her best-selling series of books that came out several years ago, a how-to-knit series in three volumes. The first focused only on the knit stitch (and included the pattern for the Einstein Coat, a supremely popular but easy-to-knit garter stitch jacket), the second added the purl stitch, and the third delved into color. This series of books was very popular and gave a lot of knitters terrific technical background, along with accessible but attractive projects to make.

If you're looking for a very technical-oriented book this time around, best to adjust your expectations. Melville's new book, Warm Knits, Cool Gifts: Celebrate the Love of Knitting and Family with more than 35 Charming Designs (PotterCraft 2010), written with her daughter Caddie Ledbetter, is a charming book but it's definitely a project-oriented book rather than a technical guide. That's just an observation, not a value judgment. But it never hurts to be clear about the nature and purpose of a book, just in case you hear "Sally Melville" and assume this book must be a continuation of her earlier series (which it is not).

That's not to say that Warm Knits, Cool Gifts isn't a nifty book -- it is. WKCG contains approximately 36 projects designed with gift-giving in mind; the projects are divided roughly between small projects, many of them holiday-oriented, and large projects, like adult sweaters. Melville very charmingly describes how her idea for the book was born:
I was walking through a farm in winter -- watching families pick out their Christmas trees, take sleigh rides through the woods, wrap their hands around cups of hot chocolate, and throw snow at each other -- when I realized that winter is my favorite season! I love the snow; I love the cold; I love the holidays.

And I love the knitting we do for this time of year: shawls to wrap up in, hats to pull over our ears, heirloom pieces for the holidays, ornaments for the tree, and knitted gifts for those we love. So it didn't seem a far stretch to plan a book around these possibilities.
Thus winter, and more particularly, the notion of creating warm and festive things for winter, is the theme that underlies the varied projects in this book. Let's take a closer look.

The project portion of the book is divided into four sections based on the purpose or recipient of the item. First up is "For the Wee Ones," projects for babies and children. The first project is quite lovely: a baby blanket knit modularly using doubled laceweight yarn.

Blended Baby Blanket (SM)

What I like about this project is the way it's not terribly difficult to knit, but the color choices, the blending of the yarns and the modular construction combine to make it striking. Other projects in this section include a baby cap, a bunting, baby overalls, a stuffed doll, and two sweaters that (for a welcome change) are shown on boys rather than girls:

Vested Hoodie (SM)

As a mom of two boys, kudos to Melville for creating some non-fussy sweaters for young boys -- no trucks or doggies, but clean lines and classic shapes that you might, if you're very lucky, get a boy over the age of three into.

The next section is "For Family and Friends," and contains an unusual assortment of gift items, ranging from the small -- a watchband, book markers, a glasses case -- to an assortment of adult sweaters. There's a very sharp polo-style sweater for men

Andy's Polo (CML)

a simple but stylish cardigan for women (I would have to make this longer so my muffin top doesn't show...),

The Cardigan Caddy Really Wanted (CML)

a women's cabled cardigan, a short dress with petticoat,

Baby Doll Dress (SM)

and another interesting sweater for men, as well as a lace scarf that has a relatively simple-to-learn repeat.

"Keeping Warm" features many of the things you'd expect -- hats, scarves, fingerless gloves for him and her-- but also some sweaters and other layering pieces. The Architectural Shawl has an interesting geometric design, and is knit in a worsted/dk weight yarn.

Architectural Shawl (SM)

I was intrigued by the a-line sweater with the vertical panel

Center-Paneled Sweater (SM)

another simple yet striking sweater with a cowl neck,

Christmas Morning Sweater (CML)

and a long coat with a swirly bottom reminscent of vintage skating coats.

Last section is "Feeling Festive," with some ornaments, a leftover sock yarn stocking (P.S. to Sally Melville: I remember Sally Melville Styles, a woefully underappreciated book, and I've always thought its approach to mixing yarns was brilliant; this stocking reminds me of the way leftover yarns are combined there), teeny stockings and Christmas trees, some gorgeous tour-de-force nordic style stockings, a delightful Log Cabin treeskirt, and to finish it with a bang, the Einstein coat returns: in mini-form, as an ornament.

Log Cabin Christmas Tree Skirt (SM)

For those of you keeping track, we've got:
  • 2 men's sweaters
  • 5 baby items (blanket, bunting, hat, overalls, doll)
  • 8 accessories (watchband, glasses case, 2 fingerless gloves, one hat, three scarves)
  • 2 kid's sweaters
  • 5 women's sweaters, plus the long sweater-dress
  • 2 women's wraps (shawl & bolero-style short vesty-jackety-thing)
  • 2 home dec items (afghan, bookmarks)
  • 10 Christmas-themed items (7 ornaments, 2 stocking patterns, and tree skirt).

Nordic Stocking (SM)

For those of you wondering about the yarns used, you'll find a wide variety. One project uses yarn finer than laceweight (the bookmark); 2 use laceweight (one pattern, the baby blanket, knits with it doubled); 4 use fingering weight yarn (but one is designed for leftover sock yarn, and the ornament takes a very small quantity of fingering wt. yarn); 4 use sportweight; 2 use DK; about 9 or so use worsted weight yarn; about 5 use heavy worsted/aran; about 7 use chunky or bulky yarn. Size ranges are generous: the child's sweaters run from 2/4 to 10/12; women's sweaters range from smallest sizes around 31 to 35 inches finished bust to 49 or larger (up to 53-inch, in one case) inches finished bust; men's sweaters run from around 38 inches to 50-some inches finished chest.

Technical specs: the book is paperback, roughly 8.5 by 11 inches, full color, lots of nice photos, charts where necessary, and schematics. I like the way that tips are presented within each pattern in little boxes -- helpful info like discussion of ease for a particular sweater, or notes on pattern design (one tip discusses why the sweater uses shallower armscyes). The Appendix to the book contains an extensive glossary of terms; a list of the yarns used, described and arranged by weight; sizing charts; and general notes on fit.

Although the book is marketed as a resource for knitters wishing to create gifts, I suspect that you may end up finding plenty of choices that you'd like to make for yourself. I was taken with several of the women's sweaters, and the tree skirt and other holiday items are very tempting, too....

The Sweater Sally Made Instead (SM)

So two thumbs up for Warm Knits, Cool Gifts, an early holiday gift to knitters that will keep your needles clacking all winter through..

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Contest winner!!

Thanks to everyone for their entries!

There were several of you who got every single one correct, so I had Little Miss (who as of 5:30 p.m. had already put on her nightgown - hey, it's not easy being that beautiful) draw a name out of a bowl.

Lucky winner is Loraine G!!!!! So, Loraine, go to Ravelry to my patterns and pick a sock pattern you'd like, and I'll send you a free PDF of it. I've already emailed you using the address you entered with.

In case you were wondering about the correct answers:

1. Airplane!
2. Driving Miss Daisy
3. Star Wars (the original)
4. Willie Wonka (original)
5. Lady and the Tramp
6. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
7. Borat
8. Young Frankenstein
9. Sex & the City Movie
10. Napoleon Dynamite
11. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
12. Austin Powers
13. The Perils of Pauline (this one caught most people up)
14. Clueless
15. Casablanca
16. Animal House

Thanks for entering, everyone. That was fun!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Introducing: the Esmerelda Scarf Kit

Mini-skeins are so hypnotic: it's fun to make them and it's fun to play with them, mixing and matching colors and experimenting to see what happens when you put different combinations together. Inspired by the fun of mini-skeins, I created the Esmerelda Scarf Kit:

Each kit contains four miniskeins of fingering weight yarn (today's upload contained all batches of Superwash Merino Classic yarn).

One skein is about twice the size of the others, and is used for the beginning and end; there are three other miniskeins that go in the middle. I've been having so much fun creating combinations, from very closely related ones, like this purple and gray set:

or this really unique one featuring espresso brown, cobalt and tomato:

to brighter choices with more contrast:

All the kits come with four miniskeins (a total of 500 yds.) and the Esmerelda Pattern. The pattern contains directions for two versions: in the vertical stripe version, show in the brown/yellow/orange colorway, you cast on stitches the long way, creating long stretches of color:

in the colorblock version, you cast on the short edge and make blocks of color.

Either way, there's enough yarn for a very long scarf that you can wrap and wrap and wrap and wrap....

I'm working on more color combinations in 100% blue-faced leicester next.... look for them soon. Pattern is also up on Ravelry and any moment now, Patternfish....

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What a weekend! (and contest)

Whew. It's taken me a few days to decompress after the frenzied and wonderful week end we had here at Chez Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat and Loop in Philadelphia. I don't even know where to begin to summarize how much fun it is to hang out with fiber friends, to be surrounded by creativity and yarns and finished projects to ogle, and to have a chance to spend time with dear ones who live far away... so I guess I'll start with a recap of the weekend.

It all began Friday midday, when I picked Franklin up at the airport. Miraculously, his plane was not delayed

and being the savvy traveler that he is, we didn't even have to wait for baggage claim. So I hit him on the head and threw him in the trunk of my car put his bags in the back, and we were off.

After lunch at our local diner,

we headed back to my place to knit, catch up and (in my case) wind yarn. It's always such a pleasure to spend time with Franklin; he always has so many funny and interesting stories to tell, and there is nothing more wonderful than seeing a friend you haven't for a while, and finding that it's all as natural and full of laughter as it ever was.

The afternoon sped by, and soon it was time to haul boxes of yarn into the city

for display at Loop. Craig was waiting for us, and had an entire table cleared off for the Black Bunny Fibers goodies. It was nice to have a chance to take everything out of the boxes and bins, plump it up, and arrange it in baskets on the table.

We also had the chance to display some samples, including my two newest sock designs, Josephine and Lucy, as well as my brand-new scarf pattern and yarn pack (more yarn packs coming later this week on-line). Then it was off to a great dinner with Craig and Laura (of Spool).

The next day, we were ready to go. Franklin taught his Introduction to Lace class,

which by all accounts was a great success. (I heard the knitters who took the class showering Franklin with praise after the class was finished, so I know for a fact it was good.)

From two to five that afternoon is kind of a blur. We were set up with copies of Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn, and the wonderful It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons and I immediately snatched up my copy of Franklin's new calendar. Then the real fun began, as we had time to meet new friends and spend time (at least a little) with old friends. We got to sign books (special thanks to all those who brought their copies of my book(s) and/or purchased ones!! I truly appreciate it)

and take lots of photos and get hugs, and it was unbelievably gratifying and fun. I think because I do spend a lot of time on my own, while the kids are at school, working in a hermit-like fashion,

it especially meant a lot for me to get to see my customers in person, and to enjoy their reaction to my yarns, and to have real-world conversations rather than on-line ones.

After the shop closed, it was time for another wonderful dinner with my special pal, Laura Grutzeck. We had great Thai food, gossiped and caught up.

After returning to my place, we retired for the evening, my head still spinning from all the excitement. When the alarm rang the next morning, I couldn't believe it -- I felt like I could have slept ten more hours, but it was time for us to get back into the city and get ready for another exciting day. I taught a class with some wonderful students

eager to master the mysteries of yarn substitution, while Franklin explained lace edging to his class. After lunch was a special treat for me: I got to take Franklin's class on Photographing your Fiber.

If you have any interest in taking photos of your own stash, knitted projects, handspun or whatever, I urge you to take this class. It's incredibly helpful, packed with information, and designed for people like me, who are self-taught with their camera. Franklin explained so much about the way cameras work, why we have different functions on our cameras, how to use light and styling tips, that I felt like so much that confused me before now made sense. Now I can't wait to get practicing with my camera...

We had another chance to see some great folks on Sunday, and then -- as if we hadn't had enough excitement -- it was off to see Liza Lucy, fabric goddess and quilter extraordinaire, for dinner.

We had an amazing time looking at all of Liza's beautiful fabrics, quilts, and other things, and we got a chance to play with her adorable doggies, and spend some time with her awesome husband, and of course we left with fabric....

All too soon, Monday morning was here, and it was time to take dear Franklin to the airport. We were very sad to say good-bye,

but we are hoping to see each other soon, and to do another whirlwind teaching weekend, perhaps in the spring.

P.S. Neither one of us really knows what Dolores was up to all weekend

but I guess what happens in Philly stays in Philly, eh?

P.P.S. Tell you what: Let's do a quickie contest. Send me an email (goknitinyourhat AT att DAHT net) identifying the movies from which these photos came, and I'll draw a winner from the ones with the most correct answers. Winner gets a free BBF sock pattern of his/her choice in PDF form. Entries due by midnight Friday, Nov. 19th EST. I'll announce the winner Friday.

Note to commenters: If you left a contest guess in the comments, I won't publish it (otherwise it'll give away the answers!). But I'll hold on to it for the contest.