Thursday, April 22, 2010

A lot of text but not much of a plot.

Time to take a look at a couple of knitting books I've had sitting around. I obviously don't read them word-by-word (I'm not that into reading), but I always do read the author's lovingly written blurbs about the patterns. You only need to read a paragraph from a knitting book to know whether the pattern will be something you'll like: if you find the style of writing suitable for you, the pattern will most likely fit your style as well.

Japanese inspired knits by Marianne Isager

This book has amazing patterns that are simple, yet very elegant. You won't believe how many knitting books I have browsed and left in the library shelves with a frown of disgust on my face because the knitted shirts, shawls and mini-shorts (brrrr!) seem more like the classic joke about horrid things your Grandma gives you for present rather than being actually something you can wear.
With that said... the "Japanese inspired" part was rubbing me the wrong way. First of all, the author begins telling the reader that she spent time in Japan and was inspired by whatever she saw there and thus created these items. "Most of the year" is her vague description, and yet she tells us she hopes the book will give us a picture of "how the seasons move through the year on the other side of the world." Lady, you were not there to see all the seasons, but whatever. Gives her apparently the authority to say things like "In Japan, we celebrate..." (emphasis added).

The blurbs about the patterns create this air of a mystical Japan, where everyone is guru-like and traditions are revered like in no other culture. Basically, it's exoticizing Japan. The patterns are "Japanese" mostly because there is some kanji and pretty pictures of koi and cherry blossoms splattered (tastefully and minimalistically, of course) all over the book. The exoticism is also evident in the selection of the book's only model: instead of actually getting a Japanese (or heck, even just an Asian) woman to pose, the model is a white woman who has been made up to look like a Japanese person. Take a look at any other, non-Japanese-produced knitting pattern books and you won't see white women with that hairdo in them - unless they're goths in a version of Stitch n Bitch. It's like a wet dream for Japan-o-philes: now's your chance to look like you're Japanese! Who's wearing Scandinavian knits that are Japan-inspired because we say they are!

One customer at made me giggle with this apt comment: "I understand that with so many knitting books coming out, it's not a bad idea for an author to have some kind of a hook. But these patterns are "Japanese-inspired" the way Ashton Kutcher is a Kabbalist." (The same reviewer actually makes a point about the white-girl-with-black-cropped-hair! High five!)

The author was invited to do an exhibit in Tokyo, of which she says: The reaction from the organizers of the Japanese exhibit surprised me - they didn't recognize much Japanese influence in my knitting; instead they exclaimed, "How very Scandinavian."

To Isager's credit, she does say that the garments in the book are not Japanese, but Japanese-inspired. Still, the inspiration seems to stem from only the most stereotypical traditions and customs that come to everyone's mind when hearing the name "Japan". Here are the pattern names:
- Stone Garden Jacket
- Winter in Tokyo
- the Fan
- flower buds
- the Carp
- the Umbrella
- the Sun
- Summer in Tokyo
- Rice fields
- Indigo
- Maple Leaves
- Sake and Soba (I guess cabled knitting can be called noodles...)
It's like someone going to Finland for half a year, and coming back wearing shoes made out of birch bark and talking about how people are in touch with nature over there, while singing joik - totally ignoring anything outside of folklore.

Still, with all that harsh criticism, the patterns are absolutely beautiful. I just wish there would have been less of the exoticism. I might even consider buying this book, if each of the projects did not require hours of work and tons of money put into the yarn... I mean, look at this cardigan: it's so cute!

Picture Perfect Knits by Laura Birek

This book is all about intarsia. If you're unfamiliar with that name, it's basically what you do when you want to create a picture by knitting. If you see a Che Guevara face knitted on a pillow - yup, that's intarsia (and yes, as inappropriate as that is, it is not the most inappropriate intarsia pattern in the book. That would be the face of Lenin).

Those two patterns already should give you the idea of the targeted audience: it will be the hipster-y kind, who do not really see the irony in wearing merchandise with Che's face on it. Or maybe it's so ironic that we squares don't get it!

The instructions and pattern descriptions are short, to-the-point, cutesy and loaded with puns and alliteration. The word "vintage" will make an appearance. There is a pattern for how to knit a cupcake on a pillow. It's that kind of a book.

I actually tried out a couple of the patterns, including a weird, but cute animal (turned out really nice), a butterfly, and a pair of children's cat paw mittens (so cool!). The full-on patterns are in a minority in this book, though: most of it is dedicated to intarsia patterns for images (kind of like pixellated art), and you can use them as a template for any project you want. Just use a basic pattern from any source, and add an image of your choice into it. It's very handy. I think I will be getting this book.

Soft + Simple Knits for Little Ones by Heidi Boyd

Grabbed this because it had two really adorable tops that looked simple enough for me to try. I did begin one for a 4-year old, but it turned out that had I finished it, I would've made a tunic big enough for me. So I had to scrap it. I was kind of surprised that the size would vary that greatly, although my needles were only 0.5mm larger than the suggested ones. I thought I'd try out some shorter projects, but a lot of them used fuzzy and sparkly yarn. Not really my favorite thing to knit, and I can't imagine children actually liking the fuzzy material tickling them all the time.

Still, there are a couple of toys in there that I want to try. If I ever finish one and it's not gigantic, I'll post a pic here.

Wrapped in Comfort by Alison Jeppson Hyde

I've been wanting to learn how to knit a lace shawl. I've just had trouble finding a pattern that's simple, yet pretty. I know there are plenty of patterns online, but I figured that if something is already printed on paper, I might as well get that. It's not fun trying to read patterns from your laptop screen. Especially on a bus.

Each pattern is accompanied by a personal anecdote from the author. Usually, the anecdote is about a woman she bonded with over knitting or admiring at shawls. Also: includes an anecdote about 9-11. Some call this heart-warming, some might call it sappy. I have to admit to not being able to read all of the anecdotes, especially as they are nonfiction written as fiction by possibly someone who is not very familiar with writing fiction. Zinnia's story is about going to San Francisco, and the one-page story begins and ends with a quote (one direct, one indirect) from that song that everyone always mentions when going to San Francisco. Then the author remembers that she might want to have it somehow connected to the shawl in question, so she ends the story with If your hair's too busy, here's my knitted version to wear or wrap around someone you love. It's that kind of prose.

The patterns are all quite wonderful, and I began one of the shawls that looked manageable. I also managed to read the pattern wrong, and wondered why my stitch count is not matching the pattern no matter what I do. Only later, reading another knitting book, did I find out what one abbreviation really meant (I misunderstood it as it was described in this book).

Reading what I just wrote I feel a bit bad about being so snarky and critical. But then again, there have been a bunch of knitting and crocheting books that I really like, so I don't think I'm being unreasonable. Knitting books, although without any plot, can also be well-written, or written with sloppy fact-checks and bad prose. Most people just skip the stories and go directly to the patterns. Which, I suppose, are ultimately what make or break a knitting book - not the writing.


  1. It is so strange that essentially guidebooks could play so loose with the simple small facts they are meant to portray. I find cookbooks can be similiarly misleading and you've aptly covered that already in another post :p

  2. Indeed! Speaking of misleading cookbooks... I recently read this article by Johanna*hi!* about exoticism in recipes. Quoting Johanna:
    Has anyone else noticed that a staple of many a vegan cookbook is a recipe for African Peanut Stew or African Yam Stew or something similar? I’ve also seen (though less frequently) recipes for, say, Asian-Style Tofu or whatever. I cannot recall ever seeing a cookbook featuring anything like European Bean Soup.

    Although her focus is obviously vegan for the blog, it of course does not mean all other cookbooks are Doing It Right... In her examples, there is not even a lengthy background story to tell the reader what the author's point of view is--the names of the recipes are already enough to reveal something about their worldview.