Saturday, November 23, 2013

Knitting books--the Craft of Instructions

I'm 90% a self-learned knitter: having been forced to knit a hideously deformed mitten in second grade by a teacher who apparently had no idea of choosing appropriate crafts for various motor skill stages, I didn't feel any urge to knit ever again until I was in my mid-20s. Now that there was nobody telling me what to knit and how to knit, I just started picking up books.

I have read, used, and perused many a knitting book in order to not just learn how to knit, but to find patterns that don't scream awkward family photo ops during Christmas and uncomfortable sweatiness. The best place to do this are libraries and the craft sections, because the evolution of knitting books is readily available there.

In the past 30 years, knitting books have definitely shifted from practical no-nonsense to practical cuteness. The "You want to knit a useful thingy for your family, little lady? Here we go!" straight-forwardness has slowly morphed  into spinning a yarn (ouch! I had to) about the author's background, how she was inspired by landscapes, flora, her grandmother... and then each pattern will have a paragraph or two describing how the author came to create this sassy peace of clothing of most likely locally dyed alpaca yarn. It actually makes knitting books fun to read: not only do the authors need to know how to write instructions; they have to know how to write compelling stories.

Modern knitting books are filled with dreamy imagery and photos of women having coffee at a farmhouse in Scotland, wearing way too large rubber boots and sweaters and being twee. The other alternative is to begin sentences with "Not your grandmother's [hat/mittens/jacket/potholder]" displayed next to a punk girl sticking her tongue out and wielding knitting needles while wearing a knit skull-patterned bikini. And although this market is still very much dominated by women, there are knitting books either aimed at manly knits or written by men for men, such as the awesomely titled Knitting with Balls (link is safe for work, trust me). It is all about selling an aesthetic: although I will be wearing these socks in rainy Seattle, isn't a part of me buying the idea that these socks bring me closer to chopping wood with Tori Amos in windy Cornwall, surrounded by wild sheep and rock fencing?

Reading through these books has made me appreciate anyone who executes not just crafted story telling but technical writing well. I've purchased books based solely on the pictures of the end results, only to find that the instructions themselves are confusing. The annoying part is that you won't really know how good the instructions are until you work on the projects.

And this is the part where I exclusively rant about the do nots in these books. If you are a new knitter, you can skip ahead to my book recommendation.

Knitting is not that hard: once you learn a method, you notice that it is repeated over and over again in a variety of ways. That is why it is so disappointing when instructions recycle terminology: in one pattern X means X, but then in the next pattern X means Y! I've been happily knitting half a sock only to realize, that it's all wrong because I was using the terminology from the previous pattern. You have to unlearn what you just learned. Silly.

Related to that: it's OK to use jargon! 
The beauty in reading technical writing--whether it is knitting instructions or a guide on how to install a new ink cartridge to your printer--is that the vocabulary is consistent and precise. Specific jargon is used not to alienate people, but to make sure that everything has a name and its place in the instructions. Something you can trust.
Usually this is not a problem: many knitting books make sure to include a glossary for terms that may be unfamiliar to new knitters. Once you learn that a tricky 3-stage maneuver has a specific name, you will never need to look at the glossary again. Luckily, I have ran into only one knitting book where the author had for some bizarre reason decided to use vocabulary invented by herself. I'm sure it seemed like a cute idea at the time, but individualism would be best expressed in the end product and the surrounding stories, not in the vocabulary used if the aim is to get other people to knit your products and not just show off.

If a knitting book has actual illustrations and glossaries for techniques = great! 
The best knitting books use as little words as possible in the actual instructions and link to a glossary for unfamiliar terms. This way, you only need to have one page open to follow your work, instead of leafing back and forth. If something is too complicated to describe in words, the glossary will then show an illustration, because it's sometimes impossible to describe a way to wrap a yarn around two needles in words.

My cautionary tale of the opposite comes from an author, who had decided to explain everything in words: no images in sight (well, save for a total of two images in the back: how to cast on in two different ways), and the words she used were extremely vague. I even ended up unraveling and knitting the difficult bits by interpreting the instructions as their exact opposite to see, if that would resolve the issue and my possible misunderstandings. Nope. My product still looked nothing like in the final pictures, and I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. I have a basic understanding of how to make, say, a sock, so I just substituted a pattern from my head for the bits I didn't understand, and made it up as I went along. Felt a bit like a waste of money, really.

Check how the book makes sure you can actually fit into your creation
Again, a tale of Warn: I was following a sock pattern that simply said, "Knit using this pattern for 15 inches, and then begin the heel." Had I realized in the store that all lengths were in set inches, I probably wouldn't have bought the book. I mean, this makes no sense: it will produce the same length of a sock for every knitter, regardless of how long your legs are! So a short person will knit herself a thigh-high sock with these instructions, but can't wear it because the pattern does not take into account that the sock should be a bit wider at the top if it starts at thigh-high.

How do good books do this? "Knit until you are an inch away from your heel" or "Repeat until the sock covers your small toe" (for starting the decrease rounds at the end). Or even better, they provide ways to customize sizes by measuring if you are planning surprise socks for someone else.

Finally: are the books willing to concede that you don't have the money to buy yarn made out of rabbit fur?
I usually end up substituting all the yarn suggested in the patterns, either because I want to use something from my ever-growing stash instead of getting a new skein, I don't like the color options or--to be honest--I don't think I should pay a hundred bucks for materials for a shawl. Some books obviously have tie-ins with yarn makers, which is fine, but I get annoyed when the instructions do not mention the weight (=the thickness) of the yarn used, making it hard to replicate the pattern with other materials. These books will also have a handy list at the end showing where you can order these specific yarns.

There are books that do mention the weight of the yarn, and I take an immediate liking to them. It's like saying, "Hey, this is the yarn we prefer to use, but if you can't budget it--go for these alternatives." I have even seen books that say that explicitly.

The only exception I have made is a book specifically written for using Noro yarn. Noro is an expensive-ish Japanese yarn, and what makes it special is that all of the skeins are hand-dyed: none of them are exactly the same and the colors are ridiculously vivid. I bought the book to not only make the most of Noro's uniqueness but also to use the patterns for cheaper, variegated yarns that American companies are now making after they've realized how sought-after (but pricey!) Noro is among knitters.
A great example of good starter books: The Stitch 'n Bitch series
If you are looking into starting knitting, or to expand on your basic knitting skills, I highly recommend the Stitch 'n Bitch series. I learned crocheting from their Happy Hooker book and just recently got The Handbook for Knitters. Created by Debbie Stoller, these books are half technique, half patterns and they work as a great reference tool even after you have knitted everything in it.

The technique parts have very clear, visual illustrations. They have never made me scratch my head. All the vocabulary used in the book is covered in the glossary. Further, all of the books in the series have basic garments from socks and hats to shawls to practice on and then a couple more fanciful things thrown in (such as a little coat for a dachshund!). They are actually useful and look good, with very little knitting effort. What is more encouraging for a beginner than that!

Although I have been knitting for quite a while now, I hadn't found a simple hat pattern that I liked until I read this book--now I have my go-to, easily memorized pattern for whipping up a quick hat that also looks great and can be easily customized with cat ears and pom-poms if I feel like it.

The tone in the books is, despite the name, very friendly. Throughout the book there is this invisible friendly hand over your shoulder, telling you that it's OK if you screw up. We all do at some point! Here's how you can fix it. Have a glass of wine, relax--you got this.

Now I'm off to knit a Seahawks-themed hat with the basic hat pattern from that book. It will be ready for game day!

(P.S. Here is my post from 2011 if anyone wants to read a more detailed account of one book failing to help me get better at knitting)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

"It's the way families are, sometimes. A thing goes wrong and one knows how to fix it and years pass and--no one knows how to fix it." - Judd Mulvaney

I had bought this book years ago as an attempt to educate myself on Joyce Carol Oates. It sat untouched in my bookcase until recently, when I read an article in the New Yorker about something quite horrific that referenced this novel as a great fictional parallel. No better nudge to read the book finally than this!

And ugh. It is very good, but in the same way as the movies Dancer in the Dark and Lilya 4-Ever are very good. I don't think I can read it again, because it is very heartbreaking and unfair. Hmm. Maybe that is one reason for not having been enthusiastic about this book until now, because the jacket described it as "heartbreaking," which just makes me think of some silly over-the-top romantic sob story. But now I can't find a better word for it.

Trying not to spoil too much, here is the gist of the story in one paragraph: the Mulvaneys live in a small town on a farm, and are an epitome of a wonderful family--the parents banter with each other, everyone has cutesy nicknames, there are pets under foot wherever you turn, and all the four kids are strikingly different individuals. Everyone is so cute and gutsy! Then, a tragedy hits the family. And suddenly you are reading about good people who make really crappy choices for who knows what reasons, because certainly you cannot see the logic in their actions although on some level you have sympathy for them. And this goes on for decades. It's... heartbreaking.

Even in the end, where the story wraps up in a sort of a happy resolution, it is all tainted with the knowledge that these people wasted so many years being angry at each other, and it's time that can never be brought back. What's worse, it seems as if everyone can breathe freely only after one toxic force is removed from their lives--and he is not even the real bad guy in the story! (Or is he? I suppose he does become one.)

It's a tough read, for sure, but it has so much to offer beyond just the main story. In the beginning, Oates goes into ridiculous, almost boring lengths in describing the details of how each character looks and what their possessions look like (the pages of describing antiques that the mother collects, geez...) as if those were the only things that the characters and the author had actual control over. As the years progress, the details disappear not only from the style of storytelling, but from the lives of these people. Once the tragedy hits the family, all this materialism that they believe makes them who they are is stripped away, and all they have left is their actions that now define them more than their reputations based on school or work performance.

I think I need another Oates to read. Based on this, I'm not going to find a happy-go-lucky story in her repertoire to cleanse my palate with, am I?