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A book about knitting in the New York Times Bestseller list? Apparently not as outrageous as it sounds. Welcome to ‘Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World’, Clara Parkes’s collection of tales of knitting conventions and events across the world.
‘Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World’ is something of a strange book. It’s a book about knitting without a single pattern or technical instruction. It’s not a historical or social examination of the craft, like you might expect from ‘Threads of Life’. It’s not bordering on a ‘popular science’ book ‘The Secret Lives of Colour’. So what is it?
What ‘Knitlandia’ is, is a collection 16 different ‘essays’ or chapters of approximately eight pages each. Each essay is a short insight into one of Clara Parkes’s globetrotting adventures to some yarn or fibre-related event. Many of these are the big-name American conventions, like Rhinebeck, Holderness, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival or the now-defunct Sock Summit, but there is more international venturing too, including the 2016 Edinburgh Yarn Festival, a trip to Paris and Iceland.
Perhaps the best way to describe the book is an attempt to take a snapshot of the knitting culture and events at a fleeting moment in its history. I think one of the quotations from Stephen West on the book captures the concept well, ‘within the fleeting world of social media, it’s rare to find a collection of stories like Clara’s in one place, stories that showcase the colourful richness and loving nature of our knitting community’.
The book is a little like going for tea with Clara Parkes and hearing her stories about the job that never quite was over at Interweave Press or what it was like to produce material for the now-rebranded/redone Craftsy (you can read more about what happened to Craftsy here). It’s personal stories of friendships and outings with some of the celebrities of the knitting world and Clara Parkes’s own reflections on what knitting means to her and how it shapes these communities bonded by a shared love of skeins of fluff.
All of the essays are entirely stand alone and as far as I can tell they are even necessarily presented in chronological order in the book. You’ll hop between continents and times, knitting convention to a small local yarn store later to become a crafting mecca for its inventive use of colour. It’s a perfect book for enjoying in snatched moments on a commute, requiring little commitment and investment from you as a reader. For the non-knitters, no technical proficiency or understanding is demanded of you, so the book is just as accessible, though maybe some love or interest in yarn and crafting culture might help.
This book is without doubt a bold experiment and I’m not sure there’s really much outside the blogging community that is really at all like it. For that reason alone, I think the book is worth taking a look at. This is really a contemporary personal account of what will be knitting history. How did the launch of Ravelry completely change the knitting scene and launch the concept of the indie designer? What was woolly life like before the seemingly ubiquitous indie dyers product what Parkes so eloquently calls ‘clown vomit’?
Clara Parkes does a great job of capturing some of the inner language of the crafting convention, the squee-ing and squishing of yarn and obsessive creation and hoarding of stash and the danger of the ‘aspirational purchase’. While I’ve been to quite a few UK events, I’ve never had the pleasure of going to a huge US convention, and I think these were the chapters I enjoyed the most in the book. The National NeedleArts Association meeting and fond recollections and bonding over ice creams were definitely a good moment of levity and amusement.
However, while there are enjoyable moments and some brilliant turns of phrase and amusing anecdotes, as a book ‘Knitlandia’ doesn’t really hold itself together for me. If you’re not au fait with the inner-circles knitting writing, patterns and design, reading laundry lists of names like Cat Bordhi, Sivia Harding, Stephaine Pearl-McPhee and so forth, probably isn’t that interesting to you and I think that is one of the slightly tricky premises of the book. Why do I care about Clara Parkes’s travel adventures?
I care in terms of learning something new about the knitting community and history, how technologies that have appeared in my lifetime have changed the crafting landscape. I’m interested to learn how an episode of Knitting Daily TV is made and some of the challenges of their methods of production. But for all the personal reflections that make up the majority of the book to be of interest, I have to buy in to caring about Parkes’s experiences.
To pull this off means that the writing or the writer needs to create a text compelling enough to draw you in. Stories with a friend are only interesting if they are fascinating stories or you have sufficient emotional investment in the person telling them to you that your default position is to care, and this is something of a dropped stitch that runs through ‘Knitlandia’.
Perhaps this is just a personal preference, or style, issue, after all the book seems to have enjoyed a great deal of commercial success and critical acclaim, but even some of the convention stories just feel like laundry lists of Parkes’s famous friends. As she is considered a ‘travel writer’ as well I felt the essays on her international trips somehow did no good publicity for the stereotype of ‘loud brash American descends on local natives’, including seemingly being surprised that menu in an Icelandic café was not in English and that the local currency also does not resemble the US dollar… This is even more disappointing as she obviously knows a lot about Icelandic wool traditions and spinning and I did find myself wishing we could perhaps have more information on that and less of the slightly tiresome anecdotes.
Being a tourist is an inherently awkward thing. You are, by definition, out of place, unencumbered by the social graces and potentially language skills of your new environment. It’s a fine and tricky line to tread to capture the magic and ‘different-ness’ of a place, to retell something of its history and traditions, without falling into something superficial and stereotypical. Even Parkes’s retelling of her own actions, particularly in the visit to Iceland, are sometimes hard not to cringe at. While I liked her recollection of younger memories and emotional attachment to Paris, again I would have like some mention of a French person who did something other than complain at her for being unfashionable. The essay also reads very much like France had zero knitting culture until one American expat came and rescued the whole country with her shop.
Maybe I travel too much and am too grumpy and cynical about the whole ‘travel’ thing, but for me Parkes fails to communicate the magic of going and being somewhere new. How new settings and scenery mean atrocious chain cafés can take on a whole new level of emotional significance because it was the first place you were brave enough to stumble to, drowning in jetlag, that served up the caffeine that resuscitated you. To the awkward trepidation that venturing in search of new stores brings.
I find this a bit of a shame given that, in other sections of the book, Parkes makes some brilliant, incisive insights. Perhaps my favourite, as someone who is desperately trying to avoid being caught up the current fad for online learning, is a recollection of a conversation with a young woman named Betsy. Parkes discusses how online teaching ‘by presenting the best version of my class on an easy-to-use platform, I could reach more people without ever boarding a plane – and still make my mortgage payment’ but on reflection about Betsy’s discussion of adjustments she would make to help her young sewers learn, Parkes remarks, ‘not only did these kids benefit from a teacher who could make split-second adjustments to suit the group dynamics, but they were enjoying the group dynamics itself – the joy of discovering something tactile and communal together’. On the subject of online versus in-person lessons more broadly, she says ‘there’s a time for sitting at home in your pajamas, watching and click and quietly forming connections in your mind. And there’s a time for getting out and being with others, for reaching into the picture and becoming part of it’. Beautiful and powerful words.
Asking whether I’d recommend ‘Knitlandia’ is far from a straightforward question. This is no doubt a brave book, something incredibly unique and I am very glad this book has been written. There’s many moments in history captured here that deserve to be preserved and an interesting take on the whole field of knitting. Some chapters I liked, others really made my eyes roll. If you don’t just knit, but are really into knitting culture and trends, then I think your fascination with the material will smooth over any awkward lumps and the name-dropping might inspire awe rather than blank stares.
If you’re not in the avid knitting fan category, then I think the book is worth a hesitant try. For me, there were enough interesting titbits in there of new information, enough moments captured well in nice prose that I could overlook the rough edges. The book is completely chaotic and probably would work better as a series of blog posts, but I love printed material, so again, I’m glad someone took the risk of creating and publishing this. I do have one small complaint about the printing – this is probably one of the most bizarre complaints I will ever make about a book but it is an odd size to hold and the binding and typesetting is weird. It’s hard to articulate but the margins do not look standard, and while the text is crisp and clear, there is some lingering feeling of ‘odd’.
I will probably give one of Clara Parkes’s other books a go, maybe ‘The Yarn Whisperer’ or ‘A Stash of One’s Own’, which I think speaks well of ‘Knitlandia’. While it’s not a wholehearted recommendation that you must urgently grab the nearest copy by whatever means necessary, it is something a bit different and, unlike ‘Threads of Life’ that I reviewed recently, it is very much light and frivolous reading, perhaps perfect for current times.
Author: Clara Parkes
Publisher: Abrams Books
Dimensions: 20.2 x 13.9 x 1.3 cm