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What does a knitter like to do when not knitting? Buy yarn, pet yarn, ogle designs, and read books about knitting. Got a knitter you would like to let know you’re thinking of them without entering the minefield of fibre blends, gauges and tools that look like torture devices to the uninitiated? Maybe Ann Hood’s collection of short essays could be just the thing for you…
Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting is a collection of short essays or stories by 27 authors. There were a few names I recognised, but this felt a very long way from the celebrity name-dropping that another collection of knitting pieces, Knitlandia (you can see my full review here), was stuffed with. Knitting Yarns feels like a book writer by people just with, often terribly poignant, stories to tell that happen to involve some string things in there somewhere.
One concern you might have in a book about knitting (that isn’t a technical text) is just how much can there really be to say? While a few themes creep up time and time again – knitting and gifting as an act of love, knitting for solace and everyone seems to find the same words to describes the awkward discomfort of learning to knit – there’s a really good variety in perspectives, writing styles and content that gives the feeling of an incredibly well-curated collection.
I will reproduce the contents of the book here as I feel that gives you a good idea of what you’ll get for your money:
- Introduction by Ann Hood
- Knitting Pattern: ‘Banks’ Fingerless Mittens
- The Pretend Knitter by Elizabeth Berg
- The Perfect Gift by Lan Samantha Chang
- Blood, Root, Knit, Purl y Andre Dubus III
- To Knit a Knot, or Not: A Beginner’s Yarn by John Dufresne
- Home Ec by Hope Edelman
- Knitting Pattern: ‘Bingham’ Cabled Head Wrap by Helen Bingham
- Soft, Warm and Fuzzy by Jancie Eidus
- Looped Yarn by Martha Frankel
- Teaching a Child to Knit by Sue Grafton
- Knitting in Kathamndu y Jessi Hempel
- Ten Things I Learned from Knitting by Ann Hood
- Knitting Pattern: ‘Bowden’ Coffee Cozies by Helen Bingham
- Judite by Kaylie Jones
- Where to Begin by Barbara Kingsolver
- The One-Year Marriages by Jennifer Lauck
- Knitting a Family by Anne D. LeClaire
- Knitting: Epic Fail by Marianne Leone
- I Bought This Pattern Book Last Spring by Elinor Lipman
- Knitting Pattern: Ashworth Ruffled Slipper Socks by Helen Bingham
- The Supernatural Power of Knitting by Alison Lurie
- Straw into Gold by Joyce Maynard
- Failing Better by Bernadette Murphy
- How Knitting Saved my Life, Twice by Ann Patchett
- The Clothes Make the Dog by Taylor M. Polites
- Knitting Pattern: Coliv’s Perfect-Fit Sweter by Taylor M. Polites
- High-Strung Knitter by Elissa Schappell
- Knitted Goods: Notes from a Nervous Non-Knitter by Elizabeth Searle
- What Are You Making? By Anne Sayne
- Crafty Critters by Suzanne Strempek Shea
- Found Objects by Anita Shreve
- Why Bother? By Jane Smiley
- Knitting Pattern: ‘Fisher’ Lacy Wrap by Helen Bingham
Particular highlights are from John ‘Mr Maladroit’ Dufrense and his venture into finger knitting, knotting and stories, Home Ec, Straw into Gold and The Clothes Make the Dog. The Clothes Make the Dog is a testament to Taylor M. Polites writing skills as while I would normally regard people with tiny dogs swaddled in handknits with a certain level of suspicion, I couldn’t help but cheer on the tale of Taylor and Clovis, man and chihuahua versus the world.
Other stories are excellent in their creation of atmosphere, if not entirely enjoyable or happy tales, like The One Year Marriage, where you feel almost as suffocated by the writer’s situation as she does and Blood, Root, Knit, Purl, where the lingering misery of an impending break up hangs over the page. Knitting Yarns is not a fuzzy read in many ways, many of the stories cover grief and loss, of mothers, babies, untimely deaths of friends (in Looped Yarn the friend runs off to join a cult for a change of pace).
I’m not sure there is a single story here that doesn’t feature the author and their family in some setting. Most knitters learnt from their mothers and grandmothers and for many the craft is a way of honouring them and their memories or remember childhood moments of relatives knitting and gossiping, for the two are highly complementary activities. There’s a really powerful combination of stories from John Dufresne and Hope Edelman at the beginning, of reflections on relatives loved and lost that really caught me quite off guard with its poignancy.
While some of the stories have a very sincere and personal touch to them, others skirt dangerously close to ‘navel gazing’ territory. Stories on personal reflections always have the danger of feeling self-indulgent, but most of the short essays feel like they have something genuine and insightful about the human experience to share. Why Bother and Knitted Goods were two flops for me, feeling a bit tired and cliched against some of the more heavyweight prose on offer.
The good news in a book like this is that the stories pass quickly. Far, far too quickly in the case of some and blissfully so in the case of others. Blood, Root, Knit and Purl would have been agonising if it had gone on for many more pages – I think this is one of those ‘French Arthouse’ style stories, you can appreciate the cleverness, it is very different, but the writer sounds insufferable and you can’t help but feel sorry for his poor girlfriend who just seems to be bit player and prop in his life.
On balance, there are far more hits than misses. Some of the good stories are really exceptional and the misses are few and far between. It really is an excellent collection though, as I think having a series of short stories with similar themes but not so much overlap gives the book as a whole much more impact. There’s a logical flow, despite no formal connections between the tales, and the emotional punch of all these stories, from all these families with their different quirks and ways, is so much stronger.
I was impressed enough with some of the pieces that I will definitely look into other works by the authors. Most of them are very much writers first, knitters second, but Bernadette Murphy has another narrative nonfiction novel about the connections between knitting and spirituality. I enjoyed her story, all about the challenge of teaching a group of non-knitters to knit a series of 4×4 panels to be part of a blanket at a baby shower, and her reflection on her challenge ‘learning to let other people make their own mistakes’. I may give her other book a go, another there was a few warning signs that perhaps it may veer into ‘embrace the right mindset and life will be endless sunshine rainbows and unicorns’ twaddle territory. I’ll report back if I do.
Another nice titbit is the inclusion of a handful of patterns by Helen Bingham. I have not tried to make any of them so cannot comment on the quality but it is a little hard to get inspired by a ‘blind’ design in the era of a thousand designer and user pictures of every piece. Even the Kindle version is photograph free. Maybe the idea was to recreate the sense of a friend scribbling down a pattern for you? If you don’t mind looking outside the book, Helen Bingham has a collection of her designs in the book on Ravelry. The patterns are a cute touch but feel a little pointless.
My one gripe about this book is the construction quality. The paper and covers are so thin that, coupled with the size, that it really just flops lifelessly in your hands when reading it so you need to figure out how to keep it open and supported. I don’t expect this will be a book that lasts many years and re-reads!
If you enjoy beautiful prose and slice of life reflections, knitter or not, then I think Knitting Yarns is a fantastic book. As the title suggests, there is a lot of knitting in it, but it’s not so much about knitting as it is about the human conditions. How we related to people, our memories and the sentimental spirit we can imbue objects in our lives with. There’s no overarching plot to drive the book and I am sure to some it will come across as complete frippery. For other’s though, this will be a selection of thoughtful moments, wrapped in some fantastic metaphors.
I think when it comes to recommending the book whether or not you like this type of collection is probably more important than whether or not you are a knitter. Knitters will get the thrill of acknowledgement of jokes about stash, a whole story about what happens when you dig through the forgotten work-in-progress basket and recognise the joy of a well-stocked haberdashery. Non-knitters though will relate much more with how a knitting pattern resembles a ‘Armenian semiconductor manual’.
Knitting Yarns is not as meaty or dense as This Golden Fleece, which is a single author story, but many of these tales do showcase why and how short stories or essays can be such a powerful format. I think this is a lovely collection, an enjoyable read, and a treat for knitters and non-knitters alike. It’ll certainly leave your hands itching to make afterwards if you need a little inspiration too.
Collection Editor: Ann Hood
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Also available in hardback and e-book formats.