Sunday, August 2, 2015

Knitting for Anarchists - Book Review

This past week I picked up a slim volume by Anna Zilbourg called Knitting for Anarchists - The What, Why and How of Knitting.  The goal of this work is to help people see and understand what they are doing when they are knitting because understanding and knowledge is power.  If you can look at a pattern and understand the fundamentals of it you can modify it to suit yourself, or figure out poorly written directions, or find mistakes that have slipped by the tech editors.  The style of writing is fun and breezy and it is a quick and easy read.  Most of the advice I had already figured out for myself, but there were a couple of gems that I hadn't. 

The book is divided into two parts with 10 chapters.  An introductory chapter (Knitting for Anarchists) lays our Anna Zilbourg's knitting philosophy and provides an overview of the chapters that follow.

Part I covers the craft of knitting and Part II covers the creation of your own unique patterns and provides individual chapters on three different sweater designs - the all-purpose strip-knit anarchist sweater, a pullover and a cardigan.

She spends a fair bit of time discussing the anatomy of stitches and how basic manipulation of these basic units create such a variety of finished fabrics.  In her short section on gauge I had my first "a ha" moment.  Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to get both stitch and row gauge?  Stitch gauge is governed primarily by the weight of the yarn, because the predominant factor is the thickness of the legs of your stitch.  Row gauge is governed primarily by how tight or loose you knit.  When you change needle size in your effort to get gauge you are primarily going to affect the row gauge.  Chasing gauge can be a frustrating and time-consuming and sometimes an ultimately fruitless process.  I like to find a needle size that gives me a fabric that I like, determine my gauge from that swatch, and then adjust the pattern accordingly (this is why we have spreadsheets and calculators).  Of course gauge swatches never tell the whole story, so check your gauge again once you've knit for a while on your project and adjust accordingly (this is EZ's advice as well).

In her section on casting on she has some great tips for ways of using crochet chains (which, after all, is only a single knit stitch run up over multiple rows), including using them in dolman sleeves and for knitting a sleeve from the shoulder to cuff, but not as part of a top-down set-in sleeve, where you pick up stitches around the arm hole (my favorite method).  I'm not sure why I would want to knit a sleeve from the top down separate from the body, but it is nice to know the technique is out there.

She also details a wonderful way of knitting buttonholes.  I found the explanation a bit hard to follow (actually I found all of the explanations a little hard to follow, but I am a visual person and there are pictures) but once I got what she was doing I was blown away by the brilliance.  You can only do this if you're making a faced button hole band.  When you come to where you want the button hole you knit however many stitches you need to make the button hole with some scrap yarn, not the yarn you're using for the band itself.  But how do you get to the other side?  Well, you put those stitches you just knit with the scrap yarn back onto your left hand needle and now knit them with your working yarn.  So now you have a "button hole" in waiting defined by the stitches made with the scrap yarn.  Do this for the rest of the button holes.  Now, when you're working the facing, when you get to where that button hole should be you pull out the scrap yarn and graft the stitches from the facing with the "bottom" stitches (those closest to the body) and then put the "top" stitches onto your needle to make up for the stitches you just used in the graft.  The result is a very neat, elegant, couture button hole.

There is also a nice section on knitting and designing cables and playing with color.  I still use a cable needle when knitting cables (even though I knit lace without lifelines), but I'm going to try her technique of knitting without a cable needle next time I work some.

There are two principals that she espouses that I wholeheartedly agree with:  1)  Only knit things you enjoy and 2) Learn to read your knitting.

There are so many wonderful things to knit out there, and wonderful yarns to knit with that you shouldn't knit anything that you don't enjoy.  Now, sometimes a pattern may not be fun to knit simply because of the way it is written up or constructed.  In that case, if you really want to make it, think about a better way of doing it.  If you understand the fundamentals of knitting you can decompose designs and put the pieces back together in a way that may make it more fun for you to knit.  I do this all the time, changing pullover patterns to knit them in the round, or changing a bottom up design into a top down design, bottom up sleeves to top down, or changing a circular shawl into a cape.

If you want to take your knitting to a level beyond faithfully following pattern directions, if you want to master lace knitting, or stranded knitting, or cables, one of the things you should do is learn how to read your knitting.  When I first started knitting lace I immediately went to the charts and taught myself how to read them, from there it wasn't too long before I was able to correlate what I was seeing in the chart with what I was seeing in my knitting.  I found looking at the written directions for lace knitting excruciatingly painful.  Test knitting and tech editing has since taught me to use the written directions as well as the charts as some things are easier to explain in the written directions (and I have to proof the written directions against the chart as part of my tech editing), but I still rely mostly on charts.  I remember a situation that arose in a group (not a Unique Sheep group) that I belong to where someone posted about how they "didn't think they should have to learn to read their knitting or charts" in order to knit lace.  I didn't know what to say to that, it just made me sad.

There are more detailed books on knitting technique and knitting design out there, but if you want a book that might make you look at your knitting (and the world) a little differently and may give you a couple of "a ha" moments, pick this one up and give it a read.

Knitting for Anarchists - The What, Why and How of Knitting by Anna Zilbourg, published by Dover Publications


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  2. Hey Carolyn! This looks like it could be a good read. Regarding cables, I generally don't use a cable needle because it slows me down--especially when I drop it down the couch cushions! I use the technique shown here:

    I'd be curious to know if the one in your book is similar.