Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Sweater Quest by Adrienne Martini

It's no surprise that this book appealed to me.  It's about a woman who decides to challenge herself by knitting a major fair isle sweater.  At this point non-knitters are already starting to doze off while knitters' ears perk up.  It's definitely a book for The Craft and not the muggles; it's about knitting, the knitting world, and issues important thereto.  That's OK--there are millions of us worldwide and the internet (dare I say?) knits us into a community however far we are flung.

 The danger in the subtitle comes from Martini's choice to make an Alice Starmore sweater, Mary Tudor, the cover girl on the book Tudor Roses.  Starmore is famous both for being a design genius, especially with fair isle colorwork, and for being very adamant about control of her work and name, to the extent of lawsuits against yarn manufacturers and web sites.  Anyone can probably do what they want in private with any published pattern, but does publishing this book invite the wrath of the designer?

The chapters follow Martini through the process of acquiring the book containing the pattern, the difficulty of finding the right yarns, the misery of multiple failures at merely counting cast on stitches correctly, the emerging beauty of the pattern's color changes, the satisfying rhythm of the later pattern repeats.  Along the way, she makes entertaining and relevant digressions into the histories of Shetland and Fair Isle knitting, Mary Tudor and her clan, Starmore's clashes with yarn makers and web discussion leaders, eBay sellers and yarn shops.  She travels to Nashville and New York to interview Ann Shayne and Kay Gardiner of Mason-Dixon Knitting, to Toronto to see Amy Singer of and  Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Yarn Harlot.

  The main question she toted along through the book like a big rock in her knitting bag was, "Does making a small change in a Starmore design (say, substituting a yarn for which the original no longer exists) still make it an Alice Starmore sweater?"  Ordinarily this is not something that preoccupies your average knitter, but Starmore has gone to extreme lengths to protect her "brand" and ownership of her creative property, and many of the pattern books are out of print. [an aside: This book may have increased the scarcity.  At this writing Tudor Roses is not available for any price on eBay or Alibris.] The original yarns have not been available for years.

The wisest answer was given by the good ol' Harlot:
I saw an Alice Starmore online, one of her cable ones, knit out of--just hold on to something to steady yourself--Red Heart acrylic yarn in the Fiesta colorway.  It was rainbow variegated.  It was blinding.  I bet when Alice Starmore saw that, it was so far from her vision that she was like, "please do not call this an Alice Starmore.  That is clearly your interpretation."  But she wrote the pattern.  They are all her cables.  And that person could say that they had not departed at all...
Sometimes I have bad, dirty feelings if I use, like, a pattern distributed by Berroco and not Berroco yarn...I probably only feel that way because I've seen a couple of my patterns knit in ways that I had never imagined and thought, "This is not my vision."
At that point I remember what my mother used to say to me, which is that one of the central tenets of a happy person is that when they give something away, they cease to care what happens to it.  I struggle with that.
Publishing is not giving away, and certainly no one should profit by stealing another person's idea or creation.  But publishing is turning your creation loose in the world and people will make of it what they will according to their own ideas and capabilities.  No matter how tight your grasp, you cannot maintain total control.  Hanne Falkenberg, the Danish knit designer has always kept control of her work by selling it only in kit form.  Alice and Jade Starmore now do the same by selling kits for many of the old designs plus some new ones on their web site Virtual Yarns.  (and I am developing a serious lust for Oregon, Beadwork, and Dunadd.)

This is a rather specialized book, and probably your knitting group rather than your book group would want to read it.  But to me it was as addictive as a detective story--I carried it around with me everywhere on the off chance I would have a few minutes to read a little bit more.  Adrienne Martini got up inside my head, added some great information furniture, rearranged some of what was already there, and stirred some cobwebs.  I now may refer to my Winter Sunset cardigan as my Winter Sunset inspired cardigan.

And you may take this blog, print it out and decoupage it to your toilet seat.  Feel Free.  But if I see you're selling Ptarmigan Ptoilets on Etsy you will hear from my lawyer.


  1. Ptarmigan Ptoilets are a fabulous idea.

    Thanks so much for the review and it was a pleasure to get in your head.


  2. Excellent book review Kathy -I think I will go pick up that book!!!