April 18, 2006

The Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning

Originally, I wanted to title this review "Lunch with Alden Amos". I had read a little bit of it before I bought my wheel, but after I got my wheel I dedicated most of my lunchtimes to reading this book, sure that I was going to get an incredible discussion of how to spin.

However, if you buy this book thinking that you are going to learn to spin from it, you will probably be disappointed. It contains a treasure trove of information, but it really isn't a "how to" book in the way most people think of them. When I first got the book I thought it looked an awful lot like a text book. And, in fact, a textbook is what it really is. It's a book meant to appeal to your inner spinning engineer -- full of terminology explained and generall process outlined. And if you're like me, your inner spinning engineer is always looking for opportunities to break free.

Organizationally, the book will make sense to most spinners. It starts with a "why spin" section, covers the basics of the "big 4 fibers" (wool, cotton, flax and silk) and then moves on to fiber preparation, fiber properties, carding and spinning tools, spinning wheel mechanics, a general discussion of spinning and how to relate your singles to the yarn you want to prepare, yarn handling tools and plying. It ends with a collection of schematics for tools for those of you who in addition to a spinning habit also have a wood-working workshop or know someone who might do that sort of thing.

When I first started reading this book, I was looking for technique. How could I create a single ply yarn that I liked? How could I learn to control the diameter of my singles? Exactly how much twist is the right amount of twist? But this book didn't really have any of that. Instead, it focuses on the conceptual issues related to fiber preparation and spinning. What is the process that a fleece takes to becoming prepared fiber for spinning? How do you select the right tools for the job you are planning to do? It introduces you to terms like "twist", "grist" and "TPI" that provide you with the vocabulary and the measuring skills that you need to be able to compare your yarn to other yarns and help you determine how much you need to spin in order to complete a project. It gives you a fairly exhaustive discussion of spinning wheel types and the mechanics of how particular wheels work so that you can understand which weels might be best for your intended application. You'll learn the difference between an umbrella swift and a reel, what consititutes a "good skein" and the dynamics required for good plying.

Nowhere in the book will you be told how to spin other than in relatively general terms.

However, as I began to work my way through the book, I also got my wheel, and a spinning lesson. Teaching your hands to spin is a relatively easy process. But learning how to describe your yarn or what all the parts of your wheel do are things that require a new vocabulary. This book not only provides that vocabulary, but gives you a lot of food for thought about getting the most out of your tools, thinking through your projects from start to finish, and being realistic about what you can expect a certain fiber to do.

This book could be unremittingly dull if it was just about spinning-related equations and cut-and-dried descriptions of spinning wheel parts and the like. Instead, it actually turns out to be a pretty good read because you get a healthy dose of Alden Amos' personality (some have complained that he spends too much time on digressions, but most of those are in footnotes that you can choose to ignrore). If you're one of those people who don't like technical book authors to have opinions, you probably won't enjoy reading this book as much as I did. For instance, it's easy to be offended listening to his somewhat negative opinions of double treadle wheels and the spinners who use them after purchasing your shiny new Lendrum DT. Alden Amos clearly has opinions on everything spinning-related. That said, he usually provides a lot of support for why he has the opinions he does. In other words, his opinions come as a result of much experience. Thus, you can determine for yourself whether those things matter to you. For instance, for me, the "extra effort" of the double treadle is something that I like because it helps me keep a nice rhythm between my hands and feet and I am not a production spinner. For Alden, that extra effort is wasted effort. And if I were spinning for production reasons, I would probably have a similar point of view.

This book is the kind of book that you won't be able to digest in a couple of sittings. Nor is it a book that once you've read it, you'll never need to look through it again. Instead, it's a technical fiber preparation and spinning guide that you will refer to time and time again. I'd consider it a book best suited for the "apprentice" spinner -- someone who has done enough spinning to know how to know how the basics work, but is looking to understand the science behind it a bit better, to start speaking in the termnology that other spinners understand and to describe yarns in a way that is much more precise than terms like "sport weight". It's a book for people who want to think about the process of spinning as opposed to the product.

For the average knitter it will be of relatively little interest other than as a technical spinning glossary unless you are looking for an in depth understanding of what's involved in getting unprepared fiber to the point where you can knit with it. For the handspinner still in the earlier phases of the learning curve, I'd put this book in the "must have" category, and I think it would likely be a great reference for more experienced handspinners as well.

Posted by Theresa at 3:20 PM | Comments (3)
This entry was posted in the following categories: Excellent, But Specialty (***) , Spinning Books

February 19, 2006

Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter

I suspect that for many of you, reviewing Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter will be unnecessary since I know from surfing the blogs that this is one of the more popular books about knitting and knitters to come out last year. I received it for Christmas (a girl has to have a few books on her Amazon wish list for family to select from) and kept it with me in my bag to pull out when I was on the bus or in a waiting room. It's compact and light and makes a nice travelling companion, as books go. Also, the essays are short enough to be digested and enjoyed when you only have a small amount of time -- as long as you don't mind people around you looking at you funny when you break out into laughter from one of Stephanie's "oh! that's so true!" moments.

I found it really interesting to look over the review for this book on Amazon. Clearly, a number of people did not see this book the same way that I did. Or at least did not see the humor in some of the obssessive compulsive disorders that knitters are especially prone to. Clearly, many of the essays are a bit "over the top", but I think that is to make the point clear and add to the humor of the moment. I think most humor relies on exaggerating an everyday situation, and that is clearly a part of Stephanie's essays in this book. Most knitters will be able to find themselves in one or more of these vignettes. I suspect that most of us have been so excited about completeing a knitted piece that we've been tempted to show it to complete strangers, that many knitters have a constant battle with the stash growing in their closets and have conisidered the use of the mostly empty chest freezer in the basement as additional storage, and that there is almost no knitter out there who hasn't taken on a project a little too ambitious on a deadline. It's these kind of themes that Stephanie brings up throughout the book. And there is nothing quite as fun as reading about a situation that seems like it could come from a page in one's own diary.

One thing I haven't seen mentioned much is that this book does have a serious side. In fact, my favorite essays in the book are not really the humorous ones. I think my favorite sketches were "The Thing About Socks" which describes why we put so much work into something that we know is ephemeral; "What Her Hands Won't Do" in which a dedicated knitter must give up her hobbies because of a debilitating disease; "One Little Sock" a very poignant story that brings together Stephanie's knitting and birthing experiences; and "What She Gave Me" wherein Stephanie talks about what she gained from a difficult grandmother. While there are little glimpses of humor in most of these pieces, most of them are thoughtful and definitely down-tempo and helps the reader see knitting in a slightly different light. The more serious pieces are intermixed throughout the humourous pieces in the book, which seems appropriate. In knitting, as in life, there are always serious reflective moments.

And I think that really sums up the real reason I like this book. It engages both your sense of humor and your serious side and helps you reflect on where you prioritize knitting in your own life. It also makes you realize that you are not alone in the world -- so many of us share exactly the same experiences, whether they be never being able to find a tape measure in your house or becoming obsessive about a missing knitting needle. And in this way, Stephanie's book makes the knitter realize that he or she is part of a much bigger knitting community and we can all laugh about our little foibles together.

Posted by Theresa at 4:00 PM | Comments (2)
This entry was posted in the following categories: Gotta Have It (****) , Portable/Good for Travelling , Writing About Knitting

January 18, 2006

Teddy Bears

This is mostly for Theresa who was asking about this book in her post today.  It's a mini-review of  Teddy Bears by Debbie Bliss which includes 25 designs for knitted bears.

The bears are all knit with Rowan dk weight yarns from what I could tell, but I suppose you could size them up or down depending on whatever yarn you had.  Many of the actual bears look similar, although there is a garter stitch bear thrown in and a couple of colorwork bears too.  Many of the bears have little outfits, some quite elaborate!   

I haven't knit any of these up yet, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the patterns or the ease of following them, but the bears are super cute and so are the outfits.  In fact, when I pulled out the book to write this up, Maddie asked if I'd knit her some of them.  I haven't looked at this book in a while, but Theresa's post today has gotten me thinking.  Bears and handspun may just be a great match!

Posted by Julie at 12:18 PM | Comments (1)
This entry was posted in the following categories: Excellent, But Specialty (***) , Pattern Collection

January 13, 2006

Wendy Knits

Last night I stayed up late finishing Wendy Knits by none other than our prolific knitblogging buddy -- Wendy!  I have to say that this is a knitting book unlike any other that I have read.  It's not a pattern book (although it contains 20 great patterns) and it's not a book of knitting tips (although it contains a ton of great knitting tips).  So what is it?  I would have to say that it's the story of a knitter. 

My favorite chapter may be the first chapter titled "I Knit, Therefore I Am."  What it really is, is the story of the genesis of Wendy the knitter.  We all have that story -- the tale of how the wool and needles called us and I find that fascinating. 

The following chapters cover different aspects of Wendy's knitting life -- everything from how she got started blogging to what it means to be a fiber snob to knitting for charity.  Some things may be well known to loyal readers such as myself and some will be new, but everything is interesting and much is sprinkled with useful tips.  Almost an entire chapter is devoted to needles (and other tools) and their storage!

The patterns may be recognizable to her readers too.  We have seen the beautiful "chocolate mint chip" sweater take shape, and now here is the pattern!  (Made with Koigu -- drool. . .)  Wendy's gorgeous Grape Arbor Shawl is included too.  In fact, projects range from the easiest of all -- a garter stitch dishcloth -- to more complicate lace, cables and colorwork.  There is truly something for everyone here.

And one final note.  I have to tell you that I loved the final chapter on spinning.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's because that's where I'm at right now in my fiber journey -- discovering the joy of turning fiber into yarn -- but I found her enthusiasm for this subject was really apparent. 

Posted by Julie at 1:07 PM | Comments (2)
This entry was posted in the following categories: Gotta Have It (****) , Knitting Books

December 31, 2005

The Art of Knitting

The book is called The Art of Knitting and it was written by Francoise Tellier-Loumagne (in French originally, but it has been translated into English).  The sub title is "Inspirational Stitches, Textures, and Surfaces" and that is a great explanation for what this book is all about. 

The basic format is this -- there is a graph with a basic stitch pattern, following that  is a diagram of the pattern (this is in a format strange to me, but very useful in describing what the yarn "does" in a particular stitch pattern), then there is an illustrated representation of the knitted fabric.  Next is the incredible part -- there are *numerous* photos of the stitch pattern knit with different materials including many different yarns and sometimes combinations of yarns.  It is a visual treat!

The book is massive with over 300 pages, 600 color photos and hundreds of diagrams.  There aren't any "patterns" in here, it's more of a collection of ideas that will inspire and hopefully get you creating your own knitwear!

Really -- check this book out!  I think that you will be glad that you did!

Posted by Julie at 11:46 AM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Excellent, But Specialty (***) , Technical Reference