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A few of my favourite books

March 22, 2012


craft library + desk.jpg
The comments on the last post were so much fun to read, I love how enthusiastic so many of you are to share which books you like and what compelled you to choose them. Perhaps I’ve talked about this before but one of my very favourite things, beyond just crafting, is reading craft books.

For a few years as a child, the socially awkward everyone is changing pre-teen years, books were my escape from the stressful world of school and kids who were your best friend one day and worst enemy the next. I devoured books, reading pretty much every novel in the kids and teen section of our library. Including the entire Baby Sitters’ Club series to try and figure out why my friends were so obsessed with it, I remained perplexed and returned to the Chalet School, itself kind of cringeworthy, and Tamora Pierce, an author I’m still happy to read when life gets stressful.

But I split my time at the library, and my precious 6-books-can-be-taken-home-at once allowance, between the fiction and craft sections. The kid’s craft section was small and quickly exhausted, plus it annoyed me that most of the crafts looked like an adult’s idea of how kids would draw, but I found the general craft section and spent hours sitting on the floor trying to decide whether I should spend that week reading about making beads, miniature dolls, bookbinding or carpentry. Sometimes I tried out the projects, poring wistfully over the resources pages filled with companies that sold all of the perfect tools and materials before resignedly rummaging through my own supplies for things that would do instead. Regardless of the subject matter or whether I tried out any of the ideas I’d read every word and study every illustration. And when I did craft things myself I’d narrate them in my head, carefully explaining each step and why I’d decided to do it that way. Yeah… it’s such a shock that I wasn’t sure how to relate to other kids!

Over the next few years I spent less time sitting on the floor of the library and more time with friends andmuch more time agonising over what I was going to do with my life and whether I was choosing the appropriate subjects in school (for my international readers, Scotland has a much more specialised high school system than many countries). But perhaps going back to what made you happy when you were ten years old isn’t the worst thing to find yourself doing as a career. I’m pretty sure at least that I’d have been excited then to see my future desk in all its (creative?) mess surrounded by craft books.

That was a very long way to explain exactly what I mean when I say I love craft books, and here are a few that I’ve recently discovered that I think are rather wonderful.

200 Fair Isle Motifs by Mary Jane Mucklestone

The British title is 200 Fair Isle Designs and can be ordered along with gorgeous Shetland wool from the lovely people at Jamieson and Smith.

It’s a stitch dictionary of 200 traditional Fair Isle designs, by one of my favourite designers (and people). The cover really says it all, except that this is perhaps the most well thought out and user friendly stitch dictionary I’ve ever encountered. They should all just copy this, I promise not to mock them for imitation, I’ll just be pleased. It begins with a short but useful guide to the essential skills of Fair Isle knitting: choosing appropriate yarn and tools, working stranded colour work in the round, yarn dominance (if you don’t know what this means and you want to try Fair Isle you should find out, it’s the biggest thing that will lead to a result you can be proud of), steeking, and then a little about colour theory and design principles for planning garments.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the stitch patterns themselves, and the way this is organised is genius. It’s split into two sections, first there’s a design selector, simply showing photographs of swatches of all 200 designs with a number and page reference, a nice touch is that the pages of this section have coloured backgrounds, effectively meaning that the edge of the pages are coloured and the section can be easily turned to.

200 fair isle motifs selector.jpg

Following is the design directory itself, showing charts for the patterns on one side with photos of the swatches opposite. The patterns are arranged in a very particular order, by number of rows and then by number of stitches. This is not just because it looks very neat and organised. It means that if you are choosing patterns for, say a jumper, and you know that the number of stitches you need is a multiple of eight then you can immediately narrow your selection down to just patterns that are worked over a multiple of 2, 4 or 8 stitches. As Mary Jane explains in the first section of the book, row number is significant because Fair Isle patterns are traditionally grouped by row number into Peeries (which literally means small, doesn’t that just sound like a word that means cute little thing?), border patterns and large patterns (which I don’t think are ever called Muckles, but it would be kind of fun if they were). Having the patterns conveniently arranged by number of rows means you could easily pick out peerie patterns to arrange between larger patterns on your jumper.

The charts for every pattern are given in several formats. First there’s a simple black and white chart of a single pattern repeat (ie. the pattern distilled to it’s simplest form), followed by a chart using the colours in the featured swatch. This is particularly useful for patterns with many rows as it shows how the colours can be striped. Then there is a suggested colour variation that illustrates how different the same pattern can look with a simple change in colour. Finally there is a chart showing a suggested all over repeat, which has been thoughtfully matched to the actual pattern in question, sometimes showing a simple horizontal repeat, sometimes also how the patterns can be arranged vertically by staggering or mirroring repeats.

200 fair isle motifs charts.jpg

As I said, this is an exemplary approach to a stitch dictionary. I only had a couple of fairly minor issues. It would have been really nice if the stitch and row counts for each pattern had been included in the design selector, given that that information is so often crucial to the selection of these types of patterns. It was nice to see such a wide example of colours in the sample swatches, but I did find a few of them difficult to “read” because the photographed colours appear too close in value to each other. On the whole though, and having taken photographs of multiple swatches and having some idea of how difficult it can be, I think they did a generally good job with the photography.

It’s a simple stitch dictionary yes, but 200 Fair Isle Designs manages to be both wonderfully inspiring and exceptionally useful.

The Principles of Knitting (2nd edition) by June Hemmons Hiatt (there’s a contest at that link, by the way!)

I’m not sure there has even been as much excitement surrounding the re-publication of a long out of print knitting book as this one, it’s certainly the only one that could give Alice Starmore’s work any competition in that contest. I happened to be sitting in Fancy Tiger’s office when their first copies arrived and may have grabbed a copy before they’d even unboxed them. And then I almost dropped it because wow that is a giant book, regretfully I decided that it wasn’t worth paying excess baggage charges for. They let me leaf through it, and I managed to find enough exciting bits that I tweeted

“got my hands on the ENORMOUS principles of knitting, already having a heated argument. My goal is not to hide that my sweaters are hand knit”.

Honestly, I didn’t mean that as a negative review, I was pretty thrilled to find a knitting book that I can have a heated argument with. Yes, Hiatt, has opinions and I don’t always agree with them, but she explains her reasoning in a way that really does make reading it feel like a passionate discussion. That tweet was in reference to a section on using the steeking technique to hide the shaping on a piece of flat knitting within a selvedge that would later be cut off, I still cannot fathom why one would want to make their hand knit garment resemble a cut and sewn mass produced one, but perhaps someone can explain. However, when I happily found an easier to carry version I could download to the iPad I discovered many other passages that made me want to buy the author a drink. I was delighted to read this, for example.

“There is nothing more important to the fit of any garment you knit than an accurate stitch gauge”

The following advice about swatching is extensive and sensible, although I didn’t find the suggestions given as revolutionary as the introduction would suggest “if you are one of the many knitters who do make Gauge Swatches, but have problems trying to match the gauge for a pattern, or are frustrated by things that still do not fit quite right, I want to reassure you that the problem does not rest with you – it is that the methods recommended for finding gauge are flawed and unreliable.” That is likely a result of the differing contexts of the two editions and, given the large numbers of knitters I meet in the workshops I teach who have not considered the factors that can affect gauge, anything that will promote more helpful and accurate swatching is an excellent thing. In addition, Hiatt’s extensive explanations of not just what those factors are, but why they can cause issues should help knitter’s to better understand their knitting and she goes through a huge number of potential swatching situations in great detail. Yay swatching!


It was also nice to see some discussion of the problems with simple top-down garments “the dimensions of a fabric change when it is dressed the first time, so trying on a garment as it emerges from the needles does not usually provide a very accurate sense of how it will really fit later.” This is certainly true, as is the argument that working a top down raglan with evenly worked paired increases along each raglan line constrains the proportions of the garment in a way that is unlikely to match the body, especially across a range of sizes. However, I don’t think it’s fair to extrapolate these issues to the dismissive “working entirely in the round from the top down imposes a compromise in terms of how well the garment will fit, although the results can be reasonably successful in a loose garment because a knitted fabric is forgiving”. The key, in my opinion, is that for well fitted garments it’s crucial that the construction doesn’t dictate the proportions.

This is the second edition of the book, and I honestly have no idea how much it differs from the first because I’ve never encountered the earlier edition. What has changed dramatically, however, is the context in which it is appearing. There are now so many resources available to knitters of all skill levels interested in learning new techniques that it’s not surprising that one of the questions I’ve seen come up the most regarding this book is whether it’s really needed anymore, beyond finding out what all of the fuss is about. Firstly, and this is coming from someone who considers a stitch dictionary bedtime reading, it’s an interesting read. Secondly, it’s incredibly comprehensive and you’ll almost certainly discover something new, and maybe something to enjoy arguing with as well. Online videos, blog tutorials and Ravelry discussions can be excellent and often far more detailed ways to learn new techniques than reference books. However, the downfall of relying only on those resources is that it can be difficult to get a sense of the broader picture, to see perhaps how different cast ons compare to each other in properties and use not just how to work each one. I often recommend to newer knitters that they use a reference book to find out what they want to learn and then refer to the internet or other knitters if they struggle to learn the technique from the short description, or for more discussion. This certainly isn’t the only general knitting reference, my most used over the years has probably been Montse Stanley’s Handknitter’s Handbook, but it may well be the most comprehensive. It definitely goes into much more detail about garment design than the other general references available. Just a word of warning, I did find that Hiatt frequently gives techniques her own name. In some ways this is sensible – her names are often much more descriptive than the commonly used one, but it might make it hard to find what you’re looking for. Magic loop, for example, is referred to as “looped needle technique”. Do you need it with all of the other resources available? Probably not, but I’m certain you’ll find it interesting. (Apologies for the lack of page references here, I haven’t yet added the print copy to my library and the page numbers in the digital one change depending on text size – ie. they’re completely useless).

Mary Jane’s book reminded me of visiting Jamieson and Smith a few years ago with her and of the yarn and knitting belt I picked up there. Yesterday evening I dug the knitting belt out, took Hiatt’s advice that “every knitter consider learning at least two [knitting] methods; three is even better” and tried practising with it – learning a new knitting style is SO HARD, but I’m starting to see the appeal and I’m going to try and take some video showing my usual knitting style and with the belt. In the mean time, here is the world’s fastest knitter using one (I am NOT that fast, don’t give up on this hobby completely!).

When I started writing this post I had a couple of sewing books sitting on my desk, but I think this is long enough for now and that they deserve their own dedicated post. One other thing I did briefly want to mention, if you’re interested in reading some fascinating knitting history is issue 2 of Kate Davies’ digital magazine Textisles which I enjoyed immensely. There are a couple of adorable patterns in addition to articles by Kate and Susan Crawford.

Have you had a chance to check out either of these books yet? I’d love to know what you think.


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