I have here Clara Parkes' new The Knitter's Book of Wool: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding, Using, and Loving This Most Fabulous Fiber. I've been wanting to write about it for weeks—and actually have been making notes in this file for that long—but life got in the way. This is not a book I wanted to do a quick mention-and-run on (I've already mentioned it, because of my delay). Now I have the pleasure of sharing some of my thoughts.
Short take: Thanks, Clara, for explaining so clearly and well a lot of wool-geeky topics that knitters will find essential to their happy and effective use of this amazing fiber. And for the great collection of patterns. Readers, it's a treat. If someone doesn't give it to you in the next couple of weeks, treat yourself in January. It'll cheer you through the sloggy part of winter and get you ready for shearing season—oh, I mean festival time.
[FTC disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author because she asked me some questions about a few tricky matters as she was writing it and I gave her the best answers I could come up with. She asked very good questions that required me to put some interesting thoughts together. It was fun. I also have a bias in favor of Clara's writing. She's smart. She's clear. She's witty. I say those things not because she sent me a book but because they're true.]
Chapter 5, Patterns
Being somewhat contrarian, I began my excursion into the book's pages with chapter 5, the patterns. I have been digging into the qualities and varieties of wools for a very long time, and I skipped to the hands-on portion before I eased into the technical material.
There are 23 patterns, and if that's all you buy the book for you'll get your money's worth. The designs have been planned to offer opportunities for experimenting with the varying qualities of wool yarns—at least, of those wool yarns that knitters are likely to find most appealing (weavers are another story, and another book). The projects are mostly at the easy to intermediate skill levels, with a handful at the experienced end.
Contributing designers include Pam Allen, Cat Bordhi, M. Diane Brown, Nancy Bush, Evelyn Clark, Jane Cochran, Sivia Harding, Jennifer Tepper Heverly, Shelia January, Ilga Leja, Clara Parkes, and Sandi Rosner. All of these people understand their craft very well. They can devise inriguing-to-knit concepts capable of showcasing, instead of upstaging, the materials. Yet even the simplest projects contain nice, knitterly details that add a lot of appeal without unnecessary complication.
The items offered as templates for discovery are hats, sweaters, and shawls, fingerless mitts and mittens, socks, a shell, a baby set, a pillow, and a felted bag. I can't pick a favorite, because most could become standby patterns, knitted repeatedly for the simplicity and pleasure of working the design in different wools. In addition to being great in the making phase, the finished objects are the sort that will end up being used a lot. For example, the Three Bears family sweaters are perfect for playing with yarns and I could see them being worn for a very long time (made with good wools, that could be decades, possibly a couple of generations).
Of course, even though the idea is to experiment, the instructions do specify which yarns were used to knit the samples. Those yarns include solid, reliable mid-range 100% wools, interesting blends (mostly of fine fibers, which is where blending usually occurs in handknitting yarns), and some breed-specific wools, including a Perendale and a Bluefaced Leicester for socks, a couple of Cormo projects, a cardigan in Columbia, an Icelandic shawl, and Shetland for the felted bag.
There is enough information in the front of the book (about which I'll say more in a moment) to help readers select substitutes.
Chapter 1—What Is Wool?
Chapter 2—From Pasture to Pullover—Turning Wool into Yarn, and
Chapter 4—Plays Well with Others (blending)
Next I looked into the chapters on the technical aspects of wool fibers—what makes wools different from other fibers, and how we can have such a wide variety of wools, and what each of them is good for—and on wool processing and blending.
Clara has a remarkable ability to find effective explanatory metaphors for complex concepts. I admire this aptitude she has. It's in full force in these chapters, and if you want to you can even come away with an understanding of what the orthocortex and paracortex have to do with crimp (everything), in addition to, of course, what the heck crimp is and why it matters (spinners will know, but this knowledge has not been frequently offered to knitters).
My pencil came out at a few points in these chapters, in response to a mental "yes, but . . . " reaction (where the core statement was correct and I wanted to explore or refine a detail), but I'm a fiber nut and these reactions pertained to excruciatingly fine points that don't matter in the lively and engaging view that this book offers. (Example: a bit about standard deviations and wool grades. Really. The basic concept presented is correct. Only people like me will care that the SD varies for each grade in the USDA—not traditional—scale of grades, and if you care that much you probably already have the detailed info and/or have been carted off to a wool-padded cell.)
I'm especially fond of Clara's "quick tips for reading a generic wool yarn" (chapter 2), in which she tells how to evaluate by looking, shaking, tugging, smelling (yup—serious wool aficionados say "of course"), and twisting (or, rather, untwisting) a sample.
You'll gather here, appropriately, that wool is a sensual material. That's a good part of the delight in getting to know the wools, one that Clara understands thoroughly and presents well. As she points out repeatedly, getting to know a yarn is key to success in using it, and there's so much variety in wools that ultimately you have to educate yourself and then depend on your own thoughts about what a yarn will be good for.
Chapter 3: Meet the Breeds
Finally, I dug into what is for me the greatest fascination of wools: how the many different breeds offer a banquet of delights for fiber artisans. Clara talks about some of the basics of how wools differ from each other—fineness, staple length, crimp, luster, what the wool is suitable for, and felting qualities—and then divides the breeds she presents, which focus on those likely to come between knitters' fingers, into five categories: finewools, mediumwools, Down and Down-type wools, longwools, and dual-coated and primitive breeds. Wools don't always separate neatly into categories, but she offers good working clusters.
She presents a couple of descriptive paragraphs on each breed, and a box that ballparks facts about the wool. There are frequently photos of clean locks and of yarn spun from the wool. One difficulty (not under Clara's control) is that the book's design calls for the same size photo for each lock, so the Leicester Longwool and Teeswater, for example, appear to be the same length as the Merino and the Southdown. The layout is pretty and the length info is available in the "facts" box, so I'm just being picky about this.
Here are the breeds Clara covers—an excellent selection for the space available (and they're alphabetically arranged within each group):
- California Variegated Mutant (CVM)
- California Red
- Finnish Landrace (Finn)
Down and Down-type wools:
- Clun Forest
- Dorset Down
- Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset
- Bluefaced Leicester
- Border Leicester
- Leicester Longwool
Dual-coated and primitives:
- Scottish Blackface
When reading any information on wools, it's important to remember the vast diversity of fibers that are grown by different types of sheep (the variety continues to blow my mind, after all these years) and that wool is a natural substance, not one manufactured to specs. The guidelines are just that: an idea of what to expect, not rigid parameters from which the actual fibers never stray. (They do stray. It's wonderful.) The only way to tell what a wool is really like is to begin to play and experiment with it . . . which brings us back to the patterns. The book is organized logically and appropriately. I'm just an out-of-order reader.
Clara's book left me both satisfied and wanting more (more breeds; more info on the individual breeds). Which is good. Because it sends me back, energized, to The Project. EXCEPT that I want to be both spinning and ordering yarn and knitting up some of these patterns. That'll have to wait a bit. I hope not too long.
Those wools on the second drying rack from the top would make good
Three Bears sweaters (Kerry Hill and I think that's the Devon
Closewool, I've just got the photo here at the library, not the wool itself). Top right is too soft for the durability I'd want
(Polwarth). Top left would be too heavy (Dartmoor). Take a look at that
bottom right: neat-o! But not sweater wool (Rough Fell). (The dark ones
are Polwarth, very soft, and Balwen, this sample quite coarse. On the
right on the second from bottom is Gritstone.)
Hungry for wonderful wool yarns? Clara has a nice resource list, also worth getting the book for. Here's a taster of sources, three of which are in Clara's list and four of which aren't. On the farm yarns, note that they do sell out. They are limited-growth-and-production items. If what you thought you wanted is gone, there will be something equally appealing in its place. That's part of the fun.
In alpha order, here are a few places to get started:
Tip of the iceberg. Many, many more. Some growers sell (out) at festivals and don't have websites. Others sell through etsy or web-based farm coops.
Happy hunting, happy knitting. Happy reading. Let Clara show the way.