Potter Craft, 2009 (207 pages)
$30.00 US/$39.00 Canada
I realized long ago that I am a process knitter. You know - a dozen or more WIPs at any given time, FOs a rarity. What appeals to me is the contemplation of color as I work, the rhythms of lace patterning, and above all the feel of wool, silk, mohair or linen moving through my hands. The pure tactile pleasure of knitting is the perfect antidote to the non-manual work I do all day. Softest merino to rugged lopi, I love wool in all its variety. It's no surprise that spinning is my latest enthusiasm. What could be better than handling yarn? Handling unspun fiber.
Over the years my fingers have learned to distinguish and appreciate different fibers. I know the feel of alpaca or silk now without reading labels. My hands actually get bored - one reason I have so many projects on the needles is so I can switch from the fiber my hands are tired of to something new: wool to linen, cotton to alpaca.
We can educate our eyes and palates and learn to see and taste with more discernment, and we can do the same for our sense of touch. Enter Clara Parkes' new book, The Knitter's Book of Wool. It's a celebration of sheep and wool diversity, and an appreciation of the farmers and small mills who maintain it and get it into the hands of knitters and spinners. You can read Parkes' portraits of nine farm yarns that inspired the book at her Knitter's Review website here.
The first two chapters cover wool anatomy and processing. Parkes explains wool's physical structure and qualities, including those that determine what we think of as "softness." She describes commercial sorting, cleaning, spinning and dyeing processes, and how those affect wool fibers and the resulting yarns. There's a page of useful tips for judging the quality and potential of commercial wool yarns (they involve shaking, tugging, and smelling the skein, among other things). A chapter on wool blends discusses how other fibers like silk, mohair, bison, and bamboo can enhance a wool-based yarn by adding shine, drape, halo, or strength.
The meat of the book is a 40-page encyclopedia of sheep breeds. Parkes classifies them into five broad categories based on fiber fineness, staple length, crimp, luster, suitability for next-to-skin wear, and felting qualities. Within each category are six to twelve representative breeds. Each gets a short description, accompanied by a checklist of its fiber qualities, a drawing of the sheep, and photos of a lock of fiber and (usually) finished yarn. I liked reading a mini-history of each breed, but then I was once a sheep farmer myself. (Suffolks, for meat. I didn't know until I read this book that Suffolks have nice wool.) The breed's suitability for certain spinning techniques and garment types is mentioned briefly. Spinners will love seeing the lock photos, which show crimp and luster.
View full list of patterns
The yarns used are either widely-available commercial yarns, or farm yarns that have reasonable availability - no impossible-to-get boutique yarns. All are chosen to demonstrate the breed and processing differences Parkes describes, and she offers notes on making substitutions. The pattern photos are adequate, if not excellent; they all have a misty, low-light look that is atmospheric but doesn't always show off the designs and colors well. Patterns include charts and schematics where appropriate. Errata are listed here. (You can see a dozen of the pattern photos at KnitPicks.)
There's a useful resource section at the back of the book with a list of all the producers mentioned, a list of wool processors and custom spinners in case you're tempted to buy a fleece, information on preventing moth damage, and a short glossary of wool terminology.
Parkes also provides a list of notable fiber festivals around the country. Have you been to one yet? They are great fun - you get to meet the sheep and their farmers, handle fleeces, processed fiber and yarn, and hang out with other fiber fanatics.
I wish there'd been more information on specific farms, but I suppose really the idea is to make your own discoveries. A great place to start seeking out farm yarns in your area is the Local Harvest website, which lists family fiber farms all over the country. (They also have an online fiber store.) If there isn't one nearby, try your local farmer's market (there are a few yarn producers at markets in my county). In summer, you'll find fiber farmers and their animals at your county fair.
The Knitter's Book of Wool is a great excuse to try some new yarns and appreciate the different qualities they'll bring to your knitting. Amazon agrees; it's on their 100 Best Books of 2009 list. You can download two free patterns (a hat pattern from the book, and a bonus child's pullover) and read more about Clara Parkes' inspiration and goals for the book here.
If you've read this far, welcome to the blog! I'll be posting book reviews here, along with Knitfinder news, random musings, and the occasional interview and guest post. Let me know what you think, and if you haven't yet seen the Knitfinder pattern indexes and resource pages, go take a look around.