Monday, November 9, 2009

Slow Wool

Review: The Knitter's Book of Wool, by Clara Parkes
Potter Craft, 2009 (207 pages)
ISBN 978-0-307-35217-0
$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.

The rest of the book - a little more than half - is devoted to patterns, 23 of them, by twelve designers, including Nancy Bush, Pam Allen, Cat Bordhi, and Evelyn Clark. There are two hats, three sock patterns, one for fingerless mitts and one for colorwork mittens. You'll find seven sweaters, including a lacy shell, a baby kimono, one pullover each for men and children, and two cardigans and a pullover for women. Lace wraps are well represented, with two triangular shawls, a lace scarf, and two stoles. Two colorwork patterns, a pillow cover and a tote bag, round out the selection. There's something here for every skill level. 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.)

Standout patterns for me are Parkes' simple, lofty Sweet Fern fingerless mitts, Ilga Leja's Leafy Glen shell (above) in Sea Wool or MerLin, and Sivia Harding's beaded Tibetan Clouds stole. I also love Shelia January's triangular shawl (right) in Icelandic laceweight. I'd be tempted to knit it in unspun Icelandic instead, a yarn I find impossible to resist. It's a bit odd to knit with at first but wearing an unspun shawl is like wrapping yourself in a cloud.

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.


  1. I just got this book last week but haven't been able to give it a proper read through. This is an excellent review - it'll really help me to focus the next time I read it.
    I never thought of my hands "getting bored" before but you're right! That explains the need to switch up projects. Excellent blog!

  2. Excellent review! It's been so long since I sat down to spin, but I know that eventually I will make the time - sitting down with this for the first time and the entire reference section (after thinking to just give it a skim!) it was a good indicator, I think ;) Thanks very much also for the tip on using Local Harvest for fiber farms and yarn - yay!

  3. I love the idea of of training our sense of touch to be more discerning. I, too, hadn't thought about hands getting bored--thanks for bringing up these ideas. I look forward to looking at this book, and to reading more reviews on the blog!

  4. Such a pleasure to read intelligent reviewing. I'll never knit, though my mother tried valiantly to interest me in learning. But I read, and this review interests me in the book far more than poor Mom interested me in knitting.

  5. Great review, Therese! Welcome to the blogosphere.

  6. What an interesting idea-hands getting bored. I've always wondered why anyone would be bored when there are so many things to do but I guess one of the things to do is to change yarn when your appendages are bored.