Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book review: Alice Starmore’s Aran Knitting

aran-knitting-cover Aran Knitting, by Alice Starmore
Dover Publications, 2010 (224 pages)
ISBN 978-0486478425
$29.95 US
Buy from    Ravelry link

This book is the long-awaited new edition of Starmore’s 1997 book of the same name, originally published by Interweave Press. Since used copies of the original edition were fetching in the hundreds of dollars, this paperbound reprint is welcome and a bargain.

There are four parts to the book – an introductory 50 pages of historical background on Aran Isle and Aran knitting; a 50-page stitch dictionary of cable patterns;  the pattern collection; and a concise but thorough guide to designing a traditional saddle-shoulder Aran sweater yourself. All the designs are available here as kits from Starmore’s Virtual Yarns.

The background on Aran Isle itself is interesting, but it’s the Aran knitting tradition that Starmore is most concerned with – she takes on the task of debunking the mythology of its origins, starting from a careful examination of Aran sweaters in museum collections. Her conclusion is that Aran sweaters are a development that can be attributed to a single knitter, who added what we think of as Aran stitch patterns to a traditional Scottish gansey. In a new preface for this edition, Starmore examines the original book’s impact and popularity of Aran patterns since its publication.


The dictionary of  60+ traditional Aran stitch patterns at the front of the book is presented from a design point of view – it’s nicely arranged by type, with big swatch photos, charts, and drawings demonstrating techniques needed to work the stitches. You won’t find tips for correcting mistakes or preventing problems like loose background stitches next to a cable, however.

The patterns

Let’s talk about the patterns, which are the real reason to buy this book. There are 15 designs here: 6 adult pullovers, 2 children’s pullovers, 3 ladies’ cardigans, 2 throws or wraps, and 2 hats – one for adults, one for children. Most, if not all, of the pullovers are suitable for, and sized for, men or women. There's a variety of gauges - yarn weights vary from fingering to Aran/heavy worsted. (Check the Knitfinder Starmore pattern index for details on all the patterns – just type “Aran Knitting” in the Location column search box.)

Killeany sweater & Galway hat

There’s nothing avant-garde about the structure of these sweaters. Almost all the pullovers are classic unshaped, saddle-shoulder designs worked flat in pieces and seamed. Eala Bhan is the only design with waist shaping, and only one, Boudicca’s Braid, is multicolored.

Really, the sweaters are canvases for an orgy of intricate cablework– and Starmore is masterful at this. The patterning may be bold and high-relief as in Aranmor or Na Craga, or gloriously intricate as in Irish Moss – but it’s always harmonious and well-arranged. Some of the designs have cables inspired by Celtic ornament, with its braids, knots and fretwork.

Maidenhair wrap in Virtual Yarns Hebridean 3-ply

Closed-ring cables

This Celtic cablework  is composed of closed loops, instead of traveling lines that have a beginning and ending, like traditional cable patterns. To work them, you increase several stitches suddenly in order to begin the loop, and decrease suddenly to end it. In her 1972 book Charted Knitting Designs [Ravelry link], Barbara Walker introduced this technique as “some really new ideas in cables.” She called them closed-ring cables, and invented and charted about two dozen patterns for them, including several with a distinctly Celtic look.

Two of Barbara Walker's closed-ring cable panels

Starmore calls these cables “infinite lines;” she devised her techniques for them in order to reproduce the Celtic ornament of her Gaelic heritage in several designs for The Celtic Collection (1992), like Cromarty. Three Aran Knitting designs, St. Enda, St. Brigid, and St. Ciarán, use these knotwork patterns to glorious effect.

Other designers have also worked with these loop cables. Like Starmore, Elsebeth Lavold used them to reproduce traditional graphic pattern – in her case, Viking runes and ornamental stone carving – in Viking Patterns for Knitting (1998) [Ravelry link].

Most recently, Melissa Leapman has devoted a whole book to them: Continuous Cables (2008) [Ravelry link]. Her book has an excellent how-to section, a very good pattern collection, and a stitch dictionary with almost 90 closed-ring panels, motifs and horizontal bands that you can incorporate into your own designs, all of them charted, with swatch photographs. Here are two sweaters from Leapman's book:

Cables & knots pullover
Entwined circles pullover

New and old editions compared

If you’re familiar with the 1997 edition of Aran Knitting, you will find differences. The Dover edition is revised to use Starmore’s currently available proprietary yarns, and there is new sizing for several of the patterns.  There are new photographs of many of the designs in the Virtual Yarns yarns (photos and styling are by Alice Starmore’s daughter Jade), so there is a mix of photos old and new. There is one new pattern – pre-publication publicity said there were two, but only one made it into print. (I wonder what the story is there?)

The patterns themselves have been revised to reflect the new yarns – in many cases gauges are slightly different from those in the older book. The yarns called for in the original edition are not given. Patterns with changes in the new edition are:

  • Sweaters with sizes added: Aranmor, Irish Moss, St. Brigid, and Boudicca’s Braid each have one additional size added – smaller, in all cases. Na Craga has two smaller sizes added.
  • Sweaters with slight gauge and size differences due to yarn change: Aranmor, Na Craga, Irish Moss, St. Enda, St. Brigid, Boudicca’s Braid.
  • New design: There is one new pattern, Eala Bhan, a feminine, fitted cardigan in four sizes with elaborate cable patterning and a small shawl collar. It’s knitted in Virtual Yarns Hebridean 2-ply.
Killeany, Fulmar, Maidenhair and Sigil are unchanged. I’m not sure about the hat and throw patterns; they may have slight gauge differences as well.

One note about the yarn requirements: patterns call for so many balls and/or so many grams of the required yarn - no yardage requirements are given, and there's no list of the Alice Starmore yarns with their fiber content, put-up and yardage anywhere in the book. For that information, check the Knitfinder Starmore resources page.

Eala Bhan - new pattern for this edition

If you like to knit cablework, Aran Knitting should be on your shelf. Whatever you think of the text portions of the book – Starmore is not shy in her opinions, and you may not agree with them – the patterns are pure genius, and knitting a few of them would make you a very accomplished cable knitter.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lambtown U.S.A.

I spent Saturday at  Lambtown USA, in Dixon, California. Here’s the story in pictures. Lambtown isn’t just a fiber festival – it’s a celebration of sheep and lamb and all their gifts to us. Sheep are shown and judged,
Shetland ram
shearing contest
and even ridden:
looking for a customer
Lamb is cooked

and eaten, with gusto, by both fair attendees and competitive types:
eating contest
Last year there were sheepdog trials too, but this year they were unaccountably missing. The fair is pretty fiber-centric, really. There’s fleece judging, and a competition for handspun yarns and garments made from handspun:

fleece judging in progress

prize-skeins-2 winning-skeins

I visited with friends while watching the judging – Sarah got some spinning time in and showed us how easily the perfect center-pull ball comes off her adorable Turkish spindle:

Somehow I neglected to take pictures of the rest of the crew of friends I spent the day with – so sorry, folks!
I enjoy the sheep-to-shawl competition. It’s a team event – each team receives a big bag of washed, dyed fleece, and the object is to card it, spin it, and weave it into a shawl by the end of the day. The best shawl wins – and size matters too:
carding sheep-to-shawl2
sheep-to-shawl3 sheep-to-shawl5

The market  was heavy on spinning fiber and fleece – with mostly smaller vendors, including several with no or minimal Web presence who had wonderful wares, like Gone Batty:

I did not come home empty handed:
merino-alpaca-silk-Shetland-angora batt
Optim from Chameleon Colorworks
And even though it’s called Lambtown, alpacas were in evidence too – look at the beautiful coats on these suris:

and indeed they were judged too:
And there you have it – a great day all around.