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.


  1. thanks so much for this in-depth review. I had not planned on buying the book because I doubted I would ever wear one of these sweaters, although I made one many years ago. But the photo of the Maidenhair wrap may sway me to finally own the book -- as you say, the patterning is pure genius!

  2. A very good review. For some inexplicable reason
    the new book doesn't appeal to me as much as the
    original. I think some of the photographs in the new one are a bit "twee"
    AS is full of self-importance.
    She tweaked knitting stitches into intricate cables,she didn't invent knitting, nor are her
    patterns a formula for world peace.Barbara Walker and Elsebeth Lavold.did similar patterns.
    I'm not denigrating her,but if I was talking to her I'd say "it's knitting get over yourself"

  3. What a great review. I bought the book for the history.