Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I realized the other day that I've been doing a great deal of (mostly) non-fiction reading lately, generally in two areas: knitting, and food. And in so doing, I've acquired a number of books, all of which I am very pleased with and am delighted to have in my permanent library (assuming that Tilly doesn't re-enter the book-chewing phase; so far, so good -- knock on wood for me, please). So, I thought that it might be fun to talk about them here once in a while (when, for example, I am knitting lace which is increasingly unphotogenic), and to hear what you all think of them if you have them or have read them, and to get more suggestions for books that I "need". (This last bit could be dangerous, I realize.)

Last week, I got a package (hooray for packages!), which contained a copy of Knitting the Threads of Time: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft, by Nora Murphy. I decided that even though it was the middle of the day, I could call it "research" and promptly made myself a cup of tea and sat down to read. I'd rather thought that this might be my kind of book, based on the back cover and the descriptions I'd read, but by page four, she had me hooked. One of the things that I'm most looking forward to when I finally do the knitting survey and get to read everyone's answers is to hear why people knit. And because I've been anticipating that, I've been thinking about why I knit, and about what drew me to knitting (and, I should mention, to spinning and cooking as well). And Nora Murphy pretty much said it for me:

"What these modern artists [that would be us] often don't see are the remnants of an ancient lineage to which they belong. The grandmother, the young mother, and the girls are all descendants of the women around the globe who have transformed fibers into clothing to protect their families for tens of thousands of years. They are the heirs to goddesses who understood that human survival depends on the cloth. These ancients -- from China to Egypt, from Peru to the Pacific Northwest -- understood that clothing contains the power of creation. The modern knitter is no different." (4)

That sense of connection, of reaching back through time as well as across modern space, has always been one of the most compelling aspects of knitting for me. What Murphy does is to weave her research about knitting and weaving and spinning communities across time and space into her own story about knitting a sweater for her son. She faces all of the hurdles that we've all faced at some point in knitting (and heck, in life): techniques that are difficult, parts of the project that don't work out and have to be redone, successes that are sweet. And each of these hurdles becomes an opportunity for her story to reach out to other communities of women working with fiber. Her research has covered communities ranging from the Hmong to the Dakota to women in South America, and more. I love her inclusion of the "New World", which is so often disregarded in more Euro-centric discussions (including a food book that I read recently that had me foaming at the mouth; more on that another time). The fact that she's a grant-writer for, among other communities, several Native American communities local to her home, and that she weaves their stories into this book, just makes it that much more synchronous for me.

I should also mention that the book includes a wonderful bibliography of references. I am a sucker for references, and she cites some of my old favorites, but also mentions a slew of books that I haven't read, and will now have to look for. In that way, this book is like a good knitting project: there is all kinds of fun to be had in the project itself, as in the reading of this book, plus the opportunity to think about where to go next. It was also a peaceful read; Murphy's writing is quiet and contemplative, and it's the kind of book that can be read in small chunks, and then thought about until the next time. So I would say that if anyone is looking for a nice non-fiction book about knitting that reads a lot like fiction and that contains many gems that are food for thought, this is a good one.

Next time it's time for a book post, I'll talk about the lovely book that my brother and brother-in-law sent to me for my birthday (thanks, guys!). It's been on my list for a while, and is an excellent reference book.

Meanwhile, in the interests of honesty, I should mention that my acquisition of books has not, somehow, precluded my acquisition of yarn. This is true in spite of the fact that I've been trying not to bring in more yarn than I knit up. It's not entirely my fault, though (wow, am I pitiful or what?). For example, yesterday I was up at UCLA for a lunchtime talk and as I was leaving, my colleague there (a fellow knitter) told me that I absolutely had to visit her new favorite LYS, which is walking distance from her house. Now, I couldn't disappoint a friend, right? I mean, how do you say no to a thoughtful and enthusiastic suggestion like that? So I swung off the freeway on my way home, and popped into Twist: Yarns of Intrigue (seriously, is that a great name or what?). All I can say is, wow.

It's a tiny little shop absolutely crammed with the most astonishing range of gorgeous yarns I have seen in a long time. I had no idea that lines like Malabrigo and HandMaiden had that many different kinds of yarn (it was probably better that I not know, but there's no putting that genie back in the bottle). And spinning fiber. And Cathy, the wonderfully kind and attentive shop owner, dyes her own fiber and yarn. Wow. I managed to slide out with only two bumps of spinning fiber (one a merino/silk blend, the other a camel/silk blend) and a skein of SeaSilk. Oh, and a button. I'll post pictures next time. But was that not tremendously disciplined? I mean, it's not like I could just walk away without doing my bit to support a wonderful shop like that, right? (Imagine me wearing my self-congratulatory face now.)

But what this means is that there are now two small sweater/shell-like objects that I'm dying to cast on for (since one of those would be a wing-it design, that would involve swatching, which might be the way I soothe the craving for the time being). Plus at least two pairs of socks. Plus the two pairs of socks already OTN. And the Autumn Mantle shawl (which is ticking along quite nicely). Oh, and a baby sweater that I should really finish before the baby in question goes to college. Have I mentioned that this work thing really gets in the way of my knitting time?


twinsetellen said...

I resonate with the knitting connecting us to a lineage of cloth makers. I don't usually trace that lineage directly - no mothers or grandmothers teaching me to knit or sew - but I often think about what it was like to have to make everything your family wore or covered their bodies with, day and night. Those women (and men) stand in the shadows behind me when I'm reknitting something for the third time - what a luxury to have the time to get it just so.

I suppose this explains a great deal of my interest in heritage knitting of recent years. Folk mittens have given rise to folk shawls and Bohus sweaters, and I've got yarn for a gansey on hand (or two, truthfully) and am starting to get itchy to start a smaller gauge Norwegian... Hmmm, maybe I don't have time to knit things three times!

AlisonH said...

Knitting helps me feel connected, in a more immediate level, to the grandmother who knitted who died before I was old enough to get a sense of who she really was.

Gwen said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. But I want to know which book made you foam with rage.

I am connected all the way back, and most immediately to my mother, whose mother did not do handwork, but whose mother-in-law did and that's probably how they really connected; and to my own childhood which was very fiber-y. But I know myself to be a modern knitter. It's a luxury activity the way I do it. Necessary, but a luxury. Except when I'm knitting mittens for the kid on the way to the snow because he lost one of a pair. That goes back through the ages! (except maybe for the driving to the snow part)(that may be just plain foolishness)(fun, though)

Very good justification there. An excellent example of the art.

Bea said...

The book sounds good. I'll have to think about my answer to that question. On the surface the answer seems simple but I suspect there's more to it then that. I'll have to put my thoughts together on this.

And yes I think you showed excellent restraint. Way to go. (Plus you can always go back.)

Lynne said...

Yes, I think you may have mentioned that! So here's my suggestion: a book beanbag [I've forgotten exactly what they're called] to support your research/reading material and a voice activated word-processing program. That way you can knit and read/type!

Ain't I the helpful one? LOL

EGunn said...

Thanks for the book review. I may have to check that one out, someday when I have time to read for pleasure again (it will come soon, right?).

Two fiber items sounds like very good restraint to me. It's important to support small businesses in this economy. Definitely a duty. =)

Miss 376 said...

Have to second what Alsion said. I can remember when I was about 18 really grieving for the grandmother I never knew. She was into all the things I enjoyed, knitting and embroidery. Even stranger, I was more like her, my adoptive grandmother than my paternal blood grandmother!
I love books like that, will have to put it onto my list to read

Alwen said...

I guess I get the connected feeling more strongly from weaving than I have from knitting. I've always felt that the fell line, where the threads on the loom become cloth, is a magic place. Up to here, thread: from here on, cloth. Hard to put into words.

Anonymous said...

The book sounds fabulous. I need to see if I can get it throught the library.

As for me and fiber, K and I have been negotiating. He says I need to knit more stuff before I buy any more. Since we're moving in together, and that fits the current budget, I'm going along for now.

However, he is happy for me as I am planning on going to the sock summit in August. I've already told him fiber will be purchased there . . . But I've been avoiding yarn stores in the meantime because my willpower is not that good.

Can't wait to see your pictures, and enjoy the fiber vicariously.

Anne said...

Nothing makes me crankier than a zillion things to do, none of them knitting. Work really does ge tin the way --but isn't that what Robert Frost was talking about in .. is it Two Tamps in Mud Time? Yield who will to their separation something something when my avocation and my vocation are joined as two eyes make one in sight?

How do we do that again?

Willow said...

OH! I know about Twist! Someone saw me knitting my handspun and told me to go to Twist! Next time I'm in the Beach Cities!

I've always loved the history of fiber arts. I wonder if I could start over if I'd focus on the weaving/spinning/knitting fiber industry...or maybe on writing about it.

I have a photo of my great great aunt sitting on the steps of her Wisconsin farmhouse KNITTING!

Mary Lou said...

Thanks for the cogent review. I'll have to find that book. I also love the connection to the past as well as the connection across cultures. When I brought my knitting to China and knit in public, people really responded, even though we couldn't speak one another's language.

KnitNana said...

Yes, work does cut into knitting time...
I am getting Murphy's book, I hope, today.
For me, the female lineage is strongest. I always wanted to know what the women of the family did, how they survived their struggles, what crafts they excelled at, and the goddess aspect of it is at the root of that need to know.

My mom taught me to knit, her mom taught me to embroider...that's as far back as I can go, tho' I have embroidery from my grandmother's mom...for whom I am named.

Stell said...

oh no ... another book i want ...
still it has company on the shelf :-)
lots of company

Anonymous said...

I'll play the devil's advocate ;-}
Sometimes, I fear, we over analyze things.

But, ya, I get it that there is a connectedness. Our crazy lives don't provide rootedness, knitting (fiber working)does. Besides, unlike most chores that we perform on a daily basis over and over, the garments and artwork we make with our hands contributes to lasting joy. I still have a couple doilies my dad's mother made, as well as a tiny knitted dress my my mother wore as an infant in 1916, made by her mother.

Anonymous said...

The greens look beautiful there. The sun is just starting to get warm here, but we don't have any of the greens yet. I know we'll have them again soon, but for right now I just want to go visit you and soak up the color.

Congratulations on so many family milestones :-)