Review: Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from Vesterheim Museum

I picked up a copy of Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from the Vesterheim Museum, by Sue Flanders and Janine Kosel, when I was downtown yesterday, browsing at A Room of One’s Own Books and Gifts. The bookstore is now in its new, expanded location on Gorham Street, and since it has merged with Avol’s Books, it now offers a wide selection of second-hand books, as well as new stock. There don’t seem to be too many second-hand knitting books, however, but this is unsurprising: most people buy knitting books to keep them on the shelf to refer to repeatedly, of course. I heeded the signs in the bookstore – “See it here, buy it here, keep us here” – and took away this lovely book to peruse in the coffee shop across the street.*

The book is a collection of patterns inspired by items in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Vesterheim, which means “Western Home,” was the name given to the United States by Norwegian-American immigrants. One of the most striking aspects of the book (and, presumably, the museum) is the feelings of connectedness between the “old country” and the immigrant communities in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. These connections are most clear in historical photographs from the museum that are spread throughout the book, showing women in long dresses on skis, children sleeping under intricate blankets, and little boys making snowmen, wearing Norwegian mittens. Are these photos of Norway or the US? Hard to tell sometimes, until you look at the captions. I loved these photos, and I wish the authors had included even more of them.

The book also includes photos of the historical pieces that inspired the patterns, as well as photos of finished objects and full-colour charts for knitting multi-colour designs. The lace patterns are not charted, but only written out. I can’t read lace charts, and I am, in fact, quite bad at knitting lace no matter how the pattern is written, despite the best efforts of chart-fans like Scottish knitting designer Ysolda Teague, who has written a handy tutorial entitled “Using Charts Even if You Hate Them. If you like knitting lace from charts, you might have to make your own charts for the few lace patterns in this book, which include a triangular garter-stitch shawl with lace edge that might just be at my skill-level for lace.

But, as you might expect, lace is not really the main player in a book about Norwegian knitting, and I really bought this book because I love love love to knit complicated mittens. Recent projects for lucky mitten-recipients include a pair of Kalev’s Mittens, from another excellent book, Folk Knitting in Estonia, by Nancy Bush, and Northman Mittens, a pattern by David Schulz. And this new book did not disappoint! There are mitten patterns ranging from a very simple pair of mittens in the style of Sami clothing, knit in bulky Lopi Icelandic yarn, to a fairly complicated pair of women’s mittens, knit in fine yarn with a snowflake pattern on the hands and another charted pattern of roses on the cuffs. I learned a few things about Norwegian mitten design as well. Some parts of the country favour asymmetrical designs, such as the rose pattern, while in some areas, the patterns are always mirror-images, such as the Selbu rose, which I usually see as a star or snowflake (picture of a Selbu rose mitten, below, by larskflem on Flickr) Selbu.

While I am very tempted by the more complex Daddy Long-Legs Mittens, winter is coming soon enough, so I think I will start by making Flower Mittens, with a Cross-Country Ski Hat to (almost) match. The hat reminds me of a hat my twin sister bought last winter in Tallin, Estonia, from the “Wall of Knitting.” This wall in Tallin, (pictured below by hilde h on Flickr), where women sell all kinds of sweaters and other knitted goods, is definitely on my lifelong “knitting tourism” list (which just keeps getting longer every year, by the way). Warm clothes all over

Until I can pay a visit there, and to other places in Scandinavia, books like this one will have to keep me going. Luckily, I have tons and tons of fine-gauge wool yarn, bought for me by various understanding family members on trips to Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. I was also pleased to see several patterns that were designed for yarns made by Blackberry Ridge Woollen Mill, in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is close to Madison. It’s rare to find designers using their yarn, which comes in numerous rich colours, and is really hard-wearing. Wisconsin knitters, take note!

I do recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy knitting mittens. Several of the online reviews I have read (warning: don’t read Amazon reviews if you don’t want to get grumpy) have complained about the fact that it contains only two sweater patterns. First of all, the sweater pattern that is included is definitely something I have never seen before: it’s an adult-sized two-colour sweater, and a simplified child’s variation, in an interesting “Voss” pattern based on a headscarf in the Vesterheim museum, that has a striking neckline with four different diamond motifs, and an all-over two-colour pattern on the body that consists of diagonal lines mirrored around the central line descending from the neckline pattern.

Second of all, the writers point out that two-colour “ski sweaters” are actually a fairly late addition to traditional Norwegian knitting, having become prominent only at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems that, in much the same way that we consider fair-isle knitting “old-fashioned”, despite the fact that it really only became popular in the 1920s and 30s, Norwegian sweaters might be more the result of marketing than of tradition, and the motifs, colours and patterns are actually more complex.

Thirdly, it seems that the authors designed the book to display not only the variety of the knitted items that are found in the Vesterheim collection, but also to appeal to knitters at a range of skill levels, and to be a tool for everyone to learn new techniques. Beyond the creativity and math necessary to place two-colour patterns on a sweater, I actually don’t find the techniques of Norwegian sweaters to be particularly interesting, and I would have been disappointed to buy a book that consisted primarily of numerous colour charts that could be applied to the standard formula for these sweaters, which can be summarized easily as 1. knit a tube 2. knit two more tubes for sleeves 3. Cut the first tube, attach a tube, repeat 4. Knit another small tube for a neckband. So I am quite pleased that the authors decided instead to devote space to techniques like needle felting, creating various kinds of braid for straps and decoration, and to creating items in a variety of shapes, gauges and levels of complexity.

I am of two minds about the authors’ decisions about the use of space in the book, however. They include several recipes in sidebars, for example. I’m unlikely to try these specialties, many of them baked goods that require the use of special pans and equipment, and while I like reading recipes for interest’s sake, I feel the space could have been better used to include larger photos, both of historical scenes and of the final knitted garments. The charts, in contrast to the photos, are as big as they could make them, although I expect I will have to do some creative photocopying for some of the more intricate charts.

Reading this book, I was reminded a little too much of the economics of producing a full-colour, illustrated hardcover book: it’s tough to figure out how much space to devote to written instructions, versus photos, versus charts, versus contextual information, and to know how to create a knitting book that is both useful and affordable, especially when costs have to take technical editing and test-knitting into account. I find this aspect of knitting publishing particularly interesting, since I assume that publishers are aware that they are competing with the booming market in downloadable PDF patterns, which can be resized and reprinted by users without any extra expenditure on the part of the publisher, who is now often the designer herself.** So, I sympathize, and I’m willing to be forgiving as I squint at a few photos. I still think the book is a great value and an important collection of historical information, which I don’t think I have the expertise to critique. I’m sure it will make many readers more interested in the Vesterheim Museum and in the Norwegian immigrant experience more generally, and it’s lovely to have the chance to reflect on the experience of these immigrants and knitters with a real book in my hand, rather than staring at a computer screen. A more unfortunate flaw, however, is the fact that the patterns in this book were published with quite a few errors: errata are available here. I have read that newer printings of the book have been corrected, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for errors in charts and instructions as I go along.

When I was considering buying this book, rather than simply getting it out of the library, I had to remind myself that the money you spend on a knitting book covers many hours and hours of enjoyment: there’s the first few hours, looking over your new purchase, preferably with hot drink in hand, the minutes here and there you spend double-checking patterns and planning, and then the many hours, with the book at hand, knitting the lovely things it contains. So, in other words, don’t be cheap – buy nice knitting books! Especially at your local independent bookstore! The same authors have recently published Swedish Handknits: a Collection of Heirloom Designs, with designs inspired by items in the collection of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With Kari Cornell, they have also collaborated on two other collections: Knitting Socks from Around the World and Knitting Socks and Mittens from Around the World. All three books are now definitely going on hold at the library!

* Yes, unemployment has its perks.
** It occurs to me that many of the same problems of size, formatting, expense and usability come into play when thinking about books about maps, and I’ve been mulling over similar digital vs. print questions as I prepare to write a review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton. Watch this space!

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Looks like a book, but isn’t

Members of my family (OK, one particular member), like to give me gifts adorned with books. That’s why I have, at last count,

– a tea towel printed with an illustration of the library of Trinity College, Dublin. in the style of the Book of Kells
– a greeting card made to look like the 1861 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Everyday Cookery (part of this set from the Bodleian library)
– a Christmas bookshelf advent calendar, also from the Bodleian
– a padded cosy for my Bodum coffee maker, made out of fabric printed with books and bookshelves
– and, perhaps the best of the collection, a set of stickers that make my 3-ring binders look like a shelf of old books, similar to this set from the University Library of Salzburg

I am a lucky librarian!

I was delighted to discover, upon moving to Madison, the existence of Grimm’s Bindery, a book-bindery that has been in operation in Madison since the 1850s. One of these days, I’ll get around to paying them a visit. And I might just add to my collection of objects that look like books with one of their book safes, blank notebooks that look like library-bound books, or a leather iPad cover (not that I have an iPad). Alas, I have no use for a personalized hollowed-out book in which to hide an engagement ring.

But none of these bookish objects can compare with my latest discovery! Did you know that the parking garage of the Kansas City (Missouri) central public library looks like a giant bookshelf?

Central Library Parking Garage

Amazing!

(more photos on the library’s Flickr stream, here)

Loading EPUBs (including converted PDFs) onto your e-reader using Calibre

[this post is a follow-up to my post about converting PDFs to an e-reader friendly format using Calibre ebook management software]

Once you’ve got all your ebooks organized, with PDFs converted to the EPUB format, the next step is to load them onto your e-reader. I actually found this a bit confusing the first time I did it (it’s not actually hard – I just couldn’t figure out where to click when!), so I took some screenshots for you.

The first step is to plug in your e-reader. Check to make sure that it is loaded properly: my Kobo Touch shows up as an external drive in Finder when it’s properly loaded, looking like a USB drive, iPod or other external device.

It might take a few seconds for Calibre to recognize your device. When it does, it will let you know:

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(This notice will disappear quite quickly after it pops up, which I find a little frustrating). Once your device is loaded, you will see a “send to device” button in the top toolbar:

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Select the files you wish to send to your device, and click “Send to Device.” It will take a few seconds for the material to be loaded.

To check that your files are properly loaded, you can click on “Device” (next to “Library”) in the top toolbar, and you can view all the files on your e-reader:

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Unplug your e-reader and get reading!

Also, as this screenshot shows, it’s possible to convert PDF knitting patterns as well, although I’ve found that the results are somewhat more hit-and-miss than with articles and books, probably because designers (rightfully) add more white space and special formatting to PDF knitting patterns to facilitate readability. When the conversion does work, though, it can save you from lots of squinting at instructions:

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I hope these instructions are helpful! Although I originally conceived this little tutorial idea when I received a free PDF advance copy of Bowling Avenue, which is now available in non-PDF format for Kindle, Nook, and good old-fashioned paper, I realized that it might be useful and interesting for readers who are more generally interested in cleaning up and organizing their PDFs. I’ve certainly found it a godsend for storing and reading academic articles on the go.

If you like reading news on your ereader, you might also want to check out this article on ProfHacker about Calibre’s “News” feature as well.

Convert PDFs to a more pleasing format for your ereader using Calibre

(before getting to the meat of this post, can I just say that ebook readers need to be shipped with at least two extra charging cords? Or, better yet, may I suggest that someone should invent, if they haven’t already, just one cord  that would charge my laptop, my iPod, my cellphone, if I had one, and my ereader? In any case, apologies that my posts on Bowling Avenue, by Ann Shayne are so egregiously behind schedule. and now, on to our regular tech-nerd-lite programming)

Way back at the beginning of May, David Pogue of the New York Times made an offhand remark in a column about the new Sony e-reader stating that the problem with e-readers today lies in the incompatibility of formats, which means that you are limited to reading only Nook-formatted books on your Nook, Kindle-formatted books on your Kindle, etc. If you want to know more about whether this is, or is not, true, I’ll direct you to Pogue’s follow-up article, linked above. (short version: it’s true with commercial e-books that have embedded Digital Rights Management technology, which is most of them).

It is, however, possible, and fairly easy, to convert PDFs to the more ebook-friendly EPUB format, and then read them happily on your ereader, with the ability to manipulate font-size, add virtual post-its, mark your place (I don’t know about other e-readers, but when you bookmark a page on your Kobo touch, it folds down the corner little piece of virtual paper, leaving a triangular dog-ear, which I find very pleasing), and all the other things that e-reading allows.

Why would I want to convert PDFs to EPUB format? Well, in my case:

    • scholarly articles are widely available as PDFs, and I have to  choose to read many many articles in order to choose the ones I want my students to read, but PDFs are very unpleasing to read on my Kobo, and printing out 50 articles is a pain and a waste of paper, and since I like to read on campus/in coffee shops, I’d have to lug around a big binder everywhere, because I am too scatterbrained to manage individual articles without losing random sections of them everywhere. The ereader makes my life easier,* and, I hope, my course readings better.
    • and, secondarily but not unimportantly, I have in my inbox a 267-page PDF “Freeola” copy of this summer’s most highly anticipated Nashville-based real estate flooding-related chronicle of human drama, complete with knitting subplot and artisanal letterpress cover design and I’d like to be able to read in on my e-reader without printing it out.

Important note: This book is now for sale in several pleasing non-PDF versions, including Kindle, Nook book, and print-on-demand paperback here , so this process won’t actually be necessary to read it, but this tool is so handy for those who deal with a lot of PDFs that I thought I’d use Bowling Avenue as a good example to demonstrate it! Thanks again to Ann Shayne for sending me the freeola PDF.

So, to convert all those PDFs on my reading list into the EPUBformat, and load them onto my Kobo, I use
Calibre, an ebook management software that’s free to download for both Macs and PCs. I find it a lot more useful and easy-to-use than either the software provided by Kobo, or Adobe Digital Editions.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed Calibre (shown here on Mac OS Lion), you will be prompted to choose which type of e-reader you are using:

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This is really all the set-up that’s required, and then you can get on with organizing your ebooks, including converting PDFs, adding tags and other metadata, and loading them onto your ereader.

To convert PDFs, first click on the “Convert Books” button in the toolbar:

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Choose the PDF file from the folder where you saved it (your desktop, downloads folder, etc.):

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and then check to make sure that the “Input format” is set to PDF and the “Output format” is set to EPUB. You can add tags and fix the author and title information before you convert the file as well (Note: this is not actually the cover of Bowling Avenue: it’s a dummy cover that I added to the book by mistake)

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Press OK to start the conversion process, and wait for the “Jobs” status doohickey in the bottom corner to indicate that the processing is complete:

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The first time I did this with the Bowling Avenue file, the word-wrapping in the EPUB version was not correct, so I decided to try out the “Heuristic Processing” option offered by Calibre. Basically, what this function does is try and guess what the perfect formatting for your PDF will be in order to make it most easy-to-read and nice-looking in the EPUB version:

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This worked very well, leaving only a few minor formatting flubs in the final version. You can check how your EPUB will look on your e-reader by opening the file in the Calibre e-book viewer:

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In the next post, loading your converted PDF-to-EPUB file onto your ereader. . .

* It’s important to note that if you are using this process to convert articles in PDF format, it will not work well (or not work at all) with PDF scans of older journals, because, for want of a more elegant explanation, these scans behave more like photos than like textual files. I haven’t made an extensive study of why some articles work and some don’t, and the process isn’t hard or particularly time-consuming, so you might as well try it out and see what happens.

“I hate those ebooks. They cannot be the future. They may well be. . . I will be dead” – Maurice Sendak

OK, so I said in my last post that I couldn’t really get into Maurice Sendak books. Good thing Kristin of Briney Deep Designs set me (sort of) straight and directed me to Stephen Colbert’s hilarious two-part interview with Maurice Sendak, which aired in January. It will not be surprising that this interview is not G-rated (among other things, the two discuss Colbert’s book idea, the masterfully ungrammatically titled “I’m a Pole (and so Can You)” and you might be able to see where that goes. Sendak hits so many nails on so many heads, and Colbert is a genius of poker face. It’s a masterpiece. Thanks, Kristin!

I also can’t recommend enough this video interview with Judith Kerr (from the Guardian), the author of “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” and all the Mog picture books.

A completely fascinating look at a delightful woman, who, come to think of it, might agree with Sendak on what kids can handle in their picture books. The kind of woman who writes Goodbye Mog, a more than slightly weird book which her most beloved creation, Mog the Cat, dies of old age, and then follows it up with My Henry, a book she describes in this interview:

“It’s about being a widow, but it’s very jolly . . . it’s sort of slightly ridiculous. I mean, it’s totally ridiculous.”

That awkward dinner party question (at least when you’re a librarian)

I’ve been talking with my students about the importance of knowing what you are going to say when someone asks you (as they inevitably do) an awkward question at a dinner party like “What are you going to do with your life when everything is digitized?” or “No one reads anymore, do they?” And most importantly, I say, you actually have to believe your answer to those questions

Kathy Dempsey helpfully includes an entire section on how to respond to questions like this in her excellent book The Accidental Library Marketer.

Now, the Atlantic has gotten in on the game: The Next Time Someone Says the Internet Killed Reading Books, Show Them This Chart – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic

The accompanying article makes some interesting points about the definition of a “good book” and the fact that just because someone was reading a book in 1950, doesn’t mean it was “literature,” but most of those “bad” books are now out of print.

Thanks, Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic, for making those awkward dinner party questions a little less awkward for us librarians!

atlantic

Reading, now in Wisconsin

Apologies for the blog silence! I see that some of you have taken a look at my Family History Archive project page, and I’ve got some new (real-life and online) friends, so I thought I’d pick up the proverbial pen and start blogging again! I’m looking forward to getting back to it. Since I last wrote, several things have happened which have changed my reading habits, just a little:

1. I moved to lovely Madison, Wisconsin last fall, where this is the view when you bike from my house to downtown:

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OK, it’s sometimes colder than this, but still lovely.

2. Finding myself, on a related note, temporarily unemployed, I took a Web Design Basics for Librarians e-course through the American Library Association. And I also learned a lot from this fabulous book: Head First HTML with CSS and XHTML.

headfirsthtml

Because there’s nothing more fun to do on a rainy November day than sitting on your couch, creating a valid stylesheet for a fictional cafe, looking at The Worst Websites of 2011 or finally getting some external validation that it might be a good idea to stop blaming library users when they can’t find books because they don’t understand what we mean when we say “Resources”.

3. I bought a Kobo Touch ereader.

Kobo eReader Touch Edition_013

The first book I read on it was Bleak House. Turns out that Dickens is much more pleasant to read (at least in my opinion), when you can adjust the font size, and you’re not reading a cheap paperback school edition with smudgy printing and an inflexible spine. More on Bleak House soon, especially on office practice, recordkeeping and communication before the telephone and photocopier.

Oh, and in case anyone ever reads this who doesn’t know me in person, I got married:

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(Photo by the excellent Joseph and Jaime, friends of a friend. They are way hipper than me, and seem to be spending their winter break from shooting weddings swanning around tropical locales, taking wonderful pictures.

Feels good to be back! I promise, I’ve got lots to write about, when I’m not reading, knitting with new friends, or eating too much locally-produced ice cream.