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!

Advertisements

Home again, home again

190050_10151092730297044_1371030587_n
(thanks, Willy St. Co-op Facebook feed, for this cartoon)

3 things that are making me happy these days (besides the summer produce taking over my fridge) . . .

1. Returning to my home library, and the “place hold” button
After a fairly monogamous summer vacation, reading-wise, of devouring A Suitable Boy, I had lots of fun picking out my reading matter for the rest of August, using that ever-so-satisfying (and economical too!) “place hold” button. On hold, or already borrowed right now, are

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Ruby Programming for the Absolute Beginner, Jerry Lee Ford
Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Head First Excel, by Michael Milton
“Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, by Fuchsia Dunlop
Are You My Mother, by Alison Bechdel
Head First PHP and MySQL
Canada, by Richard Ford
Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs

(I’ve linked these to WorldCat so you can see if they are your local library – just enter your location at the top of the results list to find the copies nearest you)

2. Friends working on cool projects
A friend of mine just made me aware of an interesting project she’s working on: Marine Lives . The project team will be transcribing 17th century documents about life at sea from the High Court of Admiralty in the UK, which tell us, among other things, just what to do with a drunken sailor. I find this type of project really interesting: it appeals to both the “treasure hunter aspect” of my intellectual interests and to my desire to engage in certain kinds of more repetitive work. Transcribing, like making bibliographies, or coding html pages, or even taking notes, casts me into a satisfying trance-like state of focused relaxation, much like knitting does. If you want to know more about these kind of projects, I recommend this article on Galazy Zoo and the New Dawn of Citizen Science, which appeared in The Observer earlier this year.

Pssst, Marine Lives is looking for volunteers to start training next week for 50 hours of transcribing documents and learning about 17th century seafaring! Anyone interested in history can do it, from Grade 12 students on up!

3. Speaking of trance-like knitting

I’m also excited to be making some plans for knitting for the fall, as, if you can’t tell from my reading list, I’ve got quite a bit of free time and I can’t spend all of it learning new computer skills and cooking Chinese food! In addition to knitting several pairs of baby booties for the offspring of friends and family (these ones? or these ones?), I think I might jump on the short-row stripes bandwagon and attempt a Stripe Study Shawl, using some lovely red and cream yarn my parents brought me back from Copenhagen (oooh la la!), or, I’ll try and get better at doing cables and make a Sagano Shawl using some firecracker-coloured sock yarn I got recently in a swap.

(PS, do my non-knitting readers find, like my husband, that when I talk about knitting all you hear is the sound that the adults made in the Peanuts cartoons?)

Photographic air conditioning

Well, I spent much of the weekend reading (when I wasn’t picking strawberries on our bucolic and incredibly scenic CSA Farm, that is). I finished Bowling Avenue, and I finished rereading Sense and Sensibility; I’m also reading two fairly new “serious” history books: Ann Blair’s excellent Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age and Susan Matt’s Homesickness: An American History. And yes, I will confess that I feel like a complete nerd as I take notes on post-its and stick them into Blair’s book, which contains an entire chapter on the history of note-taking. Ah well, I am sure I am in good company!

A full review of Bowling Avenue is coming soon – the short version: I liked it very much, after a slow start. But I’m afraid that today, as I sit in my non-air conditioned house with my feet in a bucket of cold water, all I can think about is winter. So, in the absence of real air-conditioning, I give you the photographic kind (all photos taken by me in Madison in January):

Lake Monona, Jan. 2012

Lake Monona, Jan. 2012 2

Yahara River, Jan. 2012

A book, or just a thicker magazine?

When it’s hot outside, and my brain needs some rest, I sometimes think I need to read a magazine. And often I do – a few weeks ago, for example, I read the May 21st issue of the New Yorker, which was particularly jam-packed. I was especially fascinated and touched by the story in that issue about the career and death of the Kenyan Marathon runner Samuel Wanjiru.

But often, I have to say, I don’t find magazines very satisfying. Too many ads, too few articles, too much of same-old, same-old. Although I have to say that I almost always buy the Oprah Magazine before going on long trips, I am getting sick and tired of being told by Dr. Oz how anti-oxidants will change my life, and Oprah’s mixed messages are annoying: am I supposed to be content with what I have, or am I supposed to buy more stuff?

(Note to self: I should probably read Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk)

So, what to do when you’re too hot and tired to read anything longer than 20 pages, but you can’t stand to buy a magazine? Short stories work for some (and I can recommend The Penguin Book of Summer Stories as a start). But this weekend, I read non-fiction instead: A.J. Jacobs’ Guinea Pig Diaries, which is a compilation of humorous essays about various experiments the author has tried on himself. The experiments include

  • being as rational as possible for a month (which Jacobs defines as avoiding cognitive biases)
  • acting like George Washington for a month (by following the list of 110 Rules of Civility, compiled by Jesuit instructors, on which Washington was known to model his behavior
  • outsourcing tasks in both his personal and professional life to two women working for companies in Bangalore (Jacobs  notes that his article on the subject preceded the enormous popularity of the 4-Hour Workweek craze
  • posing nude for a magazine
  • doing everything his wife desires for one month
  • “living as a woman” – or so the book cover claims
  • uni-tasking for one month, while musing on Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Of all of these tasks (and I’m sure I’ve missed a few), the only one which failed to either make me laugh and think a little (mainly because I was too annoyed) was Jacobs’ quest to “live like a woman.” This is misleading – Jacobs simply spent a month collaborating with his single, 27-year old babysitter (who, he reminds us repeatedly in a way that even he acknowledges might be a little creepy, is very attractive) in her quest to find a boyfriend through online dating. Sorry, A.J., or more likely, A.J.’s publisher, if all that “living like a woman” entails is a stream of mild rejection, some embarrassment and a whole lot of complimentary emails from men, sign me up. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Jacobs does get into a few more of these complications, in fact, in the essay for which he did everything his wife desired for a month. He acknowledges (as does his wife, in an interesting coda), that the most eye-opening moment of this experiment came when the couple sat down, and Jacobs’ wife simply wrote down every household task she completed every week. Surprise! She was working the second shift. As a person who is lucky enough to read reference books and talk about information behavior for a living, I also found Jacobs’ chapter on multitasking, or the avoidance thereof, to be both funny and extremely interesting. Mostly, though, it just made me feel incredibly focused. I don’t, for example

  • watch TV while eating dinner
  • listen to the radio in the shower
  • do anything except knit or surf the web while talking on the phone (my husband and I, to the shock of some of our friends, own a landline phone, just one, that plugs into the wall, without a portable handset, as our primary phone, and rarely use our (one) cellphone)

That being said, I could connect to, and laugh at, Jacobs’ essay on multitasking because I have struggled with focusing my attention and with decisions about where work begins and “not-work” begins (I am, after all, a librarian writing a book blog “for fun”). The themes examined in all of these essays, whether superficially or occasionally a little more deeply, are ones that will interest most readers: how do I work? how do I relate to my family? how do I treat my spouse? what makes me unique? how do I feel about my body? am I a good parent? how do I think? how do I present myself to the world?*

Some might claim that this book is disjointed; the quality of the essays is certainly uneven. But for the price of 3 magazines (or none, if you get this book from the library!), you’ll get a satisfying reading experience. I should say, though, that if you haven’t read anything by A.J. Jacobs, I wouldn’t start with this book, and I would opt instead for The Year of Living Biblically, which, to my mind, is a much better book, because it allows Jacobs to explore one particular experiment (to follow biblical rules strictly for one year) at much greater depth, with deeper research and a more interesting personal transformation.

*(tip: George Washington presented himself to the world with his shapely right foot and calf extended, and never, never, never, wiped his nose on the tablecloth)

Four diversions for a sunny Wednesday

It’s the end of the semester! That means that I get to spend more time here:

IMG_1924

and here:

IMG_1912

and here:

IMG_2082

and, lest you think that I spend all my time in wholesome outdoor activities, it also means that I get to spend more time poking around the internet. Four recent favorites:

Do I have room for one more nerdy t-shirt?

bookish t-shirt

SMBC — Bookish shirt.

There’s always time to admire great authors with enormous teddy bears:

ernest hemingway with a giant teddy bear

Flavorwire » Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers.

and little girls in nice stockings checking out books from a librarian behind an enormous desk:

vintage photos of librarians

15 Vintage Photos of Librarians – Mental Floss.

Wait! What’s that you say? That there are more awesome old photos of librarians in the University of Wisconsin’s “Historic Librarians and Benefactors Digital Collection? Including a photo of Melvil Dewey (without beard) that’s worthy of inclusion in My Daguerrotype Boyfriend?

Excellent! Until the next post, I’ll leave you dreaming of a time when the American Library Association conference included a collegial boat trip from the Thousand Islands to Boston via Quebec and Halifax:

ALA expedition to Boston

(from here

Wolf Hall, a second time

I have been rereading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I think I’m enjoying it even more a second time. I have to admit, there are aspects of the plot I am still not fully grasping, particularly the episode of the Holy Maid towards the end of the book. Instead, I have been paying more attention to the parts of the book which I think make it special: the detailed descriptions of Cromwell’s home life, contrasted with the “big-picture” explanations of how he conducts his business (and Wolsey’s and the King’s) within a web of economic and personal relationships across Europe. That might sound pretentious, but Mantel’s ability to show (accurately or not, I don’t know) exactly how things were working behind the scenes was what made this book fascinating for me, rather than the scandalous nature of the main Henry-Katherine-Anne plot.

I was left with one question, why did Mantel choose to call it Wolf Hall if the incestuous drama of the Seymour family is only a small sub-plot? I have some ideas, but I would be interested in hearing yours. Maybe I am missing something . . .

the nerdy shipmates

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have a book on my bedside table by an author who is described on the dust-jacket as a McSweeney’s person. But I am on a Sarah Vowell kick. How could you not like a person who writes zingers like this one?

Certainly the Puritans believed and said and did many unreasonable things. That kind of goes with the territory of being born before the Age of Reason.

I just finished reading The Wordy Shipmates and I liked it so much I’ve gone back for more, and I’m halfway through Assassination Vacation. These are both quick books to read, almost too quick, if you’re like me and you relish extremely detailed accounts of seventeenth-century theological controversy. I also regret somewhat that I didn’t just take out the book-on-tape from the library, because Sarah Vowell, as those who have heard her on This American Life will know, has a strangely pleasing, yet gratingly monotonous, voice.

This book is about the Puritans in New England, focusing on the foundation and early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It does contain some references to pop culture and contemporary American politics, but on the whole, the book is really nerdy, and Vowell doesn’t try to hide that fact. Her narrative focuses on four main problems: the Puritans’ reasons for leaving England and their hopes for the colony, John Winthrop’s dispute with Roger Williams and the latter’s banishment to Rhode Island, the causes and (shameful)) conduct of the Pequot War, and the trial of Anne Hutchinson. Vowell quotes heavily from primary sources, and she is careful to explain unfamiliar words and concepts, so I did not find the book very dense at all.

WARNING: I have read, but not entirely enjoyed, a book about the history of footnotes.

The main reason I found this book so enjoyable, even riveting(!), was not Vowell’s caustic asides or the inherent drama and fascinating foreignness of the period she describes. It is the fact that Vowell’s obvious obsession with her subjects has made her so familiar with their lives and their writings that she tells these stories like the very juiciest gossip. I was left wanting more. Next stop, the Journal of John Winthrop?

I don’t think so actually . . . Instead, The Complete Tightwad Gazette is next on my pile. But in true tightwad fashion, I have to wait for my hold to come in at the library!