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.

The Homesick Texan’s Green Chile Posole with Black Beans

You know it’s a good cookbook when you keep your library copy at home, accruing late fines, just so you can make a few recipes.

And yes, I did buy my own copy of The Homesick Texan Cookbook and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Using the library copy, I made two recipes: Austin-style black beans and Green Chile Posole with Black Beans. It is possible to make the posole (soup with hominy) with canned black beans, but I wanted to try the Austin-style black beans since the author explicitly says that she was trying to recreate the smokiness of a ham-based bean dish using only vegetarian ingredients. She does this using chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, which are smoked. The beans are very very good, although not as salty as they would be if made with ham or bacon; I will definitely make them again. I doubled the recipe, and can’t think why I wouldn’t do so again next time, as dried beans are cheap, and it takes a while to cook them (about 2 hours), so it just seems to make sense to make lots.

Using the Austin-style black beans, I then proceeded to make the green chile posole. I did make a few modifications to the recipe. I actually didn’t use any green chiles, since we had found the black beans to be quite spicy on their own. I also used vegetables from our CSA (community-supported agriculture) share as much as possible.

The first step was to weigh out the fresh tomatillos, and then boil them for five minutes until they were soft.

Posole1

(The tomatillos above are being kept company by a frog shaped silicone oven mitt, a regift from my husband’s granny that was one of my favorite wedding shower gifts. My friend’s daughter loves playing with it when she visits us as well).

I then assembled a big pile of lovely vegetables and herbs in preparation for making a puree: spinach, chives, green onions, garlic and cilantro.

Posole3

Everything except for the garlic and cilantro was from our CSA share from Harmony Valley farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin. The recipe originally called for onions, but we are drowning in chives and green onions from our weekly veggie delivery, so this seemed like a good chance to use them up. We are really enjoying our first CSA experience – the vegetables are really excellent quality and it is fun to try out new foods.

I whizzed it all up in our lovely food processor, another excellent wedding present:

Posole3

I then took the leftover black beans out of the fridge: yum! And took out a can of hominy as well. In the meantime, I had added some vegetable bouillon to the water leftover from boiling the tomatillos, and this was simmering on the stove.

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I had never eaten hominy before: it’s corn kernels that have been treated with lime to remove the hulls. The addition of an alkali also increases the nutritional value, and this process, known as nixtamilization is very ancient. (For Little House on the Prairie fans, this is the same process used when Ma makes “hulled corn” in Little House in the Big Woods: there’s a recipe for how to do this, using lye instead of lime, in The Little House Cookbook).

Here’s what hominy looks like, to the unitiated.

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I really enjoyed the flavour: it basically tastes like corn tortillas, but with a more chewy texture, of course.

After you’ve made the beans and pureed all the greens, the rest of the soup is very easy. You just dump the puree, beans and hominy into the boiling broth and let it cook for half an hour. Because the spinach is pureed along with the rest of the ingredients, it turned out less green than I thought was appetizing, so I added a few fresh spinach leaves at the end to add some colour and texture.

We’ve really been enjoying eating outside in our little backyard these last few weeks:

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The verdict: delicious! and easy! I need to try some more recipes from this book, and I need to use my food processor more often as well.

I’ve got a project in the works for the blog that I’m excited to share with you, by the way . . .

Just read

Some good advice for a rainy weekend in Madison from John Cotton Dana, , founder of the first library children’s room, at the Denver Public Library, pioneer business librarian, and enthusiastic collector of American art:

1. Read

2. Read.

3. Read some more.

4. Read anything.

5. Read about everything.

6. Read enjoyable things.

7. Read things you yourself enjoy.

8. Read, and talk about it.

9. Read very carefully, some things.

10. Read on the run, most things.

11. Don’t think about reading, but

12. Just read.

From The Librarian’s Book of Lists by George M. Eberhart, ALA 2010, via the Woodland Park Public Library.

and, in case you’d rather stare at bookshelves instead of reading . . .

Bookshelves

Gentle, with jellied salad

Apple Betty and Sloppy Joe cover photo

On a family visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens this past weekend, I picked up Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe by Susan Sanvidge, Diane Sanvidge Seckar, Jean Sanvidge Wouters, and Julie Sanvidge Florence. Yes, another cookbook.As I told my students today, some people read mystery novels or romances when they’re busy at work; I read cookbooks.

This cookbook, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society is the work of four sisters, who were raised in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the 1950s. If you can imagine your stereotype of how a Midwestern middle-class family ate in 1955, you will likely imagine some of the dishes the Sandvidge sisters describe: jellied salad appears, as do various preparations for canned vegetables and pot roast. Many of the recipes in the book aren’t recipes at all, rather good-natured self-mockery on the part of the authors. Nobody actually needs to know how to make the disgusting midnight snacks cooked up by the youngest sister, but that is not the point. The point is remembering: the author’s remembering her eating of those concoctions in bed, curled up with a flashlight and a novel, and the reader’s remembering of similar moments connected with special foods and food rituals.

In its focus on these rituals, on regional ingredients and family stories, the book shares some of the goals, if not the tone, of The Homesick Texan. More surprisingly, the two books share concerns for the use of whole unprocessed foods, and for the perpetuation of ethnic cooking heritage (in the Sandvidge’s case, this heritage is German, including grandparents who made their own sauerkraut in their garage). Convenience foods certainly appear – not least breakfast cereal, which the sisters seem to have consumed in truly monumental quantities – but their role is not as prominent as one might expect.

Would I actually cook anything from this book? I was not tempted by many of the main dish recipes, although some of the German specialties made me bemoan my household’s current vegetarianism. But I don’t need another recipe for sauerbraten and potato dumplings, or for baked beans with bacon. The baking section, on the other, hand, does include several recipes that I would like to try, for coffee cakes, donuts, muffins, and cookies that seem like they would be both delicious and quick to make, and introduce me to some new tastes.

On the whole, though, this is not a cookbook for cooking, it’s a cookbook for reading, and I don’t mind that. It introduced me to some of the specialties and traditions of the area in which I now find myself living, and gave me a few good laughs, and a few good grimaces at the authors’ corny humor. And I’ll definitely pull it out at Christmas when I need to find some more ways to use some of the good Wisconsin butter!

Olbrich Gardens - My First Macro

Olbrich Gardens by Tony Heussner via Flickr