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Beginner's Bookshelf:
The Essential Trio

Knitting books tend to fall into three general subject categories: technique, stitches, and patterns. Although many books attempt to span more than one category, few succeed in doing it well.

How-to books often skimp on stitch patterns. Stitch books often skimp on garment patterns. And many garment pattern books skimp on the how-tos and stitch patterns.

A wiser alternative is to invest in the best of each category. But how do you know which to choose?

Here are a few reading recommendations.

Technique and Reference
For years, when knitters asked for a good how-to book I've recommended Katharina Buss' The Big Book of Knitting or Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book.

coverBut when I recently got my hands on a copy of Vogue Knitting Quick Reference, everything changed.

In this new book, the Vogue Knitting editors pulled out what I consider the absolute best elements from the bigger book -- technique and how-tos -- and massaged them into 128 smaller pages that are spiral-bound together under a glossy cover. It costs almost $15 less than its hefty hardbound sibling.

Each technique is illustrated with color pictures or drawings. You get clear explanations of common pattern instructions that can be confusing for beginners, such as the difference between "with yarn in back" and "with yarn in front," how to knit through the front versus back loop, and how to slip stitches knitwise or purlwise. These are all the kinds of things you get stuck on at 2am when no other knitter is awake.

The swatch photos make it clear how different increase and decrease techniques will impact your knitted garment. The section on assembling is priceless. The mysteries of seams, graftings, the art of picking up stitches, hemming, and attaching pockets are all explained.

For knitters who are ready to implement their own patterns, the Design Details section will be invaluable. It includes short rows, selvages, buttonholes, bands, borders and edges, hems, pockets, sewing on buttons, adding elastic or zippers. Whew! Madison Avenue, here I come.

The need for pattern books is rather like the need for cookbooks. Even if you have a general idea of what you want to cook, you still need help with the exact proportions.

coverThat's why I continue to recommend this next book so highly. Called The Knitter's Handy Book of Patterns, it is based on the underlying structure of knitted garments, totally independent of the size, yarn, or gauge.

It was written by Ann Budd, the managing editor of Interweave Knits magazine, and covers a total of eight types of garments: mittens, gloves, hats, scarves, tams, sweaters, vests, and socks. Overall, you have more than 350 pattern combinations at your disposal.

All you do is choose a project, choose a yarn, determine the yarn's gauge, and choose a size for the garment. Then Budd walks you through the pattern, step by step, holding your hand as you calculate all the necessary numbers.

The book is particularly valuable for those of us who have amassed sizeable yarn stashes over the years. You can match a project to your yarn instead of the other way around.

Read our full review of this book, originally published in June 2002.

coverThe idea behind Budd's book is not new, but she is the first to implement it on such a wide range of garment types (and, if I might add, in such an attractive format). Elizabeth Zimmermann published many works on the art of knitting a garment to size; and Jacqueline Fee's The Sweater Workshop: Knit Creative, Seam-Free Sweaters on Your Own With Any Yarn has recently been revised and republished.

Stitch Guides
Knitting may be composed of only two stitches, but there are endless ways in which you can combine them. Proof of this is in the vast body of stitch pattern books out there.

But be warned: Stitch books are meant to accompany a pattern or a design concept, not replace it. This means you'll find page after page of different stitch combinations, normally with photo illustrations and either row-by-row instructions or a chart with symbols. But it's your job to figure out how to put the stitches together into a garment.

For this reason alone, I was too intimidated to buy a stitch book for several years. Then one day I realized that I could simply play with different stitches by making swatches -- I didn't need a project as an excuse.

Since then I've had great fun using stitch books like some would use crossword puzzles, as temporary brain-teasers that give almost instant gratification.

The name that's possibly most synonymous with stitch patterns is Barbara Walker. Between 1968 and 1972 alone, she published three enormous collections of stitch patterns and techniques.

coverHer first collection is aptly named A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. It contains more than 500 stitches that run from basic knit and purl to ribbing, slip stitches, cables, lace, yarn-overs, and textured patterns.

At 400 pages and with 700 stitch patterns, her second book -- A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns -- may very well be the most comprehensive of her collections. It includes all sorts of knit and purl combinations, cables, slip-stitch patterns, laces, borders, edgings, and mosaics. I've found this book the most useful of all in her collection.

In her third stitch treasury, Charted Knitting Designs, Walker added 350 more stitch patterns, including much more elaborate cables. This time the patterns are presented in chart form, rather than row-by-row instructions, which can take some getting used to.

But wait, she wasn't finished. Many years after her first three books came out and her focus moved to other areas, Walker returned with what is now A Fourth Treasury of Knitting Patterns. It contains a reprint of her Sampler Knitting as well as 82 new texture, cable, and lace patterns, all of which are in charted form. It also includes a short autobiography.

If your goal is to build a comprehensive knitting library and money is no object, definitely add all four of Walker's books to your collection. If money is tight and you want to sample Walker's work before investing more, you'd be well advised to begin with her Second Treasury.

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