Diagonal Knitting by Katharine Cobey

I’m a great fan of navigating new places on my own, even if it means getting lost along the way. Only by taking a wrong turn can I discover where that road leads—sometimes to a shortcut, sometimes to a dead end, but always to someplace new.

Knitting is much the same way. It’s tempting to let a pattern tell us exactly what to do, like a GPS pointing out each stitch and row as we go along. But if we never learn how to navigate the big picture for ourselves, getting our bearings when anything goes wrong can be a scary thing.

Introducing Katharine Cobey

A visual artist who uses knitting as her medium, Katharine Cobey is a master of the big picture. She manipulates knitted fabric to create sculptural objects that push the boundaries of how knitting is perceived. Some pieces are wearable clothing, others are installation works, all are stunning.

Hers is a revered name in the Maine fiberarts community, where she has lived and taught since 1992. And she holds a special place in my own heart. Melanie Falick introduced me to her in Knitting in America, where the photograph of Cobey’s “Portrait of Alzheimer’s” piece brought me to tears. I’d just lost my grandmother and knitting mentor to that very same disease, and I had never seen knitting used so powerfully as the medium for a deeper message.

As brilliant and inventive as Cobey is, she is not a step-by-step pattern writer. Rather, she follows in the footsteps of the likes of Elizabeth Zimmermann, Mary Walker Phillips, and Barbara Walker. She gives you the pieces, shows you how she put them together, and then sets you free to use these pieces however you like. At a time when most publishers are opting for the simple GPS approach, we are lucky that Diagonal Knittingfinally came to fruition.

The Diagonal Concept

This book is Cobey’s long-awaited ode to diagonal knitting, a technique that she has used frequently in her work. Diagonal knitting is actually a very simple concept that you’ve probably already tried without realizing it.

If you begin with a small number of stitches and increase at the end of every row (or every other row), like you would with the one-skein shawl pattern, you end up with a triangle-shaped fabric. When your fabric is as wide as you want it to be, simply decrease stitches at the end of every row (or every other row) and voilà—you have a piece of fabric whose knitted rows run diagonally to the vertical and horizontal edges of the fabric.

If it’s so easy, why do we need a whole book about it? For the same reason Barbara Walker gave us books about knit and purl stitches, Elizabeth Zimmermann knitting in the round, and Cat Bordhi the moebius—which is to say that in Cobey’s hands, this technique becomes a vehicle for a vast world of creative possibilities.

Setting Expectations

Diagonal Knitting is so unusual that it may be helpful to explain it in terms of what it isn’t, simply to set expectations from the get-go. This is not a traditional pattern or how-to book. Cobey has not nuggetized diagonal knitting into five easy steps and then presented them in 20 cute, easy, fashion-forward projects using popular contemporary yarns.

If your comfort zone hasn’t yet moved beyond step-by-step instructions in which you’re given all the variables up front (and we’ve all been there), your money may be wasted here—especially since the book retails for $35.

The Soul of the Book

This is a creative master class in which you are learning as much about the artist’s perspective as about the art itself. She talks about paintings, literature, politics, and shares her own story. She even uses her own language to describe certain techniques (fortunately they’re all defined in the back of the book).

But most important, Cobey flips things on their side (literally and figuratively) to help you see what could be. She explains the geometry of knitting in ways I’d never envisioned before. You’ll see diagonal knitting in squares, rectangles, triangles, tubes, dresses, jackets, and even sculptures. She shows you how you can fold, flip, turn, and twist the work to create wearable, functional objects. She even gives an ingenious technique for casting on three equal stitches from one slip-knot—something that’s important if you want an even edge to your diagonal piece.

Seeing the Idea

Abundant well-conceived drawings help illustrate and decipher the mystery of all those zigzagging rows that make up the different pieces. Also abundant are the photographs of Cobey’s own work, each chosen to illustrate a particular idea in action.

The photography does not follow the current trend toward extremely bright, high-contrast imagery. The images are far more moody, almost grainy at times, with an emphasis on the whole of the work as it interacts with its environment.

Many of Cobey’s works are large, bold pieces designed to interact with light and air, showing movement and volume. Capturing them photographically can be a challenge—which may be why Cobey entrusted her husband David with the task. He also provided all the drawings and illustrations.

A Fitting Family

Elizabeth Zimmermann pushed us to think for ourselves and be the master of our own stitches, and her daughter Meg Swansen continues to promote the same values in everything she does with Schoolhouse Press. As a fellow free-thinker, it makes perfect sense that Cobey should have published this book with Schoolhouse Press.

But it’s also a fitting aesthetic pairing, with Cobey’s work running in parallel to much of what Zimmermann espoused in her own work (with the Baby Surprise Jacket coming most quickly to mind). Meg notes this in the forward, saying that ever since her first encounter with Cobey’s work, “both she and her knitting have felt familiar and comforting.”

Under any other publisher, I suspect Diagonal Knitting would have lost at least half its IQ—but it would have gained more mainstream accessibility. As it is, this book requires a little more effort than most, like navigating new terrain without that GPS. But the rewards are many. Cobey treats us like the intelligent knitters she knows we are, and we can’t help but rise to the occasion.

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