Climbers have Mt. Everest, golfers have the links at St. Andrews or Royal County Down, cyclists may attempt the Tour d'Afrique, painters long to see their canvases in the Guggenheim or the Louvre, and knitters have...Alice Starmore's Fair Isle patterns? Okay, so knitting isn't a grueling sport or considered a fine art, but it is a traditional craft with many skills to be mastered. It is both a practical and an aesthetic art with its own set of terminology and tools, its own history and, pardon the pun, a close-knit community. In SWEATER QUEST, Adrienne Martini documents her year of working on a notoriously difficult sweater pattern and, in doing so, explores why she and so many others enjoy knitting.
In Martini's world, knitting is not old-fashioned construction of frumpy blankets and scratchy sweaters. Knitting today is much hipper than that: fashionable designs made with quality fibers in fantastic colors knit on bamboo needles abound. There is a whole generation of young cool knitters, and the craft is seeing a renaissance. Martini is a skilled knitter and, most importantly, a skilled writer and storyteller. Though the book is ostensibly about knitting, it is really about how she carves out space and time for herself in the midst of working (she is a professional writer and teacher), parenting and more. The Alice Starmore pattern, called “Mary Tudor,” she selects to knit is stylistically and technically challenging, and she gives herself a year to complete it. It is a sweater she doesn't necessarily intend to wear --- the shape is boxy, and the design busy and a bit dated --- so it is really about creation and expression and the exploration of the process.
Martini successfully weaves together various strands to make a cohesive whole. Readers learn about the infamously litigious designer Starmore, whose patterns are at once desired and feared. There is a crash course in the English monarchy as well as the origins and history of the Scottish fiber traditions. Martini compares knitting to yoga, another practice simultaneously solitary and community-based, and interviews a number of friends who knit a spectrum of designs and items for a variety of reasons. Creation, concentration, dexterity and mindfulness all come into play and can result in accomplishment, happiness, contentment and clarity.
In the end, SWEATER QUEST remains funny and readable because Martini is sharing something she loves so much. In fact, she writes, “had I not discovered knitting, I would not be the paragon of sanity that I am today. No, really.” She began knitting after a serious bout of postpartum depression, and the craft gave her a positive obsession, an emotional and creative release, and a new community of friends and teachers. Though she is asking what makes knitters knit, the appeal of the book is that it looks beyond knitting, which is just the metaphor for doing whatever it is one challenges oneself to do. Whether your thing is model trains or marathons, cooking or ceramics, Martini documents and illuminates the universality of the expressive process.
Knitters will be thrilled to read SWEATER QUEST, which so honestly and lovingly describes their passion, but non-knitters will find it a witty, insightful and interesting book as well. Perhaps even they will be inspired to cast on and knit something themselves!
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011