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Mary Thomas & The Knitting Bargain of the Century

“Knitting should be done thoughtfully. It should not be hurried. That is its charm to our generation, who live surrounded with a wild helter-skelter of speed.”

I hope the name Mary Thomas produces little ‘ah’s of recognition, or even a reverential silence from my readers. She may not be as popular as Elizabeth Zimmerman or Barbara Walker, but.. she should be! In case you haven’t heard of her, or haven’t quite got around to reading her books, let me give you a little guidance. Mary Thomas published two books on knitting in the 30s and 40s (before EZ & Walker hit the scene), called Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book and Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns. She writes in the Preface to the first book:

At first I had hoped to present the whole story of knitting in one volume only, but this eventually proved impossible, as the subject was too vast. So, with the greatest reluctance, a division had to be made, leaving the fascinating art of fabric construction, which rose to such heights of beauty in the brocade and lace periods of knitting, and which is now rapidly being multiplied, for a later book. This is already in preparation.

The similarity in the names of the books is confusing; when I was buying my copies I spent some time trying to figure out whether they may not in fact be re-issues of the same book. Well, as Mrs. Thomas’s preface indicates, they’re two unique books, complementing and supplementing each other, even though they could be taken as complete works in their own right. Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book begins with the history of knitting, information on implements, yarn, gauge and tension, and continues with the foundational techniques – knitting, purling, casting on and off, etc. This is no mere instruction manual for beginner knitters though; Thomas delves into ‘knit movements’ and ‘selvedges’ with amazing detail, discussing, for instance, the English & Continental methods, in addition to several varities of ‘crossed’ and ‘uncrossed’ stitches (the ‘Eastern Uncrossed’ method is what is now often called ‘Combined Knitting’). There are then sections on increasing and decreasing, and several ornamental techniques. The last few chapters are on garment construction, shetland shawls, gloves, socks and stockings, and all are very thorough and enlightening.

illustration by Margaret Agutter in Mary Thomas's Knitting Book

The second book, Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns, deals with the creation of knitted fabric and surface ornamentation, and how it can be used effectively in design. Her short introductory chapter on ‘The A.B.C of Design’ should be essential reading for any ‘Beginning Knitwear Design’ course. It’s worth noting that ‘Knitting Patterns’ aren’t, as we might assume, full instructions for creating a specific garment, but rather Thomas’s instructions for patterning the knitted fabric. In essence, most of the contents are ‘knitting stitches’ (or ‘stitch patterns’). Thomas’s practicality is almost unsurpassed. Both books have comprehensive indexes, and the second not only includes French and German knitting terms, but also has a ‘Texture Index’ which lists the stitches according to the projects they’re suitable for. What thoughtfulness!

I think you’ll agree that Mary Thomas was ahead of her time. Even today few books are so comprehensive or enjoyable to read – ‘textbooks’ of knitting. She was also an early proponent of charting, though many of the symbols she uses won’t look especially familiar to knitters today. I couldn’t find any information on Mary Thomas on the internet, but the Ravelry Group mentions that Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting (UK) has a brief biography of her.

illustration by Margaret Agutter in Mary Thomas's Knitting Book

As a knitter I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I love these two books almost as much for their darling little illustrations as I do for their content. They’re by Margaret Agutter, and each is based around a clever pictorial pun.

I hope I’ve been able to clear up some of the confusions that might arise from the titles of these two seminal books, and have convinced you that they are worth reading cover to cover (first of all), and later referred to frequently. The Dover editions are still in print and aren’t too expensive, though I’ve noticed their prices have been going up! The Book of Knitting Patterns isn’t quite as cheap, but it’s still a bargain for all of the information it contains. But I bought the Knitting Book from Abebooks for… 64p! As I write this there are 2 copies going for 61p. Isn’t that the knitting bargain of the century?

4th September, 2009  // Knitwear Design, Literature // tags: , , .

Slightly Foxed

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slightly foxed summer 2009boat on cunda

It is still summer, isn’t it? So says the cover of my latest issue of Slightly Foxed, with which I’m finally united now that I’ve returned to a country where there is no vestige of summer. From the Aegean, where clouds were a great rarity, to England, where they are so thick you want to scrape them off the sky. But anyway, I love Slightly Foxed! It is one of the most delightful things that can fall through your letterbox (Graze boxes are high up on the list too). The cover of the Summer edition takes me back to the Turkish island of Cunda, where I took this photo of a boat called ‘Yasemin’ (which also happens to be my middle name). SF is always beautifully laid out on cream paper and boasts the sweetest illustrations; really it’s enough to bring out the bibliophile in any text-lover. It prints unpretentious reviews of forgotten or out-of-print books, and has been accused of harbouring nostalgia for early lit crit, and of being altogether unscholarly. Perhaps the best compliments I can imagine. If newspaper literary supplement reviews make you cringe and swear off reading comtemporary literature, this will be just your cup of tea (you can subscribe here if you like)! Nothing sends me searching on Abebooks quicker…

The first article in this issue is about Graeme Greene’s Stamboul Train which is now on my reading list, even though I spent 40 miserable minutes in Istanbul Atatürk Airport waiting in the customs & x-ray queues, hoping our next plane was delayed. It was. Then I spent nearly 4 hours thinking how I would rather have spent a week travelling by train than having to sit for even 5 minutes with a hideous aqua seat cover about 4 inches from my face. Honestly, I can see why some might prefer to stay at home reading their lovely Quarterlies instead.

summer blues

Another Aegean blue addition to my possessions now that I’m back in blighty is my new (old) iPod shuffle. The engraving is half a quote by Aristotle (it continues: “Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit”), and is there to remind me that unless I blog more often I cannot be a blogger. Like paint chips, the shuffle makes a great bookmark (I don’t know why Apple don’t mention this on their website), and the combination of Foxed & shuffle (with a bit of knitting thrown in) is even more enjoyable when employed on my favourite train route – between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth.

2nd gen ipod shuffle

And despite the wise admonition of the most excellent Woolly Wormhead, I just couldn’t resist the urge to match (both my iPod & my Strat). The colour is Collection 2000’s ‘Show off’, in case you want to, you know, show off.

your nail polish must always match your ipod

21st August, 2009  // Literature, Travel // tags: , , , , , .

Where Have You Been?

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Well may you ask! When I came back to Turkey for a few months, I hadn’t realised that a combination of heat, intermittent internet, and a general lassitude would keep me away from work for so long. Many events have passed unrecorded, including my birthday, and the Skein Queen contest I won, to name one of her gorgeous colourways. The name I entered was ‘Summerhouse Love’, and it’s fairly descriptive of my current state. Ironically, I must await my return to Wales to fondle the Plushness, but the cool colours will be a reminder of my indolent summer days. I had already treated myself to a hank of Skein Queen yarn for my birthday (look at Deb’s gorgeous packaging! I admired it for a long time before I let myself open it), along with a tiny hank of Artist’s Palette ‘Glisten’. Really, the difficulty of the larger questions of life (its meaning, what one should do with it, etc.) pale in comparison with the painful hours of deciding which colourway of handpainted yarn to purchase.

skein queen package

another early birthday present

Much of my time has been spent reading, listening to Cole Porter songs, taking photos of congruous colours, and of course, doing a lot of mindless knitting. These socks are now finished, though it’s too hot to wear them.

sock & colette
Olive pressing against my window
sock & colette
bits of houses

I mentioned in my entry to the Skein Queen competition, how much I love summerhouse novels. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Proust’s Swann’s Way (the only one of the series I’ve managed to read so far), and Colette’s Ripening Seed are the chief ones that occur to me. To a lesser extent perhaps von Arnim’s The Enchanted April (which I suppose is not summer), Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Forster’s A Room with a View, and maybe even Bellow’s Herzog, though they’re all very different books. Admittedly A Room with a View doesn’t even involve a house, but it is still one of my favourites.

And if you’re looking for musical accompaniment, here is my Cole Porter mixtape:

  1. I Concentrate on You by Frances Wayne
  2. I Loved Him but He Didn’t Love Me by Kaye Ballard
  3. Get Out of Town by Chris Connor
  4. Night and Day by Ella Fitzgerald
  5. Just One of Those Things by Diana Krall
  6. I’m in Love Again by Bobby Short
  7. The Laziest Gal in Town by Marlene Dietrich
  8. Where Have You Been? by Judy Holliday

So close to your side I’ll stay,
You can never say,
“Baby, where have you been?”

13th July, 2009  // Inspiration, Life, Literature, Travel, Yarn // tags: , , , .
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