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Book Review: Aran Knitting

The much-awaited re-release of Alice Starmore's classic Aran Knitting has been met with much happiness in the knitting world.  That happiness is well-deserved since Aran Knitting is a fantastic book, both as a resource on the history of these gorgeous cabled hand-knits and as a collection of timeless sweater patterns.

Aran k 1
I've had the new copy of the book for about a month now, but have been trying to think of what to highlight in a review.  This book has a mythic status, the original copy was fetching crazy prices at Ebay auctions and most knitters are well acquainted with the fabulous patterns: Na Craga, St. Brigid, Aranmore, Fulmar...So what else is there to say?

There are a few things.  But let me start with a little story about my history with Aran Knitting.

I started knitting in the early 90's and didn't have much support in my knitting beyond the yarn department at Eaton's department store and the Paton's patterns found in the mall.  There was no yarn shop and I didn't know anyone who knit with anything more than an acrylic-wool blend.  Then I met Dina during my time at grad school in Thunder Bay.  She was from Toronto and had all kinds of crazy things--100% wool yarn, magazines devoted to knitting, patterns from Rowan and Phildar and she recommended yarn shops like Romni and Passionknit.  Totally changed my world.

I happened to be in Toronto at some point on a research expedition and and at that time The Creative Sewing and Needlework festival was on.  So I went.  More expanding of my knitting world.  At one stall there were kits for the most beautiful sweaters.  Cabled, intricate knits and beautiful heathered and tweedy yarns.  I immediately fell in love with this:

St brigid
St. Brigid.  Swoon.  Those gorgeous cables.  That heathered rich yarn.  The fringe (I know people hate it, but I always loved it).  The romantic craggy shores where I could be wearing this sweater and walking on the Aran islands.  I needed to have it.

Alas, I also didn't have the money for the kit.  So I noted the book--something called Aran Knitting and added it to my wish list.  

Aran knitting
I told Craig about it around Christmas time: I would love this book called Aran Knitting, it has some great patterns in it.  I had no idea who Alice Starmore was and no concept that she was an innovator in the knitting world (I didn't conceive of anything like a knitting world for that matter).  I got the book for Christmas, read every word of the history of these garments, studied the designs and then stuff got in the way.  I remember it being an expensive gift at the time and didn't realize that it would be out of print shortly after.

Some time later we were living in Toronto, I found the big yarn shops and my knitting evolved.  I decided it was time to crack open Aran Knitting and make something from this book.  For reasons, I don't remember beyond what I suspect was a desire to knit something for my husband, I chose Na Craga and bought the called-for Scottish Heather yarn to make this gigantic cabled sweater.

Na craga
(It could have been because of that photo--yum.)

It took a long time.  So long that I had a baby that I knit a lot for in between.  On December 24, 2002, I finished it for Craig.  It looked amazing on him and I was very pleased.  I don't have a photo of him in it (since it does predate my blog, but here's some FO photos from a long, long time ago in internet land). 

He still has the sweater, but I confess he doesn't wear it very much because he finds it too hot (I must make him go outside in it more often).  And while I have picked the book up over the years to browse the patterns, and I've got a sturdy purple tweed stashed for St. Brigid, I've never made another garment from it again.

But I didn't sell it either--even when it was fetching a fine price on the Ebay market.  There is something so classic in those patterns, even if they do have rather 80's styling--yes, they are rectangles with sleeves.  The cables are just so beautiful, the locations so pretty that it's a book you need to keep in your library.  I've also seen some amazing modifications of these patterns over the years--just have a look through Ravelry to find fitted versions, pullovers made into cardigans, gauge changes and all sorts of beautiful knits inspired by this book.  

That's why I'm so pleased for the re-release.  The book, now in softback (which I find a bit more difficult to use since it won't lay flat) contains the same historical and technical information as the original.  The original designs are all included, but there have been some important modifications.  Most have been re-photographed (though some of the original images are used) and the sizing and gauges have been changed to a more modern ease.  This means that designs are sized down and in some cases the largest size is not as large as it was.  There are also more sizes in some cases.  

It seems that the size changes come about mostly from changes to gauge/tension, which if you're already a bit sore from Alice Starmore's bullet-proof gauge, may be a bit tough.  I suspect one could go down yarn size (ie from worsted to dk) and make a perfectly fine sweater, that still has a solid gauge.  For sweaters involving this much effort, swatching is SUPER important.

Here's a few examples by way of comparison:

St. Brigid Original: 2 sizes: 45 & 48 inches.  Gauge: 21sts and 27 rows

St. Brigid Revised: 3 sizes: 42, 45 and 48 inches.  Gauge: 22sts and 32 rows

Aranmor Original: 3 sizes: 46, 49.5 and 52.5 inches. Gauge: 19sts and 24 rows

Aranmor Revised: 4 sizes: 41, 45, 48 and 51.  Gauge: 19.5sts and 26 rows

While these sizes still seem large if you're more petite or like your sweaters form fitting, remember these are garments meant to be worn with a fair amount of positive ease--all those cables shouldn't sit tight on the body in worsted or aran weight wool.  And really, these almost count as outerwear for Fall or early Spring.

One thing I dislike is that all patterns do not provide yardage; only the weight of yarn required (ie 850 grams of Hebridean 3 ply).  I know this is to encourage you to buy directly from Ms Starmore (who doesn't share the yardage on her site or print on the labels) but this smacks a bit as elitist and greedy--there's lots of yarn in the world to use to make these sweaters (and in my stash too!).  But in the end, it just means a bit more searching online to get a sense of yardage requirements from those who have knit up these patterns. 

To end on a positive note, check out this bonus to the new edition--a new pattern by Alice Starmore (click the image to embiggen).  

  Eala bahn

Eala Bhan is stunning.  A fitted, delicate cardigan with an open neck and a lovely shape.  The sleeves are set in and is described as "a fine example of how knotwork motifs can be specifically designed to incorporate precise body shaping".  While I might say it seems Ms Starmore was a bit behind the design times with this statement, the results are too pretty to care since Eala Bhan is both modern and timeless and on my to-knit list.

 

Comments

I have this book, bought one Christmas long ago at Romni Wools. I have never knit anything from it, though I did steal a motif or two for other things. You are right -- it is too lovely to part with, and always a delight to browse through!

It's about time that this classic was reprinted! I have an original (bought at a library sale for a steal!) In chapter 5 (under the subtitle "Choosing Yarns") she does give yardages and weights of the yarns she uses...at least in the original book. I haven't looked at a new version to see if it's included.

I have the original too, and I love it. I've knit St. Brigid for one niece as a pullover, for another niece modified into a cardigan, as high school graduation presents. Made one as a HS present for my oldest son, and knit Na Craga for myself. They're indoor sweaters only if you have draft windows or a furnace set at in the mid-60's. I can't imagine knitting any tighter to get a smaller gauge than in the old book.

I had the original book many years ago. And gave it away to another knitter. !! When I first got it, there were no patterns that I would have made because they were all too boxy and square. I didn't know then how to modify projects to my taste. Of course that was also before Rav (was there ever such a time of darkness?) so now that I have that added helpful resource, I will look out for the reissue!

Gosh. I think I need this book. I knew about it, but the cost of a million zillion ebay bucks was more than I could stomach for a knitting book no matter how rare. Maybe 2011 I will finish some long standing projects and put my hands to work on one of these!

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