Wednesday, May 03, 2006

(Not so) quick and dirty book reviews, with accompanying thoughts

I suppose that if I start a book review with a load of disclaimers, I probably should wait until I’ve actually had time to digest it. But… you know, first impressions and whatnot. And I DID sit down and do a concentrated skim, which is usually more comprehensive than what most people would consider a flip-through.

But anyways.

On my last trip to Large Corporate Bookstore, I specifically wanted to check out Big Girl Knits, the much-discussed book of patterns and techniques for garments that flatter Ladies Of A Certain Size and those who share some of their curvy attributes. I am pleased to say that it looks to be a winner, albeit with one reservation which I’ll discuss later.

It is colorful and well-constructed, with very nice pictures and some great strategies. I am particularly fond (as are many others) of the book’s overall tone. I’d describe it as dual-pronged: first, that just because you’re large doesn’t mean that your clothing shouldn’t fit close to the body; second, that curvy women are curvy for different reasons in different places (sometimes in combination). “Finally!” I can hear women screaming. “Finally, a book that splits the difference between potato sack and Anna Nicole Smith!” After all, hardly anyone is a straight-out Size [insert number]; regardless of size, so often women are left to make do with clothing that hangs like a curtain because it’s the only thing that’ll fit our busts, or clothing that hugs something higher than where it should.

While I haven’t yet adapted a garment to fit my own needs, this should prove an invaluable resource. Much has already been said about the “boobs, belly, butt” system the book outlines. I was VERY impressed by the extensive, easy-to-follow diagrams and guidelines for each area. In addition, I enjoyed the mini-What Not To Wear-esque suggestions of which necklines and silhouettes flatter best. I won’t go into a lot of detail since it’s been discussed elsewhere, but suffice that I have the greatest respect and admiration for the straightforward manner in which it is presented. Too frequently there’s this see-saw between “make me look skinnier” and “Go out there and be FAAAAABULOUS, girlfriend!” This book helps carve out a niche which shouldn’t be a niche: helping women larger than model-skinny find clothing that makes them look and feel their best. To me, properly fitted clothing shows, more than anything, that you are confident about your body in its normal state and that you take the time to care about finding clothing that shows this. I know I speak for many when I say that I neither want to draw unnecessary attention to myself nor blend in with a crowd; this book understands.

That said, my only reservation is the patterns. I’ll have to go through again and reread, but I’m not sure I’d make many of them. I think some would work very well with a couple of modifications, but what was it that I just didn’t like? I’m not sure. Of course it’s worth buying just for the reference alone, but I’ll have to look closer. One commenter noticed that some of the model garments didn’t fit quite right or hadn’t been blocked to perfection, and I’d have to agree. They’re not sloppy, but there’s a sense in a few of them that even though this is a larger garment, it shouldn’t sag here and there. However, it’s definitely worth checking out. I hear that before the publishing date they were already planning for a second volume :)

My second, and a bit more perplexing, read goes to Wendy Knits: My Life in Knitting by the infamous Wendy D. Johnson. Ah, Wendy. How to describe? For those of you (few) who haven’t been to her blog (see sidebar!), word on the street says that she must be harboring a garret full of Guatemalan immigrants, since a Norwegian ski sweater that would take regular people six months takes her about two weeks. Including yarn spinning.

I can’t describe Wendy’s particular allure. Let’s get some business out of the way: yes, I am insanely jealous of her. Seriously, who wouldn’t be? She’s got time to knit; she’s got a near-infinite vocabulary of skills; she’s got money to burn. That’s a dangerous combination. Now, of course, she has these things because she has chosen to live her life in this way: she gets up early and has a long commute on a subway (though, really, if I had to commute I’d probably enjoy that time), she has no kids aside from the ubiquitous Lucy Of the Cat Pictures… she’s also considerably older than me, so she’s got many more years from which to draw.

I suppose this is partially a review of her book and partially my long-simmering philosophical rumination on the Wendy Phenomenon. First, though, the book.

I’ve got a couple of beefs with it. First, it’s in black-and-white. That shouldn’t be a big bummer, but it would have been really nice to just make like Stitch n Bitch and put in a couple glossy picture pages in the middle. The smallish black-and-white pics on regular matte paper makes it hard to see some of the detail.

Second, I don’t know if the book really knows what it wants to be. Is it a tell-all memoir of the glamorous life of a superstar knitter? Is it a how-to primer on Living Like Wendy? Is it a pattern book? (No.) I was skimming through Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Without Tears this past weekend looking for tips on seamlessness and baby sweaters. It occurred to me that EZ occupied a similar niche, in that her books were conversational yet no-nonsense as they outlined techniques and reasonings behind them. And of course there were the inevitable jags into “I came up with this because we were living in X Location and my kids needed Y, and so I [personal reflection].”

Maybe this is my issue with Wendy. She knits in the kind of vacuum that I can’t fully grasp. She knits almost exclusively for herself, which is well and good, but then she DOESN’T WEAR THEM. She’ll say, “This is just too heavy,” or “It fits in a wacky way.” Then she puts them in a corner, and they stay there. I suppose they fit the bill as “process” sweaters, but come on – they’re some of the most complicated sweaters you’ll ever see, and with the kind of yarn she’s using that’s easily $100-$200.

At this point we’ve got the philosophical debate about Art vs. Craft, and paying for enjoyment. I waffle back and forth thinking, “Geez, I could never pay that much for yarn!” except that I find myself remembering, “Okay, so not only do I not have to BUY this thing, it’s also providing me with both an activity and a sense of accomplishment.” If I cook something, does that mean I have to save it for posterity? There’s this sort of Zen koan aspect to the situation.

The other philosophical aspect is that Wendy very clearly endorses what she calls the Bad-Ass Knitter’s manifesto: knit what you want, when you want, how you want, and don’t let people pooh-pooh your method or your madness. And she’s obviously not looking for acceptance in the blogging world, as she’s been around forever and seems to write mainly as a fun little record of what she did. And that’s great. She’s picked up readers like couches pick up cat hair, and I am one of them. I just don’t know why.

So then we get back to the book. It’s like reading an extended blog entry at times. “I wanted to start spinning, so I bought this stuff with no problems, and it probably cost a lot but whatever, and I just did it.” Not very deep and not really acknowledging that most people have neither the time or money to do things quite so easily. Now, I realize that in many ways we live vicariously through people who have the appearance of being more fortunate than you or I, such as wearing colors and makeup like we see in Cosmo or trying to copy a room from Architectural Digest. And it is fully my choice to read said blog, just as it is fully my choice to purchase her book.

But her book just seems so… shallow. Maybe that’s what I was going for.

I agree with her that the first priority is doing things in a way that satisfies YOU. I think, however, that there’s a difference between a free blog and a book you pay for. I don’t know what people are looking for when they buy her book, and it’s not my concern since I won’t be buying it any time soon, if at all. However, I think that perhaps when you are trying to reach a mass audience that will pay money to read your thoughts, maybe you should take some pause and examine the responsibilities of being a role model. Yeah, Charles Barkley didn’t want to be a role model -- but no matter how much he protested, he was.

I don’t know why this bugs me so much. Maybe it’s just my nature as a person who has been raised to think about other people in a particular way. If I’ve decided not to buy a book, that should be it.

I guess the jury’s still out on that.


At 11:42 AM, Blogger Alexandra said...

I also made a trip to Large Corporate Bookstore specifically to check out Big Girl Knits, and looked at Wendy Knits while I was there.

Book the first: I had the same issue as you about the fit of many patterns. I am obsessed with armholes and sleeves, so that's what I concentrated on. I found that of the two sweaters I most wanted to make, one had a 40" bust with a 13" upper arm (tiny) and the other a 41.5" bust with a 10.5" deep armhole (why?) and a 17" upper arm (no). No happy medium, in other words. The latter was posed oddly, too--the model was leaning back on her hands, arms drawn back so the fit of the sleeve couldn't be assessed.

I suppose there's a market for each design--there are skinny armed people with bigger chests and smaller-chested people with big arms--but it was disappointing to realize these patterns that are supposed to be already sized for my overweight self would have to be half rewritten anyway, and sleeve caps are not a trivial adjustment.

As for Wendy Knits: well, yes. Extended blog entry. Nice enough, but redundant; hasn't most of the potential audience read it already?

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Katie said...

Architechtural Digest is an extremely depressing magazine.

On another note, my mom is a quilter. She has a sewing room, and one entire wall of that room is covered in floor to ceiling shelves of fabric that she's bought over the years. She's got easily a few thousand dollars worth of fabric, and she spent probably thousands more to make quilts that no one uses--they hang up in her sewing room, and occassionally get entered in contests. But she likes them, and they're pretty, and she loves making them. So I guess what I'm driving at is that, it really doesn't matter if you use something you knit, as long as you like the finished product and you enjoyed the process.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Emma said...

But sleeeeves are haaaaaaard! Especially set-in ones!

I've noticed that plus-sized women, in addition to making sweaters too large, have a very great tendency to make armholes too deep, even if they've figured out that the body/shoulders/whatever of the sweater can be narrower. You can see it all over in the ample-knitters gallery... heck, you can see it in the handspun gansey I've been making for myself (my "knitting olympics" project, *cough*). I've got the first sleeve (picked up at the armhole and knit downwards) done to the cuff and trying it on, I realize I need to rip the whole sleeve and probably close to 2 inches of the upper body to get something that looks halfway decent. And I even know about the problem and should have figured it out 2-3 inches down the sleeve.

I suspect a big part of this is due to people writing patterns and assuming that everything gets bigger equally, so that you can drive a truck through the armholes in the largest sizes (and is probably what happened in the patterns written by slimmer women, the ones written by Big Girls have the over estimation problem).

I flipped through Wendy's book in the bookstore yesterday, and was similarly struck by wondering who the intended audience is. I suppose a lot of people who read the blog have been hoping to get their hands on some of the patterns which she's shown as FOs over the last couple of years, but I sort of wonder why, as none of them are particularly flattering fit-wise. Someone really needs to give Wendy a big lesson on how to make garments that flatter the wearer. This is a big part of the reason I *stopped* reading her blog last year, she seemed to ahve mostly given up on the feats of knitterly skill and was churning out garment after garment that fit like a sack but cost a fortune in yarn. Though I suppose to some extent the same complaint could be made about a lot of the Starmores, too...

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Alexandra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Alexandra said...

That's the thing--no one seems to get that armhole depth varies with height more than girth. Which to say you have to make some adjustment for larger sizes, but you don't get into 10.5" territory unless you're outfitting a basketball player.

That, and I think there's still this idea that the sleeve cap height always varies directly with the armhole height (as evidenced by formulas that say cap height = 2/3 of armhole depth), which is complete BS and screws up a good sleeve like nothing else. The relationship of upper sleeve width to armhole depth determines sleeve cap height; you do not allow some arbitrary, predetermined cap height to dictate upper sleeve width. And, while sleeve width and armhole depth have some bearing on each other, it is again not direct variance--if I hear "the upper sleeve should be twice the armhole depth" about a *set-in sleeve* once more, I will scream.

Yeah, uh, I'll be peddling my sleeve obsession elsewhere now...

At 3:07 AM, Blogger Thorny said...

I had the same problem with BGK. I looked through it at Large Corporate Bookstore as well, and I liked the design info, but then I looked at the patterns and was seriously underwhelmed. I didn't see a single thing in there that I was really keen to knit for myself. And perhaps some of that did have to do with how some of the items seemed to fit (or rather, not-quite-fit) their models, but still - I honestly found a lot of the patterns rather off-putting. I'm all in favor of being at least moderately "in style", but if I'm going to put forth the effort to knit a sweater (in yarn no thicker than worsted weight!) to wrap around my larger-than-average body, it better not be embarassingly out of style by the time I get that baby done.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Rebekkah said...

I'm so often so undecided about Wendy's blog.

The thing is, it was a *huge* source of inspiration to me when I picked up the needles again a year and a half ago. I wasn't an inexperienced knitter (I'd knit several blankets and other projects with complex texture/cable patterns), but was completely inexperienced at knitting garments or doing colorwork of any sort. Her project archives was like Mecca to me. I think she provides a lot of inspiration to a lot of new knitters, and to a lot of knitters of her generation who may like the idea of reading a blog written by more of a cohort, and who truthfully may not be as adventurous about the whole internet thing and seeking out other knitting blogs.

While I'm mostly underwhelmed by her blog and her current projects, I still do draw a lot of inspiration from her project and blog archives. I think she used to do a much better job of documenting technical aspects of projects. I drew a lot from her blog when making alterations to Ingeborg, for example. I also really appreciate that she's really nice to her readers. I've emailed her a few times with questions, and she's always replied quickly, and with as much information as she could provide.

So yeah. While I'm underwhelmed by the current state of her blog, sometimes put off (or maybe just jealous?) of her consumeristic ways, and from what I've heard am likely to not love her book, I do still have a lot of respect for her. I wish that she'd pay more attention to some aspects of being a process knitter ('cause figuring out how to size sweaters correctly for one's own body is a part of the *process*, in my book), and wish that she'd blog about technical stuff more often. I'll continue to read her blog, but it sounds like I probably won't buy the book.


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