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My Year of Knitting Dangerously
Table of Contents
About The Book
"I knit so I don’t kill people" —bumper sticker spotted at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival
For Adrienne Martini, and countless others, knitting is the linchpin of sanity. As a working mother of two, Martini wanted a challenge that would make her feel in charge. So she decided to make the Holy Grail of sweaters—her own Mary Tudor, whose mind-numbingly gorgeous pattern is so complicated to knit that its mere mention can hush a roomful of experienced knitters. Created by reclusive designer Alice Starmore, the Mary Tudor can be found only in a rare, out-of-print book of Fair Isle–style patterns, Tudor Roses, and requires a discontinued, irreplaceable yarn. The sweater, Martini explains, "is a knitter’s Mount Everest, our curse, and our compulsion. I want one more than I can begin to tell you."
And so she took on the challenge: one year, two needles, and countless knits and purls to conquer Mary Tudor while also taking care of her two kids, two cats, two jobs, and (thankfully) one husband—without unraveling in the process. Along the way, Adrienne investigates the tangled origins of the coveted pattern, inquires into the nature of artistic creation, and details her quest to buy supplies on the knitting black market. As she tries not to pull out her hair along with rows gone wrong, Martini gets guidance from some knitterati, who offer invaluable inspiration as she conquers her fear of Fair Isle. A wooly Julie and Julia, this epic yarn celebrates the profound joys of creating—and aspiring to—remarkable achievements.
I knit so I don’t kill people. —bumper sticker spotted at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival
Had I not discovered knitting, I would not be the paragon of sanity that I am today.
When I had my first baby in 2002, I lost my mind. And by “lost my mind,” I don’t intend to imply minor weepiness or fleeting unhappiness. Two weeks into my maternity leave, I checked myself into my local psych ward because I’d become a danger to myself. At the time, it seemed that reclaiming even a shred of my former aplomb would be impossible. Now the whole event feels like it happened to someone else.
Time is a great balm, of course. So are high-grade pharmaceuticals. But what really helped turn the tide was knitting. Now most of the drugs are a distant memory. The yarn, however, is still with me. So are baskets of knitted hats, scarves, sweaters, and socks.
With some input from my husband, I also made a second kid. That, however, is a story that differs little from what we were all taught in health class. My body used the pattern it is encoded with and knitted up a boy baby this time.
After my son’s birth, nothing unexpected happened. My husband and I lost sleep. We wondered when we’d ever stop doing six loads of laundry every day. My older child did her best to adjust to the new blob who, she believed, supplanted her in her parents’ affections. We did our best to assure her that she was loved.
Occasionally I did burst into tears, but I was able to stop again relatively quickly, which was a big change from the first time around. I also spent some of the mothering downtime, those moments when the wee one only wants to sleep in your lap, knitting a sweater for my very tall husband. It wasn’t anything fancy, just miles and miles of garter stitch, which is an amazing tonic to frayed and exhausted nerves.
Had you asked me a decade ago what I’d see myself doing in the future, “obsessively knitting” would not have been in the Top Ten possible answers. Like so many women who were girls in the seventies, at some point I was taught to knit, which I promptly forgot in favor of swooning over Leif Garrett and perfecting my eye roll. I learned again shortly before getting pregnant the first time, when the most recent round of knitting mania swept through the United States. After all, if Julia Roberts can knit, so can I. That and a fondness for Lyle Lovett can be what we have in common.
I knitted a lot of hats during my first baby’s first year, simply because hats are criminally easy to knit. Once you get the basics down, even if you are sleep deprived and leaking bodily fluids, a hat requires minimal mental gymnastics.
I could finish a hat in about a week, working on it when the baby was on my lap, which seemed like every waking moment of every endless day. Each finished hat made me feel that I had at least accomplished something short-term and tangible. From sticks and some string, I’d crafted a useful item. Given that the other project, who was cooing in my lap, was definitely a long-term action item, these little hats made me feel as if I could still finish what I’d started as long as I kept my projects small.
Like a baby, knitting is a gift that keeps surprising you. Baby surprises tend to be immediate and bipolar—either “that’s cool!” or “that’s disgusting!”—but knitting surprises are subtle and enduring. Making stuff with my very own hands has enriched my life in innumerable ways. Both kids and craft have taught me how to deal with frustration so acute that I’d want to bite the head off a kitten. Both are great courses in expectation management. Both have given more than they’ve taken—and introduced me to a community that I otherwise never would have known.
Moms are different from nonmoms, which isn’t to say that we can’t understand women without children; it’s just that women with kids (no matter how they wound up with them) can identify with other moms in a stronger way. That’s not to say that we all endorse each other’s choices (and if you ever want to start a hair-pulling fight, state an opinion on breastfeeding to a room full of moms) but that we bond with each other in an innate way.
Knitters immediately bond with other knitters too. Amy R. Singer states it best in her 2002 manifesto for Knitty.com: “We are different, aren’t we? Knitters. We take strands of fiber and from them we create wonders. We share what we know. We’re anxious to do it. We want there to be more of us. People who look at the world a little differently. A little less gimme and a little more let me try that. We enjoy process as much as product. We knit.”
Which isn’t to say that the knitting community is a monolithic entity in which all the members hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” on a regular basis. You can easily start another hair-pulling fight by stating an opinion on buttonholes. And if you want a real melee—seriously, the authorities would have to be called—mention your feelings about buttonholes having to be on the left side of a woman’s garment while a knitter-mom is breastfeeding a six-year-old.
But these are superficial differences, no matter how heated the debate. Knitters bond together because we think about things that no one else cares about. We make stuff to show how much we love someone or how much we love the yarn or, like swimming the English Channel, just to see if we can.
For me, knitting wouldn’t be as satisfying without this community of like-minded people, most of whom I know only in electronic form by reading their blogs or their comments in online communities like Ravelry or Knitter’s Review. My life is richer because they have no qualms about copping to their needle habits. Their work frequently carries me through mine.
My husband and I joke that we are a “planning people.” We like goals and lists. Few things give me quite the same satisfaction as crossing something off a list or meeting a goal. If I meet a goal and then get to cross it off a list, the thrill is so great that I have to lie down until it passes. And I wonder why I’m not a big hit at parties.
To shorten this examination of my odd psyche, I am not a woman who enjoys process. I am a writer who does not enjoy writing. I can find innumerable ways to avoid it. But, to rip off Dorothy Parker, nothing else—nothing—gives me the same thrill as having written.
I’m the same way with knitting. The process is fine, mind you, and keeps my hands busy. But nothing else—nothing—gives me the rush that I get from finishing something.
The parallels between writing and knitting go even further. Like writing, knitting has a finite number of raw ingredients. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Those letters can combine to give you David Foster Wallace or freshman composition papers. There are only two basic stitches: the knit and the purl. Those stitches can add up to a gorgeously complicated sweater or a pastel pink toilet paper cozy. The difference is in the mind that shapes them.
Which brings me to Alice Starmore, a knitwear designer whose garments are mind-numbingly gorgeous in both their beauty and complexity. To abuse my writing/knitting metaphor so much that it sulks off to the corner and begs for sweet mercy, Starmore is the Shakespeare of the knit and the purl.
To say that Starmore’s designs are difficult oversimplifies them. The tricky language in a sonnet or a soliloquy hides a simplicity of emotion and theme that, once you can unlock it, blows you away with its genius. The same is true of most of Starmore’s designs. Yes, the language is difficult to learn and speak, but the rewards are great, if you can manage to not set your entire project on fire because it drives you mad. Franklin Habit, author of It Itches, a book of knitting cartoons, and the Panopticon, a wildly popular knitting blog, says it best.
I sat down with [Starmore’s] The Book of Fair Isle Knitting and almost wet myself … So this is what makes people gaga over Fair Isle. The tension, the incredible chill-giving tension, of vibrant colors rippling in counterpoint to vigorous patterning, the two constantly pushing and pulling like opposing voices in a Baroque orchestral suite without ever tipping the balance.
I kept on poring through [Starmore’s] books, with their solid writing and their wildly creative variations on a theme, and I realized that for maybe the third time in my life I’d encountered an artist who was actually worthy of the hype. It’s tough to design one good sweater, let alone a book full of them. It’s damned near impossible to crank out a whole string of terrific books without going stale. And it’s rare to find a scholar, a writer, and a designer all sharing the same body.
Beyond her jaw-droppingly impressive designs, Starmore herself is a source of controversy. She is the Edward Albee of the knitting world and appears to get her knickers in a bunch when knitters suggest modifications to her designs. Despite living on a relatively isolated Scottish island, she so vigorously protects her brand that many knitters avoid referring to her, lest she swoop in and sue when her name is invoked.
Given the names of some of her patterns—like St. Brigid, Anne of Cleves, Elizabeth I, and Henry VIII—you might expect Starmore to be a blousy, Miss Marple-ish, chintz-covered Briton of a certain age, but her legal fights show her to be tough.
If Starmore’s feisty defense of her intellectual property weren’t enough reason to turn away from her work, the patterns themselves might be. Starmore’s Mary Tudor is a fiendishly difficult Fair Isle sweater whose mere mention can make a roomful of chatty women hush. Mary Tudor’s intricate colorwork alternates bands of dusky purple and cobalt blue woven around heraldic symbols. The Mary Tudor is my Mount Everest. It is my Grail, my curse, and my compulsion. The quest to complete Mary Tudor—given that the pattern is out of print, the yarn has been discontinued, and the knitting is vast—can be the work of a lifetime. For a knitter who has only been knitting for a thimbleful of years, one who has been known to lose focus and knit two left mittens or count to twenty by skipping seventeen, Mary Tudor would be a foolish, humbling choice to attempt.
I want one.
I am not without common sense. I know how to make good choices. I floss. Taking on Mary Tudor right now would be silly. I have two children under the age of seven. I have a husband and a house and cats. I have two jobs at two separate colleges, plus whatever writing I can squeeze in around the fringes. My life is very full. Yet I feel like my very full life isn’t progressing anywhere. I’m just running around in circles trying to keep all of life’s balls in the air. I derive a certain amount of contentment from successfully doing that, but fighting a holding action against the slings and arrows of entropy doesn’t bathe one in glory. Frankly, it leaves one only in need of a nap.
Crossing “kept wolves at bay” off a list gives me little joy. It’s not what I would want as my epitaph. Other phrases that I hope don’t appear in my obit include “kept a tidy house,” “made a lovely roast chicken,” “always returned student assignments in a timely fashion,” and “ensured everyone had clean underpants.” Those things are important—nothing harshes your day’s mellow faster than dirty underpants—but I don’t want them mentioned in a summary of my life.
Every New Year’s Eve, rather than make resolutions that I have no intention of keeping, I pick one word on which to focus in the coming year. I write it on slips of paper, which invariably end up buried in piles on my desk, though they float to the surface periodically as I churn those piles during the year. Reminders like “Listen” or “Create” or “Patience” serve up a moment of silent contemplation as I reflect on how I’m doing. Our rituals help make us who we are.
One recent year I completely forgot to choose my word. I spent all of 2007 in a directionless haze but didn’t notice its directionlessness until 2008 was hours away. I couldn’t find any hints about what my word had been for 2007. Surely I had picked a word to focus on. It is what I do.
I cleaned my desk and found no hints. I did find the passbooks for the kids’ savings accounts, however, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
I flipped though my calendar in order to find out just what I’d been doing for the last 365 days. I had spent a lot of time taking small people to various appointments. I had sent birthday cards. I had gone to work. The whole year had been a holding action. Nothing very bad or very good happened, which is nice in its own way. But I didn’t accomplish anything that I could point to and say, “This is 2007.” I didn’t even have a word of the year written on my list.
Like I said, I am a planning person. Even though my life brings me contentment, I also need a challenge, one whose execution I can control. While my kids and my students and my spouse provide plenty of moments that test my patience and make me gird my loins, I am helpless before them. All I can control is my response. But with a sweater—say a fantastically complicated Fair Isle that will be stunning when it is done—I am in charge. The shots are mine to call as I climb the mountain with the wind blowing back my hair. My sherpas will be the knitters I know, whether in the virtual world or in real life.
Movement would be 2008’s word. It was time for progress.
© 2010 Adrienne Martini
Reading Group Guide
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Some climb mountains when they are looking for a life challenge. Others, like Adrienne Martini, knit a complicated cardigan designed by a reclusive Scot named Alice Starmore. In Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, Martini takes on Mary Tudor, a Fair Isle garment whose pattern is inspired by a lesser known sister of Henry VIII.
The challenge of Mary Tudor begins with sourcing an out-of-production yarn and out-of-print pattern book. Once she solves the acquisition hurdles, Martini settles down for some endless knitting, which leads to discussions with experts about everything from copyright in the Internet age to the healing properties of craft. Martini visits Toronto, the knitting capital of the Americas in order to talk to the Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl-McPhee who has the #1 blog in Canada. She also makes a pilgrimage to a yoga guru and a textile scholar.
Along the quest, Martini tries to uncover the heart of why knitters knit and what makes a Starmore sweater a Starmore while scaling her yarny Mount Everest.
1) Studies have shown that the repetitive movements of knitting, like meditation, calm the stress responses that can contribute to ill health. Also, it appears that learning a new skill keeps the mind active and might keep dementia at bay. Martini uses knitting to overcome depression. Why do you think handcrafts have a measurable effect on the brain? What has been your experience with how making something can change your thoughts?
2) With the rise of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to copy patterns without paying their designers. On pages 26-41, Martini outlines the legal challenges that Starmore has made with regard to her work. Do you agree that these cases create a “chilling effect” on discussion and creation? How do you approach the challenges of copyright when it comes to digital media?
3) The Internet has also created new communities, which Martini discusses on pages 85-88. What does the development of online support groups say about our culture as a whole? In your opinion, is this a positive or a negative change in how we related to each other?
4) How do you respond to Martini’s thesis on page 102 that “Knitting – and other happy-hands-at-home crafts like sewing and crochet – became symbols of the domestic bubble that women were popping during feminism’s second wave.” How did you view handicrafts during the 1960s and 1970s?
5) An interview with Om Yoga founder Cyndi Lee begins on page 118. After reading this, do you agree or disagree that “knitting is the new yoga?”
6) Once organized, knitters are a force to be reckoned with. On page 174, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee talks about “Knitters Without Borders,” which has donated more than $1 million to Doctors Without Borders. What makes knitters so inclined to donate to charity?
7) By the end of Sweater Quest, Martini is uncertain whether or not the sweater she has made can truly be called a “Starmore” because of all the changes she has made to the materials and the pattern. Do you think it is? Why or why not?
Enhancing Your Book Group
1) Alice Starmore bases her design motifs on history and on the landscape. Using the medium of your choice, sketch out three motifs based on your history and your landscape.
2) Recall which crafts you learned as a child that you didn’t carry into adulthood. Start a new project in that craft and bring it to your reading group to talk about.
3) Starmore, who is Scottish, wrote about a road trip she took through the United States during the 1990s. She noticed details that most Americans fail to see. Find other examples of foreigners traveling through a place that you know well and read their observations aloud. Or, if time permits, go someplace foreign to you and write about all that feels alien.
A Conversation with Adrienne Martini
Where did the idea for Sweater Quest come from?
Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia was the seed that Sweater Quest grew from. I knew I wanted to write about knitting and how the craft can change your life but didn’t have a hook for the idea until I read Powell’s book. One morning in the shower, I had a revelation: Alice Starmore is one of the Julia Childs of the fiber universe. And like Powell, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet the icon of my affection at the end of the book. The circumstances were different, however.
Who is Alice Starmore?
Starmore is a Scottish knitwear designer who is known in knitting circles for her cabled and Fair Isle designs. She’s also known for being touchy about how her designs are used, which I talk about in Sweater Quest. Starmore has developed a less-than-shiny reputation in the same knitting circles that laud her designs.
For Sweater Quest, I chose to tackle Mary Tudor, which is a Fair Isle (or colorwork) design that used repeated motifs of crowns, fleur de lis, and Tudor roses. The yarn for these sweaters is very thin; the needles are very small. Some knitters can take years to complete one of Starmore’s designs. Others churn them out monthly. I gave myself a year, because that seems to be how long all of the cool writers were giving themselves to complete their quests.
Are there patterns in Sweater Quest?
Sweater Quest isn’t a how-to book but a why-to book. There are no patterns and no instructions. What is in Sweater Quest is the story of one woman’s journey into black-market books, intercontinental trade, and endless work in order to make a sweater. Along the way, this knitter looks for help from some of the loudest voices in the field like Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (the Yarn Harlot), Ann Shayne and Kay Gardiner (Mason-Dixon Knitting), and Cyndi Lee (Om Yoga.)
Do you have to be a knitter to enjoy reading Sweater Quest?
While the quest is full of yarn and needles, the book is also about human obsessions and the value of handcrafts. It is a story about people who happen to knit, rather than about knitters.
Did you ever finish the hat your daughter asked for?
I did shortly before the winter of 2009. Despite knitting it from a pattern she picked out and in a yarn she loved, my daughter wore the hat once then refused to ever wear it again. From now on, she gets store-bought hats.
Where is your Mary Tudor now?
For about a year, my Mary Tudor lived on a shelf in the top of my closet tucked inside a bag from the liquor store. I do bring her to book-related events so that readers can try her on. Right now, I’m pondering three options for what to do with a sweater that doesn’t fit:
1) frame it and hang it on a wall
2) auction it off for Knitters Without Borders
3) put it in the attic for my daughter to wear when she is older
Note that none of my plans involve reknitting it so that it does fit. Down that path lies madness.
- Publisher: Atria Books (March 23, 2010)
- Length: 240 pages
- ISBN13: 9781416597643
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Raves and Reviews
“To answer the seemingly innocent question, 'What makes knitters knit?" Martini visits knitterly landmarks, chats with influential figures, and ponders our peculiar habits and traditions—all the while marking her journey’s progress through an exquisite Alice Starmore Fair Isle sweater. All roads ultimately lead back to one simple universal truth: It’s not about the wearing, it’s about the making.”
—Clara Parkes, publisher of Knitter’s Review and author of The Knitter’s Book of Wool
"I could NOT put Sweater Quest down! I felt as though I was knitting the sweater along with Adrienne, felt her pain and her joy. Once I even thought, as I was packing the car, 'Now WHERE is that Alice Starmore sweater I was working on?' The book became that insinuated into my psyche. I love this book."
—Annie Modesitt, author of Confessions of a Knitting Heretic
“Adrienne Martini combines her passion for knitting with her astonishing ambition, bringing to her lovely new memoir an enthusiasm which is infectious. Sweater Quest will have you reaching for your needles to knit your own dream sweater, and it belongs on every knitter's bookshelf.”
—Rachael Herron, How to Knit a Love Song
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