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Sweater Quest

My Year of Knitting Dangerously

"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.

This reading group guide for Sweater Quest includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Adrienne Martini. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. 

 

Introduction

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.

 

Discussion Questions

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.
Photo Credit:

Adrienne Martini, a former editor for Knoxville, Tennessee's Metro Pulse, is an award-winning freelance writer and college teacher.  Author of Hillbilly Gothic, she lives in Oneonta, New York, with her husband, Scott, and children, Maddy and Cory.

“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

More books from this author: Adrienne Martini