Sweater Quest reviewed

Sweater Quest reviewed or… when is a book about Starmore not a book about Starmore?

I recently read Adrienne Martini’s Sweater Quest. The premise for this book is that it documents Martini’s process as she follows Alice Starmore’s Mary Tudor Sweater pattern – the author’s “Holy Grail” of knitting – in a personal quest. Mary Tudor is an out-of-print Starmore design for an all-over patterned Fair Isle sweater, and I was keen to see how another knitter would get on with knitting it. Subtitled “my year of knitting dangerously” and described as one woman’s quest to knit her “knitter’s Mount Everest,” I was excited about reading Sweater Quest. And as an unashamed Starmore fan, I welcomed the hyperbolic terms in which the process of knitting a Starmore design was framed in the book’s cover notes and I felt an affinity for the busy author attempting “to conquer Mary Tudor while also taking care of her two kids, two cats, two jobs, and (thankfully) one husband – without unravelling in the process.”

Starmore! Enthusiasm! Knitting! A busy knitter writing about her knitting! So promising!

Sweater Quest begins with a plodding account of how two-handed colourwork is accomplished. The narrative then turns to the expense and difficulty of acquiring both the out-of-print pattern book which has the Mary Tudor design in it, and the now discontinued shade of Marjoram Scottish Campion called for in that pattern. Martini then constructs a very interesting, in-depth discussion of the history of Starmore’s dealings with various yarn companies and publishers and the copyright controversies which surround them, before heading on a jolly road trip around the US, talking to various celebrities (notably none of whom are Starmore herself) about their experiences of knitting Starmore’s designs. Martini’s meetings with other knitters focus largely around the question which Martini seems to regard as central to the process of knitting a Starmore design, which is that if you don’t knit the sweater using the exact colours specified by Starmore, then is your Starmore sweater still a Starmore?

As I read it, something began to deeply bother me about Sweater Quest. The shallow engagement with Starmore’s work throughout the book is startling, and the absence of Starmore herself from the (long) list of knitting celebrities interviewed in the book is just bizarre given there was clearly enough budget available for this book to justify several trips. With the greatest respect to the following doyennes of KNITWERLD I fail to see what qualifies The Yarn Harlot, Kay Gardiner or Amy Singer as noteworthy interviewees for a book about knitting an Alice Starmore sweater, unless the book has been cynically designed around the popularity of Big Name Knitbloggers rather than around quality scholarship concerning Alice Starmore’s ideas and designs. Amy Singer is allergic to wool! Why would you interview someone who cannot knit with or wear wool about Alice Starmore when wool is the most fundamental element in Starmoreworld? Fair Isle knitting was born of the inherent qualities of shetland wool; it’s bloom and bounce; it’s light hand and fuzzy ability to merge and blend and soften, ironing out any irregularities in tension which might otherwise marr the soft surface of a stranded colourwork garment. The poor pairing of interviewee and subject matter in this case is analogous in my mind only to interviewing Alice Starmore for a book about designing lace t-shirts using rayon or cotton. I could let it slide, only several enterprising knitters on Ravelry have handspun their own interpretations of Starmore’s original yarn blends in order to recreate her designs, and I wonder why we have to listen to Martini discussing her existential crises re: the Starmoreness of her sweater project with the kniterrati when we could be learning about – for instance – how AngelaXXX went about recreating the shades for four Alice Starmore sweaters. Too, it is baffling to me why any quest to knit a Starmore Sweater can reasonably call itself as such when the most obvious adventure to be had – i.e. a forray into the very landscapes which inspire Starmore’s designs – is ommitted!

Starmore’s designs are uncritically assessed in the introduction as “mind-numbingly gorgeous” and “jaw-droppingly impressive,” but given the ommission of landscapes, places, and discussions on how her colourblends actually work, I find little evidence in Sweater Quest that Martini has even read Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Martini’s reflections on Fair Isle without Fear, (a video made by Starmore in 1994 for Butterick) and her apparent fixation on the idea that knitting Starmore published patterns with Starmore-designed Scottish Campion yarn might be the only way of acquiring a Starmore sweater gloss over the generosity and the scope of what Starmore’s writings are really about. When Martini writes about her conflicting views on watching Starmore in Fair Isle without Fear, I am struck too by the fact that she seems not to have made the critical distinction between Starmore’s struggle for fair payments in the knitting industry, and the things which Starmore wants to give knitters in her writings.

There is a blueprint for designing Fair Isle which Starmore lays out meticulously in her Book of Fair Isle Knitting which explains in detail how to interpret the colours of places – as she does – into colourwork designs. The imaginative generosity of this section is not to my mind in any conflict with the idea that Starmore should be credited as, and earn money for being, the originator of a range of highly individual and specific knitting patterns.

Martini writes about Fair Isle without Fear;

What raises my eyebrows is a segment near the end when she discusses colour. Starmore suggests that if a given colorway isn’t to your taste, then you should use the shades of nature to make it your own. Using coloured pencils and a photocopy of the chart, she demonstrates how you can color in the squares until you come across a design that is pleasing to you.

Which is just a kick in the head, really. Here is one of the staunchest defenders of the sanctity of her knitting patterns showing you how to change them. If you can do that, then what is the copyright for?

Let us consider for a moment what knitting pattern copyright is for.

I have always understood that in employing Starmore’s systems for designing my own Fair Isle patterns, any consequently resulting knitting patterns would be my own original designs. Consider my attempts below – an unfinished personal endeavour – to capture the essence of a particularly lovely Poplar tree which I photographed in one of my many walks around Reading.

I do not mean to imply that this shoddy, half-finished colour-chart and photo evidences Starmore’s influence very much, but maybe one day it will be a nice piece of Fair Isle knitting and a serviceable garment, and if that day ever comes, then the end result shall have involved many hours of my own graft within which Starmore’s ideas will be but one influence. If I listed such a pattern as a Felicity Ford original, then I do not think that an army of Alice Starmore lawyers would descend upon me, attempting to halt my PDF sales and threatening me with copyright legislation. But I don’t think Starmore has ever penalised anyone for doing this – I mean, for taking the imaginative imperatives of her vision and applying them intelligently to their own work. Reading between the lines in Martini’s book, it seems that Starmore’s lawyers have only been active when someone was essentially profiting off the back of – not their own – but Starmore’s labours.

This is a very complex area in the world of knitting patterns and I admire Martini for attempting to explore it a little bit in her book because it really isn’t an easy area to discuss, but her conclusion that Starmore should protect her copyright in “a less tone deaf way” focuses on the wrong aspects of the debate. Too, Martini’s endless defence of the rights of the poor knitting consumers who suffered when Starmore’s books and yarn were retracted from circulation smack of that arch-Capitalist phrase “the customer is always right” while entirely missing the point that sometimes The Knitting Designer is Right.

Knitting Patterns have essentially been created and shared on an Open-Source basis for a very long time, and I’ve heard folks being very quick to establish that they will only knit free patterns, that knitting has always been free, that it’s “not about the money,” and other vague philosophies indicating a haze of good feeling about the general freeness and woolly fun of knitting that has been liberated from the horrid, sullying claws of Capitalism.

But I feel that – clunky and problematic as copyright is – we must understand the essential place that copyright holds in the overall endeavour to see the labours of knitting properly valued in hard cash terms, rather than in the sentimental platitudes. We must not forget the stark economic realities of the history of knitting, which are that open source patterns handed down freely from generation to generation are part of the same system which has economically exploited women, paid knitters in truck, and undervalued our creative contribution to culture.

The only protection available to a knitting designer like Starmore who wishes to secure an income from their labours is copyright legislation and I feel that as a feminist and a knitter, I should support the upholding of those copyrights because they are the only way of ensuring the profitability and sustainability of knitting as a sustainable commercial enterprise.

Therefore I have a lot of sympathy with Starmore and her struggle to protect her copyright over the years, and I could not give a toss about how nicely or pleasantly she has done this, since there are far greater issues at stake. I think Starmore was very ambitious in her vision to control both the yarns that were produced according to her own creative directives, and the patterns which she wrote down. The imaginative generosity which means I have the knowledge of how to turn a poplar tree into a tam pattern is literally gold dust in the hands of spinning mills who can apply such knowledge of colour to the quality of their yarn-blending to great commercial advantage. I am not surprised Starmore fell out with the yarn companies and the publishers who she was attempting to work with back in the 1990s, because it is almost certain that she was set to be disadvantaged in her dealings with them. If anyone can show me some serious evidence that Starmore – as a young, ambitious, zealous and brilliant woman – wasn’t about to get ripped off by spinning mills and publishers right before all her books and yarns were pulled out of circulation – I will eat my hat.

Martini however regards Starmore in a curiously personal way throughout Sweater Quest, pondering on several occasions whether or not she would “like” her if she met her in real life. Reading this question had a curious effect on me, so that while I was reading the book, my mind strayed frequently away from the gossipy discussions of Starmore documented in the book to questions concerning the pernicious effect that this kind of writing has on the scholarship of knitting and – by extension – the way knitting is valued within our culture.

I believe that what we write about knitting matters. I believe that how we engage with knitting on a critical and cultural level matters. Martini herself bemoans the “stigma” that surrounds women who knit when compared to males who indulge in a hobby – for instance, men who golf, saying that “if a man spends his free time pursuing a manly hobby, like chipping golf balls in the backyard, his time has been well spent. If a woman spends the same amount of time working on, say, a Fair Isle sweater named after the sister of Henry VIII, then she’s just weird.”

When I read this, I had to wonder about the kinds of books that golfers write about golfing. I am no connoisseur of golfing manuals, but I think I can safely assume that golfers do not write books concentrating on the likeability of various players, or dwelling on the various financial/legal wranglings of sponsorship deals regarding different sponsors and golf players.

Instead I imagine that golfers write books which seriously engage with the techniques of champions; which focus intently on the specifics of tools and approaches; and which drive out the most knowledgeable and focussed sources for their chapters, so that the information in such books drives up the competition and the knowledge surrounding the game. We knitters could learn from that.

Reading Sweater Quest gave me that warm feeling I get when I read blogs and feel a personal affinity with the blogger and get the idea into my head that I would probably like to go for a beer with them. Martini has a way of observing the knitting community which is wry and funny and warm. However, as I hope I have shown, there is a dark and troubling subtext to Sweater Quest which is not funny at all.

Because a blog is not a book. And many of the things which go into the ephemeral, flexible, discursive space of the blogosphere do not fare so well when committed to the printed page. The first-person “journey of discovery” which underscores the journal format of blogging does not necessarily make for strong narratives within an actual book, and ideas which would register in a reader’s mind over a long period of time in short bursts as individual blog posts do not necessarily stack up coherently within the printed pages of a published volume. Sweater Quest was conceived from the outset as a book project and not a blog project, but the influence of the blogosphere infiltrates it throughout, and its influence dumbs down what could have been a really great read. From its first-person narrative style to the long list of celebrity knit-bloggers who Martini interviews throughout, to its obsession with the likeability of Starmore, it smacks of someone getting a book deal on the basis of their readership stats, and the big names they have tokenistically thrown into their project, rather than on the cultural value of what they have to say.

Halfway through the book, I realised I was not learning anything about Starmore or the process of knitting a Mary Tudor Sweater, so much as carousing vicariously – via Martini – with the knitterati through a series of casual encounters and Starmore gossip. I was saddened, then irritated, then angered, as I saw the scope of what Starmore offers the truly adventurous knitter shrivelled down to a whinge about how difficult it is to knit something when the yarn and the pattern have been discontinued. The creative paucity of this focus makes me want to weep. Also, Sweater Quest disappointingly fails to recognise itself as yet another project set to profit off the back of Starmore’s designs – and notoriety – whilst criticising her failure as a person for defending her copyright and the name of her designs against such activities in the past.

Maybe I expected too much from this book, but the scholarship of knitting is – contrary to popular belief – not important only for academics; the quality of how we write and think about our knitting has an effect on how knitting is viewed by the rest of the world. It doesn’t really matter on a personal level whether I liked Sweater Quest or not; but what I do care about is how this kind of book – popular, widely circulated, full of the recognisable figures who have somehow become the spokespeople in our culture for KNITTING – gets uncritically assimilated into popular culture, so that people who maybe don’t know anything about Starmore come away thinking that the sum total of what this peerless designer can offer us is a very expensive trail around the US talking to knitbloggers and chasing costly balls of discontinued Scottish Campion yarn on ebay.

So I’m sorry, but the book made me crazy and it’s taken me months to write this, because it’s taken me a long time to consolidate my feelings about it into a coherent argument. And maybe I’ve failed to do that. But if the discussion around knitting can’t be elevated to something better than “what does the Yarn Harlot say about X” then I am not surprised that people think that knitting – and knitters – are weird.

8 Responses to Sweater Quest reviewed

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. I have not read the book, but – ye gods! – am genuinely appalled by its narrowness of compass. There seems to be something tremendously disrespectful in Martini’s lack of engagement, and indeed, a bizarre hubris and presumption in the whole project generally – if you are going to write about Starmore, then why not actually take the time to think a little about her creative curiosity, her sense of history and tradition, and (particularly, for me) the landscape and culture that are so integral to her artistry? Surely this would provide more interesting subject matter than discontinued yarn and second-hand gossip. I agree with you entirely about Starmore’s imaginative generosity, which makes Martini’s paucity of imagination all the more galling. And the implications of this sort of gubbins for knitting scholarship as a whole are, as you say, very, very disheartening. (Your golf-buddy point was very well made). If Martini wants her writing – or her craft – to be taken seriously, then she should perhaps write something *serious*, rather than trading in banal tittle-tattle.

  2. Liz A. says:

    I too have not read the book but I have heard Adrienne Martini talking on various podcasts. Your post really articulates my own surprise at the tone and scope of the book as she described it. I really expected much more of a discussion of the techniques of Fair Isle, Starmore’s use of colour and her design influences.

    On a more positive note I really like your chart and its inspiration – I just love that acid yellow of the lichen against the ash grey of the bark.

  3. Chloe says:

    I did read the book, and wondered toward the end how it all got past the editor (s). It was just too incoherent and did not stay on subject. Thanks for saying so!

  4. Joanna says:

    I haven’t read the book either, so I won’t engage with the particulars of what you say about it, but I do applaud your comments on knitting scholarship -that comparison with golfers is spot on. If *knitters* don’t take their craft seriously, then how can we expect others to? Also, there is much in what you say about the difference between blogs and books that I want to think about more deeply. Of course one of the joys of the blogosphere is the serendipitous discovery of new and interesting things to read. I’m afraid I couldn’t remember what ‘truck’ was, so googled it and (eventually) arrived at a marvellous-looking site about the history of knitting in the East Midlands. You may know it already, but in case you don’t it’s at knittingtogether.org.uk. Thank you for a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  5. Julia says:

    This essay really struck a chord with me. You’ve made some very important points about the remarkable lack of serious scholarship in knitting literature, and this is something that has bothered me for a long time. Of course, some writers (such as Kate Davies for example) are offering thoughtful, well-researched pieces on knitting, but the good work is far overshadowed by the sheer volume of That Which is Not So Good.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, Alice Starmore was an early contributor to intelligent knitting literature – her essay on the Aran sweater myth from the original Aran Knitting is still the best thing I’ve read on the topic to date, and she even convinced her publishers to include citations, something I find sadly lacking in most writing on knitting. If we don’t take ourselves and our work seriously, why should anyone else?

    I especially appreciated your linking the criticisms of Starmore’s business practices with attitudes that have historically kept women underpaid and have devalued “women’s work”. Food for thought indeed. Thanks for writing this.

  6. jenny says:

    I have to admit, I also haven’t read this book, and having read your essay on it don’t think I will be. I am however planning to go and learn more about Starmore and her designs and really, like yourself, don’t see how trying to protect the copyright of your designs while also generously trying to teach people how to interpret nature to make her designs more appealing to their own taste in colour is “a kick in the head”.

    I’ve seen several knitters commenting on how much they like it when people come up with ingenious colourways, or adaptations to their patterns – see Kate Davies’ paperdolls redux – it all adds to the excitement of a pattern, thinking of all the variations out there, and really where would the fun be if everyone knit every pattern with the exact yarn called for, in the colourway specified?

    Thanks Felix, for an enlightening and interesting post!

  7. GinkgoKnits says:

    This post is a ways back but I wanted to add another “Bravo!” in the comments. I have only been knitting for a few years and have developed a deep love for knitting’s cultural links and the resulting varieties of techniques and styles. While I’m happy to see favorite knitting designers getting book deals, I’m actually putting my dollars to books that dwell on culture-specific themes or thorough investigations of a technique. I’m very glad to see Alice Starmore’s books are coming back into print so I too can enjoy her “imaginative generosity.” As much as I enjoy the comic antics of a blog like the Yarn Harlot’s, I find her books to be best borrowed from the library while I fill my limited shelf space with my equivalents of golf books. Thank you for your honest review as my similar sentiments had merely manifest into an odd eyebrow twitch when I’ve seen it mentioned.

    PS: I wonder what you’d have to say about the “chic lit with knitting” books. I don’t know if they are as prevalent in the UK as here in the US but it makes my skin crawl that “The Friday Night Knitting Club” might still become a movie starring Julia Roberts.

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