Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Mount Everest of Knitting Patterns

A friend of mine recently flipped me a link to a book called Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously, by Adrienne Martini, the story of Martini's year-long effort to knit the Mary Tudor design from Alice Starmore's Tudor Roses, a book of fair isle patterns published in 1998. (ETA: Tudor Roses was out of print at the time of this post but has since been updated and re-released.) Martini calls the Mary Tudor pattern, pictured above on the front cover of Tudor Roses, a "knitter’s Mount Everest, our curse, and our compulsion". It's true that for Martini, this sweater was a personal Mount Everest because it was the most complex and largest-scale project she'd ever undertaken, but I wouldn't describe this pattern as the everyknitter's Mount Everest.

For one thing, the Mount Everest metaphor is more nuanced than Martini may realize. Let's remember that climbing Mount Everest is not considered the pinnacle of human achievement it once was. These days, with the technological advances in climbing gear, it's quite possible for any able-bodied, hardy, and reasonably fit person who has the time and the money to climb it. Mount Everest has been successfully climbed over 5000 times since Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to climb it in 1953, including climbs by one 13-year-old, one 76-year-old, and one blind climber. One person has climbed it 20 times and one couple got married on the summit. One of Sir Edmund Hillary's grandsons climbed it and called his grandfather from the top with his cell phone. Sir Hillary himself never considered climbing Mount Everest to be the most important or worthwhile thing he did in his life, and was appalled by what he saw as contemporary climbers' prioritization of reaching the top over the welfare of other climbers in distress.

When I look at the Mary Tudor design, I don't see a pattern requiring the greatest possible level of knitting skill, or the ultimate achievement in design, or a pattern that must be knitted because it exists, as a "Mount Everest of knitting patterns" designation would seem to imply. What I see is a beautiful and richly patterned design that represents a major time investment, and that I would reshape completely in order to make flattering. Oversized, shapeless sweaters have gone out of style since the nineties, and for excellent reason.

Learning about Martini's book led me to wonder if there was a world's most difficult knitting pattern, and to do a little internet research on the matter. I found discussion questions on Ravelry and some other knitting sites that asked, "What, in your opinion, is the most difficult knitting pattern?", with resulting threads full of links to patterns that were undeniably going to be time consuming, but that otherwise didn't look all that difficult or challenging to me. When I googled the phrases "most difficult knitting pattern" and "hardest knitting pattern", wherever the phrase occurred on the net it was usually followed by another phrase along the lines of "that I have ever attempted" or "that I have tackled so far". And that's very telling.

The truth is that once a knitter gets to a certain level of experience and skill, no pattern looks all that difficult, and knitting patterns simply vary widely in terms of time investment required. Once you've done more advanced knitting techniques such as stranded knitting, cables, fair isle, steeking, entrelac, double knitting, intarsia, lace work, knitting in the round, Swiss darning, knitting smocking, thrumming, etc., the prospect of doing them doesn't faze you any more. And even if you haven't tried all of those techniques (I have not), once you've successfully mastered a significant selection of them, you know you can always learn the others. Just as strangers are friends (or spouses, or employers, or hot pig sex partners, or neighbours, or tax auditors) whom you haven't yet met, knitting patterns simply represent potential uses of your time and possible future possessions/gifts. Once you lose the beginner's fear of the untried and you have enough experience to know what you're committing to, you'll wind up doing a cost and time benefit analysis and conclude, "Ugly, no way!" or "Nice, but not for or on me," or "Nice, and won't take long," or "Beautiful, and will take a lot of time but it'll be worth it," or "Fabulous but too time-intensive; maybe some day...", or "GORGEOUS AND A HUGE TIME SUCK BUT I MUST DO IT ERE I PERISH." There's no Mount Everest of knitting patterns. There are, rather, marathon knitting projects, and it's a marathon you can do at your own pace because no one's clocking you.

I hope that "difficult" knitting patterns ceased, or will cease, to intimidate you fairly early in your knitting experience, and also that you will regard knitting patterns as your servant and not your master. If you've read any of the knitting pattern reviews posts on this blog, you'll know that I suggest tweaks to almost every pattern. I hardly ever knit any pattern exactly as written. There is that rare case when I come across a pattern I consider perfect — perfect in this context meaning "perfect for me/the wearer". If a pattern you love on paper isn't going to work for your figure, colouring, personal aesthetic preferences, lifestyle, climate, or fashion era once knitted, then for heaven's sake change it. Alter it for fit, change the neckline or the silhouette, use three colours instead of twenty or twenty instead of three, substitute cotton for wool or scarlet for gray, or borrow different features of several different patterns to get the look you want.

Designers aren't gods whose every direction must be reverenced and followed to the letter. They make mistakes, there can be a lot of room for improvement in their results, their work can become dated, and in any case they weren't designing especially for you. Unless you are a textile artist making a piece of installation art, you want a finished garment you can wear the hell out of, not something that will sit uselessly in a drawer after you've invested your valuable time and money in it. You can be your own designer, and if you don't feel your skill level is equal to the task of rewriting a pattern to be what you want it to be, ask more experienced knitters for advice, or shelve the project until you're ready to bring it on.

And take a lesson from Adrienne Martini's experience. She spent an entire year of her life making her Mary Tudor sweater in slavish adherence to Starmore's directions, even to the point of resorting to buying the specific yarn required for it on the "black yarn market" because it wasn't being produced any more. With the result that (as I gather from the Amazon reader reviews), she had finished the sweater only to discover the sleeves were too short and that she would never wear it because she didn't like the way she looked in it. Don't let your compulsion to make a project and to reach the summit of completion blind you to more important considerations, such as whether the item you're making will be of any use once you've finished it. In short, have a martini; don't be one.


  1. Alice Starmore is also notoriously sue-happy; if you dared to blog about changing one of her designs in any way at all, you would likely hear from her lawyers demanding that you take the post down. (She recently went after a Ravelry group that had her name as part of the group name -- it was a group of her fans, but she still insisted that they change the name.)

  2. I've just spent half an hour or so doing a little reading online about Starmore's legal actions, and holy crap. I'd been dimly aware of her efforts to prevent sales of secondhand copies of her books on eBay, but nothing else. Starmore is an incredibly talented designer, but the legal actions she has engaged in do not speak well of her comprehension of basic business principles.

    1. Alice Starmore is very talented but evidently paranoid about the secondhand copies of her work. Its sad.

  3. I seem to remember being hired to finish one of her complicated designs, for a woman who had started it and just couldn't bring herself to finish it! I can't remember if it was Tudor Rose or another one.

  4. I will say that I found the book a delightfully funny read. The author, of course, exaggerated to be amusing and did a good job of it. I would recommend the book if you love knitting, humor and have ever gone overboard on a knitting project.

  5. After, and actually while reading Martini's book, I found myself muttering more than once "Oh, come now." The pattern she is knitting is just a knitting pattern and her life is just a life. Some funny moments, some sad, some ridiculous, like deciding to teach a child to knit before she (or he) has begged multiple times and then feeling hurt when it doesn't go well. Or calculating the hundreds (thousand?) of dollars spent making the perfect sweater and then talking about the child whining about a pack of gum at the market.
    In my own life I know I have chosen difficult knitting patterns to get me through hard times: grieving the death of a child, loss of a friend. It works. We can lose ourselves in knitting while giving our hearts time to heal enough to go on. I am grateful to designers who can supply me with those tasks. Sometimes designing the project is what will serve best. I am glad my late mother taught me to knit even though she didn't want to. It has helped me much more than it helped her.
    I'm glad we all have other "sisters of the craft" to talk to in cyberspace and in knitting groups around the world. I don't know what I'd do without all of you. I don't expect to agree with all knitters about everything (most of us seem to be quite opinionated) but there is something about a huge group of people doing a thing that gives me hope when few things do.