More and more we live in an electronic world, and there are about a million and one digital places that we can go to locate knitting knowledge, patterns, tutorials, and ideas. If you’re like me, chances are you have a lot of things like this in your browser bookmarks, and know which ones you refer to often. Knitting books are still going strong, though, whether in digital or hard copy format, and I have come to believe that a well stocked bookshelf (in physical space or e-reader format) is one of the most valuable parts of a knitter’s studio. Some times you just need to be able to reach for a book to help you, inspire you, or help you figure out what to knit next. Here are five books – or rather, kinds of books – I hope you’ll look to include on your shelf, if you haven’t already. (Note: I’m going to use Amazon links here for ease, but as usual do check out your local yarn shop if you’ve got one nearby!)
1. A kickass reference book.
One of the best first gifts you can give yourself as a new knitter or to a friend who is new to knitting, is a really great reference manual. In the moments when a new term or technique seems daunting or confusing, you just can’t predict whether the pattern is going to spell it out for you step by step. You need books that can immediately start to identify for you what you don’t know that you don’t know – things like how to work a decrease or an increase, how to make a swatch, how to measure yourself, and so on. In fact, you should probably have more than one of these, because there’s always going to be both overlap and non-overlap of information.
One of the ones I often recommend is Stitch N’ Bitch (really), and the later sequel Stitch N’ Bitch: Superstar. The first has become a sort of modern classic, as it was published about a decade ago at the beginning of the recent wave of knitting resurgence, so it is oriented towards knitters new to the craft. A lot of folks use it for the patterns (which are fabulous), but the thing that I always point to is the reference material in the beginning. For a book that retails for less than $20, there is a hell of a lot going on here that is really useful. It shows you about how to hold your yarn, basic decreases and increases, knits vs. purls, even a few tips on modifying patterns. The recent Superstar addition has become one of my favourites recommendations for learning advanced techniques – again, there’s a lot in there, from intarsia to cables and lace.
Reference manuals run the gamut, though, both in content and style, and if the less-formal tone of the Stitch N’ Bitch manuals isn’t for you, there is no shortage of places to turn. The recently re-released Principles of Knitting took the knitting world by storm a few months ago in its revised addition, and a lot of people describe it as a PhD thesis in knitting. It doesn’t just give you instructions for a horizontal buttonhole and a vertical buttonhole, it gives you half a dozen of each. Think swatching just involves knitting one square and measuring it? Hoo boy, this book will put you through your paces. It’s not a cuddle-up-with-at-night sort of book, but it IS a book I’m now glad to have on my shelf, whenever I’m curious to look something up.
For finishing techniques specifically, you also can’t go wrong with The Knitter’s Book of Finishing Techniques – chances are someone in your knitting circle has it and is ready to extoll its virtues to you. Finally, though, one book that’s been with me for a while, in the short-but-sweet department, is the little spiral-bound Vogue Knitting Quick Reference. It distills all the photographic instructions of the larger Vogue Knitting book from a few decades ago and gives you just the exact stuff you need most often. It was my only reference book for a couple of years and served me very well.
2. Something to help you learn.
Books that I would think of in this category might sometimes fall into the category of reference books, but I think of them differently because they are books designed to help you think about your knitting in new ways, sort of as though you can feel yourself moving up a notch or two in what you’re doing. These might be books that help you get better at a particular technique, for example, or learn about how the wool you’re using is different from other kinds of wool. In this vein, The Knitter’s Book of Wool or The Knitter’s Book of Yarn are really great examples of matching up knitting knowledge with a set of patterns that are perfectly designed to put that knowledge into action. Or, what if you’ve just taken up with cables, for example? Maybe a cabled pair of mitts is under your belt and you’re salivating for more – in that case pretty much every knitter in the world (I checked) is going to tell you to reach for A Fine Fleece. This book blends wool (and spinning) knowledge with a pretty kickass set of patterns, heavy on the cabled sweaters in particular. It’s one of the few books I’ve come across that I would happily knit all of the patterns from if I didn’t have any other books to choose from.
In short, think about what you’d like to learn more about in knitting world, and find the selections that work for you. There are a lot of publications out there that are designed to focus your attention on a single technique or a single kind of pattern – all cables or colour-work, for example, or all sweaters, all socks, etc – and when you get the right ones on your shelf you will never be short of inspiration. When a book focusses its attention like that, chances are you are going to get the combination of knowledge and patterns that is just right for that focus.
3. Something for fun or encouragement – or both.
Earlier today when I did a brief ask on Twitter for what everyone’s favourite knitting book was, there was no shortage of adoration for Elizabeth Zimmerman. I remember when I was a new knitter I had no idea who Elizabeth Zimmerman was, and it actually felt very strange to be on the other side of something that had such a profuse wall of praise behind it. Then I started reading her stuff and quickly discovered that everything everyone says about her is true. People talk about how her books made them better knitters, braver knitters, or just about how they read her stuff for comfort even if they’re not knitting from her patterns. Knitting Without Tears is where a lot of folks start, since it deals with basic techniques, but most of her books have a range of beginner-approachable projects alongside more intermediate or advanced, and she uses a variety of techniques and garments which means you’ll never get bored. Many a knitter has taken the Knitter’s Almanac literally and read and knitted month-by-month along with the chapters in the book (the book starts with January and finishes in December, for twelve different projects or themes). The Almanac is my favourite of hers and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought of doing that same thing. Those full-length customized knitted leggings would take a while to knit but always seem awfully appealing in the deadened cold of February. Elizabeth Zimmerman wrote to encourage knitters to feel confident in their skills and to take control of their knitting by using their brains, and you know, that never goes out of style.
For similar reasons a lot of folks put the Yarn Harlot in the same encouraging category. Knitting Rules is the first book of hers that I read, when it was first published, and was my first introduction to a lot of knitting-world things – sock knitting, yarn stashes, and being concerned with swatches – but in a way that conveys the trials of knitting with a lot of humour. The Top Ten lists in that book are still some of the funniest things I’ve read about knitting anywhere, and I recommend this book often to newer knitters or knitters looking to expand their basic skills in a thoughtful way. And finally, in a parallel category the Mason-Dixon Knitting ladies convey a whole lot of wisdom and advice and fabulous patterns while being pretty hysterical, which is no surprise if you read their blog regularly.
Essentially, I think it’s a wise move to populate your knitting bookshelf with a few things that you can leaf through or read because it makes you feel better to do so. It can’t all be references or patterns all the time. And there are times when you want to be doing knitting things but don’t actually want to knit, you know? In those times reading about knitting is ALMOST the same thing.
4. Something with stitch patterns in it.
If you stick with knitting long enough, you’re going to eventually reach a point where you want to start dreaming about things to modify or invent on your own. I remember, for example, back in the dark ages before Ravelry or Twitter existed, when knitting geeks on the internet were all making Harry Potter scarves (and holy shit, remember when there was the great transition from the 2-colour blocks in films 1 and 2 to the paired-bar style in film 3 and onward? Yeah, that was big stuff), which was pretty great no matter what level of knitter you were at because it really just involved knitting around and around in stockinette and changing colours once in a while. I remember seeing one scarf (probably on a knitting blog somewhere) where the girl had done the basic stockinette stripe pattern but thrown a simple 4-stitch cable up the side – like an accented edge. Well, that pretty much blew my mind. It was so simple and classy but just enough interest to make it unique while still keeping it in the vein of Harry Potter scarves.
The point is, this is the sort of thing you can do any time you want if you have at least one stitch dictionary on hand. I’ve seen several examples of my Basic Black pattern (Ravelry link) where people have kept the pattern the same but customized it by adding a stitch pattern somewhere amongst the stockinette sections. Is a pullover not interesting enough for you? Well, throw a cable on there! Liven up those socks and put a lace motif down the front and see what happens. If you’re someone who’s interested in designing your own stuff, stitch dictionaries are pretty essential, whether you’re designing for yourself or to put out there in the world. The popular ones tend to be the Barbara Walker set, or those from Harmony, but there are many different ones out there and often you’ll encounter a pattern book or reference book that includes a few stitch patterns in there for reference and interest. Keep an eye out and you’ll find some neat stuff.
5. Something that terrifies you a little bit.
Finally, I think it’s great to keep at least one book on your shelf that scares you a little bit – maybe with projects that really appeal to you but are far out of the range of what you knit on a regular basis. Or maybe it’s a set of patterns using techniques you’re familiar with but take it to a much higher level than you’ve played at before. I’d put many of Alice Starmore‘s books in this category, but things like this crop up from time to time. I think Viking Patterns for Knitting was a memorable one for me – I still haven’t knitted anything from it but every so often I look at the Ragna pullover and dream. Actually, I’ve done enough cable knitting since I bought that book that it’s probably not terrifying enough for me to qualify for this category, so I’ll have to look around for a new one. Maybe there’s a super intimidating lace book out there, or perhaps a book where everything requires me to use kitchener stitch (I still avoid it like the plague if I can help it), and that’ll be my new fear factor book.
The trick here is to have a sense of where your goal posts are, and how far you want them to be from where you are now. There’s nothing wrong with knitting at the same skill level and staying where you are comfortable – it’s reassuring and you can get a lot done that way, and that’s a pretty fantastic thing. Just, every so often give yourself something to shoot for, even if it’s not something you’re going to do right away. You never know when your brain will decide “Hey, you know what? You’re not doing another stockinette sock today, today you’re going to go cast on Na Craga and it’s going to be AWESOME.” And then, if you’ve got that book waiting on your shelf you’ll be all ready to march triumphantly to the yarn store and buy that yarn and impress the crap out of everybody there by casting on. (And then ripping out and casting on again two more times because, let’s face it, that’s how this usually goes.)
Who knew such a short list could expand so much? (And yes – these are all books from my shelves and yes, I did crawl around on the floor to take pictures of them for you. The things a girl will do for a blog photo, you know?)
It’s a big world of knitting books out there, friends! I hope you’ll share your favourites in the comments, as well, and we can keep this list going. What’s your favourite knitting book on your shelf right now?