Here’s the second entry in a sporadic series on Knitting Books that Time Forgot. Many of these are long out of print (OOP), far from glossy, and have the shelf appeal of a trodden trout. But these older decidedly "unsexy" knitting books are sources of surprisingly good info, and can be found hidden on dusty public library shelves. Just because a book isn’t new or written by a contemporary Knitting Diva doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile.

Today’s poster child is The Complete Book of Progressive Knitting by Ida Riley Duncan. The edition I borrowed from the local library is the Liveright Publishing 1964 edition (the original was put out in 1941). ISBN 61-12134.

This book went through seven printings, and in its day must have been quite popular, judging from the large number of used copies available from various on-line sources. It’s sparsely illustrated with faded black and white photos, but is mostly text and accompanying hand-drafted line drawings.

The author’s premise is that knitting pattern design is mostly an exercise in drafting to gauge, and that a careful explanation of the math involved will make even complex pattern?shaping and design?more accessible to the average knitter. There are materials description and how-to sections, even a section of simple knit texture patterns, but they are cursory. Duncan wasn’t really writing for people totally unfamiliar with knitting, even though she included basics. She was writing for advanced beginners or intermediate level knitters who wanted to expand their skills.

Now,?five years ago this book was less relevant than it is today. The fitted sillouhettes common in the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’60s are making a comeback, and are sparking a change of shape in formerly?boxy hand-knits (think of all the recent patterns with nipped waists). This book is a clear, step by step description of designing those waist-defining, shorter shapes, and in designing fitted/set-in sleeves. There are quite a few books and software packages out now as pattern drafting aids, but they rarely go into detail on these more tailored lines.

Duncan gives directions for taking body measurements and designing a sloper (though she doesn’t use the term); then translating the measurements into a pattern. Of course she stresses the importance of gauge as she explores pullovers, cardigans, raglans, blouses (as distinct from sweaters) and?skirts. She even touches on socks, hats,?and mittens – again from a mathematical base. Several different neckline and sleeve treatments are described. Interestingly enough, she advocates knitting raglans in the round, top down, and skirts in the round bottom up, offering up circle diagrams that look similar to some of the ones?in Knitting Without Tears.

On the down side, garment sizes and gauges are small (5 spi is the largest gauge used, with most of the examples shown illustrated in 7 or 8 spi), but they are appropriate to the garments described and the principles they embody can be scaled up. The tone is a bit "my way or the highway" patronizing (especially the vocations in knitting section at the end) and exclusionary of divergent methods or alternative techniques/approaches. Sort of what you’d expect from a prissy and dictatorial home economics teacher in the early 1960s; but I find tone easy to ignore.The hand drawn diagrams look a bit primitive, but they’re clear, useful, and quite plentiful.

To sum up – this?might be?a useful book if you’re into design, especially designs informed by the aesthetics of past decades. It’s not the best exemplar of its type, but it does cover ground sparsely traversed by more recent publications. If you can find it in your local library it’s worth a look-see; perhaps a used book purchase if you need a leg up on drafting more tailored options.

One response

  1. I own two copies of this book and also own one other book by her. For a long time, this was my main book. You can easily add more ease to the designs and come up with more contemporary sweaters. The other thing to note is that she has one of the first top down raglan designs. Since the book as patterns for pretty much anything–socks, hats, skirts, blouses,sweaters–you can go a long way with just this book and Mary Thomas’ stitch pattern book. (There are some stitch patterns in this one but it’s nice to have more choices.)I’d recommend it and hope that my second copy will last me the rest of my knitting life. The first copy is pretty battered.

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