BACK FROM THE DEAD & ODHAM’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA

From the "This too shall pass" department, I announce the end of the work project that ate my life.  The final submission was yesterday.  I am now left with a horrific clutter in my office, several thousand megs of files that need to be classified and archived, and the need to make up for eight weeks of sleep deficit.  But all that aside, I also can now get back to String and wiseNeedle. 

I’ve processed in the backlog of posted yarn reviews on wiseNeedle, and am about to start tackling the questions inbox.  Since so many questions are duplicates of ones already answered at the site, there will be lots of "Did you look here?" notes.  If you’ve posted a question since around mid-January and you haven’t heard from me, apologies.  I am whittling away at the stack…

In the mean time, courtesy of my long-time stitch pal Kathryn, I can post another review of an out of print Knitting Book that Time ForgotTM.

ODHAM’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF KNITTING

We’ve all heard of James Norbury from his other knitting books.  The most notable one is his Traditional Knitting Pattens from Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Italy, and other European Countries.   That’s the one that’s been widely reprinted by Dover Books.  I mentioned it in another round-up of older knitting books two years ago.   In January Kathryn sent me a copy of another of his products – Odham’s Encyclopaedia of Knitting,  written in concert with Margaret Agutter.  My copy is missing its title page, but searches in used book store inventories turn up 1955 to 1959 as the probable date of publication for my edition.  Oldham’s  is copiously illustrated with line drawings, sketches and a few black and white photos of finished garments.  Based on the style of of the little thumbnail cartoons and some of the on-the-needle drawings of knitting in progress, I suspect that one of the many illustrators on this project also worked on the Mary Thomas books.   

The book starts with a section on knitting history – nicely done and less folkloric than most contemporary works, although not entirely without hyperbole.  19th and early 20th century knitting is outlined, with references to many works the authors considered seminal in developing modern knitting technique – books and pamphlets I am now hungry to read.  The meat of the book is somewhat choppily arranged.  The first 70 some odd pages covers basic techniques, and is arranged alphabetically under broad subject areas.  The instructive tone is very British-centric.  For example, Continental style is mentioned as an aberant variation of "normal knitting," with the caution that it is inferior for maintaining even gauge.   Grafting is described both for stockinette and K1, P1 ribbing (done in two passes on each side of the work rather than as a linear row).  You have to look hard for it though, as the heading that starts the grafting section seems to be missing.  As in all non-North American publications of its time, the name "Kitchener" is not associated with that technique.  Crochet stitches are shown in this section, too.

The next section deals with fabrics and patterns, and covers some of knitting’s basic styles.  It commingles them with texture pattern family descriptions (including directions for some of them), offered up as separate mini-articles.  Therefore you’ll find small bits on  Aran (it’s resemblance to Austrian knitting is noted); Argyle; bead knitting; Bohus; Faroe; Florentine/Jacquard (we’d call it Intarsia); Scandinavian styles; Shetland; and Tyrolean knitting  all mixed together with general descriptions of the families of cable stitches, feather and fan stitches, leaf stitches, bobbles, etc.  Instructions for samples of the various stitch families are presented mostly in prose, although graphs are used to show colorwork and motif placement. 

Lace knitting is next.  While the section does go into several styles, it looks almost like it was written by committee.  There are at least four different illustration styles used, some being so representational as to be almost useless to the knitter.  Most lace directions are given in prose, with a limited number at the end of the chapter being done in charts with symbols unique to this book.   It’s difficult to tell from the bulk of the patterns exactly what they will look like,  but the majority are covered in much better clarity in recently published lace books.  The exception is the group of "Viennese Lace"  texture patterns.  Eventually I’ll explore these further.

Norbury/Agutter go on to describe the design of classic knitted garment shapes.   There are sections on Cardigans and jerseys Yarns employed range from three-ply to DK, and sizes/styles are 1950s tight.  While sizes are small, there’s a fair amount on darts and tailored shaping here that might be of use to people trying to do retro design today.  Of more immediate use are sections on gloves, socks, berets and tams, and baby clothes.  Directions for a single basic  garment are given in prose.   

The final part of the book is a compendium of garment patterns, again all in prose and to 50’s size and fit.  Patterns are provided for the items shown in the black and white photos.  Gauges are small by modern standards, with most items knit from fingering weight.  But there are several cardigans and pullovers in DK weight, plus a couple in doubled DK weight (3.5spi, the equivalent of  what one would expect from a modern bulky weight yarn.)

Like many of these  older knitting compendiums, there’s a strong ideological bent , a smattering of fashionable garments to keep one interested , and enough detail to pass itself off as a general purpose handbook.  But books like this weren’t  aimed at people with absolutely no knitting experience.  The level of detail they provide is insufficient for a beginners’ guide.  Rather they were shelf references.  Places an intermediate knitter could go to broaden a skill set, or brush up on a forgotten technique.  Finishing for example is given very short shrift.  Blocking is explained, but how one goes about accomplishing the "sew up" command at the end of each pattern is never quite elucidated.

Are modern books better?  Yes and no.  Some are, both as shelf references and as beginners’ guides.  Some are shorthand cribs on just a few basic concepts, quick to master and  trendy enough to look dated after only a year or two.  Others  do contain a fair bit of info, but like this particular book, aren’t organized in a way that  works as a reference or as a skills guide. 

Would I recommend buying this book used?  While it’s certainly worth the time to look through on library loan, unless you’re a needlework history book buff (like me),  I’d give it a pass.  For me though it is valuable, partly for its interesting history of (mostly British) knitting  before WWII, and for its mystery lace chapter.  So thank you Kathryn!  Although you were right that this book isn’t for everyone, it is a worthy and appreciated addition to my  library.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s