I’m a sucker for new stitch dictionaries. They attract me more than any other kind of knitting book, probably because I discovered early on in my knitting life that if I found a sweater shape that worked, I could vary it either by finding beautiful yarn or by plugging in a pattern. Before the current boom in knitting, finding beautiful yarn was a challenge. I was far more likely to locate an attractive and interesting stitch pattern and use it instead. And so I could convert some decent but ordinary sport yarn or worsted-weight yarn into an attractive sweater. Much of my past knitting consisted of making pull-over sweaters with various stitch patterns.
Things were not so grim on the stitch dictionary front as they were for yarn buying. I collected the Barbara Walker books, which were published in the 1970s, and you can see from their appearance how well-used they were. Unlike other book collectors, who like to keep their books in pristine shape, I think the mark of how much I like a book is how tattered it becomes.
Other books that I bought about then and that I still refer to now are the Mary Thomas books, the Mon Tricot stitch dictionaries, and a much unappreciated book by Barbara Abbey called “The Complete Book of Knitting”. This book is not a “complete” description of knitting in any sense. It has some useful information on techniques, illustrated by old-fashioned-looking tiny line drawings. The concluding section with stitch patterns is the reason I refer to this book again and again. Not only are the patterns arranged clearly, but there is advice on what kinds of garments or projects are best suited for a particular pattern. This book has a convenient list of reversible stitches, which is great for selecting patterns for scarves (my project of choice when trying out a new yarn). There is a discussion before the patterns that gives you advice on choosing a pattern for your project, and even after decades of knitting this advice still saves me hours of swatching the wrong type of pattern for a project. Many of the stitch patterns in the “dictionary” part of the book have additional suggestions on how to use the stitch, the kinds of projects that work best with the stitch, and suggested yarns. This book is available used at very reasonable prices, and many public libraries have it. I always check this book when I’m trolling for a stitch pattern. Even though the selection of patterns isn’t extensive and the black-and-white photos aren’t as attractive as the color photos in new books, I can often narrow my choice to a type of stitch, making it easier to work with the more comprehensive stitch dictionaries. If you can get past its old appearance, you may find it helpful too and a good addition to your knitting library.
In recent years, I’ve discovered the Vogue Knitting Stitchionaries and the edge-knitting books by Nicky Epstein.
I like both sets, although being a combined knitter, it sometimes takes a bit of an effort to decipher some of the “knitting into the back and front loop” directions in the Stitchionaries. I sometimes have to resort to swatching in Continental style to see what they want me to do, and then knit again as I prefer. For this reason, I really like stitch dictionaries to have charts, and only selected patterns in the Stitchionaries do.
I never acquired the original Harmony guides, possibly because I didn’t think they added much to the Barbara Walker books. When I saw that IK was reprinting them, I was immediately interested.
For some reason, I thought that these reprints had charts for everything. But like the Vogue Stitchionaries, they appear for selected stitch patterns only—and in the Harmony guides only some of the cable patterns have charts, there are no charts in the knit-purl volume or lace-eyelet volume. Another thing I don’t like about these guides is the binding. I wish IK had used a spiral binding as in Ann Budd’s pattern books and in Nancy Bush’s Knitting on the Road. I am hard on my knitting dictionaries, and I want them to lie flat when open. These new Harmony guides don’t seem to do that, and I can see now that after working with them for a while the bindings will probably come apart. But what about the content? I’m not sure they give me many stitch patterns I haven’t seen before, but I’ll know that with more certainty after I use them when selecting a stitch pattern. They also have bits of advice scattered through the book, and I wondered why. After years of knitting, I find most of the advice to be trivial. If I were a new knitter, I would want that advice, but I would find it hard to locate. For example, on p. 111 of the Cables and Arans volume there is a useful point that you shouldn’t measure your gauge swatch on the needles. But how likely is it that a knitter who needs this information will find it? You’d have to read through the entire stitch dictionary and remember it. Who reads stitch dictionaries? I know that I don’t—I flip through the pictures and stop when I find one that looks promising. It would have been far more useful if these suggestions appeared in a central place and had an index to use to find them. To be fair, there are general sections that start each book with advice on working with the patterns, selecting equipment, and swatching. But I would have liked something closer to Barbara Abbey’s explicit hints on the kinds of patterns to use for different projects.
I don’t regret my purchase of the new Harmony guides, because I like to consult a lot of sources in selecting a stitch pattern, but if I had to choose one set of stitch dictionaries, it would still be those by Barbara Walker. I think that the Vogue Stitchionaries have an edge over the Harmony guides because they use equivalent yarns for the pictures of the swatches, making it easier to compare stitch patterns you’re considering for the same project. I also like the more uniform size of the swatch pictures in the Stitchionaries—those in the Harmony guide differ from page to page.
My fantasy stitch dictionary would be comprehensive and convenient to use. It would have clear illustrations of the stitch, good and accurate knitting directions that appear as written-out directions and charts, advice on how to use the stitch on the page where the stitch appears, and suggestions for types of yarn to use. And for interest, it might have some historical details about the stitch or a picture of something knitted with the pattern. It would also lie flat when opened and have a sturdy binding. And like the electronic edition of The New Yorker magazine, it would be wonderful to have the entire thing on CD in a way that is indexed for computer searches. So far no single book or group of stitch dictionaries does all this—but I can dream, can’t I.
I’ll be rearranging my knitting library, and I have other older books that I consult regularly and I’ll describe them too. The Mary Thomas books are worthy of a post of their own--in many ways they're better than both the Barbara Walker books and the Barbara Abbey book. So I’ll have more to say about stitch dictionaries— eventually I’ll compare the instructions for equivalent or similar patterns in the dictionaries. For now, I’m just happy to be back knitting and blogging. My work crunch appears to be over, and my life will get some of its balance back.