Book review: Knitting Without Tears

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Book review: Knitting Without Tears

When I bought this book, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Elisabeth Zimmermann  (1910-1999) was the 'grand dame' of knitting in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, and her publications revolutionised knitting in the US. But I was wondering - would her book still be relevant today?

Book Review: Knitting without tears - I Wool KnitTo cut a long story short - Yes, I do believe it is absolutely worth revisiting her work, including "Knitting without tears", which was first published in 1971.

The black and white photos and the hand-drawn sketches clearly mark it as a book of it's time - no glossy colour photos of beautiful women and handsome men wearing gorgeous or outlandish garments, and no knitting instructions filled with abbreviations that can befuddle the beginner knitter. 

And yet, after I began reading it, I found it to be a treasure trove of advice, ideas and techniques that will be useful to all knitters, no matter whether you are a beginner or have been knitting for years.

Elisabeth talks to you like a friend through her books. Her diction is beautiful, conversational yet elegant. I particularly appreciate that she does not pretend to be the ultimate know-it-all, either, as she writes herself: "The Books don't know everything. They know a great deal, but not everything. Take anything you find in an instruction book, including this one, with a large grain of salt. If it doesn't make sense in your particular circumstances, pay no attention to it; seek further. There are scores of different ways of doing things in knitting, and none of them are wrong, but they are sometimes unsuitable." (page 52)

The book is divided into 6 chapters. In chapter 1, "The Opinionated Knitter", Elisabeth explains why natural materials such as wool are far preferable to synthetic yarns. I definitely agree with her here! Her discussion of the pros and cons of the different materials used for knitting needles is still relevant, even if we may have an even greater choice today than she had in 1971 (or maybe it is just a slightly different choice - I certainly have never seen any knitting needles made from walrus tusks or bone!). 

If you are new to knitting or interested in different knitting techniques, you will find her explanation of right-handed vs left-handed knitting of interest. Right-handed knitting is the traditional way of knitting, where the yarn is held in the right hand. This is probably the most commonly used form of knitting in Australia. In left-handed knitting, also known as "German knitting", "continental knitting" or "speed knitting", the yarn is held in the left hand. Left-handed knitting is significantly faster than right-handed knitting and less likely to cause strain on your hand and wrists, so if you are new to knitting or want to improve your speed, this is the technique to learn. The rest of the chapter details stitch variations and knitting tricks and techniques.

Chapter 2 "Gauge: Required Reading" is very short but important: why you should ALWAYS knit a gauge or tension square. 

Chapters 3-5 provide ideas and patterns for a range of sweaters and accessories. If you have ever struggled with knitting a Norwegian fair isle pattern, read her chapter "Ski Sweater in Color Patterns". Her chapter on "Seamless Sweaters" shows how to create a range of different sweaters knitted on circular needles. The chapter "Other knitted garments" may contain some patterns that appear a bit outdated today, but her sections on woollen beanies, shawls and socks are certainly still current!

Chapter 6 "The Washing of Sweaters" is all-important if you have spent many hours knitting a beautiful sweater or other item in lovely natural wool and you don't want to destroy it by washing it wrongly.

To sum it up: Don't be put off by the somewhat dated appearance of the book and its black and white illustrations. This is a treasure trove of advice that is worth having on your bookshelf. Available here

About the author: Elisabeth Zimmermann was born near London, England, and attended art school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1937. Frustrated by magazine editors who translated her conversational knitting instructions into abbreviated code, she started her own knitting newsletter and launched Schoolhouse Press, a mail-order business selling knitting supplies, books, and videos. In the mid-1960s she hosted The Busy Knitter, a nationally syndicated public television show, and by the early 1970s had become an icon of the knitting world. This and her three lively instructional books -- Knitting Around, Knitter's Almanac, and Knitting Workshop -- are treasured by knitters around the world.

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