Friday, April 01, 2005

At Knit's End: An Appreciation

Spring, Chicago, 2004
Spring, Chicago, 2004

Nota bene: I needed a writing project to act as a mental workout/stress reliever, so I wrote this - a book review of the sort I'd submit to a journal or magazine. The tone's not what I'd normally use in a blog. Heaven knows Yarn Harlot doesn't need my help selling books, nor am I any sort of expert on knit lit. However, if you haven't read it and this inspires you to check it out, I think you'll be as pleased as I was.

The act of knitting is generally quiet, and knitters themselves have long been supposed to be quiet sorts of people: solitary maiden aunts, librarians, kindly grandmothers, stoic wives. The social, vocal aspect of knitting – reborn during the present craze as the hip, urban Stitch 'n' Bitch – has been less well known to outsiders. Knitters do, as it happens, like to talk, and they especially like to talk incessantly of knitting.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, also known under the nom-de-blog The Yarn Harlot, is a knitter who not only talks, but talks exceptionally well. Or to be more precise, she writes, and she writes deliciously. Capitalizing on the success of her popular online musings about knitting and family (which she regards with equal parts love and exasperation), Storey Publishing has brought out At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much.

It’s an astonishing piece of work, though not because of the subject matter. Pearl-McPhee ponders mostly the familiar topics of the craft: impedimenta (needles, yarn, and the many difficulties of storing them); process (making mistakes, and making the best of them); maintaining diplomatic relations with non-knitters (including children and spouses); and so forth.

What makes At Knit’s End stand out from other writing on knitting and crafts is above all the author’s clarity of vision. Never, in the course of 300-odd pages, does she allow herself to wallow in sentimentality.

This is no easy feat. Tender subjects like the passing of knitting knowledge from parent to child almost inevitably make for sticky reading. And it is true that love runs like an undercurrent through every meditation. Yet Pearl-McPhee, whose warm heart is balanced by a cool head and a wicked sense of humor, never descends to the mawkish or cute.

Therein lies the book’s other great strength. The balanced emotional writing is a foil for genuine and surprising wit. For example, if you can’t imagine the dark side of knitting, you have only to read about the author’s contemplation of adultery…with a married man who owns a yarn store. You will laugh, and probably identify.

Perhaps most happily, the obvious, self-deprecating humor that plagues so many female writers is entirely absent. And while the august shadow of Erma Bombeck looms in the background (the title recalls her At Wit’s End), Pearl-McPhee’s prose is overall more taut and confident than much of Bombeck’s early work. One hopes next to see her tackle more sustained pieces of writing–perhaps full-blown essays.

Which leaves only the title to quibble about. Or rather, the subtitle: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much. Given that Pearl-McPhee specifically lauds male knitters, urges the teaching of boys to knit, and assiduously sticks to the gender-neutral “spouse” instead of the more specific “husband,” the implied restriction of this book to women is unfortunate, the more so as the work itself is solid enough to amuse even non-knitters of either sex.

But this is minor. What counts is that a good writer has found her way into print, and produced what may well turn out to be knitting’s answer to gastronomy’s La Physiologie du Gout or fishing’s The Compleat Angler.

While she is doubtless anxious to get back to her knitting, it is impossible not to selfishly hope that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee will continue occasionally to set aside the needles in favor of the pen.


Anonymous said...

As you probably know by now, Stephanie's original title was "for people who knit too much", but her editor made the change to "women.

I've heard talk of your blog all over the knitting blogosphere, and now I know why. I love your blog. Thanks!

blogless, but perhaps that will change.....

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