Softcover, 144 pages
List price $22.95, currently available on Amazon for $15.61
Sometimes we English-speaking knitters need to be reminded that there is, literally, a world full of extremely talented knitting designers out there – a world in which English is not the primary language and in which the American knitter is not the primary focus. Marianne Isager is a superstar in her native Denmark, but she is only recently coming to the attention of American knitters. Her first American book, Knitting Out Of Africa (Interweave Press 2006), was well-received but didn’t exactly make Isager a household name. That’s probably going to change, at least where knitter’s households are concerned. Within the past year, her signature yarn line became available in the United States, and this spring, the first of two new Isager books from Interweave Press will reach the shelves of your local yarn shop or bookstore. With Isager’s unique designs and gorgeous natural fiber yarns, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the future.
Japanese Inspired Knits (Interweave Press 2009) is the first of the two Isager design books published this year. As best as I can tell (sadly, I do not speak Danish – although I will gladly eat Danish, especially the raspberry ones), Japanese Inspired Knits is an expansion of the book Japan that was published last year in German.* If you’re looking for faithful interpretations of Japanese garments, however, you should know that Isager is not attempting to recreate, say, lots of kimonos and obis, but rather is using Japanese art and culture as a jumping off point for her own, distinctly European style. Isager explains, “The garments in this book are not Japanese but express the inspiration I receive from living in Japan for most of the year.”
The book is organized by months, with a project corresponding to each month. That makes for a total of 12 projects in the book (a few contain variations). It’s probably easiest to show you an example of a chapter than to try to explain it; here are the opening pages of the chapter for “May.” You’ll see some lovely photographs of Japan and Japanese art – here, windsocks shaped like carp – along with Japanese characters, and a paragraph explaining Japanese traditions that take place in May – here, “Boys’ Day,” a celebration which draws symbolism from carp swimming against the stream. The traditions and cultural symbols are the source of inspiration for that chapter’s design.
Turn the page and you’ll find the pattern for this chapter. Inspired by the skin of the carp is a short-sleeved sweater with mitered squares reminiscent of fish scales.
I found this juxtaposition of Japanese culture with knitwear loosely inspired by it to be a fascinating window onto the creative process. A woven band from a tatami mat is translated into a stranded knitting pattern
a fan inspires a lovely and unusually-constructed sweater with delicate edging; the vivid colors of maple leaves in autumn give rise to a multicolor cardigan.
(Those happen to be three of my favorite designs in the book, by the way.) As you may have already deduced, this is definitely a book that you’ll want to leaf through before buying since Isager’s design sensibility is so unique and so different from many American and British designers. (Think designs a la Hanne Falkenberg and Vivien Hoxbro rather than Rowan or Vogue Knitting.) I think there are some really stunning patterns in the book, but you may react differently. To be sure, not every pattern in the book appealed to me, but this is true of most knitting books: there are a few designs I absolutely love, a few I’m not crazy about, and a few that fall in the middle.
While it’s hard to predict another knitter’s taste in patterns, I can tell you a few more things about the patterns to help you decide if this book is for you. First of all, these patterns are definitely aimed at the experienced rather than novice knitter. I would never want to discourage a knitter from trying a pattern s/he is extremely motivated to make, but nearly every garment in this book features an advanced knitting skill: stranded knitting, double-knitting, unusual construction, entrelac, mitered squares, intarsia, cables. If you’re not an experienced knitter, you’ve got to at least be fearless. (Not that this is a bad thing – I love to see books that have technically advanced patterns, but not everyone is as obsessed with knitting as I am!)
Second, most of these patterns are knit in fine-gauge yarns. Now you know that I, of all people, am a fan of skinny yarns and think that the advantages they present are worth any tradeoffs the knitter might experience. But if you don’t have a lot of time for knitting or aren’t patient enough to want to tackle a full-size sweater in a fingering or sport-weight yarn, then maybe this book isn’t your best bet.
Finally, know that these garments – partly because of the technical challenges presented by their construction, but also because of Isager’s flowing, Eileen-Fisher-esque style – are not close-fitting and body-hugging. You’ll see drape, you’ll see flowing lines, but you won’t see clinging, body-conscious fit. Again, that’s not bad or good; it’s just a matter of preference.
Let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of the book. Japanese Inspired Knits is chock-full of color photographs, some of the designs and some of Japanese cultural icons and scenery. The Japanese inspiration is charmingly echoed in the book design, with Japanese characters and ideograms. There are 12 patterns, which may not seem like a lot (most books give you 20 or more patterns) but remember that these are all adult women’s sweaters (i.e., no accessories or children’s garments) and all of the patterns are fairly complex, requiring more pages of charts, instructions and explanation (no “filler” patterns here).
Of the twelve designs, all are for women and they break down like this:
Long-sleeve cardigans or jackets: 5
Long-sleeve pullovers: 3
Short-sleeve pullover: 2 (1 of which has ¾ sleeves)
Sizing for patterns this unconventional presents more challenges than usual so we’ve got to give Isager a break for the relatively limited size range. Most patterns are written for three sizes, the poncho is written for two, and the remainder for four sizes, but since the patterns trend to the loose and draping rather than body-hugging, there’s a bit more leeway for fit. Plus-size women will have to upsize the patterns themselves; the larger sizes typically fall in the 46 to 48-inch chest range (one is written for 54-inch finished chest). Petite or small-busted women won’t fare much better unless they like lots of ease: the smallest chest size is 33-inch (only two of the patterns start at this size) but most patterns start the sizing at around 35-37-inch finished chest.
As usual, all the niceties that Interweave Press usually provides are present here: multiple photographs of each garment (some are shown on a model AND flat, which is a very helpful way to see the lines of the garment); close-up photos of the stitch patterns and key design elements; schematics; charts (many in color); notes which help explain how the garment is knit; inset boxes that explain specific technical skills necessary for the pattern (like how to knit intarsia, or how mitered squares are constructed).
It’s probably also worth mentioning that all of the garments are shown in Isager’s own yarns. Having seen some of the Isager yarns and worked with them a little bit, I can tell you that they are beautiful: all natural fibers, gorgeous complex colors, soft and luxurious. Several of the patterns feature two Isager yarns held together, which may make them slightly trickier to substitute for. Isager yarns aren’t yet as readily available as some other brands in the US, but that should be changing soon. Finally, it’s worth noting that in Europe, Isager’s yarns are sold in 100g hanks, but in the U.S., they are sold in 50g hanks. My book came with an insert (“Yarn Conversion Sheet”) that explained this, but just make sure you carefully check yardage/weight when calculating the quantities you’ll need for a specific sweater.
Summing up, Japanese Inspired Knits is a technically-challenging and inspirational book which showcases Marianne Isager’s talent and modern (rather than traditional) design sensibility. We’ve got lots of books filled with easy patterns: I, for one, welcome this kind of book, filled with unique designs, unconventional construction, and a European look.
About the Author: Carol J. Sulcoski
Carol J. Sulcoski is the author of Knit So Fine and Knitting Socks With Handpainted Yarns (both published by Interweave Press), and she has designed for Knitty.com; Big Girl Knits; JCA/Reynolds; and KnitScene. She blogs at Go Knit In Your Hat, where her “No-Bull Book Reviews” are a popular feature. She is proprietress of Black Bunny Fibers, where she sells handdyed yarns and spinning fiber.
Text © 2009 by Carol J. Sulcoski.