Monday, 16 May 2011

Jane Brocket and the £55 tea cosy

Last week I sold some of my old stuff on ebay (violins) and I treated myself to Jane Brocket’s new book, The Gentle Art of Knitting. It arrived on Saturday morning so I thought I would do a review.
Domestic detritus around the gentle art of knitting. Keep Calm and Carry On
First all the positive bits. It’s a lovely book – Jane is an extraordinarily engaging writer, I think: she creates a little world, makes it look enticing, and draws you in. It is quite hard to do this in a knitting book where you are restricted to writing introductions to patterns, but, she manages it. Also, she has a real eye for colour and styling: the photos in this make you want to knit the patterns, even when it is something you wouldn’t normally knit (a bulky garter stitch hot water bottle cover, for example). For those of you who take a hard, has-it-got-any-new-patterns in it approach, well, there are some really nice patterns for cushions, tea cosy patterns, a couple of really attractive looking hats, and more. I’m disappointed that everything’s knitted flat, but other people definitely won’t be (I shall lend it to my mum for the hat patterns – she likes knitting flat and is capable of seaming properly!), and it’s not unexpected – it’s got a very best-of-Rowan kind of vibe. Pretty book! I’ve been reading it all weekend and I like it.
I liked these cushions
I do have a problem though (you knew this). In fact I have two. Firstly, this is a book which formulates a philosophy: Jane has a Gentle Knitting Philosophy, which is, knit easy things where tension doesn’t matter in lovely yarn – no-one does knitting for necessity any more, so have fun with it. Now this is fair enough – it’s not necessarily the kind of knitting I enjoy all the time, but she’s not saying it should be, and I certainly sometimes want to knit something in that vein. Don’t we all? However, these patterns aren’t actually all that easy. A lot of them use intarsia – ok, it’s probably not hugely difficult (I’ve never done it successfully though), but, it’s not the first thing you learn. A few use stranding (the technique I was muttering about in my last post).
I worked out stranding and I knitted this cowl
The round cushion one uses short row shaping. There aren’t detailed instructions of how to do these techniques. Now, I don’t know if I could work out intarsia just from someone saying ‘twist the yarns together so you don’t get a hole!’ but I’m going to hazard a guess that if I was wanting some nice relaxing knitting I might need a bit more initial detail. I think sometimes when books want things to be simple, they force them to be simple by ignoring complexity, and then people try, fail, and get put off. Whereas sometimes the simplest pattern is actually the one that is 5 pages long with 23 diagrams that you look at to start with and wince, but then you start it and think, wait, this might be making sense...

But, this is supposed to be simple, comforting knitting (whether it actually works or not: let’s not let facts get in the way) because this is about Domesticity As Retreat: Knitting As Comfort. I find the whole ‘domesticity as a cosy retreat where we all play with lovely expensive yarn without worrying about having to make anything that actually fits or is a bit difficult’ a bit problematic. I won’t get into the whole feminist angle (because I’d have to do a whole post) but I’m just going to say that domesticity as a concept isn’t politically neutral, and I think making it all cosy and lovely kind of flirts with the concept without actually engaging with the awkward bits. So, yes, I find it problematic. If anyone who is feeling more articulate than me today wants to tell me why, then I’m very happy to hear!

My final criticism though I do think I’ve got a valid point. There is all the usual stuff in this book about lovely lovely yarn and how terrible it used to be when we had to use acrylic, etc, and the pleasure one might derive from using said lovely lovely yarn on lovely lovely bamboo needles. Jane names her favourite types of yarn – the usual suspects, Rowan, Debbie Bliss, etc. So I priced up some of the projects for you. Now, I am being a bit unfair here, because she does tell you to substitute yarn (I mean, she tells you to substitute it for Rowan. But the principle is there!), and she also says you will have leftovers from a lot of the projects which you can then reuse to make others, which is fair enough. However (prices based on Get Knitted):
For the price of knitting this throw you could buy a small terraced house in Worksop
There is a crochet throw which requires you to use 24 skeins of Cascade 220. (It actually says 400g of each colour in the notes – I’m assuming this is a misprint because that would cost about £500). That will cost you £146.40. Another crochet throw would cost you £122.

There is a knitted throw which calls for 41 balls of aran-weight yarn. If you buy one of the ranges Jane recommends, you would be looking at about £160+. If you did it in Rowan you would be looking at about £270.

There is a tea cosy which calls for 9 skeins of Cascade 220. This tea cosy would cost you £54.90 to knit.
The offending cosy, propped open by my sock-clothed foot
Now, I don’t necessarily think patterns should recommend that everybody should knit them in Giant Acrylic Balls and a bit of bald tinsel, but, look. There is a big difference between someone on a blog, who has bought a couple of skeins of luxury yarn with their own money recommending it, and someone writing a book telling you you should knit with luxury yarns which would make half the projects in it completely financially out of reach of most people. I mean, I might like the sensual pleasure of knitting with nice yarn, but I might also like the sensual pleasure of being able to pay my mortgage as well. Something that takes only a couple of skeins and where the type of fibre really makes a difference – absolutely, fair enough, I prefer wool for some things too and indeed I’m just about to order some (so warm!). But I can’t afford £200 for a throw and I suspect most other people can’t as well. I accept that that’s a criticism of more than just this book: however, I find it lazy and elitist. So lazy and elitist in fact, that it made me buy yarn to make my own crochet ripple throw (£20). So now I have to get off my bum and try and sell more on ebay! My life, it is hard.

God, I sound a grumpy old person, don’t I? I really did like this book. You see, I was interested! I engaged! I bet you’re thinking, what does she say about books she doesn’t like, and the answer is, I say nothing because I think it would take me counselling to get over it if I ever dredged up the memory of Twilight. Can 5 billion teenage girls be wrong? Why yes. Yes they can ;-).


katiemckinna said...

Love it. Your comments put into words (lazy and elitist) exactly what I have often felt about patterns, etc. (And Twilight, for that matter.) My thought has been that knitting is a HOBBY for me and as such, it is not something that should require a bank loan to accomplish. I like luxury wool as much as the next girl, but like you I keep it to reasonable projects.

Voie de Vie said...

Well, I guess I got something completely different from your review than the first commenter because, of course, hobbies are for the person with expendable income (perhaps that intersects with lazy and elitist? I'm not judging). :)

Quite frankly, my handcrafting has both a functional and relaxing quality, as I suspect yours does to. So while a tea cozy for that amazing amount (I did the financial translation!) might be a splurge every now and then, a whole book of it is pure folly and indulgence, which is not up your alley at the moment.

At least that's what I got from your review. And I thank you for it.

Susie said...

In some of the knitting magazines now (I think The Knitter, I can't remember) they give different yarns for different price points - save and splurge, that kind of thing. I think that's a good idea, because for some projects you do want to splurge, and it's nice to know what's out there. But also it stops the £200-throw-teeth-grinding syndrome. I think what annoys me is the blanket 'good quality yarns are lovely! Knit with lovely things in all circumstances!' kind of attitude, because yes lovely yarns are lovely but it just isn't possible for everyone all the time.

This pushes my buttons, doesn't it? ;-). I'm going to leave you nice blog readers alone now!

Vivianne said...

LOL I did this pricing up thing with a 'picnic blanket' from The Knitter (I think it was)- I certainly wouldn't use a blankey that cost over £150 (plus time/labor) to spread on a muddy field ...
D'you think maybe they are that out of touch with the 'ordinary' knitter ? That they cater for R4 and Grauniad-reading knitters only ? That poor people don't like pretty or twee things ?

Kezz said...

I read all the lovely patterns, and have a look at the recommended yarn, sometimes, I'll even go so far as to price it up... The I head to my local yarn shop and buy some acrylic and make it anyway. It has worked so far.

sylviesgarden said...

I loved reading this post and couldn't agree with you more. There is no way that I could afford to spend so much making a throw.
I love to use top quality yarns but I usually wait until they are reduced and then use them mainly for smaller projects. If that makes me a skin flint then so be it.
Thank you so much for sharing and for being honest.

mooncalf said...

I think I should defend this book a little, mostly as I feel I might be the target audience. Guardian-reader and Radio 4 listener as I am :)

I am a fairly competent and experienced knitter. But I am quite lazy. Sometimes I do want to knit something that I can chill out with; enjoy the colours and the yarn and the process and know, without thinking too hard, that it will work out. I don't need to have techniques that I'm familiar with (like short-row shaping) spelled out too clearly.

I'm also quite relaxed about the idea of spending £200 on a throw. If I'm just making one throw and it is beautiful and I'm going to spend a couple of months making it and several years looking at it on my bed or sofa then that seems like quite a reasonable cost to me. Wastrel that I no doubt am :)

I think you're right, that this books isn't ideal for a beginner. And you're definitely right that £200 is beyond many people's means for a blankie. This may not be a book for everyone. But Jane does have an audience that she's pitching this at. Not every simple project is for a beginner and no matter what yarn you use someone will want to sub it.

Susie said...

Ha! No, not a wastrel ;-). Mooncalf, I think you're right that that's what this book is about, and how it's pitched, and to be fair it does do that very well. I have no problem at all with people spending as much money as they want on yarn - nice yarn is indeed nice, excellent thing to spend money on, support indie dyers etc! It's just that many people can't (or can't often). It's like if somebody said you could only have good sex if you were wearing agent provocateur undies (don't think too much about the practicalities of that, you know what I mean ;-) ).

Sadly I am also the R4 listening Guardian reading demographic though so possibly the targeting has failed slightly. (Can anyone remember the fast show sketch about middle class people? About wearing vaguely ethnic clothing and cycling to work? I can't find it on google!).

Voie de Vie said...

I must admit, I like the different yarn pricing scheme in the Knitter. And then I go and buy whatever the heck I want. :)

This has been a great conversation; thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Surely Guardian readers should be using any spare cash to help pay off third world debt - not be spending £200 on a blanket? That's what they tell us anyway!

I couldn't agree with you more. I think too that many of the projects are unoriginal and merely knitted versions of crochet knick knacks. Domestic bliss for everyone? Well no. Not if you can't afford it. I hate yarn snobbery. Many thinks I buy and seriously want ready made - I still buy knitted scarves, will be acrylic. I don't give the shop a hard time for that so why do I as a knitter have to suffer being told my projects are second rate if not in the finest wools and silks? If it looks and feels nice, then it is. It doesn't change if I find out it is acrylic and no you can't always tell what the fibre is.

I'm not going to knit a tea cosy for a simple reason - no teapot. However, I am a blanket maker. I can have no blanket due to lack of funds (most people probably share this) or I can have an acrylic one. I get to practice my skills, make something pretty and feel good about myself. If I listened to the general philosophy behind this book and many others I would feel ashamed and not proud. More to the point I would feel I was not worthy and would not even bother. You know what? My blankets are gorgeous and I can stuff them in the washing machine and USE them. I don't need to get precious if the cat vomits on it or moths eat it because I can just make another one. A rancid festering natural fibres blanket that I don't dare wash for fear of shrinkage, felting and worse doesn't not actually appeal that much. I'll save my posh yarn for scarves thanks.

The feminist bit doesn't get me going - well actually it does but pro not against. Someones got to make pretty things (why? because we all like it and some of us like doing it as well as looking at it). So why shouldn't I. Feminism is about choices and about not being ashamed of those choices. I like to live with nice surroundings made pretty by me - should I pay meagre wages for someone else to do it because it is beneath me? I have skills, historically female skills. I'm not going to trash that. I'm proud of that. The only thing is I would celebrate those skills the same way traditional male skills like carpentry are. Craft is craft though and I make no apology for it. I consider myself feminist.

I am not a fan of the author - I don't enjoy the pretentious subject matter usually engaged in and her language does not flow, I find it most unnatural and unconvincing. We are also always being told her credentials as an academic; it is as if she herself is ashamed of what she does. Many people do what she does on their blogs only with much more originality and far better! In fact it makes me cross that these books are continually churned out, when other people would do it so much better. And without the elitism.
p.s what about taking the patterns and knitting them up with some lovely Pound stretchers acrylic?

Susie said...

That's actually exactly what I meant by the feminist bit. I definitely consider myself a feminist, and I'm proud of my skills too - the traditional female ones, and the other ones. I find it hard to articulate the bit in this book which pushes my feminist buttons. It's the 'domesticity as lovely expensive fluffiness and play' I find difficult: that isn't what domestic skills are for me.

Quoting you here:
'I can have no blanket due to lack of funds (most people probably share this) or I can have an acrylic one. I get to practice my skills, make something pretty and feel good about myself. If I listened to the general philosophy behind this book and many others I would feel ashamed and not proud.' - yes, that absolutely. And yep, I'm absolutely going to do one of the throw patterns in cheap acrylic. Hopefully it's coming tomorrow, I can't wait!

Denise said...

Oh boy, elitist yarn snobbery and Twilight..wait, I need to put my eyeballs back in my head, I think they rolled right out.

I think books cater to their advertisers/suppliers, certainly not their audience. You would have to have the income of a rock star to make anything.

I did take up spinning so I could use lovely fiber at a quarter of the dollar cost. Tons of mileage for the money, as I get to enjoy while spinning then again with the knitting.

Beanbird said...

Surely the point of books (and magazines) like this is that they are aspirational as well as inspirational? So they show what can be achieved with lovely yarns as well as endless time to knit/crochet... I would never look at a pattern and go out and buy the exact same yarns, in the exact same colours. Where's the fun in that?

Susie said...

Denise, you're inspiring me to get out my drop spindle again ;-). Beanbird, that's definitely true and an interesting point, because I wouldn't read Vogue and then write in and tell them off because all the clothes are too expensive but I somehow have a slightly relationship to craft books; I expect them to communicate something I can realistically do (I'm not saying that's necessarily right).

(Although everybody does write in to the Guardian and tell them off for featuring expensive clothes so, go figure).

Pearly Queen said...

I haven't read this book, but I've seen lots of pictures of the projects and I suspect that your review is exactly what I would have written myself. Not that I'm knocking Jane Brocket, and I love looking at books like this - I read Country Living and other magazines of that ilk and am constantly amazed that someone, somewhere will pay £174 for a cushion..
I wonder if anyone will actually buy the 'proper' yarns for the projects, or will they all end up being made in Stylecraft's Special Acrylic DK at £1.25 a ball!
I do think that most publishers are elitist and think (maybe they're right) that the buyers of the book will be the people who HAVE got that kind of money... or maybe the books are bought as presents by well-meaning (but non-knitter) friends!

Anonymous said...

I find this to be a regular problem with knitting patterns too so most of the time it's back to bargain basement acrylic until such time my mortgage/bills/whatever are a pleasure to live with!!! ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm a R4 listener but not a Guardian reader - I'm worse, I'm a Telegraph reader (slinks away in shame) but I am not rich as you imply we all are. I'm also on a fairly reduced income being retired. I agree that it would be amazing to be able to afford expensive yarns but tough I can't unless it's a really special project or a potential heirloom.

It isn't The Knitter which offers a reasonable range of alternative - The Knitter wouldn't lower itself (and I've been a subscriber for over a year).

I must make an apologia for acrylic yarns. I've always been a wool knitter and very sniffy about acrylics - poor colour range, texture, sagginess in wear, appearance, etc., - but have become something of a convert of late. Colours are much more tasteful and less luminous these days and the quality is heaps better. Acrylic fibre is appearing in quite up-market expensive yarns. I do a lot of knitting and find that many of the people can't cope with wool against the skin and as I knit a lot for a charity stall and cater for those who are allergic to wool, for vegans, and those lovely people who think hand-made should be cheap-made so acrylics are ideal for me.

What really gets my goat is the amount of "luxury" yarns currently being advocated for baby knitting projects. These luxury yarns containing alpaca, baby llama, silk, etc., are hardly suitable for the harrassed mum who's last wish in the world is for baby clothes that can't be thrown in the washing machine. Don't think I know any new mothers (or old ones for that matter) who would thank me for handwash only knitted baby knits.

Kate said...

I recently joined a knitting group filled with a lovely group of people. It is, however, Debbie Bliss this and Rowan that and Alpaca silk woven by fairies and spun from rainbows. On the first night, I stuffed my crochet back into my bag quickly as I was using 25% wool mix and not only that, got it from an auction too. The next week I'm sitting there using Debbie Bliss myself. Then there was a discussion about why the local yarn shop was closing - some felt it was because only the finest yarns were sold and not everyone could afford it. I took my chance. The conversation changed to Sirdar, Patons, King Cole and James Brett. We were all really happy admitting that we loved these yarns to.

Anonymous said...

*If* Jane's husband is the Simon Brocket who is Vice President of HR at Coca-Cola Europe, one can see how she has the time and income to while away on such pleasant pursuits. She never mentions what he does overtly, but clearly there are handknitted buckets of cash floating around to keep the family in that lifestyle. I love her blog, but it's not most people's idea of real life.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions on this, and it may not be affordable for many. But, going as far to research the author's husband and cast judgement like that is just plain sad!