Sweater Quest

March was a crazy busy month chock full of teaching, here at TanisKnits. Each weekend I drove to lands both near and far and spoke/taught/trunk showed/signed books at Knitting Guilds. Guilds are interesting - they're not like a traditional 3-week class where you build a relationship with 6 students, really get to see what they excel at and what they need a little extra help with, learn about their families and in some cases, become friends afterwards. Guild are more of a drive-by situation where you come in like a tornado, teach or lecture anywhere from 1 hour to 8, with 10 knitters or 80, pack up and go home. There are definitely some similarities... A bunch of knitters packed around tables, eager to learn, sharing stories, offering yarn and book suggestions, trading pattern names and showing off their latest finished knit. Both Guilds and classes have their own personalities and some are more serious than others, while some have more of a party atmosphere. Guilds and classes are like a box of chocolates (and I'll let you finish off that sentence on your own).


What all of my Guild visits had in common, was they were all Fair Isle. At my LYS, I'm know as "the Fair Isle lady." Stranded color work knitting is by far my favorite technique and I could knit and talk about it  ALL. DAY. LONG (and sometimes I do). I teach the technique most often and read every book about it I can get my hands on. While doing my "Guild Tour 2015," a handful of students recommended that I read Adrienne Martini's book Sweater Quest (2010). I had heard about it in the past (and thought that I had read it, but it turns out that I had not). After the dust settled, my Fair Isle teaching samples were put away, the books put back on their shelves and my teaching bag had a thorough cleaning, I remembered that I wanted to read this book. One Kindle download later, and I was immersed in her story.

The Amazon.com review states, "Martini decided to knit the extraordinarily complicated Alice Starmore Fair Isle sweater pattern, known as Mary Tudor, and now chronicles her 12 months’ experience. Shades of Julie and Julia? Well, yes, but Martini offers a deeper, more reflective narrative, one that showcases her interactions with other well-known stitchers; her book features family snippets and personal philosophies and her travels to places where knitters congregate, such as Toronto and Rhinebeck, New York. We meet Ann Shayne, coauthor of Mason-Dixon Knitting (2006), as well as Amy R. Singer, “Master of the Knitting Universe.” We learn a lot about the craft (or is it an art?) from statistics and these profiles of major figures as well as achieve an understanding of the community that binds knitters together. Marvel—even if you’re a nonknitter—at Martini’s way with words: “Scissors and knitting go together like mashed potatoes and chocolate syrup.” Purling through life was never so fascinating."

After finishing the book a few weeks ago, I reached out to Adrienne via her blog (read it here) to see if she would do a Q&A with me about it here. She was kind enough to oblige and sat down to answer a few questions for us...


Tanis Gray (TG): You chose to take on a pretty drastic challenge - knitting an Alice Starmore Fair Isle cardigan design (arguably one of the most complicated things to knit) in a year and writing about it. This is an amazing feat for any knitter, let alone someone with children, a job, a self-imposed deadline and a life to live. Tell us about your journey.

Adrienne Martini (AM): It was a journey that started with feeling like my life had become about nothing more than routine maintenance that kept our general level of chaos at a minimum but didn’t have many (or any) creative challenges. Yes, not yelling at your toddler to just put her mittens on already is a challenge — but not really one that feeds the soul. The exact opposite, in fact. Add to that my natural instinct to make something twice as hard as it probably needs to be and — boom — sweater.

TG: Why an Alice Starmore design and not, say, a Kaffe Fassett or a Brandon Mably?

AM: Because I was a British royalty geek long before I was a knitting geek. Plus Starmore herself has such an interesting story that I couldn’t resist because it would let me talk about ownership and the law and small, windy islands.


TG: Alice's designs are knit in very specific yarns in very specific colors. Some of the more hardcore knitters claim that if you change anything, it is no longer her original vision. In your book you struggle to answer the question “is it really an ‘Alice Starmore’ if you change some of the design elements and some of the yarns and yarn colors?” Do you still feel the same way about the conclusion you came to, looking back now five years later?

AM: I waffle on this one still. This tidbit that helps explain where I came to rest on that question may or may not have made it in to the final draft but — when courts were first faced with legally defining what “obscenity” was, one of the justices said simply “I know it when I see it.” That’s a completely useless legal argument but works well enough for talking about knitting and designers. Is a version of a Starmore design done all in fun fur an “Alice Starmore?” Nope. Is my version an “Alice Starmore?” Sure. But there’s a vast gray area in between and I’m not sure where the tipping point is. I am, however, pretty sure that I am likely one of the few who cares.


TG: I love the author picture of you in the back of your book wearing the finished piece! You said the end goal was not to have a finished sweater to wear, it was more about the actual process of making it. Do you ever wear your sweater? Did the dog ever attack it? Did you ever knit something fair isle again? Do AS designs make you twitchy?

AM: The Sweater currently lives in a tote bag in my closet and only comes out for book events. Eventually, I might have it framed. But, to be honest, I’ll never wear it, not really. I’ve knit a bunch of small Fair Isle things — mittens, mostly, and a couple of ear warmers. True story: right around the time I finished The Sweater, my husband was flipping through Tudor Roses and talked about how much he’d like a Henry VIII. I kindly offered to teach him to knit so that he could make his own damn sweater. Strangely, it hasn’t come up since then.

TG: Funny how that works! In a battle to the death of Intarsia vs. Fair Isle, who would win in your mind?

AM: I’m not even sure why this is a question. Fair Isle is far superior, in terms of efficiency and pleasure, especially if you go big enough to require a steak, which is totally bad ass.

TG: Has any other designer or technique captured your imagination since finishing your book the way Alice or Mary Tudor (the cardigan design) did?

AM: Nope. It appears that I had just one knitting obsession in me. So far, anyway.


TG: Alice Starmore is both an immensely private and immensely talented woman. Did you ever hear from her in regards to your book?

AM: Before Sweater Quest came out, the publisher’s lawyers let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not allowed to contact her beforehand, which was too bad because I really wanted to talk to her for the book, even if I had to fly out to her island and park myself on her doorstep until she either talked to me or had me arrested. Either seemed likely. After the book came out, I tried to convince the powers-that-were that a lawsuit would be great publicity and that we should send her a copy. That never happened, as far as I know. So, short answer, no. I’ve never heard from her directly.


TG: Being both a knitter and a “Type A,” I could relate to becoming obsessed with a particular design. How did the non-knitters in your life react when you told them what you were writing about?

AM: The non-knitters in my life shrugged. They are used to (and benefitted from) this sort of behavior by now.

TG: What would you say to Alice if you had a chance to meet her in real life?

AM: I don’t even know. I’d probably mutter something about how I think she’s a true artist and that we are all flawed human beings. That might be too deep for a first meeting, however. I’d offer her a baked good, likely, and hope for the best.


TG: Hmmm, I wasn't offered any baked goods... What’s on your needles now?

AM: Two pairs of socks that I just kind of carry around with me and work on when unexpected pockets of time present themselves. A pair of Fiddlehead mittens using Barbara Parry’s yarn. A thing that started out as a scarf that wasn’t behaving and is now on the time-out shelf. And five balls of Muench Touch Me — there was a sale — that will be a scarf, once I manage to cast on. -----------

Thanks, Adrienne!

If you haven't already read it, I suggest picking up a copy of Sweater Quest. It was entertaining, interesting and if you're like me and you have serious and incurable Fair Isle Knitting Disease (FIKD), get reading!