Essential Knitting Books

Once you’re a knitter you also start collecting yarn, supplies and, inevitably, knitting books. Many are simply collections of patterns for specific items, often assembled by a designer or a knitting magazine. If you’re looking for an authentic pattern for Turkish socks, well, there’s a book for that. These books fill a definite niche, of course, but if you’re not into Turkish socks or knitted amigurumi or whatever, the book will be of little interest to you.

However, there are many knitting books out there whose main focus is on technique or stitch patterns or documenting and preserving a historical knitting style endangered of being lost forever. A lot can be learned from studying these old and new books. And many are quite charming and hearken back to a bygone time or place. So, today I’m giving my personal recommendations for what I feel are the essential knitting books. I’ll tell you why these are great (or not so great) and you can decide if that aligns with your needs and interests. If they are still in print, you’ll see that the title I mention will be a hot link that takes you straight to Amazon; easy-peasey!

At the very top of my list, always and forever are the Knitting Treasuries assembled by Barbara Walker. These are indispensable for presenting one of the largest collections stitches, from simple to complex. She published several different ones, the first two are the most general: A Treasury of Knitting Patterns was her first (1968) and starts with simple knit and purl patterns and moves on to more complex pattern types. There is a black and white photo of each pattern and the pattern is written out only. This book proved so popular (and knitters sent in more patterns to her) that she followed this up with A Second Treasury of Knitted Patterns (1970). Others appeared in the series, but these are the two that I use the most. Luckily, they are still in print (the cover illustrations have been updated from what I show in mine below, so don’t fret if they look different if you click through to Amazon to buy). Mine are dog-eared, marked up, and filled with sticky notes; I go back to them over and over. Barbara, herself, knitted up all of the samples and she writes comments about each stitch pattern: what it’s good for, is it stretchy or not, what to look out for, etc. To behest, I’ve found errors here or there in the written instructions so you will still need to swatch, but overall, these books are the absolute gems. Ya gotta have’em, trust me!

Less widely known and truly a blast from the past are the two knitting books by Mary Thomas. These were originally published in 1938 and 1942 and really presented the perfect collection of knitting tips and best practices of the day. The first one is less of a stitch dictionary, but more of an all round knitting compendium. Dover Publishing reprinted them in their entirety in the 70’s and the paperback versions are still available today. One of my favorite things about these wonderful books are the beautifully hand drawn knitted samples and fanciful figures throughout the text of the books. These are exquisitely correct and boundlessly helpful to Mary’s written text. Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book was the first one published in 1938 and the second one, Mary Thomas’s Book of Knitting Patterns, published in 1942 is a stitch dictionary with written and charted instructions.

As with all Dover reprints, these are quite affordable! I find they make good bed-time reading. I just pick one of them up and browse and then later come back and check on specific techniques or tips that I learned.

Now, don’t think for a moment that I’m an old fogey stuck in the past, poring over my ancient knitting books over and over again. I’m always checking out new publications as well. Often, I’m disappointed and they seem repetitive or incomplete compare to Barbara and Mary but here are a couple that I love: Cast On, Bind Off by Leslie Ann Bestor (2012) and Increase Decrease by Judith Durant (2015). These two cute little spiral-bound books on just casting on and off and increasing and decreasing. That’s it! At some point, all knitters have to do these things, here’s a couple books with just that info. What do I love about these books published by Storey Publishing? Photos, and lots of them. You can see what every technique looks like. Succint and easy to follow written instructions for both of them. Did I mention the spiral? Yeah, it has a spiral binding. Which means it easily lays flat in your lap while you use both of your hands to try out the technique. Genius!

Now let’s get back to stitch dictionaries, shall we? More specifically, stitch dictionaries for the expert knitter, comfortable with reading complex charted designs. So…not a must-have for everyone per se, but maybe you could describe these as aspirational knitting books. These two books exploded on the knitting book scene recently and lot of folks kind of went gaga. I’m talking about the two Japanese knitting books: Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible (2017) and 250 Japanese Knitting Stitches (2018), both by Hitomi Shida. No simple knit and purl combinations here! These are highly complex stitch patterns with rather minimal written instructions. The main patterns are given as charts only, but there are keys with written instructions for each of the stitch symbols used. Don’t be misled by the Japanese in the titles. These books are not collections of traditional Japanese knitting patterns of a particular ethnic group or area. Instead they are the beautiful work of the Japanese knit designer Hitomi Shida as she perfects, embellishes and ramps up traditional patterns to the nth degree. Most of the patterns are of a rather large scale and so are most suitable for larger garments or afghans. It is possible to pick and choose, however, and extract some patterns that can be used as smaller motifs on socks and the like. Gorgeous books, but not for the faint of heart.

Ok. Stitch dictionaries, old and new–covered. Knitting how-to–covered. How about a little history of knitting in a particular part of the world? You would definitely be remiss if you didn’t read up a little about some of the wonderful traditional pullover sweaters (=jumpers) of some of the British Isles. There are many to be found, thankfully, complete with some patterns thrown in. I’m going to show you another older one that I have in my collection that has patterns and a lot of history, much of which was recorded by the author interviewing some of the last authentic knitters of some of these styles of sweaters. Very interesting reading and some very cool historical photos. This is the Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans; Fishermen’s Sweaters from the British Isles by Gladys Thompson (originally published in 1969, reprinted by Dover since then).

Next in my library is a book on the amazing story of the Bohus Tradition of knitting from Sweden, Poems of Color; Knitting in the Bohus Tradition (1995). Wendy Keele outlines the history of the collective of women who hand knit fair isle sweaters of stunning complexity and sophistication as a cottage industry during the depression in the 1930’s through to 1969. Bountiful photos of these amazing knitted creations and a few sweater patterns at the end of the book make this a very lovely book.

I’ll end this post with what I’m reading right now: again, not a new book, but one that had not crossed my path before. Recommended by several folks in one of my knitting groups, its No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. MacDonald (1990). Can’t tell you much about this book yet, but lots of photos are featured–looks very interesting.

oh, wait…

Did I get you all excited about Turkish socks in my intro, lol? Ok, Ok. Here is the be-all and end-all pattern book on Turkish socks; they are truly breathtaking. This is Fancy Feet: Traditional Knitting Patterns of Turkey by Anna Zilboorg (1994). Go nuts!

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