Adrienne Martini was a knitter on a mission. She wanted to knit something challenging, a project that intimidated her but excited her, something she had more control over than her jobs, children or husband.
For some reason she chose the Mary Tudor sweater by Alice Starmore, a Fair Isle wonder involving 11 different colors of a yarn that no longer exists, the pattern for which is in a book long out of print that Martini has to shell out $134 for on eBay just to get started.
She gives herself a year to complete the task, which she chronicles in Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously. It's not much of a spoiler to say it has a happy ending.
Martini says quite literally that knitting saved her, following a serious bout of post-partum depression that landed her in the psychiatric ward. She calls knitting "an amazing tonic to frayed and exhausted nerves" that left her with piles of hats, scarves, socks and other knit goodies.
In 2008, she decided it was time to move beyond those mindless but mind-soothing projects and give herself a real challenge, which is what attracted her to the designs of Alice Starmore.
She calls Starmore "a knitwear designers whose garments are mind-numbingly gorgeous in both their beauty and complexity" and the Mary Tudor sweater -- from Starmore's book Tudor Roses -- "a fiendishly difficult Fair Isle sweater whose mere mention can make a roomful of chatty women hush."
She also describes it as her Mount Everest and Holy Grail, a huge accomplishment to be proud of for the rest of her life. So after tracking down the book on eBay and scrambling to find a suitable replacement for the yarn Starmore designed to knit her sweaters with, it's time to get to that massive pile of knitting.
Along the way she describes the history of the Tudors, the challenge of substituting yarns, the saga of Starmore's aggressive (some would say incredibly detrimental) protection of her intellectual property (you can get some of that story at Girl from Auntie and the Tabberone Archives), why we knit what we knit and whether you're still knitting a Starmore if its not exactly as she envisioned it.
The Knitting Diaries
Martini muses while she knits and explores some of the questions of why we knit, what we knit and what constitutes "hard" knitting with lots of fibery folk, including some you've probably heard of (Yarn Harlot Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Mason-Dixon knitters and Knitty.com founder Amy Singer, to name a couple). She takes the sweater (nicknamed "Lana" after Lana Turner, the sweater girl) to Rhinebeck, the Knitter's Review retreat (where she cuts her first steek) and elsewhere, seeking inspiration and a deeper understanding of why we knitters do what we do.
These discussions are interesting, and she lets the knitters talk, which is nice, but gives us less of her voice to get attached to (she writes a lot like Pearl-McPhee, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor).
All of this leads to some insights about knitting, such as that so many of us love sock knitting because of the luscious yarns and the ability to pick up and put down a sock whenever we need to. Her exploration of steeks speaks to a pretty universal truth:
Most sensible knitters blanch at the thought of very sharp things getting anywhere near their work. When you can undo hours and hours of knitting by just pulling on one thread, the idea of deliberately cutting into your laboriously crafted fabric is crazy talk.
But like many knitters before her, she does it and realizes it's not as scary as it sounds on paper.
The work progresses, like many large knitting projects, in fits and starts. She gets bored once the process of knitting with both hands and the pattern are well established. She almost misses her deadline thanks to procrastinating on the sleeves, which she says "leach away your will to live."
In the end, the sweater is a beauty (she's wearing the sweater in her author photo, but you can see it on her blog), but one that doesn't really fit.
Letting Go, For Real
Many knitters would have a huge problem with spending a whole year working on a knitting project -- not to mention hundreds of dollars in yarn, the cost of the book, all the knitting-related travel -- only to end up with a sweater that's unwearable. We'd cry, curse, maybe even rip the darn thing out and do it again, because no way we're going to spend so much time on a project and not be able to use it in the end.
But Martini says she's truly OK with not having a wearable Mary Tudor. Wearing it in the end wasn't really the point, anyway. This "journey is the destination" conclusion may feel a little schmaltzy, but I think she does mean it.
Ultimately, Sweater Quest is a cute, heartfelt tale of knitting obsession, surrender to the process and letting go that should resonate with all knitters, particularly those who've taken on a project they think might be more than they can chew.
Publication date: March 2010