Barbara G. Walker is best known in the knitting world for her treasuries of knitting patterns, which are essential to any serious knitter's bookshelf (at least the first couple). But Walker has left her mark on knitting in other ways, too, including by writing what may well have been the first book on top-down knitting design, Knitting from the Top.
Originally published in 1972, it was long out of print before Schoolhouse Press revived it in 1996. The book still has the bare-bones feel and low production values of a '70s book, but the great information inside makes it valuable to today's knitters.
Guidelines, Not Patterns
You should know from the beginning that this book is not a pattern book in the traditional, "here are line by line instructions for this particular garment in five sizes" sense. There are "patterns" in this book, but they tell you how to make particular garments for yourself or someone whose measurements you have.
Instead of saying to cast on x number of stitches for a top-down raglan for a woman, for instance, Walker instead suggests that you measure the back of your neck and determine how many stitches you need to cover it given your gauge.
Then you add 1/3 that number to each side for the tops of the sleeves, 4 stitches for "seams" and 2 stitches for the fronts of the sweater. From this sort of start there is no doubt you'll come up with a completely unique project, even if you just work in Stockinette Stitch.
The "patterns" go on, complete with digressions she calls pauses that give you more information about the hows and whys of the patterns. This makes the project instructions a lot longer than those more traditional patterns, and you have to actually read them, but when you're done you'll understand the logic behind her instructions and be better able to grasp what all knitting patterns are asking you to do and why.
And lest you think top-down knitting is only for raglan pullovers, the book also covers raglan cardigans, seamless capes, skirts, reversible pants, caps and seamless sweaters. It looks at how to make seamless set-in sleeves, saddle shoulders, kimono sleeves, "square-set" or peasant sleeves and a drop-shoulder ski sweater.
Within each category there are even more options. Not just pants, but shorts, underpants, harem pants, longjohns and more.
Knit for Yourself
Of course you can still knit garments for other people using this system, but it's really ideal when knitting for yourself because you're always there to try things on, and one of the wonderful things about top-down knitting is that you can try a garment on pretty much whenever you want to ensure the best fit.
And because these patterns are so open-ended you can design just about anything you want, in any stitch pattern you want, using these guidelines. Knit a dress, a skirt, a pair of shorts, a hat, a sweater, whatever. It's sure to fit and be completely unique and lovely to boot.
These patterns require you to pay attention to your body and to what you're knitting in a way you might not be used to. I have heard more than one knitter complain that they don't feel like these projects go far enough to make "knit-by-numbers" knitters comfortable or confident enough to knit them, but like Elizabeth Zimmermann, Walker has a lot of faith in the intelligence of knitters.
The patterns are illustrated only with line drawings (if my count is correct there are only three photographs in the whole book), but that's not necessarily a bad thing because you aren't saddled with what you think your project is supposed to look like. It's supposed to look like whatever you want it to.
This book is really inspiring if you're a knitter who wants to move beyond published patterns to make something that really fits you perfectly. A great first step in learning to design knitwear is learning to design for yourself, and this book certainly can get you there.
You might not like it if you really like knitting patterns to tell you exactly what to do, but otherwise this is a great book to push you to make something perfect for yourself.