Sunday, 12 April 2015

From one opinionated knitter to another: Revisiting Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac

Almost three years ago, I had Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac on loan from my local library. Had I written my review of the book at the time, it would probably have sounded very different from my assessment today. Frau Zimmermann - at least as far her Almanac is concerned - is certainly not aiming her designs at beginner knitters; and I would have described myself as one at the time. Consequently, when I first laid hands on Zimmermann's Almanac, I didn't find it too appealing. The patterns appeared somewhat tired and outdated; and her occasional digressions into anecdotes, though intriguing, distracted from the instructions. When it was time to return my borrowed copy to the library, I did so without attempting to retain any of the instructions for future projects. It seemed as if the Almanac had nothing on offer for me. 

Elizabeth Zimmermann

Revisiting Zimmermann's Almanac three years on, my opinion today differs greatly from my initial assessment. I now consider it a very special publication indeed. 

First of all, a few words on the low-cost nature of the paperback edition: The Knitter's Almanac features instructions to over 15 patterns, including 4 sweaters, on approximately 150 pages, making this a densely packed little book. With the exception of the book cover, the photographs of the projects are all in black and white, thus lacking the visual detail of contemporary knitwear design publications, which we have all become accustomed to. 

The Almanac is written diary-style, featuring instructions and the rationale for knitting a particular project at a given time during the year. This is interwoven with the author's anecdotes and personal observations, providing glimpses into her life and her unconventional approach to the craft (and life). The Almanac may lack visual appeal (I have to admit, I like the vintage feel of her publications), but this is  compensated by the wisdoms of a seasoned knitter and plenty of practical advice.

At the time of her death in 1999 Zimmerman was very much a fixture in the knitting world, at a time when the craft became once again appealing to a mainstream audience in the United States. I suggest that there aren't many knitters today, who are not at least familiar with a few of her timeless  classics, such as the Baby Surprise Jacket  (which is not featured in the Almanac) or the Pi Shawl (which is contained in the Almanac). To this day, her patterns enjoy an unwavering popularity and have inspired the creativity of countless knitters.

By Zimmermann's own admission, her instructions in the Almanac are 'pithy' and can come across as confusing to the less experienced knitter. If you are looking for a Zimmermann book geared towards the skill level of the beginner knitter, I recommend Knitting Without Tears - one of Zimmermann's publications, which is specifically written with this audience in mind. 

In order to successfully complete the projects featured in the Almanac, you will have to be familiar with and confident in the basics of knitting. In the absence of a solid grounding in the basics of knitting and knitwear construction, Zimmermann's instructions and unconventional approach to writing patterns can come across as confusing to less experienced knitters. Zimmermann's style is unpretentious and her quaint tone of voice accompanied by her unique vernacular, an obsession with applied maths and an amusing hostility towards crochet, either appeal to the reader or they do not. (She occasionally likes to' uninvent' a few things and not a lot happens in Brussels...)

By attempting to integrate the projects into a seasonal cycle, the Almanac conveys a practical, no-frills approach to knitting for the requirements of 'real-life', as it were. Though coming across as lacking in style or slightly old-fashioned at times, all of the projects are by now considered timeless classics, enabling the knitter to engage with the design process and the more advanced fundamentals of knitwear construction. Zimmermann writes freely and assumes her readers are familiar with the basics, allowing her to concentrate on the intricate elements of the design process, whilst simultaneously demystifying more advanced techniques. This demystification is accompanied by a sense of total confidence in her readers' technical abilities. 

And lastly, the biggest argument in favour of Frau Zimmermann is, of course, that she allows  us to participate in the design process and actively encourages modifications to the patterns she supplies. This leaves room for creativity and enables knitters to become their very own designers. Zimmermannians like to 'own' and be in charge of their projects, and Zimmermann is not in the business of providing regimented instructions. 

Instead, her patterns can be described as the foundations for adaptations. In the past, I have loosely described such designs as 'go-to-knitting patterns', leaving the knitter free to experiment with yarns and to incorporate design elements of one's choosing. Zimmermann's instructions aim to enable, allow and actively encourage creativity and let us embark on new challenges. All in all, Elizabeth Zimmermann and her Almanac exemplify the emancipatory approach to knitwear design, which is liberating rather than restrictive. Many thanks, Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac

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