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Review: Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting


First, the facts:

Title: Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting

Author: Alice Starmore

Published by: Dover Publications, 2009 (Updated reprint of the 1988 edition)

Pages: 199

Type: Patterns and design.


1. A Brief History
2. Pattern
3. Color
4. Technique
5. A Wardrobe of Patterns
6. Creating Your Own Designs

Starmore's Fair Isle

Pattern Size Range: Varies–Men, women, and children

The In-Depth Look:

Maybe you’ve seen this book for sale on Ebay, selling for hundreds of dollars. Maybe you’ve tried without luck to find a library copy. It’s practically legendary, as is the designer. Alice Starmore (of Virtual Yarns) has a reputation for being difficult, there are rumors of copyright legalities, or problems with a yarn company … I don’t even know, so many rumors abound. I couldn’t begin to tell you what has kept these much-desired books out of print for so long, and don’t want to, because all of that is unimportant. It’s the book that’s important.

If you’ve wondered about this book, if you’ve tried to find a copy any time in the last fifteen years or so, now is your chance to see what all the fuss about. Because thanks to Dover Publications, a reprint of this masterpiece is now available to the public for less than $25.

Did I say masterpiece? Why, yes, I did! This woman’s eye for color is amazing. Her color combinations for the sweaters and even just for the color sample swatches is unerring, but that alone is not why this is such a great book. It starts (as many books do) with a historical look at the technique, the region, the necessity–all interesting and well-researched. But then she gets to the good stuff–the patterns.

First, it’s the stitch patterns. The little grids of black and white squares to tell you how to create a colorwork pattern–and there are lots of them. Just using this as a reference, you could create your own Fair Isle designs for decades to come without ever repeating the same combination twice.

Then, oh then, she talks about color. How to combine them, what kind of effects to aim for–things like that. But also, she shows photos of natural settings, cars, anything, and then shows a color-design she’s derived from that photo. You can get color inspiration from anywhere, and you’d be amazed at how many colors you think don’t “go” together, actually do. This chapter is just wonderful.

The next section is a thorough chapter on Fair Isle knitting techniques. The usual casting-on, increasing/decreasing stuff, yes, but also how to do stranded knitting, how to weave in your ends, how to cut a steek … all with beautifully drawn illustrations and a quick look at the basic, traditional gansey shape.

Then, if all this is too much work for you, she brings you the sweater patterns (and a tam and mitten or two.) Now, I will warn you that these patterns are from 1988, so in some ways they’re a little dated (just like the models’ hair and outfits, but what can you do?) Only a little, though, because just about every one of these is in the traditional, drop-shouldered gansey shape. That style may be a little dated–sweaters are usually made with a little more shaping these days, and such bulky sleeves aren’t nearly as popular any more–but this is a classic shape that’s been around for centuries, so it’s not that bad as “out-dated” goes. I personally might be tempted to try to add a little more shoulder shaping and a lot less sleeve these days, but still … drop-shouldered ganseys ARE classic. Just know that that’s what you’re getting.

My favorite chapter of all is the final one–how to design your own sweaters. Certainly, she’s given you all the pieces in earlier chapters–the yarn guidelines, the patterns, the color guidance, the knitting techniques–but you might still be feeling overwhelmed. Well, this is where she talks about pattern placement, gansey shapes, how to modify a neckline or a sleeve … it’s thorough and helpful and tells you more or less everything you need to know.

I have had a chance to flip through a friend’s copy of this book, but never had a chance to really study it before, and I have to say, I’m impressed. Definitely one of the best Fair Isle books I’ve ever seen, and I can understand why it’s been so sought after.

Are you wondering how this is different than the original 1988 edition? According to the blurb on the copyright page: “This Dover edition, first published in 2009, is a slightly altered republication of the work originally published by The Taunton Press, Newtown Connecticut in 1988. The section “Sources of Supply” has been revised and any reference to outdated yarn brands and other color numbers have been removed. A new author biography together with photographs of examples of the author’s recent work have been added.”

(You’ll also be happy to know that this is a “planet friendly” book published in an earth-friendly manner to help us all make greener choices, so says the publisher, so let’s applaud that, shall we?)

So, is it worth the $24.95 price? I’d say definitely yes, and even better, you can get it for just over $16 at amazon.com. Compared to $200 for a used hardcover? SUCH a bargain!

Want to see bigger pictures? Click here.

My Gush: It’s like the holy grail of fair isle knitting and is just amazing.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lorette September 2, 2009, 6:25 pm

    I had to have it. It’s on the way. Now if they’d just republish her Aran Knitting, I’d be a happy woman.
    .-= Lorette´s last blog ..Miles & Miles of I-Cord =-.

  • Diane September 13, 2009, 12:29 pm

    Thank you for sending in this comprehensive review. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this book, and I hope to be able to design my own Fair Isle type of jacket in the future. Every aspect and each page of “Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting” shows painstaking research and the careful attention to detail that can make a book a classic. Even the diagram on the front cover shows the incredible example of transformation from a series of dots of graph paper to a finished and highly-skilled product.

  • ptarmigan October 5, 2009, 12:16 pm

    You can get the book even cheaper at knitpicks.com–$14.97!

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