Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Book review.

Setesdal Sweaters, The History of the Norwegian Lice Pattern, by Annemor Sundbø

This book is only available in the US from Schoolhouse Press, that I know of. It's an English translation of a Norwegian book, printed in Norway. (The translation is a bit shaky; there are some basic grammar errors. If that bothers you, don't buy it, but I think they did a good enough job and it's a knitting book so everyone should just get the hell over the occasional grammar mistake. But it's a review so I'm saying they're there.)

I bought this book because I'm planning to knit these Setesdal sweaters and I wanted to know a few things about them first. What did the originals look like, what gauge were they knit at, how much white, how much black, how many lice per inch. The usual nitpicking (ha) stuff I obsess over when starting a project. Plus I was hoping to get a look at some closeup photos of the embroidery on the front neckline of the sweater. I figured if I got some history to go with it, well, it wouldn't kill me and it's not like I don't like history, anyway.

This book delivered on all counts, AND had the most impressive history section of any knitting book I've ever seen. At one point I was reading about how the author went out and tracked down and interviewed the first woman to wear a lusekofe in the Setesdal Valley, and thought "I wish we could get her to write a history of knitting in general". She's that good. When she got done interviewing everyone she could, and digging through all the museums in Norway, well then, she headed to Minnesota in the US to see where all those Norwegian knitters went in modern times (huge waves of immigration in the 1930s). There wasn't much for her to find in Minnesota, but the fact that she WENT AND LOOKED impresses the hell out of me. This is a woman who leaves no stone unturned. Really. We need to put her on the track of knitting in general. She'll have it sorted out in a year or two.

The book is laid out in a fairly obvious way (which I like 'cause it makes sense then): history section in the front, then discussion of traditional sweaters in the second half. In her 'discussion' of the historic sweaters, she goes to amazing lengths to demonstrate just what she's dug up historically. There are twenty-nine (!!) sweaters taken from old photos and rag piles, which she has charted, so anyone can knit a copy. The oldest sweater is from a photo dating to about 1860. (Yes, charts for a sweater from 1860, in case you want to go super-traditional.) In the case of fifteen of the oldest sweaters, the author has KNIT COPIES HERSELF so you can see what they really look like in modern yarns and in a modern photo, not just charted from a 150 year old photo. (Have I mentioned it's a royal bitch to chart from really old photos? Think about it.) This of course is an amazing attention to detail that I've never seen in another knitting book.

Bottom line? Best knitting book I've seen in ages. Definitely the best of its kind, namely a book on a narrow little bit of knitting history. Never seen anything like it. (Even the husbeast was impressed, not because he knows anything about knitting history books, but because I was so obviously impressed; he knew it was really something.) It reminds me a lot of doctoral theses I have read in the past, but more approachable. It's that detailed and scholarly.

Buy it? Well, it's a book on the history of a single folk sweater, knit in a single rural valley in Norway. Nothing but lusekofta, start to finish. Granted, they might be the most popular folk sweater in the world, but even so, the information is pretty darn limited, even if it is detailed. So I guess this one's up to you. But if you want history of knitting in Norway, by golly, this is the place to find it.

If Ms. Sundbø won't tackle the history of knitting at large, maybe we could get her to do books on each of the world's great folk sweaters. Or maybe send her to the Black Sea to sort out that whole 'back door migration' theory. Yeah. That'd be good.


Pam said...

Good review. I appreciate that you mention both pros and cons about the book (if you can say that the limited range of the history is a con)
BTW, as a school nurse who has done her share of "nit picking" this week, I find the whole lice metaphor a bit disturbing!! 8~)

Amy Lane said...

Awesome review! (And omg--no lie, my spamword is 'kinked'.)

Roxie said...

Get to her quick! She's probably already on the track of rosemaling or something else ethnic and esoteric (lutefisk sauces anyone?)

Love your reviews, you poo-head.