Cupcakes and book reviews and yarn (oh my!)

by Shannon on May 13, 2008

Crafty Dabbler asked (in comments on this post) for my Earl Grey cupcake recipe. Admittedly, I took the cheater way out, but you can adapt my methods for any vanilla/plain cupcake recipe. I used Trader Joe’s vanilla bean cake mix, and for the milk/liquid portion of the recipe, I scalded it with Earl Grey tea bags — go heavy on the bags, I think I used 4-5 of them. After all, you’re going for the flavor, not drinking it!

Let it cool before you begin mixing everything together, unless you think potentially scrambled eggs in your cupcakes = yummy. For the frosting, I made a standard butter/powdered sugar concoction flavored with double strength vanilla from Christina’s in Boston and a little orange/lemon flavor oil. Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot, which is a rather sour variety of orange, so I think the lemon gives an extra kick. Voila! Not as amazing as Life is Sweet’s cupcakes, but good.

Before I get down to my rather substantial list of book reviews, I want to show you some supremely gorgeous yarn. I told Abby that the lilac yarn she’d spun (as seen in this post) was absolutely killing me. So what does she do? Send it to ME! Thank you, Abby! I’m dreaming up something excellent to show it off, and I’ve got something in the solar dyer out back that I think has her name on it…

Yesterday I trained my mom to dye so she can help me out this summer. My mom’s a painter, and dyes are basically watercolor-like, when it comes down to it, so it wasn’t too tough for her to figure out. She was on a yellow and purple kick, though, we’ll see how they come out. Yes, I know purple and yellow together sound weird but it actually makes a very cool brown/ombre effect if you blend it the right way.

Righto — books! I haven’t done a review in a while and they’ve been piling up. Literally. Before we got down to dyeing yesterday, I was cleaning our dining room (aka “the spot with the big table where everything ends up”) and sorting out the to-reviews into a stack.

Uncommon Crochet, by Julie Armstrong Holetz (Ten Speed Press) — buy now

Ten Speed’s website has it right: “When granny squares and crocheted doilies are made from black leather twine and organic hemp, they have an unexpectedly modern cachet.” Boy, do they. Why, just read the quote from me on the back of the book:

Uncommon Crochet is the ultimate resource for fiber crafters who enjoy a challenge. Julie Armstrong Holetz brings her unique design principles to life, encouraging the reader to experiment with unusual materials and techniques to create functional, fabulous pieces that are as useful as they are beautiful.

I wrote that after reviewing a PDF of the book several months ago, and I stand by my overall assessment, but with a few caveats. The book is way better than the PDF. It’s big — over 160 pages! It’s got a great reference section, and I’m a sucker for those. The photography is excellent, the how-to material outside of the patterns at the front of the book is varied and reliable — everything from how to crochet and felt to finding unconventional materials for your projects.

There are 20 patterns for boxes, bowls, purses, baskets, totes, and bags. Julie uses recycled materials along with wire, hemp, leather, jute, twine, and sisal. If you like unusual fibers and “fibers” (well, if it looks like wire but you’re not using it as wire, what would you call it?), you will love this book. Many of the projects have that modern/retro vibe a la Amy Butler. It’s a brilliant book — congrats, Julie! For more on the talented Madame Holetz, check out her author spotlight on Ten Speed’s site.

Start Spinning, by Maggie Casey (Interweave Press) — buy now

Maggie Casey is co-owner of Shuttles, Spindles, and Skeins, a yarn shop in Boulder, Colorado. She is also a veteran spinning teacher, and apparently a Goddess (more on this in a bit). You can preview the book at Interweave’s website here, which is a very nifty little feature.

I have only ever heard fabulous things about Maggie Casey. Alas, I haven’t been lucky enough to take classes with her myself, so I am relying on secondhand information…I think the blog I’m about to quote belongs to the almighty Jillian‘s friend Carla:

This is Maggie Casey and she’s a Goddess. It’s plying, how hard can it be? Well, it’s not hard to do, but it is kind of hard to do well. [read more of this post here]

Listen, the basics are what you need to get you to that I-can-do-anything stage, and Casey’s got you covered in Start Spinning. In the intro, she says “all it takes is fluff, a spindle or wheel, and patience.” Uh-huh. Especially the last part. I’ve found that beginning spinners fall into two categories: easily frustrated and not-so-easily frustrated. The latter are much, much easier to teach, because they realize they’re not going to be perfect immediately, but they’re willing to be patient and try.

So if you’re a beginning spinner, and you don’t have anyone local to teach you, I think Start Spinning plus my book Spin to Knit are the way to go. (Not to mention two books = cheaper than a spinning class most anywhere you go these days). Casey fills in the gaps from Spin to Knit (which was intended to teach you the most basic principles of spinning and then how to apply those principles to using handspun yarn in various patterns) and goes beyond — there’s info on using your handspun for weaving, lots more photos of spindle spinning, great plying tips (including flowerpot plying — cool!), and troubleshooting. Plenty of very useful troubleshooting. I love this book and consider it a valuable addition to my own reference library as well as something I can recommend to new spinners who are learning in my shop.

The one thing Start Spinning doesn’t have that Spin to Knit does is patterns, but you can find great patterns for handspun in Spin to Knit, Homespun, Handknit and Lynne Vogel’s books The Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook and The Twisted Sisters Knit Sweaters. Let Casey teach you “everything you need to know to make great yarn” (the book’s subtitle) and get spinning!

Knitting New Mittens and Gloves, by Robin Melanson (STC) — buy now

Background, from her publisher’s website says: “Growing up in Cape Breton, on Canada’s Atlantic coast, knitwear designer Robin Melanson learned early on the importance of gloves and mittens in a harsh winter climate. Now this self-described “mitten and glove aficionado” shares her enthusiasm for these ordinary items by presenting 28 extraordinary ways to make them for year-round style.”

Gloves, mittens, arm warmers, mitts, and fingerless gloves — if you’re a Sock Person (you know who you are, all you SPs stick together), you will love love love this book. If you’re not, you’ll probably still adore it, but the Sock People need to find new places to deploy their sockweight yarn stashes, and expand upon them. Not to say that everything is knit in teensy yarns — in fact, there are quite a few worsted+ patterns. I’m coveting a pair of halvvanter med tunge (page 91), a Norwegian glove with negative space in which the top part of the hand is covered, but the bottom is not, so your hands are still free to do stuff. Think the text-messaging mittens from Knitgrrl, but in a much more sophisticated shape.

What’s really cool about this book are the various details on the pieces — everything from buckles to a fluffy yarn trim. And seriously — I don’t often say this, but there isn’t a single pattern in here I wouldn’t knit. Now, let me amend that slightly: one pattern, I’m not so hot on the yarn color. But just about everything else? I’d happily knit them as seen in the photo. And I NEVER do that! This should give you an idea of just how lovely the book is. Tired of knitting socks in the summer because it’s too hot to knit anything bigger? Clothe your upper limbs as beautifully as your feet with this book.

Knit Couture, by Gail Downey and Henry Conway (St. Martin’s Press) — buy now

Gail Downey (one half of the popular London label Weardowney) and Henry Conway have quite a lollapalooza of stuff going on in Knit Couture. From the Weardowney site:

Knit Couture explores where the knit is today, with profiles on who has made the most impact. From the design houses to boutique labels, the book charts the movement of hand-kitting through innovations and practice now. Gaultier, Galliano, Kenzo, Rykiel and Westwood are all looked at in detail. Weardowney and its boutique approach to hand knit in fashion are explained.

The history of hand knitting and knitwear is explored, from the origins of knitting in Damascus, through to the first machine knit, hand knitting in the industrial age and into the 20th century. Knit Couture tells the story of how hand knitting transformed itself from utility clothing to high fashion, especially by fashion genius of Schiaparelli and Chanel.

The future of knitwear is an area that is rarely given much substance, but Knit Couture gives insight to exciting developments in technology and knit that will change our world, from the synthetic knit that could save the lives of heart patients, to the techno-knit that forms the basis of modern aviation textiles (flying in a knitted plane sounds unsettling, but the technique actually creates the safest and most advanced technical textile available).

High fashion? History? Knitted aviation? Is there anything this book doesn’t cover? (I say, incredulously). There’s a lot of good stuff packed into a small space. Downey, who designed knitwear for John Galliano in the 80s (and if you know fashion, that should give you an idea of where she’s coming from) teamed up with a former catwalk model to create Weardowney, which is not just a fashion label but an entire umbrella of related cool stuff under one roof — fashion boutique, knitting shop, a magazine. Wow. What I really loved in this book were the see-through pages with sketches and scribbles over top of a knitwear photo. Sometimes I wish all books had these kinds of intimate notes from the designers themselves…

The historical portion of the book, as well as the info on knitwear’s movers and shakers in the couture world, is fantastic and photo-filled. In that respect, it’s a bit more interesting than the other handknitting histories such as Rutt’s History of Hand Knitting (Interweave Press). Other online reviews have panned the patterns at the back, saying they’re repetitive, but you know what? I think they’re quite good, and give you the foundation to start working on your own designs. After reading this book and getting inspired by both thousands of years of knit history and what’s going on in the modern world, how could you not? I’d compare this book to Sabrina Gschwandtner’s KnitKnit book — if you liked that, I think you’ll love Knit Couture.

A Fine Fleece, by Lisa Lloyd (Potter Craft) — buy now

Lisa Lloyd, online at afinefleece.com and here, has made a lovely, lovely book full of very classic designs that use handspun yarn. So, add this to the list I wrote down earlier in the reviews — here’s another book with lots of handspun patterns. Like so many Potter Craft books, this is coffee table book yarn porn. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. But also really useful — from full-on Bradford count and other info on the sheep breeds used in the book to info on “crafting a color story,’ dyeing and blending fiber colors, spinning the right yarn for your chosen pattern… it’s all here. But wait — it gets better. All the patterns are knit not only in handspun, but in a commercial yarn as well. No patience? Not a spinner? Want to knit now now now? It’s cool! You can! Lots of cabley goodness in the sweater department, which I always adore. (I am adding the sweater Staghorn to my endless knit-someday list, it’s seriously yummy, and Harriet, too. Whoops. Two more on the list. I’ll live forever at this rate, since I can’t die until I get through my to-knit list).

Twenty-six patterns. Pretty much all of them must-knits (I had to restrain myself in only adding two patterns to the must-knit pile). If you spin, or if you think you might want to, or if you love great patterns, go buy this book.

Shear Spirit, by Joan Tapper (Potter Craft) — buy now

Aha! Potter admits they make coffee-table books! From their website:

Part coffee-table book, part inspirational work, and part pattern guide, Shear Spirit connects knitters to the yarn-producing community in a new and intimate way. Filled with stunning photographs, fascinating essays, and heartwarming profiles, this book follows the writer and photographer to 10 fiber farms and ranches across America-from the Willamette Valley of Oregon to the coast of Maine-capturing the essence of the people, places, and animals that, together, create yarn. Twenty projects featuring yarns from the farms surveyed will inspire knitters everywhere.

Now if they’d only be honest and say they produce “yarn porn.” “Coffee-table book” isn’t nearly as descriptive.

This is another gorgeous book, nicely laid out, filled with wonderful photos (the border collie sitting in a mini-bathtub on page 21 is worth the price of admission alone). Although I liked many of the patterns, I didn’t like them nearly as much as I did the patterns in A Fine Fleece. This is more a book for ogling, a book for envying (when you are a City Girl Who Yearns For Her Own Sheep, like me) and a book for leaving out on the coffee table when you are trying to convince your boyfriend that moving to the middle of the woods is a great idea. In short: the writing is thoughtful, the profiles of the fiber farms fascinating, but don’t buy it for patterns alone. In fact, I think the book is very much targeted at city girls — with chapter subheadings including “Realizing a Vision, Acting on a Dream” and “From Hobby to Business to Lifestyle,” how could you think otherwise? Gale Zucker’s photography is the clincher if you’re on the undecided side of the fence. This book is really beautiful!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

julie May 13, 2008 at 7:52 pm

Thank you Shannon for the quote on the book cover and the fabulous review. I agree with you on A Fine Fleece and Shear Spirit, both are gorgeous books. I really love the versatility in fiber choices in A Fine Fleece.

gale (she shoots sheep shots) January 23, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Call me slow on the uptake, I just saw your wonderful review of our book today, although I read your blog fairly often, somehow I missed it. doh! I’m not sure anyone has called me a pornographer before…..

gale (she shoots sheep shots) January 23, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Sorry not sure what happend above, I was trying to say thanks for the great review of our book, Shear Spirit. Who doesn’t want a sheep or goat or alpaca?! Really.

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