for “Him”

needled reviews:
Debbie Stoller, Son of Stich ‘n Bitch: 45 Projects to Knit and Crochet for Men (Workman, 2007).
Wendy Baker and Martin Storey, Classic Knits for Men (Rowan, 2007).

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In the 25th anniversary issue of Vogue Knitting, Trisha Malcolm speaks of the “grief” she received in 2002 for publishing a special issue of the magazine exclusively featuring men’s designs. “For some reason,” she says, “books and issues that focus on men don’t sell.” If that was the case a few years ago, then several recent books and articles have sought to buck that trend. From Knitty’s “top ten men in knitting” to Michael del Vecchio’s Knitting with Balls, there has been a spate of publications either tapping into a new and vibrant market of male knitters, or seeking to provide contemporary patterns and ideas for women who knit for “Him.” The most prominent of these publications are Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stich ‘n Bitch and Martin Storey and Wendy Baker’s Classic Knits for Men, with its intriguing non-UK title of Knitting for Him: 27 Classic Projects to Keep Him Warm.

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Whether or not you regard your “classic” man as a “him” in need of knitted warmth, it is certainly true that men’s tastes and interests have until late been rather poorly represented in the world of modern knitting and crochet. While different feminine preferences are addressed in a dazzling variety of ways, and women of all sizes and ages find their knitwear needs catered for in manners both stylish and contemporary, men’s patterns can often seem homogenous, oddly old-fashioned or just jaw-droppingly repellent. And though there are certainly many recent designs for women that do not speak to my tastes, I can honestly say that hardly any of these make me gasp in consternation, or induce mild hysteria, as is the case with so many men’s cardigan and sweater patterns. A large part of the problem are conventions of photography and styling which, where men’s knitwear is concerned, seem weirdly fixed in an aesthetic most usually seen in clothing catalogues circa 1979. For example, can you believe that this advertisement appeared in a prominent American knitting magazine in 2006?

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Ye gods! Beyond the hollow horse-laugh of kitsch or irony, can this image hold any possible appeal for either man or woman? The facial expression of the model—which is perhaps meant to suggest quiet self-satisfaction with one’s own manliness and knitwear—rather speaks to me of near-physical pain. I can almost hear him imploring someone, anyone, to get him out of that oppressive faux-mahogany interior and the terrible, shapeless sweater.

Another problem with men’s knitwear (perhaps until very recently) was The Fassett, whose ubiquitous, crazed man-intarsias were guaranteed to produce a migraine-like reaction in any who dared to make. . . or indeed look at one.

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Aigh!

My personal antipathy to intarsia, however, should not be an issue here. Because what’s really at stake is the paucity of good and interesting patterns for knitted garments that men would really like to wear . . . or, indeed, that they might like to knit for themselves. Do these two publications fill this gap? Baker and Storey introduce themselves by dividing the world into two gendered camps: the ‘guys’ who wear the knitting and the ‘womenfolk’ who knit for them. While the first, according to Storey and Baker, are immediately put off by anything too ‘gaudy’ the latter are rendered bored or restless by the 5000000 acres of monochrome stocking stitch perceived to be required for the average man-sweater. Baker and Storey describe their patterns as appealing to a notionally ‘classic’ masculinity, while offering concessions of stitch and colour interest for the ‘usually’ female knitter. And despite its inclusion of several patterns by male designers, Stoller’s book is also firmly addressed to women who knit for “Him” rather than to men who knit for themselves or other men. Though Stoller describes how all of the patterns in Son of Stitch ‘n Bitch were all carefully ‘road tested’ by men, it is still the female knitter who is the subject, and the man-in-his-sweater who remains the elusive object, of her book.

It has become far too easy to be snippy or snarky about Debbie Stoller, and I personally find much to applaud in all her publications, but there are a couple of things to take issue with in her introduction to this book. The first is its condensation of “800 years of men in knits” into four brief pages, which include several historical inaccuracies and the (perhaps predictable) prioritising of the history of Dutch knitting to the expense of other national and local traditions. It also seems odd that Stoller would use this space to reinforce questionable early-twentieth-century gendered myths in which women’s knitting is always represented as a labour of love . . . rather than as just labour. I am speaking, of course, of those over-sentimentalised accounts of wartime sock knitting (which conveniently ‘forget’ about the mechanisms and power of patriotic propaganda) or the often-debunked fables of the identification of drowned fisherman by their knitwear. (The reader will find an interesting source of the latter in JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) and a much more careful and accurate account of the debate surrounding it in Richard Rutt’s History of Handknitting than in Stoller’s brief and misleading ‘history’.)

I enjoyed reading the rest of the introduction with its lively and chatty discussion of the sweater curse and Stoller’s own experiences of knitting for men, but I confess I found something odd in her implication of an intractably gendered division of taste. Do women really need to be told that a bloke who wears brown is asserting an active colour preference? That men think about style ‘as much as we do’? Perhaps so. Perhaps Stoller is right to address her introduction primarily to female knitters, and perhaps some women really do need to be reminded that men are entirely capable of thinking for themselves where clothing is concerned. But because of her account of men’s tastes as particular and elusive, and perhaps also because there was so little sense of knitting and knitwear design as activities in which many men engage (box-insert of brief soundbites from male designers notwithstanding), I left Stoller’s introduction with the persistent sense that men were incalculable, strange, and alien beings: man-size doll things just sitting around waiting to be dressed up in our cosy sweaters. As in Baker and Storey’s preface to their patterns, then, in Stoller’s introduction there is emphatically a HER who knits and a HIM who wears; and while HE is acknowledged to possess tastes and preferences HE still remains less an active and integral part of the knitting process than an object to be lovingly adorned and proudly displayed.

But perhaps Stoller is just doing what she can: perhaps there is no way of getting around the unmistakeable fact that, at this moment, it is, indeed, mostly women who knit, and that these women will always tend to objectify an idea of the masculine, in one way or another, whenever they knit something FOR HIM. Indeed, I am prone to this myself. I confess that a man in a sweater, like a man in a kilt, is a thing of suggestive loveliness to me. And I find that my attitude to, say, a bloke on TV can radically alter if I see him in a nice or ‘interesting’ item of knitwear. Indeed, I found that when I was leafing through Stoller’s book of patterns, just one of them stood out for me (Lauren Lax’s Mixology). I showed it to Mr B and was surprised when he said he did not like it at all. I had convinced myself that I had selected this pattern because it spoke most to HIS tastes. But in fact, when I thought about it, what I was really admiring was an image of a man with flowing locks wearing a reasonably nice sweater that was an, um, much tighter fit than the rest of those depicted in the book. O bad objectifying female gaze! O shallow me!

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Laura Lax’s Mixology.

This experience shows that I am clearly incapable of being objective when discussing men’s knitwear. I shan’t comment on the designs in Storey and Baker and Stoller’s books, then, except to say that in both collections it was, once again, disappointing to find no shaping at all. In women’s knitwear design, the shape of a size 0 is very different from that of a size 14, yet virtually all bloke’s sweaters are designed as if men came in ascending and regular grades of rectangle. Why not taper sweaters for a better fit? Also, in both books the sizing tends toward the (to me) ludicrously generous. For many of the designs in the Stoller book the smallest chest measurement is 42”. Do men start off that wide? Why not begin standard sizing at 38”?

But the real test is whether or not Stoller’s, Baker’s and Storey’s designs actually appeal to the men who are meant to wear them. So I gave both books to Mr B. In Son of Stitch ‘n Bitch, he felt there were far too many ‘embarrassing’ skulls, and didn’t like the assumption written into so many of the patterns that men were interested in booze, wrestling, and pole dancing (really, Debbie, what were you thinking when you included that hideous and repellent scarf?). Out of the eighteen patterns for sweaters, slipovers and cardigans he liked five. His two favourites were Jared Flood’s Smokin’ (though not in lobster red) and Drew Steinbrecher’s Ernie Sweater. Out of the twenty-one patterns (again just for sweaters, cardigans and slipovers) in the Storey and Baker collection he also liked five, his favourite being Wendy Baker’s Ribbed Cardigan, though not in the colourway depicted. To Mr B liking around one in four sweater patterns means, in his book, that both collections are a success. But most disturbingly for me, he found many of the garish argyle socks, scarves and slipovers in both collections very appealing. If he thinks I’m knitting intarsia, he can think again. So please, Jared, hurry up and publish a collection of lovely, tasteful, tweedy patterns by Him and for Him without the vaguest whiff of the golf course, or an intarsia skull in sight . . .