brown is the colour

I’ve been reading lots of knitting / textile-related tomes recently, and thought I’d write about them over the next few posts. First up is a book I had few expectations of: Bruce Weinstein’s Knits Men Want. Weinstein set himself a difficult task here — designs for men are notoriously hard to get right, not to mention tricky to market. And when I read that the book also purported to offer a fool-proof guide for any woman knitting for her man, I confess that I was ever-so-slightly wary. As someone interested in the representation of gender difference, I am suspicious of any of that “men are from mars” gumph, and so many things written about knitting “for him” seem to me to be a bit weird and, indeed, sometimes just a little bit offensive, in what’s said about men’s tastes and preferences. I found Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stitch n Bitch troubling in this regard. I was also quite astounded by some of the designs Stoller selected in terms of the assumptions they were implicitly making about masculinity. If one were to believe the patterns in her book, men are beer-swilling pirates with a penchant for pole dancing, and want to display their love of these activities in knitwear.

(no pirate-themed garments here, thank gawd)

But I sort of trusted that Weinstein’s book would be different. For a start, the author is an experienced knitting instructor with long-standing knowledge of what works in men’s knitwear, and had got Jared Flood – a model of masculine good taste if ever there was one – to do the photography. So I expected the book to to be carefully put together and to look nice to boot – but what surprised me was that it was also witty. I found the observations Weinstein made about women knitting for men, masculine tastes, and the relationship of wearers of both sexes to their sweaters, to be moot and pointed and not at all presumptous. His writing, in fact, is refreshingly dry. The book includes 10 ‘rules’ of knitting for men, comparative lists of gendered behaviour and suchlike — formats we are all very familiar with from a host of women’s magazines — yet the approach to these popular genres in Knits Men Want seems happily slightly tongue-in-cheek. I had warmed to Weinstein by page 10, on which I was instructed to ‘nix the knitted iPod, golf club and beer cosies’ (sorry, Debbie).

Flood’s photography, with it’s characteristic quietness, works perfectly with the designs in this book, which are classic go-to garments for men of all tastes and ages. Each pattern is usefully written for multiple gauges, so one could actually make the hoodie pictured above in five different weights of yarn. This is a great touch. In my experience, a bloke quite likes to pick out the yarn for his sweater himself, but does not necessarily understand the importance of gauge. Using this book, you could stop worrying about stitches per inch, and knit the sweater with the Chosen Yarn, whatever tension it worked at. The multiple-gauge instructions are also put together well. Since I’ve started producing designs myself, I look at layout and pattern writing with quite a critical eye, and the patterns here seemed to be really well written, laid out, and edited.

But what of the designs themselves? I was taken with most of the sweaters, in particular the Basic Cardigan with it’s neat, unfussy panels of reverse stockinette, and this Baseball Jersey, which features a two-tone saddle shoulder (in my opinion, a saddle-shouldered sweater looks good on any man). In fact, the only sweater I wasn’t too keen on was the button-up Henley — merely a personal preference, as I’m frankly not keen on any sweater in that style. But then, this book is not really for me – it’s true test is whether or not men actually want the knits in Knits Men Want. Tom really liked Weinstein’s designs, and perhaps more tellingly, so did our friend The Mule, who was visiting last weekend. While Tom’s response to garment design has inevitably been tempered by years of cohabiting with an obsessive knitter and her mountains of yarn, Mule has no such bias. He is a sort of blind taster where knitting patterns are concerned – as well as a nattily turned-out male individual – and his view should therefore be respected. He liked the Basic Cardigan and Ski Sweater because they “looked hand-knitted,” and thought the hat and gloves were great. The only garment he wasn’t overly keen on was the hoodie, which he felt was too much an “imitation of generic high-street style.” Overall, Mule thought that Weinstein’s designs were very pleasing, and found them all to be simple, understated and masculine. And these are, as Weinstein repeatedly points out in his accompanying essays, the qualities most blokes really want to find in a knitted thing.

I would do well to take Weinstein’s words on board, as I frequently fall into the knitterly traps that he writes about, ignoring masculine tastes and working to my own. For example, I am currently knitting a pair of socks with this lovely skein (kindly gifted to me by Heather during my last trip to the US). Now, Tom is strangely drawn to brown yarn in the manner of a bee, and, upon seeing the socks that rock, immediately bagsed it for himself. I then made the foolish mistake of sitting him down in front of ravelry, and showing him several patterns. I first suggested Nancy Bush’s Gentleman’s Sock with Lozenge Pattern to which his response was “those bobbly bits (translation: purl stitches) look a bit uncomfortable.” We then moved on to Gentleman’s Fancy Sock which drew an immediate “I’m not sure about this ‘fancy’ business.” Several other sock patterns were proffered and immediately vetoed. While I felt these designs were simple and unfussy, this clearly wasn’t how Tom saw them. What he really liked, he said, was the chocolatey colour of the yarn: “can’t you just make me some nice, plain brown socks with it?” Now, if you want to knit for a bloke, says Weinstein, you should respect their tastes, rather than your own knitterly predilections. The simple, understated and carefully thought-through designs in his book clearly speak to those tastes. Written in multiple gauges, they give the knitter many options for producing things that their blokes might actually want to wear, rather than wear grudgingly, or not at all. This is a very useful book, then. My only criticisms are that Weinstein might have included a few pointers about custom shaping (while men, as he says, don’t enjoy fittings, most appreciate a sweater that fits well) and begun his size range at a 38 rather than a 40 (some men are wee). Meanwhile, I am knitting some nice, plain, brown socks.