I have recently found that I enjoy comparing knitting books to each other before actually spending the money and buying them myself unless I know it is a book that I would get a lot of use out of. This is where my local library comes in handy. They have a decent supply of knitting books (and they have been slowly growing since I have been employed there), but whatever they don’t have I can normally request through the interlibrary loans system. Now, the system does take time to work. It can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to get a requested book, but it is a great way to try out knitting books. Enjoy your local library! Sometimes books are nicer than just asking the internet.
Now that the “please use your local library” pitch is out of the way, let’s get on with the main content: how does the 200 Fair Isle Motifs: A Knitter’s Directory by Mary Jane Mucklestone compare to Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting?
200 Fair Isle Motifs: A Knitter’s Directory by Mary Jane Mucklestone
Before I got this book, I didn’t realize that Mary Jane Mucklestone was considered one of the “Queens of Fair Isle” by the knitting community. If she is anything in real life like she is in her book, then she would be fantastically fun and easy to talk to. So, without that coloring my expectations of the book we can move on to my overall thoughts about it.
I was very lucky to get this book before the Starmore book came in because I feel like reading this book actually prepared me for everything I ran into in that book. Mary Jane covers everything from what Fair Isle is, to how to make a steek, to organizing patterns within a project without overwhelming you.
When I flip through the book again three main things jump out at me: the “learn to knit Fair Isle” tutorials in the front, the organization of the charts, and the individual charts themselves.
1. The Fair Isle Tutorials
The section I am referring to as the “tutorial” section isn’t a tutorial in the common sense of the word. It is more a quick reference to color knitting in general that covers what type of yarn to use, what needles to use, a brief reference on the history, how to knit in general, and a very important section on gauge, color dominance, color theory, design, and steeks. Basically, it is an entire class on Fair Isle knitting in about forty pages.
It is really easy to read and is organized into each mini-chapter section. The tone is fantastic. It is like knitting with a friend who is showing you the ropes on how to knit with color, but who doesn’t sugar coat things with overly positive “don’t worry, you can do it too” types of phrases. Plus, it is really short which is a positive when you just want to get to those 200 knitting charts that the book promises.
2. Organization of Charts
The charts are a big part of this book, so of course they would have to be organized well and they are. It has two main sections: a motif selector and pages with specific instructions of charts on one page facing a full color big picture of the pattern directly opposite it. It makes it really easy to find a pattern you like with directions to what page it is on so you can find the directions easy in the book.
3. The Charts
The charts themselves are the main focal point of the book and are done really well. They are split up into four parts: a black and white chart with a row and stitch count, a color chart for the swatch shown, a color variation chart to show you other possibilities, and a repeat pattern chart so you can see what it would look like as an overall pattern.
The charts have a really nice degree of difficulty as you go through the book. It start with the smallest patterns (the smallest spanning one row with two stitches) and expands to the largest patterns (spanning 19 rows and 24 stitches). This doesn’t cover the repeat pattern chart and also doesn’t have any seeding stitches, but it does have Nordic Star type patterns in the last few pages.
The last few charts also have a little “mix and match” suggestion box showing you the combination of swatches and how to space them out along a longer piece. It gives you a really good reference on how to mix and match the patterns found in the book to get a look you might be looking for. I could see using those as a jumping off point for experimenting with scarves and hat sets.
It is a really fantastic book and an excellent jumping off point for a knitter that is getting interested in Fair Isle styled colorwork. It has a little bit of everything you are looking for plus clear step-by-step photo tutorials for the difficult parts (ahem, steeks anyone?). Plus the 200 Motifs should be enough to keep anyone busy for a while and should provide you with enough inspiration to make you easily run out of yarn.
Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting by Alice Starmore
Depending on when you learned how to knit, you may or may not have heard of Alice Starmore. When I first started getting really into knitting around 2008, being able to knit an Alice Starmore sweater was the hallmark of being able to knit colorwork. If you could knit one of her gorgeous designs, then you were able to knit practically everything you encountered from then on. Now, you don’t really hear that much about her unless you hang out in dedicated fan groups or specialized technique groups devoted to stranded colorwork, but the weight of her name still lingers around people familiar with her designs.
I have never attended a formal knitting class, but I imagine that Starmore’s book is a classroom in a book. Now, I did say that Mucklestone covered everything there was to know about Fair Isle in her book (and she did), but Starmore covers everything in detail including musings to how she thinks that Fair Isle patterning came to be. Looking through the book is nearly overwhelming and it took me two full days to read everything in it. It wasn’t because it was particularly long or complicated, but the subject was really thick and required thinking.
Again, three main things jumped out at me with Starmore’s book: organization of the book into chapters, the charts, and the patterns and pattern design segments.
Each and every section you would find in the beginning forty pages in Mucklestone’s book is expanded into full length chapters in here. The history gets its own chapter. The color section gets a full chapter (along with full page color pictures for plenty of color inspiration). How patterns work gets a full chapter dedicated to the topic. There is also an extra chapter in here containing fourteen different patterns designed by Starmore so you can see how all the different concepts she covers combine into different garments.
If you thought Mucklestone was being generous by giving you 200 Fair Isle Motifs, then you will love all the patterns you can find here. Overall, there are 271 patterns listed in the official pattern section alone including peerie (or small) patterns, border patterns, large Fair Isle patterns, allover patterns (large and small), eight different Nordic Stars, and nine different types of seeding patterns.
This doesn’t cover all of the other extra charts you can find scattered around the book that aren’t listed in the official “stitch dictionary” portion of the book. It also doesn’t cover all the variations that Starmore teaches you how to do yourself if you like a listed pattern, but need to make it a little wider or a little shorter to fit your garment.
There are two cons with the charts compared to the Mucklestone book.
- The patterns aren’t separated by stitch count. Instead they are separated out into row count and then further split up into peerie, border, and large Fair Isle patterns.
- The patterns don’t give you a single stitch repeat like the Mucklestone book does. Instead it is a several repeat chart that depends on you to pick the starting point and ending point on the motif yourself.
There may be 71+ more patterns in the book, but they do take a little bit of extra work for you to do to knit them. The positive side is that Starmore makes sure to give you all the knowledge you need to make sure that you can adjust specific stitch counts yourself.
3. Pattern and Pattern Design
Unlike the Mucklestone book, this book does have fourteen different patterns for you to knit up and I am pretty sure you are supposed to learn from them so you can go off and design your own garments.
The pattern part is pretty explanatory. It is fourteen different patterns designed by Alice Starmore for you to knit. They fall in the middle of the book right after the Pattern and Color chapter as well as after a brief discussion of knitting techniques that you should know about for Fair Isle knitting like how to knit in the round, how to increase, how to decrease, and how to finish off garments. All the basic “how-to” parts that practically all knitting books have along with techniques specifically for Fair Isle knitting (steeks, anyone?). It is the basic apply what you have learned to this pattern and learn from it as you knit type of deal.
On the other hand, the Pattern Design section is Starmore’s step by step explanation on how she designs basic garments. She takes you from drafting your pattern, to matching up your repeats to make sure they are centered on a sweater, to how to deal with matching patterns on the shoulder seam. This is basically the section that answers all your questions you didn’t really know you had about designing garments. My favorite part in this section is where she discusses neckline and sleeve variations (and cites the patterns in the book where she might have used that specific neckline in case the pithy directions leave you confused).
Whew, this is a sink your teeth into it and don’t come up for three days type of book. There is just so much information in it that it can get overwhelming at times, but it is worth it.
I know the question that all of you are probably wondering right now: so, which one is worth it? Which one would you recommend getting?
My answer to that is: it really depends on the knitter.
Before you sigh and roll your eyes at me, just hear me out for a second. I really, really like both books for slightly different reasons. When you compare them side to side, it really does seem like Starmore has the stronger content until you consider the knitter who would read each book.
If you had given the Starmore book to me when I first started out knitting, I probably would have turned away from colorwork forever as a thing I would never ever be able to do. Mary Jane’s book is much more approachable for a beginning or timid knitter. Everything from the tone of the book, to the different color suggestions, to the layout of how many stitches and rows each motif has is easy to learn, easy to understand, and doesn’t make Fair Isle knitting unapproachable. For an intermediate to advanced knitter, this book is a lot like a quick reference guide that you can pull out when you just want to add a little spice and you don’t want to really work that hard at it.
For a knitter who has learned how to knit at the hands of Elizabeth Zimmerman and who is both adventurous and confident about their skills, then Alice Starmore’s book would be perfect for you. Starmore’s “don’t just copy me, go out and knit your own adventure” tone is very similar to the “be the boss of your own knitting” style that Elizabeth Zimmerman had and is is very empowering to the confident knitter. As a knitter now, I prefer that style because while I can (and enjoy) knitting from other people’s patterns, I really want to know how to do it myself so I don’t have to rely on any pattern word-for-word and I can just go off and knit anything I want, however I want.
They are both great books. If you are a more timid knitter and like having someone with you as you explore new things, then go ahead and get Mary Jane’s book. If you want to learn everything about how Fair Isle knitting is done and then go off and do your own thing, then get the Starmore book.
Personally, I would want to get both because they compliment each other well (plus Mucklestone’s book has some great color choices and a single chart that the Starmore book doesn’t have, in that exact form), but I will probably get Starmore’s book first just because it has a few more charts in it along with the more detailed design section that I would like to learn from.