While I was sitting at Edinburgh Airport recently I saw this charming book that I just had to buy.
The Penguin Knitting Book was first published in 1957 and was written by James Norbury. Norbury was highly influential in the world of knit – a knitting designer who was chief designer at Patons, post WWII. He was a knitting historian, teacher, author and also had popular knitting shows on the BBC during the 50s and 60s (Why don’t we have such a thing now?).
The 2014 re-issue of this classic means that Norbury’s inimitable wit and knowledge can be available for a new generation of knitters.
Beginning with a potted history of knitting from early examples to the present day – the “present” meaning the late 50s couture knitwear of Christian Dior and Lola Prussac – Norbury then looks at wool.
Almost any fibre is suitable for knitting. Cotton, silk, the new nylon yarns, rayons and wool all having their right use and proper purpose in the pursuit of the craft.
The right purpose is the important thing. Always buy the right type of wool or fibre recommended on the knitting instructions you are using.
While I heartily agree with selecting the right wool for the right project, I do wonder though, what Mr Norbury would have to say about yarn substitutions that we all do today?
After looking at the importance of wool, needles and notions we are also told how to care for our yarn and that starts with good hand care.
Rough hands and Rubbed Wool
The care of the hands plays an important part in producing perfect knitted fabrics. To-day many women do their own chores. Soap powders and detergents are being widely advertised and used. That is why the hands may get slightly rough, and when you are knitting please do take that little extra care of your hands. Rub a good cream into them occasionally to keep them smooth, or if the fingers seem slightly rough pour a little icing sugar into the palms of your hands and rub it all over the hands themselves. This will act like a very fine sandpaper and smooth off the roughened ends of the fingers.
Getting right down to business there are excellent chapters on casting on, basic stitches and techniques, such as increases and decreases, with accompanying stitch patterns (written) to highlight the new stitches you have learned.
My absolute favourite part of the book is Chapter 6 – It’s the Finish that Counts; here Norbury takes us through the process of washing and blocking the pieces of a sweater and truly these skills have not aged – who hasn’t grappled with the blocking of a garment at one time or another? This chapter also contains my favourite passage in relation to looking after your knit items.
The way I have seen some women treat their knitteds fills me with dismay. I find myself wondering if women think they can maltreat them as much as they like without harm. I have seen jumpers flung across a chair. I have shuddered at cardigans hanging from an ordinary hook behind a door. The idea seems to be ‘oh it’s only a woolly so it doesn’t matter’.
When you are not wearing your knitted garments fold them neatly and place them in a drawer.
Mr Norbury may well shudder if he were to walk into my kitchen just now, with a jumper flung in the back of my chair and a cardi hanging from a door handle!
This is a novel-sized paperback and, of course, it is a knitting book that is laid out a lot differently from what we are used to today. There are a plethora of patterns in here, from shawls and stoles, to baby items, gloves, sweaters, socks and not forgetting a good stitch directory too.
The instructions have all the brevity of vintage knitting patterns in that there are no schematics and the images are limited to black and white plates which are scattered throughout the book. It would have been wonderful if Penguin had asked a contemporary knit designer to preface the re-issued book and add some helpful hints to knitting these patterns and suggesting modern wool to substitute. The book was originally intended to be used by beginners and experienced knitters, but I fear today’s novice knitter might have more of a problem with the patterns than their 1957 counterpart.
Patterns aside, you may not be reaching for the 3ply, but little has changed in terms of our knitting tools, the practice of knitting, preparing the finished item and how to look after our knitted garments and this book is brimming with practical information and Norbury’s tips – and often forthright, at that! I get the feeling Mr Norbury definitely saw himself as leading the charge in the right way to go about your knitting!
If you love and appreciate vintage patterns, your knitting history and lot of knitting charm and wit then you will really enjoy this book.
For one lucky winner I have a copy to give-away. Just leave me a comment below and tell me your favourite knitting book in your own library, vintage or otherwise! This give-away will close on 20th February. This is the same day as the closing date for the Edinburgh Yarn Festival Weekend tickets give-away, which you can enter by following this link.
This competition is open to entrants from the UK and Ireland only. The prize is donated by myself and there is no alternative available.
Update 01-03-15. Congrats to Katy. Her comment was chosen by Random.Org. That book will be winging its way to you soon!
I may well have to enter this. I love vintage knitting books – they are full of hidden treasures. I need to check the name of my fave and will let you know!
I love all kinds of knitting books and have lots of collections of practical patterns. What I really like however is a book which gives me more to think about so I’ll nominate ‘The Knitting Way; a guide to spiritual self-discovery’ by Linda Skolnik and Janice MacDaniels
This is not an entry as I am in Australia (plus, I already have the book), but I just wanted to say that I bought this book recently and was equally charmed with it. I enjoy reading older books on familiar subjects.
The first knitting book I bought was Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, and I think it is still my favourite even though I have since acquired quite a collection!
This sounds like a lovely book! My knitting library is small, but my favourite book is The Knowledgeable Knitter by Margaret Radcliffe.
Lovely to see this has been reissued and thank you for the give away. My favourite in my library? Wow that’s a tricky one. It’s a very close run thing between Knitting Without Tears (EZ), The Knitting Answer book (Margaret Radcliffe) and what has to be the winner Knitting Rules (Stephanie Pearl McPhee)for its great humour, intelligence and awesome sock recipe.
I’m lucky to have an Oxfam bookshop near me, where I’ve had great finds, like Norbury’s “A knitter’s Craft” which has a few colour plates, as well as patterns ‘for the mature figure’. I love Alice Stanmore’s Fair Isle Handbook, such a good source of patterns and colour mixes.
But I’d like to nominate the Re-Issue of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop. It’s got lots of extra explanation and images, includeing Grafting, Magic Loop Knitting, and the fabulous Baby Surprise Jacket. A constant inspiration.
The book I would not like to do without is Principles of Knitting by June Hiatt. The ones that I enjoy re reading are all by Elizabeth Zimmerman who does not confine herself to knitting in her works.
I love “vintage” knitting books and have more than a few. Mary Thomas and the incomparable Elizabeth Zimmerman are my favorites, though. They contain the most practical and still useful advise for many projects. I’m in the US, so I don’t know if I can enter or not, but wanted to say I’m enjoying your writing and to let you know that here in the US, some of us still Knit British when we can. 🙂
I was brought up to always use the wool stated in the pattern and still try to do that since the pattern has been written for that wool. My favourite book is Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitting Almanac
It’s hard for me to settle on one book since I believe we all need a reference library. Mine includes the four volumes of Barbara Walker plus everything E Z wrote.
Number 1. The Principles of Knitting by June Hemmons Hiatt.
Recently reprinted this book is a bargain and nearly every technique we may wish to investigate can be found within its covers.
I have lots of knitting books because I have an insatiable appetite for information! There are current ones which are very helpful with glossy colorful pictures which I refer to and which are already listed. But since I love history and the history of the needlearts, I’m always on the lookout for old treasures with lots of grainy pictures and great information! My old MonTricot Stitch Dictionaries hold special place in my heart because I bought them while very young and long before I even became a knitter! There’s also the old but handy “Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book”, and her pattern book, and also “The Complete Book of Progressive Knitting” by Ida Riley Duncan. I also enjoy the more current “Poems of Color” and “Knitting In The Nordic Tradition” by Vibeke Lind. A useful and chatty book that I enjoy reading with my toast is “Knitting in Plain English” by Maggie Righetti.
I’m also from the US, so don’t know if I qualify, but I certainly enjoy your blog and the podcast! Great stuff – thank you for investing in our shared interests!
I inherited a fabulous vintage knitting book from my husbands late great aunt, it’s called Womens Home Library: Knitting, I tried to find out a little more about it but all I could find was that it was published around 1951. It’s a true gem of social history as well as in informative pattern book, although I havent actually made anything from it yet I do enjoy looking at the plates and reading the language. My favourites are the knitted swimwear! Hilarious, I’d so love another.
My favourite modern knitting book is called Stitch Mountain; Knits for the Cold which explores the relationship between snowsports & knitting. It also has some lovely patterns inspired or written by well-known wintersports athletes.
Hi Louise, my current favourite knitting book is knitsonik’s stranded colourwork sourcebook. I love the passion in it and the fact that it gives you a step by step guide to planning out and creating your own colourwork designs. I was also lucky enough to witness the energy and love that went into creating the book which makes it extra special to me.
my favourite knitting book? Isn’t that akin to asking someone which their favourite child is? I’ve got so many knitting books covering all sorts of knitty (& sometimes knotty subjects) including some lovely vintage ones I inherited from my wonderfully talented grandma.
But if the measure of a good book is how often you turn to it, then I have to be honest that my Stitch n’Bitch book has served me exceptionally well. If I forget how to bind off a sock, or 3 needle cast off or pretty much any other knitting technique I can think of – this utterly accessible book hasn’t done me wrong yet.
i love Mason Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitter’s guide
it’s got some good patterns, a lot of interesting ideas for going off piste and it written in a friendly chatty style – like going to my stitch n bitch group without leaving the house! (sadly, it doesn’t provide any wine though…!)
Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop. Actually do I have to choose just one of her books?
My favourite book to look at (and read) is Victorian Lace Today but I haven’t knitted anything from it yet. My most used book is Socktopus, especially at this time of year!
lindarumsey on Ravelry
Hey Louise – I’ve had this book on my Amazon wishlist for a while now. I love ‘vintage’ books like this – they always have a lot to teach us. My favourite book is the one I had when I first learned to knit. My Ladybird Book of Knitting. I have the pictures seared into my memory and knit my first project from it – a tie for my grandad!
Any book which talks about the history of knitting I find interesting and The Penguin Knitting Book reminds me of my childhood in the 50’s and Mum teaching me to knit. She knew the ‘icing sugar’ trick, so useful as her hands suffered from washing all the clothes by hand including scrubbing Dad’s work overalls.
My most used book is “The Handknitter’s Handbook” by Montse Stanley and I love my copy of the commemmorative edition of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s “Knitter’s Almanac”, which I was given for Christmas. Alice Starmore’s “Aran Knitting” is another of my favourite books and I have Rita Taylor’s “a stitch in time Heirloom Knitting Skills” from the library just now. I shall be searching out copies of some of the books mentioned in previous comments.
I have an ancient Paton and Baldwins book – possibly from the 1930’s or earlier. It contains, among other delights, patterns for men’s long and short underpants, ladies’ knee-length knickers and babies’ pitch (used to be worn on top of nappies before plastic pants were invented. Al knitted in Patons Beehive Vest Wool. Three ply weight, I think.
It has also the lovely black and white illustrations. Sadly none of the underwear is modelled – just photographed flat.
Despite these awful items, I did use the book quite a lot when my children were babies. They were always cozy in 2-ply knitted vests!
Knitting Lace by Susanna Lewis. I bought my copy on ebay for around $55 in the late 90s/early 2000s when it was out of print. Worth every penny, it’s the best lace stitchionary and guide to understanding how lace works. Now, of course, it’s back in print and you can buy it for less than $20 at Amazon.
Ooooh! I LOVE knitting books. Will never be able to knit all I see in them but I do love to look and dream. Of all the books I have, my favourite is Kate Davies’ Knit Real Shetland. I am so inspired by the photographs. One day I may even manage to knit something from it! LOL!
I also love Jane Brockett’s The Gentle Art of Knitting.
My all-time favourite is a children’s book by a Swiss author, Ursula von Wartburg. It’s called ‘The Big Book of Knitting’ and as a young knitter I was impressed and not a little jealous of the complex projects tackled by children much younger than me. I particularly love the clear and somehow timeless photographs it features.
I have a pair of books which always provide knitty joy when I’m feeling down. Practical Home Knitting (1949) and Modern Knitting Illustrated.
They contain the ubiquitous knitted swimming costumes, vests and knickers. But also wonderful things like snoods and aran jumpers. In fact, I’ve just spotted a pattern for knitting a bath mat and am strangely tempted…
Possibly the greatest sources of joy in these books are the photographs and captions. For example: “Three smart girls begin the day well with wool next the skin. Camiknickers are the choice of one, and she has made them in open-work stitch, in pale pink wool, combining prettiness with warmth. Very brief panties [trust me, they’re not] are the choice of the second; they are beautifully knitted to fit snugly, and show no wrinkles[hers or the garment’s?]. The third still wears her bedjacket, the short-sleeved version with its dainty crocheted edges.”
Or who could resist the gents: “No matter how conservative they may become later, young men still under twenty usually favour scarves and gloves of bold design.” & “Lazy days call for comfortable clothes, and that is the cue for the sleeveless pullover’s entry.”
It’s impossible to argue with advice that suggests. “They should be knitted in a gay but easy colour, to go with all your wardrobe.” Indeed!
It was a different world, but the stitches remain the same.
Oh no, I have far too many knitting books from when I worked in bookshops and thought I’d save money having a discount. Surprise, I just bought more books. The book that started me was the BBC series book “Knitting Fashion”. The first piece I started (and finished!) was the scenic jacket as everyone told me it was too difficult for me. I bought all the correct yarn and colours 12, I think, and did the whole thing in twisted stocking stitch as I wouldn’t take advice or help. The finished product is used by Drama pupils at school now.
Fast-forward to 21st century – any sock knitting or Icelandic books for me!
I think I have to choose Nancy Bush’s Knitting Vintage Socks. Why? I don’t know. I just love it. I love almost all the patterns, I love the history timeline at the bottom of every page, the different socks and heels, the styling of each picture. It is a book I look at over and over just for pleasure.
I like many others enjoy reading Elizabeth Zimmerman for her humour and vast knowledge, but for the gorgeous photography, historical research and such lovely patterns then it would be my Kate Davies books.
You’ve just made me want to jump to amazon site and see if I cn order this book!
Or I’ll be in London in 2 weeks, so I’ll probably find it there!
Love the look of this book. My favourite knitting book is Knit Sock Love by Cookie A which I’ve been attempting to work my way through. I’ve learnt so much from the different ways she designs patterns and incorporates them into a sock.
Although I have many vintage knitting books, inherited from my mother, my best is ‘Odhams Encyclopaedia of Knitting’. It happens to be by James Norbury and Margaret Agutter.
However, perhaps the most influential one, dating from the seventies when I remember knitting being shown on BBC’s ‘Pebble Mill at One’, is ‘Knitting Fashion’ by Pam Dawson. In fact, inside the front cover it says that there were “ten 25 minute programmes first transmitted between October 11 and December 13, 1976, BBC-2 at 7.05pm”. I don’t suppose they’ll have kept those tapes…..
Joan, they have kept the tapes – or at least this one. I Googled “knitting fashion Pam Dawson” and this was one of the links that came up. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/whatwewore/5605.shtml
I have just spent the last twenty minutes watching it, something didn’t get chance to do in 1976.
Have a look.
Gee thanks! That was great Margaret, and sure brought back memories! My daughter was born that year and I made a great many clothes for her and her older brother, using this book. (However, no mention of ‘magic loop’ for circular needles in these days, which I use all the time.)
I’m looking forward to watching the other part – Design for Yourself.
I absolutely love knitting pattern books, historical knitting accounts and vintage books. Please enter me in the drawing.
Hm, Mary Thomas is probably my favourite because that was one of the first I found but there are SO many to choose from…I must go and check my collection!
Hi Louise, I’ve been collecting vintage knitting patterns from the 1930’s through to the 1960’s for about 25 years now. I’ve got a few! I do try and knit ones that I think I can get away with wearing… I would love to have this Penguin book. My favourite book in my knitting library changes depending on my mood, but I’d say that my most prized one, is a 2nd hand copy of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitters Almanac. Which I bought from Amazon a couple of years ago. When it arrived, I got a huge suprise. Written on the inside cover was this “Good Knitting – Elizabeth Zimmermann 1983” The great lady herself had signed it!!! I was overjoyed 🙂 I shall keep my toes crossed, (can’t cross my fingers, need ’em for knitting) that I stand a chance of winning this fab book.
I love my vintage Woolcraft books to look and wouldn’t part with my Elizabeth Zimmermann.However, Nancy Bush, ‘Back on the Road’ is cherished by me, helped me with my knitting journey and life, so my favourite.
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THE CONTEST IS CLOSED
My favorite book is Elizabeth Zimmermann’s ‘Knitting without Tears’. It was also my first knitting book and it still teaches me things and makes me laugh. She was a wonder!
thank you. the contest closed a long tome ago, but EZ will remain the First Lady of many of our knitting libraries