There's a Kickstarter project going right now to fund converting Penny Straker's knitting patterns into digital format. Since every little bit helps, I've kicked in my contribution. There are lots of reasons why, even on a slim budget any spare bits of which tend to go toward the acquisition of out-of-print books about sheep or wool, it took only a few minutes (deciding which level) to commit to this endeavor.
Penny Straker's designs are described as classic, and that certainly applies to garments I can put on twenty-five or thirty years after making them as if they'd been finished yesterday, and still get compliments on as soon as I walk out the door.
Penny Straker's designs also taught me a great deal of what I know about careful planning and construction of knitwear: the fine points of the craft.
What major contributions they've made to my life!
It was fun to go to the Kickstarter page, when a friend told me about it, and see a video of Penny Straker herself talking about the project. That link's the same one found in the first paragraph, and here's another that talks about the history of the Straker designs, although I'll skim across a few high points in this post.
First, though, as soon as I heard about the project I went to my closet. I pulled out the Straker designs that I still have and wear. Then I thought about others I'd made: the child's Owl sweater in lavender Harrisville sportweight yarn for my daughter when she was a toddler (when she outgrew it, I hope I sent it along for her cousin to use; it's not here; both daughter and niece are adults now); the Staithes guernsey that I made for my sister in natural dark brown alpaca; and more.
The fact that I could immediately locate or recall so many projects that owe their origins to Straker designs is a big deal. I've knitted a lot. I made all of these garments in just a few years when my daughter was young. I didn't take notes, except on the patterns themselves, so the details come from my brain cells. The experiences were remarkable, and entirely in good ways.
And when I look at the array of Straker designs, I want to make even more of them.
Second, I wondered how many of the original leaflets I could find in my rather full box of single- and small-collection paper patterns. Without as much effort as I expected to invest—like, in about four minutes—I came up with fourteen:
The copyrights are all 1981 and 1982, which means they were new when I discovered them. I've knitted most of these designs. Ten are Penny Straker's own. Four are by her mother, Janice Straker. Where links are not included below, the patterns are out of print and thus not currently available in any format. Which is a bummer. I hope and trust that it's a temporary bummer, because of Kickstarter.
These are, top row, left to right:
- Jennifer Cardigan (Janice Straker), #770—sportweight, "intermediate" level—I have this one, and will show it to you in a moment; a penciled note says Borgs yarn—a reason it would have lasted well! Although I also see that I swatched for it in Briggs and Little, which would also have been a good choice. I'm dating myself with both the patterns and the yarns, and that's okay! It was splendid stuff.
- Gretel Pullover (Penny Straker), #876—worsted weight, "intermediate" level—I have this one, too; you'll see it.
- Staithes Guernsey (Penny Straker), #796—worsted weight, "seasoned intermediate" level—my sister has this.
- Owl Cardigan (Penny Straker, more recently updated with a charming hat), #C818—sportweight, "intermediate" level—knitted for my daughter in, I see, size 4.
- Blackberry Jacket (Penny Straker), #746—another one I have.
Middle row, left to right:
- Tuckernuck Jacket (Penny Straker), #799—and yet another I still wear.
- Becky Pullover (Penny Straker), #737-P—light bulky weight, "beginner" level—made and given away? Size 42 notes in place.
- Mercedes Pullover (Janice Straker), #101—for Elite's Manhattan mohair (an unusual, because yarn-specific, design, but yardage and weight are also given)—made and given away? Size 34 notes, and a two-page letter from my mother, on blue paper, tucked inside the flap.
- Potomska Pullover (Penny Straker), #740—worsted weight, "seasoned beginner" level—toward the top of my list yet to knit, along with Inverness, a candidate for the digital project that I don't own in a hard copy.
Bottom row, left to right:
- Jamie Cardigan (Janice Straker), #837-C—sportweight.
- Boater Pullover, adult (Penny Straker), #841—worsted weight—I made the child's and liked the project well enough to buy the adult pattern; I may have knitted it, too.
- Rigby Vest (Penny Straker), #802-V—sportweight, "seasoned beginner" level.
- West Bay Pullover (Janice Straker), #735-P—sportweight.
- Boater Pullover, child's (Penny Straker), #C841—worsted weight, "beginner" level—made for my daughter in size 6.
I'm sure there are a few more hiding in the pile. If the patterns were digitized, I could locate them without digging through a box.
I love these originals. I love their consistent and clear formatting; their gray borders; their black-and-white photography (described by Penny Straker's own website as "outdated," although the neutral color left this knitter's imagination free to fill in with favorites).
Yet the information itself, more even than the presentation, is what's magic about the Straker patterns. Here are some of the things that have been unique, or way ahead of the pack, about them:
- They are nearly all written for generic yarns, with yardages and/or weights given instead of the number of balls of a specific manufacturer's product. For handspinners, this is great and it was very unusual for the time (still is, to some extent), although I also used commercial yarns—and I'll say I chose well, as you'll see in the garments to come.
- The back of each pattern contains essential basic information on how to measure, how to choose a size, basic washing instructions, and metric/American equivalents for needle sizes. The pattern overflap often contains information on yarn qualities to help the knitter choose good materials, as well as guidelines for checking gauge, and sometimes additional technical points.
- Even the "beginner"-level designs are intriguing.
- Pattern stitches join and flow together impeccably.
- There's an abundance of technical information: techniques are clearly chosen, described, and illustrated.
- From the Jennifer Cardigan description: "The Mock Cable decorates the yoke and cuffs giving the knitter the opportunity to become familiar with the pattern stitch before beginning the Raglan decreases which shape the armholes. These decreases steadily break into the Mock Cable pattern. This section of the cardigan requires a working understanding of the stitch. At the beginning of every right-side row, the knitter has to calculate exactly where to resume the all-over Mock Cable." In the "old days," we discovered these things on our own as we worked the patterns. It was fun, but it's nifty to be warned in advance. More on this in a moment, when I show you my Blackberry Jacket.
- They teach excellent design practices, and are reliable guides in their execution.
- Each size was test-knitted, so the detail work designed into one size carries over to the others. (Read that again and marvel.) The patterns have also been very carefully edited and proofread. If not perfect, they're extremely close to that.
- I don't recall having found an error. Ever. My notations indicate that sometimes I altered the construction to eliminate side seams, but not that I found any problems. The Straker website has one pattern with errata, from a 2010 version of the child's Staithes sweater. It's always good for me to find evidence that other people who seem to be able to accomplish perfection—which I keep aspiring to, working hard to reach, and failing at—are actually human, too.
- They're printed on cardstock in a weight, size, and format that can hold up to the challenges of being stuffed into a knitting bag repeatedly.
- With the ability to print out new copies of a digital pattern for each use, this is not as big a deal as it used to be, but it's still worth noting. The fact that those patterns in the first photo have been used says a lot for the physical objects. Although I didn't keep many records on my knitting projects, I can tell a great deal about what I did with these patterns because I jotted notes on them and they've held up well.
- The typographic design and layout are clear and easy to follow.
Other knitting designers and writers who followed have built on these foundations, but there are aspects of the Straker patterns that many could still benefit from studying. Now that some of the pattern descriptions are on the website for Straker Designs, there are a couple of plusses we didn't have with the printed versions:
- Degree of difficulty is indicated. There is also now enough information to allow the prospective knitter to understand the philosophy of the piece and its design components. Interesting that I type "philosophy of the piece," but yes, that is a big part of the simple explanation that accompanies each pattern in the digital presentation, and a philosophy definitely underlies the design process that informs these pieces.
- Here's a portion of the description for the Becky sweater, a "beginner" piece: "The directions are threaded with caveats, pointers and illustrated techniques to help all knitters enjoy the knitting process of this pullover." Again, we found this out by using the patterns.
I can't say enough nice things about these patterns, nor can I adequately credit the benefits they have given me as a knitter. So I'll show you a few of the things that I made from them.
Here's Gretel: decades old, and much worn. Good yarn. Great design. Lots of fun to knit. I did slightly modify the heart design (giving it more height), because I'm long-waisted, always need to add length, and wanted the hearts themselves to be very open. My graph-paper notes are taped inside the pattern, one of them bearing the inscription "shoot on black backdrop, larger photos." (That would have been film I was shooting. I have no idea why I needed the images.)
It was a yarn called NZN in a color called orchid. Although I don't know what wool it was spun from, it behaves like a fine-micron Romney. Thus it has very, very few pills, despite advanced age and wear, and yet isn't itchy.
Here's the Blackberry Jacket.
Aside #1: I had that wonderful tweedy purple yarn, from Candide, but not enough of it to make the jacket. I'd probably gotten the skeins on close-out. I worked at Webs at the time, both helping customers and filling mail orders. (Webs was not then located where it is now. It was behind the post office in an old Victorian house, the third location that I know of: (1) Elkins' basement, (2) behind the police station, (3) behind the old post office.) I wanted to use the yarn for this jacket despite the scant supply. Fortunately, I realized in advance I would run short. So I found the two other colors—the navy and . . . hmmm, I think that pink may have been a leftover bit from Gretel . . . and planned how to combine the colors so it would look like I'd meant to do so from the start. I actually think the addition of the pink lines just above the ribbing are what turn it from "doing the best I can" to "yes, I absolutely meant to do this."
Aside #2: Thanks to Penny Straker, I did shape the neckline, the sleeve openings, and the set-in sleeve caps in blackberry stitch (also known as trinity and a few other names) while keeping the pattern intact. The stitch count varies from row to row, so working increases and decreases that don't interrupt the texture is an extremely interesting technical challenge. I haven't encountered a stitch pattern since where I didn't think, "Well, if I could do refined shaping in blackberry stitch, I can sure do it in this stitch."
Aside #3: I did modify the pattern to eliminate side and sleeve seams. That's just my preference. I do it routinely.
And now for the Jennifer Cardigan, one of Penny's mother Janice Straker's designs:
I bought more of Janice Straker's patterns than I knitted: I love their delicate detail work, so I use them for inspiration, but for the most part they don't fit my sturdy style as well as the other designs. It's nice to be able to dress up in the Jennifer cardigan. However, I usually need sweaters that are a bit more robust.
Like this one, which will get its own full post some day (possibly soon, but you never know):
It's a variant of the Tuckernuck jacket. It's handspun. I'll tell its bigger story later. It's another "need to make up a yarn deficit" one, with some wrinkles.
But for now, a snippet of a digression: in 1986, when I flew from Massachusetts to Colorado to talk with Linda Ligon about whether I might come to work at Interweave Press, the two sweaters I wore were the jackets shown here, Blackberry and Tuckernuck.
The Kickstarter project aims to digitize forty-four Straker patterns, beginning with a first round of fifteen. Although only one of the patterns I want sooner rather than later is in that first round (the Inverness Pullover), I look forward to having access to the full range of Straker designs, especially the Shalor Cardigan, Galway Cardigan, Jim Vest, and Eye of the Partridge Pullover. I've admired a number of the others for years (decades, now) and would be delighted to be able to pick them up easily, as needed.
The thing is this: Even after more than forty-five years of steady knitting, I know I can still learn a lot from Penny Straker's patterns, and that I will have a good time (and produce timeless garments) in the process. I'm really glad I chose good yarns for them. I design a lot of my own garments now, and have for years. One of the reasons that I do so with confidence and a sense of adventure is because of the experiences I had with these patterns.
Go check out that Kickstarter project, if you feel so inclined. If you do decide to support it, make sure you do so at a level that gets you some of the wonderful patterns for your own delight.