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Audio Book Review: A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt

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A History of Hand Knitting is promoted as the only history of hand knitting. While there are other books addressing the history of knitting in specific regions, the history of specific knitting techniques, and smidgens of the history of the craft here and there, Rutt can claim the most comprehensive work on the subject. Originally published in 1987, A History of Hand Knitting has proved to be a classic and definitive title in the history of textiles and techniques.

Knitting Out Loud
, a company developing audio books for knitters to listen to while busy with their needles (see my review of Knitting Memories) chose to take Rutt’s work to their audience. In doing so, drastic abridgments were needed in order to make the title accessible to listeners in terms of cost. Due to the vast amount of knowledge contained in Rutt’s volume, the unabridged work would have consisted of seven to eight CDs as opposed to the four — running 4 hours and 52 minutes — that make up the abridgment. Never fear, A History of Hand Knitting on CD provides a wealth of trivia for curious knitters to tuck away for the next meeting of their knitting club.

Rutt provides not only a history of hand knitting, but a history of the history of hand knitting as well. During the opening of the audio book he thoroughly examines various contributions to knitting history, their degree of reliability, and the extent of their accuracy. Throughout the recording he continues to sprinkle in the names and works of other contributors to the history of hand knitting as he describes knitting developments in their region or time period.

During his initial examination of the history of knitting he examines various possibilities concerning the origin of knitting in both time and place. He then goes on to describe possible routes for knitting techniques to spread, and compares the differences between techniques that are used in various regions. Most delightful are the detailed descriptions of knitted garments, presented like snapshots representing the techniques, styles, construction, and colours of a country or region at a specific time. It's everything you ever wanted to know about vintage, hand-knit stockings in the British Isles, but were afraid to ask.

Rutt’s research is not limited to stockings however. Hats, jerseys, jumpers, shawls, gloves, and others all make an appearance – each described with precision. Strangely, my husband was fascinated by the impeccable detail devoted to these little known treasures. Or perhaps, it is not so odd after all. Richard Rutt has devoted much of his life to ferreting out these ancient garments; the fascination with knitting history is clearly felt by both genders. He does not limit himself to the usual suspects when piecing together the history of knitting, but also examines appearances of knitting throughout literature and art, speaking to the plausibility of the descriptions given.

While the vast majority of the hand-knitting history presented originates from the United Kingdom, information for other countries is provided, though these sections are much briefer than those pertaining to the UK. This is understandable – Rutt is an English native. Scandinavian, Continental, South American, African, American, Eastern European, and other knitting traditions are all touched upon, if only briefly. I found some of the most delightful portions to be those dealing with the history of Fair Isle knitting techniques and the history of multi-coloured knitting, but these will vary according to each listener's interests.

The choice of Melissa Hughes as narrator puzzled me initially. Her reading style sounds extremely bookish, like an old-school librarian. Her voice lacked warmth and depth of inflection, her reading sounded somewhat dry and monotone. You can judge for yourself by listening to the sample of A History of Hand Knitting at Interweave Press. I wondered if perhaps Hughes' erudite aridity was appropriate for a history title, though I always find history more palatable when it becomes personal. Then I realized where her strengths lay.

Europeans write many of the historical texts, letters, and books that Rutt quotes from with a heavy emphasis on the British Isles. Hughes is a member of British Equity and records for BBC America Audiobooks. Her accent when reading these sources is dead-on. She delivers a brilliant performance, switching between various accents and creating personas for the authors whose work she reads. Bravo! I found myself laughing from time to time in sheer delight, reveling in her performance. However, the portions where her accent was not called upon did require a fair amount of concentration to stay focused on the book being read. Rutt’s writing is dense, packed full of historical minutiae and detail, demanding focus from the listener. I often listened to the same tracks repeatedly in my attempts to grasp everything that was being conveyed, and was well rewarded for my efforts.

I was startled to discover that I had reached the end of the book. Rutt provides few closing remarks, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions and to draw all of the information they have learned into a cohesive whole. The book would benefit greatly from a chapter summarizing and weaving together the various traditions and techniques employed within knitting in human history, perhaps with some commentary from the author.

A History of Hand Knitting will provide knitting aficionados with a broad, deep repertoire of snippets from history. These can then be inserted into conversations with knitting friends creating a sense of awe at the savvy listeners' historical prowess. Knitters however, are not the only interest group this title will appeal to. Historical re-enactors (such as those involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism or other groups) can indulge while stirring a pot of natural dye-stuffs. They will learn which colours of dye are authentic, which techniques, styles, and patterns should be employed in the clothing they garb themselves in. Indeed, anyone with an interest in the history of textiles and clothing, costume designers, writers of historical fiction, and those involved in other textile arts such as spinning and weaving will all find this a valuable addition to their listening libraries.

For a full listing of available knitting audio books, please visit Knitting Out Loud. Audio books are available for purchase on CD at Knitting Out Loud, Amazon.com, Interweave Press, and are available by download at Audible.com.

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