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Book Review

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Victorian Lace Today
by Jane Sowerby

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Every year we have a massive stash swap at the Knitter's Review Retreat. People bring things they no longer need and pick up any new items they like.

Last year someone casually mentioned she had a copy of this book for the swap area. A gasp was heard around the table.

"I'll take it," the woman next to her said instantly. "I mean...," she blushed, looking around and realizing what she'd done, "if nobody else...um...wants it?"

All weekend I watched the book make its rounds and elicit oohs and aahs from each person who saw it. By the time the publishers sent me a review copy, I'd already written the review in my mind. It's just that kind of book.

The Leisure of Lace
Jane Sowerby is passionate about lace. Specifically, the lace that came out of the leisure-knitting boom in Victorian England, when even the Queen herself knit.

The boom was fueled by the rise of wealthy middle class factory owners, traders, and merchants, whose wives suddenly had time on their hands and needed a respectable, productive hobby. Needlework and knitting fit the bill perfectly. Beginning in the 1830s, previously undocumented patterns were put down on paper and published by women.

A Book is Born
This book stems from Sowerby's own experience collecting, deciphering, and trying to knit the patterns in those books. "Nobody had ever done this before," she explains. "There was no system for abbreviations, pattern instructions, for drawing charts. They had nothing. They had to start at the beginning. I felt a kind of duty to have their voices heard." Many of the patterns were written in cryptic vocabularies that varied from author to author. Sometimes they were missing crucial information, and sometimes they were just downright wrong.

Sowerby made it her mission to figure out the patterns and make them work—and lucky for us, she took meticulous notes. The result is this collection of 40 lace patterns, including shawls, scarves, capes, and fichus (a type of triangular scarf), all sorted by original designer.

The Patterns
Each pattern is written with impeccable clarity, with every step documented and supported by illustrations if necessary. Charts are clear, consistent, and easily formatted for photocopy enlargements if you so choose. The patterns do everything possible to debunk the myth that lace knitting is hard. Follow each step as written and you'll be there.

Several of the garments photographed are knit from Sowerby's own stash of handspun yarns, which I love to see. But the patterns always list one or more alternate yarns. And at the back of the book you'll find a two-page spread showing photographs of all the yarns used in the book, grouped by weight, along with a list of suitable substitutes, also grouped by weight. This makes substituting very easy.

The People
But that's only part of this book. With scholarly reverence, Sowerby tells us about the different women who published these early collections. "These weren't the Victorian wallflowers we assume women were at the time," she writes. "These were career women...who didn't care about Victorian convention, and did what they wanted." Sowerby even includes shots of the covers and pages from the books to give you an idea of what the originals looked like.

The Pictures
As marvelous as the research, writing, and patterns are, it's the photography that pulls this book together and brings it over the top. Alexis Xenakis and the XRX crew—including Rick Mondragon, Elaine Rowley, and the ever-gifted second photographer Mike Winkleman—all ventured to jolly old England to shoot this book on location in and around Cambridge.

We walk through lush formal gardens, we glide down the River Cam, and we stand in front of massive estates through whose doors you fully expect Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy to emerge (and through whose doors he actually did emerge while filming the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice"). Just the pictures—including the delightful travelogue at the end of the book—are worth the cover price.

But more to the point, Jane Sowerby has shed fresh light on a group of talented and ambitious women who, more than 150 years ago, paved the way for today's knitwear designers. She has made their work consistent, easy, and approachable for a whole new generation of knitters. I see this book as a prized part of every lace knitter's library for decades to come.

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