a special button for a special year

2009 in Review: People, Places, and Things that Shaped the Year


This was the year of the upstart. Knitwear designers have been exploring their independence for several years, selling more and more of their designs direct to the public instead of to yarn companies or magazines.

But the volume of indie pattern sales exploded after Ravelry launched its Pattern Store service. For a nominal tiered fee, designers can have their own pattern store with automated PDF delivery and payment processing—just upload the pattern, get it noticed, and start saving for that BMW.

OK, maybe I'm kidding about the BMW, but the numbers are telling. As of mid-December 2009, Ravelry reported the sale of 191,000 patterns, with a revenue of $1.25 million—98.7% of which has gone directly to the designers.

With 13,000 for-sale patterns on the site, plus 50 new patterns being uploaded each day, I suspect we have more pattern choices today than ever before. Which makes finding the right pattern—and making your pattern stand out, if you're a designer—the biggest challenge.

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The People
One of the most talked-about designers this year was Ysolda Teague. Having already built a design repertoire in Knitty and Twist Collective, she struck out on her own this year and released an adorable collection of patterns fittingly called Whimsical Little Knits. In the same year, she followed up with Whimsical Little Knits 2.

As fresh and popular as her patterns were, Ysolda was equally noteworthy for her nontraditional publishing model. Knitters could buy an individual pattern and download it electronically; they could buy either of her books as a digital e-book download; or they could buy a print copy of either book and receive a digital download version as well.

The other unusual thing Ysolda did was release individual patterns for her Whimsical Little Knits 2 before the book was ever completed. Those who purchased the collection would receive a new pattern every few weeks, and then they also received the finished e-book (and printed version if they purchased it) when the whole book was done. This arrangement also was a helpful way to flush out any last-minute goofs in the patterns before they went to print. Expect to see more designers experiment with this kind of publishing model.

Prolific Creativity
While Ysolda had an impressive creative output in 2009, Anne Hanson (of Knitspot) may well be the top contender in the Most Prolific Designer category—print, online, and otherwise. Every time you turned around, it seemed that she'd come up with a new design (available from her either as electronic download or a print copy, or through yarn stores). Not just any design, but a gorgeous, thoughtfully executed project I immediately wanted to knit. How does she do it? I'm not the only one to ask. I don't know the answer, although I suspect it may involve copious amounts of chocolate.

The Consequences of Change
While many designers still work with traditional publishers, there's no denying the impact this paradigm change is having on the publishing industry. We used to rely almost exclusively on magazines, books, and yarn companies for our patterns.

The rise of indie pattern sales (and continued success of free pattern downloads) begs a rather painful but pressing question: Where does this leave magazines, books, and yarn companies? Is there still a place for the carefully curated, consistently edited, professionally presented, and for-fee pattern collection? Will indie-published patterns hold up to the same standards, or perhaps even exceed them? Book and magazine publishers are already adapting to the changing climate, but will it be enough? I don't have the answer, but I know we'll grapple with these questions in 2010.

even the streets had signs of the summit
An Event to Remember
This year saw another extraordinary upstart, this one in the realm of knitting events. In August, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee and Tina Newton skillfully brought together a crew of 40 teachers, 150 vendors, and 1,500 registered students for the first-ever Sock Summit.

Over the course of four magical days, knitters honed their sock skills from teachers including Cat Bordhi, Nancy Bush, Anna Zilboorg, Meg Swansen, Judith MacKenzie-McCuin, Amy Detjen, Lucy Neatby, Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, Deb Robson, Cookie A., Anne Hanson, Sivia Harding, Melissa Morgan-Oakes, Abby Franquemont, Charlene Schurch, Stephen Houghton, Judy Becker, J.C. Briar, Janel Laidman, Amy Singer, Denny McMillan, Deb Barnhill, yours truly, and—a source of much general giddiness—Barbara Walker herself.

We even had a museum, authentic sock hop, and attempted to break the Guinness World Record for "The Most Number of People Knitting Simultaneously." Not too shabby for a first try, eh?

Starmore Sings Again

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While the global economic storm raged, rare and out-of-print knitting book collectors saw their own investments plummet this year—albeit on a much smaller scale—when Dover Publications reprinted Alice Starmore's long out-of-print colorwork classic, Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting. Those who hadn't been able to invest upwards of $250 for a used copy on eBay rejoiced at finally getting their hands on this legendary reference book.

The Welcome of Wool

gazing deep into a lock of Cormo on my kitchen table

We've talked about the people and the places, but what about the actual things we used to make our projects?

This year, yarn companies continued their migration away from synthetics and back to natural fibers. As if on cue, the United Nations declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres.

For me, 2009 was the International Year of Wool as my very own book on the subject, The Knitter's Book of Wool, hit the bookstores and continues to do well. I'm not the only one with a pro-wool bias: as of this writing, the top three most-knit yarns reported on Ravelry are all made from 100% wool. Which suggests that knitters are more curious and discerning than ever before when it comes to what we put on our needles. And that, in turn, makes me very excited about the extraordinary yarns we'll see in 2010.

the WEBS interchangeable bamboo needle set

Circular Thoughts
What about the needles we used? This was a great year for circular needle lovers, especially those who like interchangeable sets. Knitters raved about the Hiya Hiya Interchangeable Circular Needle Set, which contains 7 sets of steel needles in sizes US 2-8, plus four different lengths of cables, for $67.50.

Fans of rosewood rejoiced when the Colonial Needle Company released its pricey but beautiful Rosewood Interchangeable Knitting Needles set. It comes with 12 cords in various lengths, nine needles sized US 4-11, cord adapters, two end knobs, and a needle gauge, for $199.

Meanwhile, yarn retailer WEBS released its own interchangeable bamboo needle set (pictured above) that comes with nine tips sized US 4-11, plus 12 flexible hollow cables in two diameters (smaller diameters for the smaller needle sizes), two cord adaptors, four end knobs, and a needle gauge. The kit is priced at $109.99 and has similar packaging to the Colonial set, only with different types of needles and cables.

And last but not least, just before the New Year Signature Needle Arts released its much-anticipated circular needles. These slick, high-precision instruments currently retail for $40 apiece and are available in sizes US 5-7, with more to come. When ordering, you get to specify your needle length (4", 5", or 6"), cord length (24", 32", 40", 47", or for a $10 fee you can have any custom length you'd like), and either a Stiletto or Middy tip.

a Jon Sauer button

Magical Mystery
Finally, 2009 was the year I discovered the most extraordinary button ever created. It comes from Jon Sauer, a California lathe artist whose work is in the permanent collections at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. To name a few.

These are the Tiffany of buttons, made from hard, tight-grained woods such as cocobolo, blackwood, kingwood, and ebony. While all of Jon's buttons are works of art, the most ingenious and extravagant of all is the one pictured above. It's called the Smuggler Button, and it's made of forest bismark nut, bloodwood, and African violet.

a Jon Sauer button, opened
The magic comes when you twist the top piece and discover that it actually unscrews. Inside? A secret compartment into which Jon has tucked a few sparkling Cubic Zirconiums.

This is the kind of button around which an entire garment is designed. Several, perhaps. Which is convenient because this button is not intended to be permanently attached to a garment. It does not want to be be submerged in water or exposed to dry cleaning solvents. It's best considered a fine piece of jewelry made from a hard but porous material. Each piece is signed and dated by Jon. Most of his buttons retail in the $60 range, but this one sells for about $165 (subject to change).

I realize that, at a time of layoffs and economic gloom, it may be absurd—borderline obscene, even—to talk about a single button that costs more than many people will spend on a sweater. Then again, spending months painstakingly knitting our own sweaters isn't exactly economical either.

Part of our passion involves taking time and care to create something of enduring beauty out of noble materials, an object that gives us deep pleasure every single time we look at it. I like the thought (even if it remains only a goal) of adorning my projects with equally noble, worthwhile, and timeless accessories.

As with most one-of-a-kind handmade things, Jon's buttons are a little hard to obtain. You can email him for pictures and details. He'll also be making his maiden voyage to Stitches West this spring. If you're headed that way, do stop by his booth early in the show. You may never look at buttons—or the handknits they adorn—the same way again.

What were your high knitting points of 2009, and where do you hope to take them in 2010? Please do share your thoughts with us.