Weaving Shaker Rugs by Mary Elva Congleton Erf

Weaving Shaker Rugs: Traditional Techniques to Create Beautiful Reproduction Rugs and Tapes by Mary Elva Congleton Erf (affiliate link)

Erf is an accomplished weaver who has studied Shaker textiles for at least 30 years and has woven many reproduction rugs (and other textiles) which appear in Shaker museums.  Her introduction describes the history of Shaker textile production, provides background on the Shaker Millenial Laws which governed all aspects of Shaker life including the colors used in textiles created in the Shaker villages, and tells how she discovered a familial connection to one of the Shaker communities.

In the introduction, Erf mentions that Shakers used rugs created using a variety of techniques.  However, all the rugs in the second half of the book are “weft-plied rugs.”  This term is never explicitly defined in the book, and I was confused until I got to the end of the introductory material, where she describes the general steps of recreating the rugs.  It means that the Shakers took three (or, more rarely, four) strands of finished carpet wool yarn and plied them together on a spinning wheel, using the newly created chunky yarn as the weft in the rugs.  The three strands were each a different color, creating a barber pole look in the new yarn.  Sometimes the new yarn was plied with a Z twist (spun in a clockwise direction) and sometimes it was plied with an S twist (spun in a counterclockwise direction).  Often, one rug contains both Z twist and S twist yarns.  The Shakers placed Z and S twist yarns next to each other in the weaving, which creates chevron patterns.  Wool fabric strips were used as weft to separate patterned sections of the plied wool weft.  The book focuses on the weft-plied rugs because this style is known to be created by the Shakers themselves not commercially made, the technique is unique, and several examples of original weft-plied rugs still exist.

The second part of the book describes the process of reproducing approximately 20 specific rugs which are part of museum collections.  This section of the book is organized by Shaker community; the rugs represented in the book come from five different communities in the eastern United States.  For each rug, the author starts with a page analyzing the details of the original rug, including the dimensions of the rug, the type of yarn and fabric used for warp and weft, the twist direction of the weft yarns, and any other distinguishing characteristics.  She also includes at least one picture of the original rug.  This analysis is followed by the details of how to reproduce that rug, including which yarns and fabrics she used and which Cushing acid dyes she used to make colors that match those in the original rug.  Many of the rugs are finished with handwoven bias tape; the book also includes analysis of the tapes and instructions on weaving them.

For the most part, I enjoyed reading this book.  I loved seeing pictures of the original rugs and the many marginal boxes containing quotes from the dyeing and weaving journals kept by the Shakers.  I did find the book to be rather repetitive, but a good deal of that repetitiveness reflects an expectation that people won’t read the book all the way through.  For example, in the introduction, at the end of every description on how to create a reproduction rug, and in the Glossary, Erf explains that the finished rugs will need to be pressed with a heavy iron and that she has a dry cleaner in her town who will do this for her.  Even if you’re skipping around in the book, you aren’t going to miss this potentially important information!  Some of the repetitiveness is not so easily forgiven.  The introduction is particularly disjointed.  I think of the introduction in this type of book as one long essay.  In this book, each heading within the introduction is like its own essay, with much repetition of information under other headings, particularly of the Millenial Law quote prescribing certain color schemes, but allowing that “other kinds now in use may be worn out.”

I’m always on the hunt for fiber arts books that are more than just patterns or drafts.  I love books of essays or history and detailed techniques.  Weaving Shaker Rugs has all of this, as well as detailed instructions for making the Shaker-style rugs.  Since following the instructions requires flipping back and forth between the general instructions in the introduction, the pages for the specific rug you’re attempting to reproduce, the glossary, and cross-references in Peter Collingwood’s out-of-print book The Techniques of Rug Weaving, I expect it will be challenging for anyone, especially a new weaver like me, to actually create a Shaker rug using this book.  While the projects are more involved than I’m ready to take on as a fledgling weaver, I did learn a lot about the Shakers and rug weaving.  I enjoyed reading the book from cover to cover and will keep it on my shelf for when I’m ready to tackle a Shaker-style rug!

Love in Every Stitch by Lee Gant

Love in Every Stitch: Stories of Knitting and Healingarrived at my house a week before I left on the trip to India.  I brought it with me and read it while I was away.  When I preordered this book, I had never heard of the author and expected lighthearted, fun stories.  From the very beginning, it became clear that ‘lighthearted’ is not the best descriptor of this book.  These are stories of redemption and survival, and the circumstances that challenge us are never lighthearted!

Lee Gant (website, Facebook, Ravelry) is a knitwear designer and instructor.  She’s also a recovering addict.  A few chapters of the book share parts of her own story and the ways that knitting helped her as she struggled to overcome her addictions.  The remainder of the 29 chapters share the stories of other knitters whom Ms. Gant has met, mostly while working in various yarn shops.  The chapters are divided into 9 themes — changing, overcoming, grieving, mending, giving, discovering, living, sharing, and ending — with three or four stories in each category. The knitters and crocheters in this book ply their craft through addiction, abuse, death of close family members, or illness.  Each story emphasizes how knitting or crocheting helped the storyteller to survive and, eventually, thrive.  We also learn more about Ms. Gant’s story, through the dialogues in various chapters.

Once I better understood the angle of this book, I was concerned that the stories would be trite or manipulative.  I did not find that to be case.  For the most part, Ms. Gant writes beautifully and honestly.  She doesn’t try to wrap up every story with a neat bow (though there’s a couple that are) or imply that everything will be okay.  Crafting is a life raft that helps each person to continue taking the next step.  And the next.  And the next.

My biggest annoyance with the book was that Ms. Gant awkwardly inserted her reactions and parts of her own story into the middle of other stories.  The majority of the stories are written from her perspective.  The stories usually start with a brief set up of how Ms. Gant met the storyteller and at some point shift into long blocks of first-person dialogue from the perspective of the storyteller.  This worked for me as a way of getting into the story.  However, in many of the chapters, the first-person dialogue is interrupted with Ms. Gant’s own inner or outer thoughts.  At times, these transitions did not feel like a natural conversation, and pulled me out of the story of the chapter.  I was also left with a sense that the book was disjointed because we are getting Ms. Gant’s life story in bits and pieces.

Despite these problems, I loved the book.  From the first sentence (“I spent many troubled years standing in front of the mirror with my face pressed close to the glass, peering into each pull, trying to see all the way into myself.”), I was drawn into the book and did not want to put it down.  Part of the reason I was so drawn in is because I could write a story suitable for inclusion in the book — knitting kept me grounded through the deaths of 14 family members in 19 months, and the radical rearrangement of my life as a result of that time.  While I may not have faced the same challenges as the storytellers in this book, I understand how the repetitive, meditative, and social aspects of knitting can carry you through them.  I was inspired by the reminder, and by the fortitude of each storyteller.

The Story of the Unique Sheep by Dianne & Laura Lough

I have a small collection of children’s books about fiber arts and I’m always looking for more to add to it.  Just after Christmas, I saw The Story of The Unique Sheep on the list of upcoming books on Amazon, so I preordered it.  The postwoman delivered it to me yesterday.

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The Big Book of Granny Squares by Tracey Lord

As you may have noticed if you’ve read this blog for a while, I do not review patterns or pattern books.  The reason for this is twofold.  First, other bloggers and podcasters review many patterns and pattern books.  Second, I don’t personally purchase many patterns or pattern books.  The primary reason for that is my queue of projects to complete is always quite long.  My experience is that I frequently change my mind about what I want to knit, so I prefer to purchase patterns immediately before I plan to make them, rather than when they are first released.  By the time I buy patterns or pattern books, they’ve been well and thoroughly reviewed by many others.  In order to find books to review on this blog, I look at upcoming publications on Amazon and purchase the ones that look interesting to me.  I was excited when I saw The Big Book of Granny Squares: 365 Crochet Motifs show up in that list a few months ago, because I’ve been looking for a good crocheting stitch dictionary and this looked like it would fit the bill.  I was not disappointed.

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Knitting for Tommy: Keeping the Great War Soldier Warm by Lucinda Gosling

Today is Veterans’ Day in the United States.  November 11 is Armistice Day — the day that fighting ceased in World War I.  The Great War did not formally end until seven months later, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, but the United States memorialized the cessation of fighting rather than the formal end of the war.  (More background info on the Veterans’ Day is available on the website of the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs).  Since today is Armistice Day, it seemed an appropriate day to post a review of this book!

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