I must have had sixty people tell me I’d better get a copy of Faerie Knitting: 14 Tales of Love and Magic, the new collaboration between cousins Alice Hoffman (the writer) and Lisa Hoffman (the designer).
Knitting, they said. Fairy stories, they said. It’s perfect for you, they said.
This is a fair assumption, given that I am an elf-sized person whose publicly aired passions include sewing for my sisterhood of antique dolls, and acting as majordomo to a dollhouse inhabited by an Edwardian fox and hound.
From the outside I look whimsical as all hell.
The truth is, I have a lower tolerance for twinkly woodland fantasy than you might expect. Much of what is churned out in this vein is at best, twee; and at worst, dreck.
Frankly, and I speak as a writer who has tried and failed, writing successful fairy tales in the Brothers Grimm mode is tough. They need to be spare, but rich. Complex, but concise. Particular, yet universal.
And even a decent storyteller usually stumbles over the tone. There is a tendency to pile on cheap filigree and tonnes of ye phonye olde tyme dyalogue. By the fourth “prithee” or “alack” or “gallant sir” or “through this forest have I wandered many a day” I will have stopped reading and dialed up an episode of Bob’s Burgers.
Faerie Knitting is a beautiful book, lavish. Simon & Schuster have gone all out. There’s gilt on the cover, and full-color interior with decorative borders and photographs retouched just enough to make them recall the works of great fairy tale illustrators like Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham.
Is it any good, though?
Yarns Full of Yarns
It really is.
Faerie Knitting inhabits the timeless, nameless country we expect from traditional tales, and with the expected furniture (lakes, forests, villages, cottages, chatty animals). But there are no retellings—all the stories are new.
The language nods to good English translations of Grimm and Perrault. From “Seventh Sister”:
She might have frozen that first night, and perhaps her sisters wished she had, but the white moths that lived in the woods covered her and kept her warm. For all those enchanted years that she slept, the moths whispered to her in her dreams. Remember who you are, the Seventh Sister, the one who is loved best of all.
Hoffman doesn’t overdo it, though, with the deliberate archaism. Her heroines (the protagonists of Faerie Knitting are all women and girls) solve problems, fight enemies, and find love without resorting to even one hey nonny nonny.
Beyond that, and better still, the stories tap into perennial fears and hopes that also feel extremely timely. Sibling rivalry, mixed parentage, bereavement, xenophobia, sisterhood, infidelity, self-determination, abandonment—these women are concerned with far more than the arrival of a prince. In fact, pleasantly, no prince is ever asked for, and none ever arrives.
Three Wishes Mittens.
As in the best old tales, the deeper themes dwell just below the surface. If you look for them, you’ll find them. If you need them, they’ll touch you. If not, they’re just well-spun yarns to be enjoyed in the telling. So yes, you can read them to a child—they’re short enough not to try a juvenile attention span.
This is a book for knitters, so every story does include needles, wool, knitting, spinning, and so forth. All are woven in (you should pardon the expression) so prettily that they never disturb the narrative. The textile arts, in Hoffman’s world, are natural and necessary aspects of magical tales. They haven’t been shoved in afterwards to pander to the reader.
Into the Hoods
Now, the patterns.
Alice Hoffman’s fourteen stories are paired one for one with Lisa Hoffman’s fourteen designs—mostly for accessories, but including one pullover vest (Brokenhearted) and one baby blanket (Thorn).
Like the stories, the patterns are a balancing act. How do you evoke a fairy tale in cables or lace without creating a piece of work that’s fine for an enchanted glade but way too much for the grocery store?
Hoffman’s strategy is, in part, to go rustic. Almost all the stories are set in, or include, the natural landscape. The colors and yarns she selects evoke wood and garden—mostly muted, but not drab.
Some projects, like the Three Wishes Mittens, are near-literal recreations of an element of the story; though the crystals of the story are wisely replaced with iridescent buttons.
Three Wishes Mittens.
Nothing derails a piece of design quite like too much fidelity to source material, and the designs in Faerie Knitting never make that mistake.
Love Never Ending Cowl.
Instead, structures or motifs cleverly echo the storytelling. In Love Never Ending, a woman is advised by a wise witch that in order to break a spell, she must begin to knit an infinite circle. Hoffman interprets this circle as a cowl (not an unexpected choice) and throws its central lace motif off kilter by working it on the bias.
The effect is beautifully disorienting enough to make what could been pedestrian quite dramatic.
It’s a fine book, Faerie Knitting. This is one that will sit near my knitting and reading chair for quite some time. Yea, verily.