As I sit writing this, Elizabeth Zimmermann’s pattern for a “Baby Surprise Jacket” is shown on Ravelry to have been undertaken 25,636 times and completed no fewer than 21,960 times. And these numbers, though astonishing, are incomplete. Ravelry was founded in 2007. The Baby Surprise Jacket (BSJ) first appeared in 1968. Who can say how many more were turned out in those 39 lost years?
Experts* estimate that if all the Baby Surprise Jackets ever made were laid end to end, they would reach from Switzerland to Fiji and back again, which is almost as long as the ladies room line at Rhinebeck.
It’s all very impressive for a pattern that, in its first incarnation, was one paragraph long (plus a hand-drawn schematic) and distributed in the typewritten newsletter Zimmermann used to promote her mail order yarn business.
The simple genius of the BSJ—knit as one odd stretch of garter stitch, with minimal seaming and mind-bending shaping—has led others to revise and extend it, unto and including multiple versions intended for adults.
Many of these variations and amendments have been published over the years under the watchful eye of Meg Swansen, Zimmermann’s daughter and successor as head of the family business, Schoolhouse Press. Swansen, meanwhile, has become a knitting legend in her own right with her own devoted following, a rare example of lightning striking twice.
Is it possible lighting will strike a third time? It is possible.
Meg Swansen’s son Cully Swansen, grandson of Elizabeth, has in recent years stepped into the knitting world as a designer and a teacher, and played a key role in moving the company’s print and video back catalogue into the digital age. Now, with The Complete Surprise: Knitting Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Surprise Jacket (Schoolhouse Press), he’s staking his claim as a book author as well.
The Complete Surprise aims to fulfill the promise of the title. Gathered into one volume are what appear to be most of the official permutations of the Baby Surprise Jacket, beginning with a heavily annotated version of the original. If that were all, it would make for a nice booklet, a boon to the BSJ fanatic.
But that’s not all.
One of the ironies of the BSJ is that Zimmermann famously urged knitters to think for themselves; but her most famous pattern grows so strangely that even a sharp, experienced knitter is often hard pressed to know what the hell she’s knitting. Is this a sleeve? The back? The front? A bit of each? Where am I?
So Swansen subjects the pattern to a scrutiny it has probably never received before, carefully analyzing exactly how the jacket is formed, stage by stage. This is not uncharted ground, but it has never been mapped so thoroughly. For curious and/or nervous newbies, even the tiniest details—like the shaping methods—are not only explained, but celebrated, in a chapter that uses a zigzag scarf as a sort of gateway drug to the jacket itself.
Once the structure is made clear, the path to endless modifications opens wide. Elizabeth herself attempted to apply the BSJ method to a version for grown-ups, but the resulting Adult Surprise Jacket (ASJ) was a mixed success and rather narrow (literally) in the range of adults it could accommodate. In The Complete Surprise, Swansen solves the puzzle with clear systems for truly knit-to-measure versions for young and old. These are followed by further instructions for changes in sleeve shaping, waist shaping, and finishing details.
If the BSJ devotee is not satiated (or exhausted) by all of this, there’s more. Swansen’s very first take on the pattern, which caused a furore a few years ago when it appeared as a stand-alone pattern, entirely sets aside the foundation of the jacket—flat garter stitch—and replaces it with stranded colorwork, knit in the round and opened by cutting a steek. That version is here, improved and expanded.
How about Baby Surprise Booties? A Baby Surprise Bonnet? A Bolero? A Shrug? An entire (adorable, be-legged) Snuggle Suit?
A purist might wonder at what point a BSJ thus knit ceases to be a BSJ. But that purist would be missing the point—and the fun.
The Shape of Lace to Come
As a diehard lace geek, I took to reading Brooke Nico’s first book, Lovely Knitted Lace: A Geometric Approach to Gorgeous Wearables, in bed as though it were a detective novel. The mystery, though, wasn’t who had done it but how she had done it.
There are a lot of people designing lace—many of whom, it must be said, are “designing” lace. It isn’t especially difficult to pick a motif in a stitch dictionary, calculate a cast-on number, and knit it up as a rectangle, a square, or even a triangle. What’s tougher is using lace to flatter the figure in a fitted garment, to blend one motif into another as a piece progresses, and to balance the values of open and closed areas so the overall effect is neither dull nor overwhelming.
Nico knows how to do it, and her talents are on full display again in More Lovely Knitted Lace: Contemporary Patterns in Geometric Shapes (Lark Publishing).
Like its predecessor, More Lovely Knitted Lace looks at first like (yet) another solid collection of knitting patterns decorated with itty bitty holes. And if that’s what attracts you to it, you’ll find it highly satisfactory.
If you’d like to dig a bit deeper, the book will give you a series of excellent object lessons in the intersection of lace and geometry. Four basic shapes—circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles—underlie the 16 projects, but each approaches and exploits the shape in a different way.
Surprises abound. You might, for example, expect the “Squares” chapter to be dullsville. I mean—squares, right? Nope.
Nico offers the Holly Shawl as a foray into “log cabin” structure, taking note of the particular demands it places on lace; and a gorgeous sleeveless top, Lea, that harnesses the drape peculiar to lace fabric to create shaped garment with very minimal shaping.
Some garments are lacy throughout, like the Mozzetta capelet that offers a taste of “pi shawl”** construction without the long-term commitment. Others, like the Montauk Sweater (cuddly, worked in bulky yarn) use lace as an accent. Every one of them has something clever to teach you, if you’d like to learn.
*In my head, whom I’ve just made up.
**A circular shaping so named by . . . Elizabeth Zimmermann. She really got around.