Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Deborah Newton, the Julia Child of Knitting

In days of yore I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, around the corner from Julia Child. This meant, luckily, that I ran into her every so often; and whether I met her on the street, in the supermarket, or a nearby shop, I could never suppress my feelings of awe and admiration.

Emblazoned in my memory: the day I first saw JC at Kinko's Copy Center in Harvard Square (ca. November 1979). She was standing in line at the cashier's; I was in a line exactly parallel, and I looked to the right, and there she was ( at 6'2" hard to miss), wearing a black-and-white houndstooth-check coat. It was as if I'd had a religious vision. Immediately I walked over; delicately touching her sleeve, I said with slobbering gratitude, "You taught me how to cook, Julia Child, and I want to thank you." For in fact, I owned (and still own) three of her books--Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes 1 and 2, and The French Chef. Long before blogs about cooking à la française, I was working my way through Mme. Child's beautifully-laid-out repertoire. (It was just something I wanted to do, the way some birdwatchers keep a Life List.) JC took my gaga adulation with complete equanimity. She thanked me in return, asked my name, what I had cooked recently, and said she hoped we'd meet again. Which we did, as I mentioned, from time to time. And she always remembered who I was.

The genius of Julia Child is her demystification of what appeared to be a complex cuisine. She, a down-to-earth person who shopped at everyman's supermarket (Star Market on Beacon Street in Somerville), who laughed at her mistakes (like the roasted chicken au plancher, made famous on tv), always showed you how, if you just organized the steps correctly, it was really not a big deal to create a mousse au chocolat, or boeuf bourgignon. She made it abundantly clear that you didn't have to be a professional chef to succeed in the kitchen. In this she epitomized good old American knowhow--the laudable notion, so intrinsic to the practical side of our culture, that people can learn how to do complicated things on their own.

And this is what brings me to Deborah Newton, author of Designing Knitwear, one of the essential texts of knitting (first published in 1992 by Taunton Press and still in print), and luckily for me, a resident of Providence, Rhode Island. Thus it was easy to arrange an interview.

Deborah Newton is to the world of knitting what Julia Child was to the world of fine home cooking. She has the knack of communicating what you need to know to knit something beautiful from a pattern you've created yourself, and she has, as well, the encouraging "can do" philosophy that Julia Child brought to French cooking--if I can do it, you can too. As she told me, with disarming modesty, she came to design knitwear after years of knitting potholders and practice swatches from Barbara Walker's pattern dictionaries. She knew how to sew and had studied costume design at Rhode Island College. Then: "I just put the two together. It's not rocket science!"

It may not be rocket science, though designing knitwear, IMHO, is not for the faint of heart, either, mainly because there are so many things that can backfire. (On this, stay tuned for a future posting about my strange encounters with horrible patterns, entitled "When Good Knitting Ideas Go to Hell.") "People are much too intimidated" by designing knitwear," Deborah claims, and I wouldn't disagree. But in talking with her, I realized that some fundamental aspects of the design process for her connect to her background in sewing and the way sewing trains you to understand how the separate pieces of a garment are integrated, as knitting does not--perhaps because knitters don't generally cut anything with scissors. "If you look at the clothing that you wear, it's all just tubes and rectangles," Deborah pointed out.

This was an eye-opener. On the one hand, I knew that clothing is just tubes and rectangles, but on the other hand I didn't, and in a way, still don't, despite all the tubes and rectangles I've knitted. And yet simply thinking about Deborah's observation allows one to deconstruct any piece of clothing, knitted or otherwise, and so to begin, internally, the process of understanding the whys and wherefores of knitting design.

Perhaps my favorite part of Designing Knitwear is how Deborah details what it's like in the invention stage, when ideas race around and the mind is open to their variety and depth. (The creative process, she notes, "is very much the same for every craft.") Yes, as a writer, I most definitely understood this, and I understand viscerally what it's like to find a yarn that's so beautiful I want to drop everything else I'm doing and knit it into something. "Most people," she says, "start with the yarn--it's the easiest and most reliable place to begin. If you want to knit a wonderful garment, you start with a wonderful yarn." (Her book offers illuminating discussion and examples of how yarn and stitch patterns create texture, drape, and differently-weighted fabrics.) And when she talks in person about what it's like to embark on a new piece of knitting, it's all about the wonderful adventure ahead: "You're at the beginning of a road, and you cast on and go from there."

What inspires her? Often she asks the magazines for which she designs what they want. (One of her cardigan patterns is in the Holiday 2009 issue of Vogue Knitting; a long, richly textured pullover is in the Winter 2009 Interweave Knits.) But "sometimes ideas come with a button, sometimes with a shape, with a seasonal trend, a texture, or a traditional pattern stitch. Lots of times, two or three of those elements come at once. You want things to be a little surprising, but there has to be an element of unpredictability, even in a classic garment." She thinks of design "as an object. I like to demystify it. Knitting is just one of the things that some humans do." And as soon as she finishes a design, she's always thinking of the next one. "My favorite part of the process is putting things together. I love when I get to the finished state of the sweater, it is pristine, I have done all I can do, and it is as perfect as I can make it, given what I have to work with....Then I go and do it again."

"I've been very lucky to do what I love. I love knitting," she told me more than once. "It's my creative vehicle."

The belief, shared by Deborah Newton and Julia Child, that anyone can master a particular art, is a powerful incentive to novice and amateur alike. "It's the things in the corners of their lives that people are passionate about," Deborah said. And so, I hope, the encouragement offered by these two wonderful women may inspire more than a few of us to move our passions from the corners of our lives, to someplace more central.


  1. Great post, Selma. Funny, because I just watched Julia and Julia on a recent plane flight.

  2. My goodness, that was a swift response! Thank you, Maha. And yes indeed, you can wish yourself bon voyage!

  3. Thank you Selma, but I gasp at the comparison...

    I loved the Julia Child books too. Number One was Number One with me in my early cooking days! I learned the all-important roux, and the art of the quiche and moules mariniere, etc. I am still learning from her-- just this week I made a pork roast in the cabbage and apple medley from Book Number One, which i had never tried! I can vouch for its deliciousness...

    Happy holiday!

  4. I concur - Deborah is a jewel in the knitting world as Julia was in cooking. What a lovely post.

  5. Thank you, Deb and Kristin. Kristin, I love your colorwork in all its manifestations. If either of you would like to guest blog on my blog, please let me know.

    And now I must go bake a soufflé au fromage. :-)

  6. I hope Ms. Newton comes back to this post to read further comments so I can tell her that I bought her book when it was first published (having loved designs of hers I'd seen in Vogue Knitting) and rank it with my "must have" knitting texts. Thanks for bringing fresh attention to the classics.
    -- Gretchen

  7. Forgot to say that, coincidentally, I'll be speaking at the Greater Boston Knitting Guild on Thursday morning-- tomorrow Nov 19th!
    Trinity Church.
    Hope to see a lot of knitters there!
    Best-- Deb Newton