by Lela Nargi
Susette Newberry is a historian who thinks like a knitter. Or is she a knitter who thinks like a historian? Whatever the answer to this chicken-and-egg-like conundrum, one thing’s for sure. Newberry’s craft-archivist proclivities have led her to a masterly opus: an alphabet, constructed entirely of knitting.
Explains Newberry, “I’ve been interested in abecedaria — books that showcase designs for the letters of the alphabet — since college some twenty-five years ago” That was also when she picked up the knitting bug. “Rather than writing and illustrating an abecedarium, I decided to make my own version, grounding the project in my combined passions.”
Those passions have served her project remarkably well. Newberry’s letters, each of which riffs on a different typographic design, is a work of art in its own right. But just as compelling are the extensive background essays she compiles for them and posts on her popular blog. Did I mention? Newberry’s first and foremost occupation is librarian, at the fine arts library at Cornell University. Yes, this lady’s got access to books. Lots, and lots, and lots of books. And she certainly delights in using them.
The whole undertaking has proved enormous, and enormously time-consuming. At press time, Newberry had been knitting, researching, and writing for two years and had finally managed to complete the letter U (a testament to the tidiness of her mind: she’s been knitting them in order) — although she’s also at least plotted out V through Z.
Thus, in Newberry’s fantastic yarn/book world:
C is made from Cables;
M is made from the usually-electronic font known as Mantinia;
S is for Suzani, and the Silk Road along which it originated;
With so many fonts and typefaces and knitting traditions out there, how did Newberry ever manage to settle on a single theme for each letter? Somehow, that part of the equation came easy. Claims Newberry, “Most of my letters have chosen themselves, except ‘Q,’ which several readers of my blog suggested. And whenever possible, I’ve tried to combine themes.” For example, K for Kelmscott combines elements of design with the history of typography, the history of the book, letterpress, textiles, and of course, Knitting. N for Nantucket is “probably the best example of combining,” in Newberry’s estimation. “Nantucket Quaker samplers were displays of literacy, but also exquisite excursions into letterforms in the form of hand-wrought textiles.”
After the choosing, of course, comes the research — hours and hours of research, which Newberry calls “fulfilling.” And then: the knitting. Hours and hours and days and weeks of knitting. Although, “Each letter has been a completely different time commitment. The first few were pretty easy to write about, didn’t involve a lot of research, and since I wasn’t knitting anything new, they took about three or four hours. By the time I got to ‘F’ and started making videos and knitting enormous swatches at a tiny gauge, I was devoting more like thirty or forty hours to each one, not getting much sleep, but loving every moment. Since I work full time, I knit at night and on weekends, and until my fingers drop off during holidays.”