Book Review: Needles and Artifice

About five months ago, I included the Null Hypothesis Scarf in a Friday Finds. I broke one of my self-imposed Friday Finds rules to include that—at the time, there was no pattern available and no confirmed release date. I broke that rule because that scarf is so mind-boggling amazing that I had to share it immediately.

The good news is that now it’s available as part of a collection of steampunk-inspired patterns, Needles and Artifice: A Refined Adventure Story with Ingenious Knitting Patterns. Twenty-three knitting patterns in total make up this whimsical book, but that’s not all. The patterns are arranged in groups, and each group is preceded by a chapter of a thrilling steampunk adventure featuring The Ladies of Mischief. The book is available now in both print and digital versions from Cooperative Press.

Elizabeth at Cooperative Press asked me to review the book and I jumped all over that like a Victorian lady over a pot of tea (except, maybe, with a little less decorum). I love this book in all its exquisite detail. The flyleaf and title page feature beautiful hand-drawn scroll work, the photography is incredible, and the story is delightful fun. On top of that, the patterns are inspiring and look like they’d be a lot of fun to knit.

I had a chance to ask the Ladies a few questions about the genesis of Needles and Artifice, and thought I’d share them here! Be sure to purchase your own copy via Ravelry or Cooperative Press.

The Ladies of Mischief first came to my attention with photos of the Null Hypothesis Scarf, which first appeared on Ravelry in June. How long have the Ladies been Mischieving? How did the group come about?

Valerie DiPietro (Theodosia La Duke, project manager): We have been working on Needles and Artifice for 2 years now but our group began a little over 5 years ago. While we don’t make up the entire group, all of us are members of the Capitol Hill Knitters of Dooom on Ravelry. Basically the idea for the book came about after several steampunk-themed parties were thrown for one of our friend’s birthdays. We realized that we had some amazing talents within our group, with everything from creative writing, to costume design and sewing, to unique pattern design ideas (several of the patterns featured in the book were already floating around in our heads long before we began the actual writing). We figured, why let all that amazing talent go to waste! Let’s write a book. So we did!

Sarra Loew (Coraline Hackworth, co-author): We all met through Ravelry, we’re members of the Capitol Hill Knitters of Dooom group there. We got into steampunk when my husband wanted to have a steampunk-themed birthday party in 2009. It was great fun and we started getting really inspired by steampunk fashion. Val and Amanda coordinated on the very first project, a lace gear handkerchief pattern with coordinating yarn for a steampunk themed yarn sampler. After that we thought we could go big and make a whole book! We held our first official book meeting in October of 2010, drawing volunteers from our knitting group who were interested.

How did the idea to do a collection of steampunk patterns evolve? From the group’s blog, it looks as though there’s much more to the story than what made it into Needles and Artifice.

Sarra: Once we started talking about making a book, we had a ton of ideas! We wanted to use everyone’s strengths, and we really liked the idea of creating a knitting book that people who didn’t knit could still enjoy. Lots of people get into steampunk because it lets them be creative, so we knew that they would enjoy a good story and some lovely pictures just as much as knitters do. People signed up for various roles based on their strengths, and we ran with as many ideas as we could manage.

As for the story, we had several unique characters already thought up, and we wanted to use the blog to introduce them to the world. We decided to present it as if the blog author had discovered a box of artifacts from the Ladies, and was presenting them to the world. It was fun to create the bits and pieces—letters, sketches, lists, etc that all told bits of information about the ladies. The story itself happens in the time period after the letters, etc. on the blog. People can read the book without reading the blog first, or they can get to know the ladies on the blog before (or after) reading the story.

This book is a labor of love from a number of contributors, and it shows in the clever storytelling, the attention to detail in the photos, the lovely patterns themselves.

What was it like to work together with so many collaborators? What kinds of challenges did you have to overcome?

The great part was that we had a TON of ideas to work with, both in terms of book components, and in terms of pattern designs. The book is filled with unique little pieces that add to the overall feel of the world. The chapter themes, the sketches and illustrations, the bios, pieces of the story, the photoshoot settings, they all came from the wonderful interaction of many creative people working together. The finished book is something bigger than any one of us could have done on our own. I’m so proud of how it all came together.

The hard part is that we’re friends and business partners at the same time. In order to actually finish the book we had to make hard decisions and cut some elements or patterns. It was incredibly challenging any time we had to make a tough decision for business reasons. The other challenges mostly had to do with keeping track of where everything is at a given time. With so many patterns and pieces to track, it was easy to miss something and have to rush to get it completed on time!

I credit Valerie for keeping us on track through the two years we were in production. She was the one who scheduled meetings, managed deadlines and focused our discussions. She had to be the tough one who held us to deadlines and didn’t let uncomfortable topics drop. It’s not easy to discuss things like compensation, or to have to drop a pattern that didn’t meet the deadline, but she did what she had to. I’m very glad that she was in that role!

Where did you find inspiration for the collection? Do you or the other Ladies have any authors, movies, musicians, or other artists that inspired your pieces?

Sarra: I found inspiration in books: Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, with his Neo-Victorians, was my first glimpse of how Victorian ideas could be incorporated into different ages. The combination of the romantic aesthetic and the far-future technology is thought-provoking. Coraline Hackworth’s name is my tribute to that book. Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series has a fabulous main character whose voice inspired my writing style. The series is a fantasy/steampunk hybrid, stylish and sharp.*

Why do you think the idea of steampunk is something that appeals to knitters?

Sarra: Steampunk embraces the idea that functional items can also look fabulous—something knitters have long understood! Steampunk is a playground for creative people, with a few general rules and a very large space for creativity. It incorporates elements from the Victorian era—the wonder of new technology, the beauty of form and function combined, the adventurous spirit of world exploration, and the divine fashions. At the same time, it provides complete freedom to take the elements that inspire you and leave the rest. The lifestyles and behaviors of the Ladies of Mischief would certainly be condemned in the real Victorian England. But with steampunk, we have the freedom to write our own version of the world, where the oppressive hand of society is easily shrugged off, and a woman can do anything she pleases.

We hope to inspire knitters to take a similarly creative route with our patterns. We want them to be inspired by our work, and to take the elements they love and leave out the ones they don’t. If they love the pattern completely, that’s excellent! Personally, I find it impossible to follow a pattern exactly as written, and I hope that our readers feel that they have the freedom to make each project their own.

Approximately how much tea was consumed during this venture?

Sarra: Enough to fill the second-largest cargo room in Coraline Hackworth’s personal airship, the Lilith Ascending. 😉

*I have to second Sarra’s recommendation of The Parasol Protectorate, which is now available in a boxed set and is really a most delightful introduction to the genre. Other books I would recommend are Clockwork and Corsets, an anthology edited by Trisha Telep, and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series for young adults.

All photos © Jessica Glein/The Ladies of Mischief


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Needles and Artifice

    • CURSES. I’d backdated this so that hopefully people wouldn’t see it before it was posted today, but I wanted to run it by the Ladies. I have to figure out some way to make posts only available to some people for previewing…
      That’s entirely unrelated to your comment, Erica, but yay, I’m glad you like the book too!

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