Go Crochet! Afghan Design Workbook: Interview with Ellen Gormley and Book Review

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I’m thrilled to post an interview with designer and author Ellen Gormley.  I love crocheting afghans (in fact, at one point, I made nothing else for about 3 years straight!) and recently heard about her new book, Go Crochet! Afghan Design Workbook, on the Getting Loopy podcast.  I then read more about it through Ellen’s blog tour for the book.  Finally, I was convinced to part with my hard earned money and check it out.

This post is long, because I’m including my interview with Ellen and my review of the book.

The Interview

I’m having a hard time remembering the first pattern of Ellen’s which caught my eye, but I eventually began to notice that many patterns that I liked were written by her.  I love her afghan patterns, but Ellen designs many other things as well which you can see on her Ravelry designer page.   Ellen has been a designer for about seven years and, according to her blog, is also a mom and a lover of chocolate (who isn’t!) and Jazzercise (er, um…).

Ellen Gormley

UC: How did you get started designing?
Ellen: I had made 2 blankets for a friend’s wedding… his and hers mirror images, one was gray with white for him, and one was white with gray for her.  I had so much fun using the technique that I went ahead and practiced making the strip technique into rectangles.  It became the first pattern I ever sold, to Leisure Arts, in 2004. I never saw where the finished blanket ended up. When I sold the very first project I had ever designed, I knew I was on the right path and began truly researching how to make it a business.

UC: When I first became a CGOA Associate Professional member, you were the person who assigned me to my mentor, Mary Nolfi.  Tell me about how you became involved with the CGOA mentor program, and some of the benefits of having a mentor.

Ellen: I searched for crochet on the internet and found the Crochet Guild of America.  When I found out that there was a mentor program, I knew I needed the resource. Tammy Hildebrand was assigned to be my mentor. Soon after that, she became the Mentor Coordinator.  During our work, she had a personal crisis come up and asked if I would help her out temporarily with the Mentor Coordinator tasks.  Later, when it was time for her to move on from the position, she asked if I would take over, considering I had already learned the ropes when I had helped her.

Recently, I passed the torch to Renee Barnes, who is the current Mentor Coordinator.  The program is great because it gives a one-to-one contact for the burgeoning professional to get a ‘reality’ check and ask for guidance.  Still, no one can build your career for you, and the Mentor is there to support and encourage you along the way.

(UC comment: The CGOA mentoring program is really a wonderful opportunity for anyone attempting to enter the crochet industry.  Yes, there are other more informal resources such as the Ravelry Designers group available.  But having a one-to-one relationship which is private and not on a public forum really can’t be beat in my opinion.  The best part is as the mentee, you are really expected to guide the process by asking questions, providing updates, etc., rather than sit passively while your mentor does all the work!)

UC: Crocheters and afghans (and crocheted afghans) sometimes get a bad rep.  When you’re designing afghans, do you feel additional pressure to break those stereotypes?

Ellen: In some ways designing afghans feels less ‘prestigious’ than designing garments; however, research shows that consumers make more afghans than any other type project.  Blankets fit without needing bust darts or specific measurements. They are awesome to give as gifts. You can take color risks with blankets that you might not want to take with a garment and blankets are easier to donate and are easier received than garments. Blankets are easier to hand down from generation to generation than garments. Blankets get used, which is the biggest compliment you can receive, to have your handmade item used.

UC: I recently bought a copy of your book, which I’m really enjoying.  What was the design process like for this book?

Ellen: Thank you!  I contacted the company with my resume and list of achievements and told them that I wanted to write the book.  I submitted the first several designs for them to consider. After the contract was signed, I started in earnest to design in batches of 8-10 motifs until all 50 were complete.  At the same time, I was noting which ones that I enjoyed the most that I would make into final projects.  Each motif had a hang tag and the editor would write comments about the color choice on the tag and return them to me.  On a few, we went back and forth with colors, sometimes even changing yarn brands until the right color combination was chosen.  Others we agreed on immediately. We wanted to have a bright, consistent color scheme, but at the same time knew we wanted a variety of styles to help every reader find something that appealed to them.

UC: Where do you generally find your creative inspiration?
Ellen: Generally it’s the yarn. Generally, I just grab the yarn and start and see what happens. Sometimes I start with goals or an idea of what I want to create.  I rarely “see” the finished project in my mind before I start.  I often see color combinations and patterns in clothes, wrapping paper, flowers, that inspire me.

UC: What is your favorite crochet book in your collection (besides yours, of course)?
Ellen: I love books!  I have many, many books.  I love my The Complete Book of Crochet Stitch Designs by Linda P. Schapper.  I go back to all my Encyclopedia type books, 101 Easy Tunisian Stitches, and The Encyclopedia of Crochet Techniques. There are too many good ones to list.

UC: Do you have any favorite crafting blogs or websites you’d like to share?
Ellen: I love Vashti Braha’s blog.  Of course I love Doris Chan’s blog. For a variety of crafts, I enjoy Brett Bara‘s Manhattan Craft Room. I just came upon Craftsy.com and I think the classes on there could be really worth seeing.

UC: (Insert your own question here.)

Ellen: People frequently ask me how to make crochet their profession and I remind them that it is a career. It takes study, it takes research. It’s not easy to get a book deal. Many very successful crochet designers have never written a book or wanted to write a book.  Be professional always. Never miss a deadline. Always tell the truth. Do work you are proud of. Learn from your mistakes. Every colleague you meet today could be an editor or publisher tomorrow, so use good manners.

Thanks so much Ellen for sharing this great advice and for taking the time to join me for an interview.  And now, on to…

The Book Review

Go Crochet! Afghan Design Workbook is a really fun book.  It is a great introduction to personalizing your own crocheted afghans and also features 50 different motifs and 10 projects.

The book is organized into three sections:

  • Ready…Set…Go Crochet!,
  • Motifs to Go, and
  • Afghans to Go.

There is also an appendix which provides information on yarn weights, hooks, and crochet terms including comparisons between the US and UK terminology.

Ready…Set…Go Crochet! has a nice introduction to supplies including things like digital cameras and blocking boards which aren’t on the standard list of tools included in most crochet books.  It also reviews pattern abbreviations and international stitch symbols.  There are a few pages explaining the stitches used in the book, complete with instructions and diagrams.  This includes the basic stitches (sc, dc, etc.) as well as clusters, popcorns, and several types of decreases.

My favorite part here is the six pages devoted to “Creating Your Own Designs,” where Ellen talks about pattern modification, color, layout, and assembly.

I love Ellen’s discussion of color and yarn selection.

As someone who teaches a lot of beginners, I really enjoy the conversational tone Ellen uses as well as the information she shares.  She anticipates a lot of the questions that beginners or those who are just becoming intermediates have about yarn, terms, etc.

Motifs to Go includes ten designs each in squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons, and octagons.   Each motif includes a small introduction about the pattern or colors by Ellen.  The colors are vibrant and the pictures represent the blocks well.

I particularly like that each motif includes five potential “Mix and Match” partners – especially since the partners are not always the same shape!

Before the patterns for the motifs of a particular shape, Ellen has a page which discusses – and illustrates – different potential layouts for blankets using that shape.  This is one aspect of the book that I think really separates it from other similar books.  For example, in Beyond the Square Crochet Motifs by Edie Eckman, you would find more motifs and equally great information about color and various techniques.  However, if you were trying to piece together an afghan from the different shapes, you would suddenly be presented with watercolors, which might make it tough for you to visualize a final project if you are a relative beginner.

From Edie Eckman’s Beyond the Square Crochet Motifs.

The final section has ten afghans using great color combos and different joining techniques to bring the patterns to life.

This isn’t a book where all the motifs will end up the same size or are easy to combine together – the All Call pattern, which includes every motif in the book, looks like it was a struggle to bring together!  If you are looking for a book like that, there are others on the market.  I definitely recommend Go Crochet! Afghan Design Workbook to anyone looking for another crochet motif book to add to their collection, to crocheters who want to branch out from following patterns completely to modifying patterns to personalize their finished projects, and to anyone who enjoys crocheting afghans.  In addition to all the content I’ve mentioned, the book is spiral-bound so you can lay it flat when working on a project, it includes a section on conversions from US to UK terms, there are both pattern abbreviations and stitch diagrams, and the motifs and blankets are beautifully photographed.  I gave the book 5 stars in my review.

Crochet Book Review: Crochet Compendium

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Today I’m reviewing Crochet Compendium: The Ultimate Collection of Crochet Techniques, edited by Connie Ellison.  I have recently updated my crochet book collection, which is why you are seeing so many book reviews!  The Crochet Compendium is an interesting book for the crocheter who is looking to branch out and learn new skills. It is basically a compilation of many DRG crochet books. DRG’s Annie’s Attic books often feature an innovative approach to a crochet technique, or a re-introduction to a lost crochet art.

The chapters in this book are:

Broomstick lace
Crocheting doilies
Double-ended crochet
Filet crochet
Crochet with fleece
Mosaic crochet
Hairpin lace
Learn to crochet socks
Symbol crochet
Wiggly crochet
Crochet basics

Each chapter includes an introduction to the technique and one or two patterns. I happen to own two of booklets exerpted in this collection, Learn to Do Hairpin Lace and Learn to Crochet Socks the Toe Up Way! by Kim Kotary.

I compared the original books to see what is actually included in the Crochet Compendium. The Crochet Compendium includes the entire set of instructions for each of those two books, so I assume that it includes the full instructions for the other books in the compilation as well. The benefit of this, of course, is that you have all of the same technique/skill information in this one book as you would get from purchasing about fifteen or so booklets. In addition to saving you money, having the one book saves some room on the bookshelf and you can actually find it later since there is a name on the spine (which the booklets lack).

I’ve always found the DRG booklets helpful for explaining techniques because they use a combination of illustrations and photographs showing exactly where the hook should be placed. This book continues that tradition (because all of the content is previously published). The Crochet basics section would be helpful to a beginner crocheter and reviews the basic stitches as well as simple color changes and finishing techniques. This is definitely a book that a crocheter could “grow” with since many different skills are included.

On the other hand, you have one or two patterns for each technique instead of the 5-10 included in the original booklet. I tend to rely less on patterns and am more interested in learning different techniques (I have been crocheting for 27 years after all!), so I don’t personally have a problem with that aspect of the book. The patterns are typical of what you would expect from DRG booklets (i.e., primarily using medium/worsted weight yarns from big box stores, clear instructions, and not particularly groundbreaking from a style or fashion perspective). Again, this is alright for me but this isn’t the book for you if you are expecting trendy designs with luxury yarns (or fitted fashions with a lot of drape). Rather, it is a book that emphasizes technique with a pattern or two to help you apply the technique. If you are the type of crocheter that really needs to work through several patterns to get comfortable with a new technique, this book may not include enough patterns for you.

The booklets were thin enough to lay flat when reading so you would be able to look at photos and diagrams very easily when learning a new technique; in book form, it is actually rather difficult to do that. The hairpin lace section, for example, is near the center of the book. Hairpin lace is a technique that is increasingly popular and I imagine many readers may want to learn it first. You would basically have to damage the spine in order to spread the book out so you could read the instructions and look at the visuals while you work. Your alternative would be to keep flipping to the book, working on your crochet, opening the book up again, etc. This is no different than most crochet books, but it is a definite disadvantage compared to owning the booklets that are compiled in this collection.

Is this book a must-have? I don’t think so. Is it a nice addition to your crochet library? Probably. Someone who has been crocheting for while and likes to shop at Annie’s Attic may already have several of these booklets in his/her collection. If you are interested in learning many of the techniques featured in the book, there is a definite cost savings compared to buying each booklet (and some are out-of-print or difficult to obtain). From that perspective, the book would save you some money and you would probably be willing to deal with the binding (no worse than most crochet books, just not as easy to use as a booklet). The book would also make a nice gift for a crocheter who is trying to learn new things – it includes some of the hottest techniques and skills in crochet right now (e.g., broomstick lace, hairpin lace, symbol crochet, crochet socks, and tunisian crochet) as well as others which are really fun.  I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Crochet Book Review: Everything Crochet

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Today I’m reviewing Everything Crochet: A Must-Have Reference Book for the Serious Crocheter!, edited by Carol Alexander and Connie Ellison, a new crochet guide (with the subheading “A must-have reference for the serious crocheter!) published by DRG as an Annie’s Attic book.

Everything Crochet is a book book I would recommend to one of my beginner crochet students as s/he builds a reference library to help improve and expand her/his own crochet skills.  It provides an in depth review of some of the great mysteries of crochet that most of us learn over time through trial and error and an introduction to many of the lesser known crochet techniques.  The book aims to bring you from beginner through crochet professional as a detailed reference book for crochet.  In the note from the editors, Carol Alexander and Connie Ellison announce, “At last, here is that one, must-have guidebook that will become a much-used and treasured staple in any crocheter’s library.”  I’m not sure any book can live up to the standard of being the one book that every crocheter will need, but this one definitely covers a lot of areas usually ignored in other crochet guides.

The book is organized into 17 chapters:

  1. Stitch Basics
  2. Weights & Measures
  3. Reading Patterns
  4. Special Helps
  5. Crochet Hooks & Tools
  6. Yarns 101
  7. Getting It Together
  8. The Right Fit
  9. Working With Color
  10. Professional Touches
  11. Reinvent and Recycle
  12. Not Your Ordinary Crochet
  13. Crochet Care
  14. Getting Organized
  15. Teaching Kids to Crochet
  16. The Business of Crochet
  17. Tips from the Pros

The book fills a gap that many self-taught crocheters may have by having several really strong sections.  Chapter 1 provides detailed explanation of the basic stitches, with diagrams and swatches.  It actually explains (visually) how to count your stitches and rows, which is something that often confuses beginners. (And how can you check your gauge if you can’t count your stitches?)  Similarly Chapter 3 really walks you through understanding not just the pattern abbreviations but what different expressions actually mean.  The gauge section in Chapter 4 really demonstrates the benefits of checking gauge and swatching.  For your inner nerd, Chapters 5 and 6 go into the history of crochet hooks and the process of making acrylic yarn, respectively.  Chapter 7 does a great job of showing different seaming techniques and their impact on the finished piece.  Chapter 8 walks you through creating your own project based on the shape of an existing garment (in this case, a skirt).  It also has a nice sock section – great news since crocheted socks seem to be all the rage these days.  Chapter 10 reviews several finishing techniques, like buttons, pockets, and fringe.

Chapter 12 provides an introduction to many techniques that usually left out of other crochet guides, like felting, fair isle, mosaic, filet, beadwork, tambour crochet, and crocheting on fabric, as well as Swedish embroidery.  Chapter 13 gives clear instructions on taking good care of your creations so they can have a long life.  Chapter 15 and 16 are helpful if you are considering teaching or designing.  Chapter 17 provides (unsorted) tips from (anonymous) pros.  These tips are very helpful overall.

On the down side, Chapter 2 feels like a print out from the Yarn Standards website without much added.  Chapter 11, which I thought might focus on using upcycled materials for crocheting, actually emphasizes attaching applique to fabric and looks pretty dated.  Chapter 9 does a great job of explaining color theory but doesn’t provide enough details about the techniques of color changing for a beginner.  Chapter 14 doesn’t seem as valuable to me as the other chapters – I would have left it out to add more details on colorwork or specialized techniques.

The book also relies heavily on illustrations rather than on photographs.  I know I personally find photographs easier to understand, and most of my students do too.  Some of the swatch photographs appear messy and unblocked.  In general, the patterns seem a bit clunky and not very fresh.  The designers’ names are not listed so it seems like these may be recycled patterns from other Annie’s Attic books.

Overall, for the price, Everything Crochet is an excellent value.  This is definitely a solid reference book that a beginner, advanced beginner, or intermediate crocheter can learn a lot from and refer to many times.  The book is especially valuable for a largely self- or internet-taught crocheter (sorry internet!) who hasn’t had a teacher there to guide them towards learning specific skills or techniques.  If the patterns are not your style, there are great patterns elsewhere but it is hard to find an inexpensive book that can teach you this much in the way of technique.

In my Amazon review, I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.  It is currently on sale at Annie’s Attic in both PDF and book form, as well as on Amazon.

Book Review: The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design

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Today, I finished reading Shannon Okey’s The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design.

The book is a primer for getting started as a (hand) knitting or crochet designer.  It addresses the business end of designing (e.g., writing up, testing, printing, marketing patterns) and is not a guide on how to design.  Shannon compiles information from her own career; from extensive interviews with designers, editors, tech editors, publishers, and others in the industry; and from a range of web resources into an easily digestible package.  Her writing style is both conversational and professional.  The book provides many links to further reading on the internet.

The first section of the book discusses different aspects of being a professional designer.  Shannon shares her own opinions and also seeks out tips from others in the industry.  The chapters in this section are:

  1. What does it mean to be professional?
  2. Social media
  3. TCB, No PB&J Required, or: The Business Side of Things
  4. Send in the lawyers
  5. Writing patterns
  6. Making sales
  7. Proposals and Publishing
  8. Advertising
  9. Further education
  10. Professional organizations and associations
  11. Standing out

The main themes Shannon emphasizes in this section are behaving professionally, promoting yourself and your brand/business, understanding your strengths and limitations (and therefore how and when to get help), and staying true to your own values.  For example, is it more important to you that you have full control over your patterns or would you prefer to design while others deal with photography, distribution, and/or tech editing?  While she clearly presents her own opinions, Shannon makes it clear that people can find success through many different paths so you will need to find what works for you.

This section is slightly more than half of the book.  Shannon doesn’t claim to have invented the wheel, and much of this information is freely available online – she even provides links for you.  You will probably consider this part of the book successful if you believe that:

  • as an emerging designer from outside of the industry, it would take you more time/money to gather this information on your own than to buy and read Shannon’s book,
  • Shannon Okey as a success in the industry, and
  • you can trust Shannon and thereby, her advice.

On the other hand, if you feel like Shannon is just building up her “cult of personality” through this book, or that she hasn’t enjoyed the type of success you envision for yourself, or you are already aware of the many resources she includes in the book, then you may feel cheated.  As a recent knitter, I am not as familiar with Shannon Okey (gasp!) as I am with many of the crochet designers profiled in the next section, so I started the book without a bias towards or against her.  I did, however, play the mental game of wondering how I would have responded to the same material if it was presented by Crochet Designer X or Crochet Designer Y, and I know my response may have been different if another author presented the same information.

The second section of the book, The interviews, includes profiles of over 30 professionals with various roles and tenure within the industry.  The consistent messages in this section are about remaining professional and realizing that this is an industry where you are expected to work hard and long hours but may not reap financial rewards in proportion to those efforts.  The interesting thing about this section is that, because so many voices are “speaking,” there are many different messages.  In a sense, this section reinforces the early point about staying true to your own values.  I found the interviews fascinating – the “horror stories” in particular are real learning lessons.

The final section of the book includes two appendices (book proposal and class listing templates) and yet more links to various resources.

I would recommend this book to an aspiring/emerging crochet/knit designer.  I personally had the benefit of a fabulous mentor, Mary Nolfi, through the Crochet Guild of America‘s mentoring program, and I still learned a lot from reading The Knitgrrl Guide to Professional Knitwear Design.  Yes, the information presented in the book exists out there in the world, but if you don’t have it at your fingertips during the early stages of your career, you might make devastating mistakes.  With that said, I do have some complaints about the book.  In the second section, the editing changes.  Sentences suddenly end without periods, or even mid-thought.  It isn’t clear to me if this is because the interviews were conducted online and Shannon is keeping them in the original, grammatically incorrect format, or…?  I also had some issues with the formatting of the book in general.  There are more blank pages than I’m accustomed to seeing.  In the interview section, there are many parts where it seems like a page break was incorrectly inserted or removed.  These weren’t deal breakers for me, but contrast with Shannon’s presentation of herself as a detail-oriented self-publisher.  It would have been helpful to include a short chapter, or at least some discussion, about damage control if you’ve made mistakes early in your career (i.e., before reading this book) since there is a lot of talk about people who behave unprofessionally or act like divas.

Crochet Classics Book Review: Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Crochet

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Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Crochet

This is one of the first books I bought for my teaching library after becoming a CYC certified crochet teacher and instructor.  The book was published in 2002 and is part of a series of books by Donna Kooler that cover various needlecrafts. I recommend this book for many reasons but there are four elements of this book that really make it stand out as a classic.

  1. It is organized in a “beginner friendly” manner.
  2. It includes both left- and right-handed instructions, with illustrations.
  3. It provides a thorough overview of various techniques and materials.
  4. It allows you to grow from a beginner to an advanced intermediate crocheter within the same book.

The book is organized into five sections: Beginnings, Crochet Basics, Beyond the Basics, Pattern Gallery, and For Your Information.

The Beginnings section has a very interesting history of crochet in Europe and America.  Donna also includes a great photograph in this section with crochet hooks from different time periods.  This section is one that I read with fascination but it could easily be skipped by those who aren’t history nerds ;).

The Crochet Basics section is designed to explain the hows and whys of everything from patterns to materials to basics stitches to a beginner crocheter. One of the best structural aspects of the book is that this section starts with a key to crochet pattern abbreviations and symbols.  In contrast, many crochet books put this information towards the back in an appendix.  If beginner crocheters aren’t accustomed to this formatting, they are immediately turned off to the entire craft!  And why not, since if you don’t know how to translate the abbreviations and symbols, how can you move ahead through the patterns presented in the book?

Donna also explains how to read patterns.  Many books, even those designed for the beginners, provide a list of abbreviations and assume that the reader will know what to do when they see (instructions between parenthesis) or *inside of asterisks.*  These are precisely the aspects of pattern reading which most people find confusing.  Donna discusses gauge in detail, rather than just reminding you to “check your gauge.”  She provides a thorough review of different materials including yarn fibers, caring for your crochet fabric, and the purpose of various notions.  This section includes a lot of information that even some more advanced crocheters may lack (e.g., which fibers are most elastic and things to consider when substituting the yarn for a pattern).

The section continues with illustrated instructions for forming all of the basic stitches of crochet.  As noted above, Kooler includes both right- and left-handed instructions with illustrations.  The end of this section includes several simple patterns by a variety of designers (ok, mostly by Melissa Leapman, but you get the point).

The Beyond the Basics section provides an overview of colors and various colorwork techniques, thread crochet (including filet and motifs), and what Donna calls “specialty crochet” but what I call “the stuff that isn’t usually in the big, expensive crochet books so you have to buy another book to find out about it.”  Here she provides an introduction to bead crochet, wire crochet, and Tunisian crochet, and has a small section on finishing details like pockets.  This section also includes a number of patterns by various designers.  In general, the patterns aren’t really my style, but each one emphasizes specific techniques or skills.  The patterns here are more oriented towards building the skill set of the reader than towards being extremely fashionable.

The Crochet Pattern Gallery section is my favorite.  This is basically a stitch guide.  The stitches are crocheted in attractive colors and photographed clearly.  The patterns include both abbreviations and symbols.  And, as if those things weren’t enough, Donna includes alternate names for stitches, when appropriate, and variations of the stitches.  The stitches are organized as:

  • Simple Combinations,
  • Fans & Shells,
  • Lace Patterns,
  • Waves, Ripples & Chevrons,
  • Angled Patterns,
  • Spiked & Crossed,
  • Post Stitches,
  • Bobbles, Popcorns & Puffs,
  • Tapestry, Jacquard & Mosaic,
  • Net, Mesh & Trellis,
  • Motifs,
  • Filet Crochet,
  • Edges, Edgings & Insertions, and
  • Tunisian Crochet.

The final section, called For Your Information, includes a resource list which is obviously outdated, footnotes, an excellent bibliography, a standard index, and a pattern index.  The pattern index is quite detailed – for example, cluster stitches are listed by name and under cluster stitches as well.

To keep my review balanced, I will mention a few things that make it less than perfect (egads!):

  • This is a classic, not a trendy book.  The patterns are conservative and not all of them are “current” styles.
  • It doesn’t provide much detail on designing your own projects, particularly clothing, which is something that many crocheters are looking for today.
  • It doesn’t use a binding which allows you to lay it flat when reading.
  • While the illustrations are better than those in most crochet books, most beginners would probably find it helpful if there were more photographs in the Crochet Basics section.

Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Crochet really is a stand out as an all around reference book for crochet. It has excellent photographs and clear illustrations.  It is a softcover, which allows you to carry it around without throwing out your back.  I highly recommend it for the library of any beginner through advanced intermediate crocheter.

Updated 8/10/2014

Encyclopedia of Crochet revised

This book is now available as an ebook, and there is a revised edition (pictured above) available in print and as an ebook.