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Majoring in Lace: Introduction

Introduction; Shawl Construction • Yarn Choices; Needle Choices; Gauge: Chart Reading 101The Structure of Lace; Role of the YO; Role of the Decrease; Movements in Lace KnittingProvisional and Invisible Cast Ons; Hard Cast Ons; Circular Beginnings

. . . we have had the satisfaction of estimating her Lace & her Muslin; & she said too little to afford us much other amusement.

--Jane Austin to her sister, 1801

There is nothing mysterious about the movements and gestures of knitting lace. Anyone able to form a yarn over, make decreases, and read a chart is able to produce the sort of beautifully patterned cloud that shivers under a breath and sets the eyes dizzy. Anyone. There is no elusive, secret talent to it - just time and experience and acclimation.

The magic is in the long-ago motif creator's instinct for combining negative and positive space to express an idea of flowers, rocks, foaming waves; in the act of blocking and dressing, like nothing so much as watching a flower bloom; in the contradictory nature of lace itself - airy but warm; time-consuming but fragile; worn for modesty but in itself ostentatiously showy. What could be better than a project so generous with its rewards?

I should emphasize here that I am by no means an expert. I am only trying to put visuals of common techniques in one place, supplemented by my tips derived from my own experience and background information from my own reading and research. If you see an error or if I've omitted something important, by all means let me know - maybe this could, through collaboration, become an authoritative compendium on lace knitting.

Brief historical notes

There are several great traditions of lace knitting, (arguably) the most well-known of which come from northernmost Shetland (Unst) and Orenburg in Russia, with beautiful lace coming out of Estonia and Iceland as well. They all borrow motifs and techniques from each other, but the strongest and most suprising thread is the knitters themselves and their motives - knitting lace is a relatively new occupation, scarcely two hundred years old, developed in rural and poor areas as a commercial enterprise. The oldest, most famous motifs and patterns, astonishing in their delicacy and beauty, are the invention of rough fishermen's and farmers' wives - how strange, to work endless hours for the adornment of their wealthier, idler counterparts! The patterns are elegant in their economy and cleverness and expression, the products of truly artistic eyes and minds.

Kinds of Lace

Most lace may be described succinctly with two attributes:

1) the ground on which it is worked, whether

  • garter stitch (knitted every row) -

  • or stockinette stitch (knit and purl rows alternated) -

  • 2) the freqency of patterned rows (rows that contain decreases and YOs), whether

  • every row -

  • or every right side row (with plain purl or knit rows in between)

  • Garter stitch lace looks the same from both sides (as long as the decreases are not paired, but that's for another day), while stockinette lace has a definite right (knit) and wrong (purl) side. Lace patterned every row is significantly more open than lace patterned every other row - both motifs shown use YO/dec/YO/dec mesh-type openwork patterns, but because lace patterned every row actually incorporates the last row's YO into the next row's decrease, the effect is much airier.

    **Many people call lace by different names based on how often patterning occurs - "lace knitting" for every other row, "knitted lace" for every row - but I don't care to do so. I can't find any historical basis for it beyond an offhand reference by Margeret Stove, and as many complete pieces (shawls, scarves, robes) combine the two, there doesn't seem to be much point other than to declare that one is more authentic or difficult than the other. For the record, "knitted lace" isn't any harder to do than "lace knitting"; it's just a tiny bit more awkward at first to catch a YO loop in a decrease.

    Shawl Construction

    Most lace projects are wraps - that is, shawls, stoles and scarves. A simple, flat shape shows the play between motifs and patterns to the best advantage, while the wearing takes advantage of the wonderful draping qualities of well-blocked lace. Most stoles and scarves are long rectangles, of course, while shawls are usually square

    or circular

    (photo courtesy of the very talented Melissa)

    or triangular.

    Most shawls are composed of a main section, surrounded by a border with a different pattern and finally finished with a narrow edging all around. There are variations on this, of course - you might have several different border sections or none; a beautiful stole may be made with no edging at all, but a frame of garter stitch simply worked along with a large block of the central pattern.

    For shawls with centers, borders and edgings, construction becomes an interesting issue. Because lace needs substantial stretching to look its best, inflexible cast-on and bound-off edges are avoided as much as possible, as are any kind of backstitched or mattress-stitched seams. As a result, the knitting might move in several directions within one piece.

    The traditional Shetland square shawl is worked in flat pieces and then grafted together, matching the knitting tension carefully. The process is represented here:

    First, one edging side (represented in red) is worked from short side to short side, starting with an invisible caston and ending by holding the stitches. One border section (represented in blue) is then picked up along the flat side of the edging and worked from long side to long side. Finally, a center square is worked from the inside edge of the border. Three other edging/border pieces are worked in the same way, and everything is grafted together.

    There are several variations on this (some shawls are worked corner-to-corner; some knit the whole edging and pick up sections from it; etc), but the most popular modern interpretation does away with pieces and grafting. Rather, the entire shawl is knit in one piece, with one continuous thread:

    First, the center square (in red) is knitted flat from an invisible cast-on. Without breaking the thread, stitches for the border (in blue) are picked up around the entire perimeter of the center square, joined, and knitted in the round, working a mitered corner at each angle. Finally, starting at a corner, one short side of the edging is cast on invisibly, and the edging is worked flat, joining the live stitches of the shawl, one by one, with the edging rows. The last edging row is grafted to the first for a completely seamless shawl without a single cast-on or cast-off edge.

    Circular shawls are knit entirely in the round:

    Beginning at the center point with a circular cast-on, the center section (in red) is worked in the round, increasing throughout to maintain a circle, then any borders (in blue), and finally an edging is attached in the same way as for a square shawl. There are square shawls, too, worked in this way from a center starting point. Increases are made at the corners to form a sharp miter and maintain the square shape.

    Though triangular shawls are worked flat, it's worth noting that they're actually half a circularly-knit square shawl:

    That is, they generally start from a tiny center point (the red star) and, working back and forth with increases done at each edge and on either side of the center line (mimicking the mitered increases at each corner of a circularly-knit square shawl), they grow until the border is finished. Then, an edging is attached as for a square or circular shawl.

    Next: Yarn Choices; Needle Choices; Gauge: Chart Reading 101

    All posts in this series:


    Thank you so much for this tutorial...I have been wanting to branch out into lace knitting for quite a while. Can't wait for the next post. :-)

    Very nice intro--I look forward to the next installment, professor!

    I'm going to sit back and enjoy this. Good on you for protesting the "lace knitting vs knitted lace" argument - I never found anything other than the Stove reference about it, either. It always seemed like a pretty arbitrary difference.

    As usual, an excellent tutorial! Educational, well-written, and extremely informative. Can't wait to read part 2.

    Thanks for doing this series - that was a wonderful intro! Looking forward to the next installment!

    Man you are good! Thank you so much for this!

    Thanks for the great information. Can't wait for the next one!

    ya know you should write a book, im sure you hear it all the time :)

    You could talk about cables, fair isle, lace and have one pattern you creates for each examlpe, with these wonderful graphics that explain how it all works. I would buy it!

    great intro!

    Great Eunny! Thanks! I love lace patterns, and I look forward to knowing more about it. Maybe even learn how to make my own lace pattern.

    Wow, Eunny. Beautifully written and illustrated, and so much knowledge packed into a neat little package. You are doing all of us budding lace knitters a valuable service. Thanks for all the hard work you are putting into this tutorial!

    I'm a fairly experienced lace knitter -- I've made several lace shawls and have a couple on the needles at the moment. Even though lesson #1 didn't contain any information that was specifically new to me, I can tell that this is going to be an absolutely invaluable tutorial series. Thank you thank you thank you. Looking forward to part 2!

    Another fabulous tutorial. I can't wait to see what's next.

    Wow. And no cutting! ;)

    Wow. It seems like it's all about lace today! Even I, the one who keeps saying she won't do lace, posted about lace!

    I have been looking forward to this tutorial. I know it's going to be great. Thanks for taking the time!

    May the Goddess of Knitting bless you many times over. I am a newly obsessed lace knitter and am soooo looking forward to your commentary and direction!

    Thanks so much for posting this. I'm really looking forward to the whole series. You write so well and clearly. I especially enjoy the historical tidbits you include. Out of curiosity, what is your favorite source (or sources) for the history of lace knitting?

    WOW!! This is just really wonderful. Even if one has a few resources/books on lace, sometimes it's just the way it's written that captures one's psyche - that's what you've done. Anxiously awaiting the next installment... Thanks :)

    Wonderful information! I'll definitely be following the series.

    Aaah, you are the best teacher. Thanks for all this hard work. Very informative!

    I am so excited!! I have always wanted to learn how to knit lace. That is one of my goals for this year. I am a little worried about how to read a chart, but hey you make everything look easy to accomplish.

    oh darnit, I'm out of printer ink! Better run to the store, cuz I don't want to miss a minute! Thanks for all the hard work! You are teaching a lot of us some valuable techniques!

    Another marvelous series! I look forward to the next installments. Do you recommend any further reading on the history of lace?

    To add another voice to the chorus: you are a wonderful teacher! I'm about to start my first lace project, a shawl to wear to my daughter's wedding. Thanks!

    thank you for your tutorial! i've been lurking for awhile, but had to say that i enjoy your writing immensely! looking forward to reading about lace garment design/construction...can't wait for the next post.

    ps-do you have an rss feed?

    silly me...there it is! thanks!

    thanks so much for the tutorial. I've enjoyed reading through your others. You are a wealth of knitty knowledge!

    Sheesh, I've already learned something and it's only the first day of school. Thanks heaps Eunny!

    I love the tutorial and the fire flowers shawl and your blog. But what I really want to know is where did that quote from Jane Austen come from? I have a burning curiousity. Sorry.

    Oh goodie! I can tell I'm going to enjoy 'class' as much as I do the rest of your terribly instructional information. Thanks so much for taking the time to put these kinds of things together for us.

    Thanks for the nice introduction. It's occuted to me that you're quite a gifted writer/teacher. The finesse of your posts with their graphics and the like is much appreciated.



    Eunny, you deserve a Pulitzer! (or at least a generous gifting of cobweb-weight yarn)

    thank you so much for putting together this great tutorial! you are so incredibly talented! i'm looking forward to this series!

    I've been nearly obsessed w/knitting a lace shawl for at least a year and have been too chicken (I'll be honest) to start. I don't know what my problem is -I've been knitting for 13 years! Anyway, your post gave me a renewed determination to go for it. I appreciate your explanations too - I seem to have a need to understand the construction before I start. Go figure. Thanks!

    I'm very much looking forward to the future lace entries! My only thing is that I would like a link or a pattern name or something for each of the photos. Some of those close-ups have really attracted my attention, and I'd love to get my hands on a pattern.

    Thanks so much. I've done some lace, but really haven't read much about it. Look forward to learning more from you.

    WOW. That was awesome. I cannot defeat the Knitty Branching Out scarf, though, so I have SERIOUS doubts as to whether I would be able to complete something more complicated...!

    Thank you! I appreciate your attention to detail, and I learn so much by reading your blog!

    Eunny - this is fantastic. You are so generous to share your knowledge and experience, and the illustrations are fantastic. When's your book coming out :) Sincere thanks from an aspiring lace knitter.

    Excellent info - thanks for sharing! :)

    Thank you for writing this. I can't wait to read the rest of the series.

    Thank you for the excellent write up. I really enjoyed reading this.

    You are a knit-blogging superstar.


    Oh. My. God. This is going to be phenomenal! You are a Goddess.

    Brilliant tutorial.

    Thank you Eunny! It's perfect! And I've linked to it on the Mountain Lace Knitalong page so they can all see it too :)

    Eunny, you rule! Thanks so much for this...I'm already inspired enough to pick up the lace I all but gave up a little while ago!

    P.S.Recomended reading would be most welcome...

    I've been wanting to make a lace shawl for a long time. I've finally gotten a book and yarn but I'm still have a bit of trepidation in starting a project. So I love this series you're doing. Thanks so much! I'm also looking at your lace shawls for inspiration! They are absolutely gorgeous.

    I have reading your blog for about 2 months and I LOVE THIS. I am so in awe of your knitting ability

    Thanks for the rundown. I've done a little bit of lace knitting in the past, and am returning to it, with more thought this time. I've been frustrated with needles lately, as I've been trying to knit with size 4 needles. I am contemplating listening to my gut and going for a smaller needle size.

    I've also just started paying attention to yards per weight as a yarn gauge, it is especially useful in lace yarn because the differences aren't quite so apparent to my eye.

    Thanks for the lace college!

    (Unrelated, but I just tried to comment on lesson 2, and got an error message)

    I have searched in your completed work to find a pattern source for the rust or paprika colored square shawl example but don't see it anywhere else... Where did the inspiration for this beautiful piece come from?

    Aha! I think I've found it: Eugen Beugler's Frost Flowers and Leaves - When I load the post of a few days ago that (I believe) contains that picture, it comes up as a rust-colored enlongated smear - but I think I recognize it by the color as this pattern! Your version is much more enticing than the one in A Gatherning of Lace! Thank you for sharing your work - I'm purring.

    OMG YOU ROCK!!! Awesome lace analysis. Thanks for taking the time a compiling this. Very well done

    Your writing on lace is *so* fabulous! I loved it. So much, I couldn't help but talk about it in the PointySticks podcast. It is GREAT!

    Could you give yarn name examples for the gossamer lace yarn? I've never seen anything finer than cobweb.

    I've been fascinated with lace forever...knitting lace stockings at 14 (just before pantyhose were introduced); cataloging it in college for a university costume collection; perusing the wonderful cases of it in the Textile Study Rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum; much later selling it at antique shows and now, knitting it. Lace says "yes" and "no" at the same time! Thanks for your great introduction.

    Thank you so much for starting this series. It's riveting.

    Margaret Stove is not the only writer who differentiates between knitted lace and lace knitting--Susanna Lewis and Sharon Miller are two that come to mind off the top of my head.

    I think it's important to make the distinction between the two not only because of the fabric's look but because the decreases are handled differently. Anyone who has decreased in knitted lace knows this. It's one thing to decrease two made stitches; it's another adventure entirely to knit together one full stitch and a yarn-over.

    Just my dollah-three-eighty.

    Thank you so much! I know I will come back here all the time for more information.

    I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy. stunning...

    Wonderful is too mild a word! I got started on lace knitting when my mom-in-law was hospitalized and I was the designated "sitter" - resulting in 2 lace shawls over a 3-week period! Now my yarn stash seems to be taken over by the most delicate and gossamer threads, all clamoring (softly) to be knit right now, please, and my husband is beginning to wonder just how many lace knitting books there are for sale in this world! This tutorial is amazing, and is joining the rest of my lace library - if you're like me, you enjoy the research and planning phase almost as much as the knitting phase. Now if only I could get into the "finish one thing before you start another" phase... Thank you, Eunny!!

    Wow! I've been borrowing a variety of lace knitting books from the library for the past several weeks, but your blog is the first time I have read anything stated so simply and well...you have cleared up many questions I had, and some I didn't even realize I had! thanks!

    Just wonderful. I'm a long timelace knitter but I'm always eager tolearn something new. I'm happy I found you!

    Really terrific tutorial on lace! Very clear and really nice pictures/examples!

    çok güzeller gerçekten

    I have deemed 2007 as my "year of lace." I am finding that this could become my knitting passion. Thanks for this tutorial - I'll be back for more!

    this was great to run across as a person who is interested in lace work, but needs to know everything before I start. Now I am not so scared to pick up the wonderful local lace i have been buying and use it to create beautiful things they were meant for.
    thank you!!

    Thanks to you Eunny for your gracious supply of information on lace. I don't know anyone who knits lace, and I'm working on by very first lace project (a traditional shetland shawl in alpace) with have no background in lace whatsoever, and finally went to the internet to find out if there were other folks out there as interested in it as me. Glad to learn that there are. I haven't even blocked out my lace shawl yet, but am so captivated by it! Good job with your blog! Keep up the great work! Your efforts keep people like me inspired.

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