Majoring in Lace: Introduction
Introduction; Shawl Construction Yarn Choices; Needle Choices; Gauge: Chart Reading 101 The Structure of Lace; Role of the YO; Role of the Decrease; Movements in Lace Knitting Provisional 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
2) the freqency of patterned rows (rows that contain decreases and YOs), whether
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.
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
(photo courtesy of the very talented Melissa)
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.
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