Majoring in Lace - Part II
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
There is some well-deserved mystique around the yarns used for lace. Even the very weight classifications - in other knitting, unromantic terms like "worsted" and "sport" - seem to hint at lurking possibility: Gossamer! Cobweb! "Bulky" sounds just ugly by comparison.
From left to right (penny included for scale):
- Fingering weight wool (shown yarn is 190 yards per 50 gram ball);
- Lace weight silk (a catch-all category between fingering and cobweb, with a wide range of weights. Helen's Laces, Lorna's Laces, Knitpicks lace yarns, and Jaggerspun Zephyr all fall in this category. The shown yarn is approximately 500 yards per 50 gram ball);
- Cobweb weight Merino (shown yarn is approximately 775 yards per 50 grams);
- Gossamer weight Merino (shown yarn is approximately 1,300 yards per 50 grams).
Fiber content, though, is a different story. Most lace needs substantial stretching to look its best - yarns with natural elasticity, such as wools and other animal fibers, tend to grow the most gracefully during the blocking process. Inelastic fibers like silk, linen and cotton, on the other hand, must be knitted with care to avoid the slightest gauge inconsistency. Even then, they will not stretch and flatten to the degree that wools will, and the pattern will not bloom as fully. This might be an asset in some applications - the crisp, structural quality of lace knitted with, for example, cotton, might work beautifully in a fitted garment.
For me, the single most important factor when choosing a lace needle is the sharpness and taper of the tip. A lot of manipulation has to be done - single decreases, double decreases, through front loops and back - with yarn much thinner than what that needle is typically used for. A sharp, long tip goes a long way towards the easy catching of, say, three stitches to purl through the back.
Next, consider the surface of the needle. The aforementioned manipulations are difficult to perform on a very slick, very slippery needle without stitches occasionally jumping ship, but a needle reluctant to slide the stitches smoothly as they are worked will drive a knitter crazy.
At right is a blunt, polished metal needle with a very slippery surface (Addi Turbo); in the center, a coated bamboo needle with a tolerably sharp tip but a rather sticky surface (Crystal Palace circular); and at the left a coated aluminum needle with a blessedly sharp, fearfully pointy tip and a not-too-grabby, not-too-slick shaft (Inox Grey circular). No prizes for guessing which one I like best.
Then comes the next question - double points or circulars? Many patterns, even for pieces worked entirely flat, call for circular needles to distribute the bulk of the (usually mind-bogglingly numerous) stitches. For pieces worked in the round, some method of knitting circularly is required, of course - the knitter might choose very long Shetland lace double-points, but most often a circular needle is used. The smoothness of the join between cable and shaft becomes hugely important when working with very fine yarns - the slightest bump or gap will snag delicate yarns. Weeping and hair-rending will ensue - save yourself the trouble and choose a needle with a very smooth join.
Don't let the knitting police know, but...I never check gauge for lace. I consider the gauge notes given with patterns to be almost completely useless - it is impossible to take an accurate count of stitches over a complicated pattern (it would be more useful for patterns to include a gauge for stockinette using the same yarn and needle). Since finished measurements are rarely crucial in a lace project, it is easier to just start knitting and check size as you go to confirm that the finished size will be tolerable.
This doesn't mean, though, that swatching isn't important, particularly when substituting yarns or developing your own pattern.
The overall look, size, and effect of lace can vary dramatically with the slightest difference in needle sizes. Yarn overs in particular, because they lack the stabilizing influence of being drawn through the last row's stitch, can get out of control. The swatches above were done with a standard laceweight, on (clockwise from left top row) US0 (2.00mm), US2 (2.75mm), US4 (3.5mm) and US6 (4.0mm) needles. The swatches are all the same, a very simple faggoted trellis (alternated YOs and decreases on every right-side row) broken by a two-stitch column of stockinette in the center.
The needle size I most often see called for with laceweight yarn (in itself a problem because laceweights vary so widely) is a US6. I don't find the resulting fabric appealing at all - the whole stitches are sloppy and loose, and the YOs are enormous. In a motif patterned every row, the size of the YOs would be even more exaggerated. While this could be taken advantage of for very airy, very open patterns, pictorial lace loses all impact when the "solid" portions are almost as open as the YO areas.
I still find the same true for the swatch knitted on US4s, and US0 is too dense for most tastes, but the US2 strikes me as finding the right balance between crisp and lacy.
This is a really personal thing - as a rule, I like lace knit on smaller needles, but the vast majority of people prefer something airier. Then, too, different motifs look better at different gauges - some patterns really need crisp, clear definition to make the image pop, but more abstract motifs often look better at a more open gauge. The only way to know is to experiment. Swatching for lace is easy - use an invisible caston, knit a couple rows in garter stitch, work a repeat or two of the motif with a two or three stitch frame of garter stitch on either side, and finish with one or two more rows of garter stitch. Leave the stitches on a holder or on a piece of string (cast-on and bound-off edges should be avoided to allow for maximum stretch), wash the swatch, and pin it out to get a clear idea of the finished effect. Go up or down in needle size until you find something that looks good, in that particular yarn, in that particular pattern.
Chart reading 101
Charts are simply a handy form of shorthand for knitted directions. Complex, expansive motifs - ones that would take pages to write out line-by-line - can be presented succinctly in a clear, universal format that can be read by anyone in any language. The absolute best thing about knitting from charts?
The knitter can see exactly what the pattern will look like before ever reaching for the needles.
Everything you need to know about reading and following charts can be summed up in two basic rules:
1) Charts are read in the direction of the knitting
2) Charts are presented from the right side
Take the chart for the simple swatch in the last section:
The backwards slash represents a ssk (left-leaning) decrease, while the open circles represent YOs. The white spaces are stitches that are knit on the right side. Each grid square represents one stitch.
Assuming that this piece would be worked flat, the chart would be read in the direction of the knitting. Flat knitting grows from the bottom up, and the first row moves from right to left (stitches start on the left needle and are transferred, one by one, to the right needle). So, starting at the bottom right corner, you would read across the chart to the left. After turning the work, you are working from the left edge of the piece to the right edge - so read in that direction.
Now, the second rule is that charts are always presented from the front, or "right", side of the work. You've turned the piece, and are working on the wrong side - so you must do the reverse of what the chart says for each stitch. A blank white square is a knit stitch on the right side - so it must be a purl stitch on the wrong side. Each wrong side, or even, row is a line of plain purl stitches. So you know two things about this motif now: it's patterned on one side only, and since it alternates knit and purl rows, it's stockinette-based lace.
Reading a chart is much more intuitive than what I just described - the symbol key will usually do the reversing for you, noting that certain symbols mean "k2tog on right side; p2togtbl on wrong side" or "k on right side; p on wrong side". Reversing each stitch on the wrong side is done to maintain the slope of the decreases, since the double-thick area of a continuous decrease line becomes a design element in many patterns. For the record, on a stockinette ground:
--k2tog on the right side corresponds to a p2tog on the wrong side;
--ssk or skpo on the right side corresponds to a p2togtbl on the wrong side.
There are only a few other things to know about chart reading:
1) For lace patterned every other row, most charts will omit the plain rows and simply make a note to "work all wrong side rows plain purl" or "work all wrong side rows plain knit". The resulting chart looks something like this:
2) Some charts for lace patterned every row do not require reversing the slant of the decreases on the right side row. This happens in garter-ground lace, where sloped decreases are not used for shaping, but rather, a plain k2tog is used for every decrease. The k2togs in any given row slope in opposition to the decreases in the rows directly above and below, canceling any slope and in effect creating a neutral decrease.
3) Any decent chart will line up the rows properly, and provide a literal representation of how the pattern is constructed. Start trying to really read your chart, rather than just make the movements dictated square by square. Notice things like a decrease, for example, takes up two of the stitches from the row below and turns them into one - the second stitch in the decrease should be the one directly below it on the chart. Knowing this, you can keep yourself on track by looking and seeing that the second stitch incorporated into the first decrease of row 5 should be the stitch directly above the first YO of row 3, that the 6th stitch of row 3 should be directly above the third decrease of row 1, etc.
All posts in this series:
- 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