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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 KnittingProvisional and Invisible Cast Ons; Hard Cast Ons; Circular Beginnings

Yarn choices

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).
Lace knitting is wonderfully flexible in terms of yarn weight, since a precise fit is rarely required - the exact same circular shawl pattern could be rendered in fingering wool on large needles for a large wrap, or in gossamer weight yarn and tiny needles for a doily.

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.

Needle choices

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.

Next: The Structure of Lace; Role of the YO; Role of the Decrease; Movements in Lace Knitting

All posts in this series:


A decent introduction prepares us for the beginning, be it in a book or in knitting. I feel ready to roll.

Thanks so much for the chart tutorial. I've been avoiding knitting with charts. I think I'm ready to try it

Where do you get your Inox needles? I have a couple sets of their grey double points and like them a lot, but can never find the circulars in lengths over 29".

This lace tutorial has inspired me to pick my Peacock Feathers back up and work a few rows. Maybe I'll finish it this month.

I'm very interested in reading your lace series. You are clear, insightful and well organized.

I so appreciate the time you are taking to explain all of this so clearly. Thank you! I just started my first piece of knitting worked from a chart, and feared that it would be beyond me. Not so - I have taken your advice to try to read the pattern and am finding it so much easier and not at all difficult as I thought.
Your advice on needles is terrific, too - I badly needed that when I started. But how do you find a pair with smooth joins when they are sold all packaged up?
With your encouragement I am inspired to tackle more challenging projects.

Great info!

I remember giving up on a project because I didn't like the needle (Addi Turbos) I had been using. Perhaps I'll order some Inox.

Thank you for taking the time to do this for all of us. It is great information, especially determining needle size. I always preferred smaller needles for lace and wondered if it was just me. The pattern reading information is really helpful too. All of it is actually. Thanks again.

Your writing and knitting have similar qualities-precise, elegant and captivating. Thanks for the time you spend in preparing this series.

Very informative! Regarding lace garments, I recall something about a "fitted hoodie with mesh inserts"--how about trying that with lace inserts? Could be gorgeous.
On charts, I just wanted to note that one thing you will not see on a chart is whether the fabric has a bias pull--thus what looks vertical on a chart may actually curve to the left or right--and depending on the pattern, rows may not line up exactly as they occur in the fabric.

Eunny, this is wonderfully informative and such a pleasure to read. We can all see that you've put a great deal of time and thought to put this series together - it's much appreciated by us novice lace knitters!

Just one question: where were you when I started knitting lace and encountered the huge range in "laceweight" yarns?

Thank you for this wonderful series!

Once again, an excellent tutorial! Can't wait for the next installment.

Excellent, again. Thank you for doing this. I've read dozens of lace books, and muddled through on my own, but your phrasing is just making sense. I can't wait to see what is posted later.

Again, thank you! Really, you are giving us a gift in the time you spend tutoring us!

Awesome, awesome, awesome. I appreciated your steek series, but I find this lace one fascinating. I've been contemplating trying to design my first garment- and of course since it's my first garment, I've decided pick something complicated- a lace cardigan! I'm so glad that you've decided to give us this series. I know it'll be a huge help to me!

please tell me someone's falling all over you offering a book deal...?

I like working with bamboo when knitting lace. I've never tried Inox, but will have to check it out. I have to agree with fiber content. I knit the I Do shrug from Knitty using cotton and loved it, of course it is a garment. But when making the Charlotte's Web Shawl, it was obvious that wool was the correct choice.

One point about reading the chart: some charts only give the knitter one half of the chart (say the right side). I'm thinking specifically of Charlotte's Web here. Then the instructions say to reverse the pattern on the other side. This was for a triangular shawl. I found it easier to write out by hand the lace pattern for both sides, until I was familiar enough with the pattern to use the chart.

What a wonderful tutorial, your writing is excellent. I never check gauge for lace either :)

This is amazing!!! I cast on last night for Kiri (heard it was a good starter project) and it is a little hard here and there to understant but todays post made a light come on.....thank you. What in your opionion is a good starter project? What are some of your favorites?

You know, laying that chart OVER the knitted swatch is one of the most brilliant things I've seen done recently. I'm going to email the link to a friend of mine who suffers from Fear Of Charts. :) Thanks!

Again, thanks! This has (like others) really gotten me going at my projects in a lot better perspective - I am anxiously reading everything.

Oh, wow. THIS is what's missing in my lace - being able to READ my knitting. That chart overlay really helped. You have my eternal gratitude for helping me grow as a knitter.

For charts that give only the right side and require you to reverse to knit the left side (like the Peacock Feather shawl I'm working on now), I scan in the chart and flip it on the computer, then print it out. It reverses the symbols (and the writing, but I ignore that).

My biggest problem (and one I hope you'll address later): Picking up a dropped stitch in a previous row (and even identifying what the heck went wrong!) This goes along with being able to read the knitting, I know...

But it's all such good information! Can't wait for the next installment :)

omg some charts you go left to right and right to left alternating??

I would shoot myself!! Cause Fair isle is all left to right, right?? lol


opsy, that ahhh! was from me.. hehe

I have been a long time lurker, first time commenter. Wonderful writing and great info!

What is the gossamer and cobweb lace you have in your photo? I am assuming Merino Oro is one of them, since I know you love it so. I can't seem to find Merino Oro in Seattle, so I may have to order some from All About Yarn. Thanks!

I'm new to your blog but not to knitting (long-timer here) but I don't think I've ever seen such a useful introduction to lace knitting. Thanks! It makes me want to give lace a try - I've never really been brave enough for that.

The best, best thing I learned here though: http://www.jklneedles.com - Wow! That got added to my bookmarks immediately. What a treasure-trove - they'll be getting a fair share of my hard-earned cash! They have every kind of needle & crochet hook. Thanks!

Wonderful tutorial! Now I want to get my hands on some Inox Greys.

Thank you for taking the time to teach the rest of us that can't figure this stuff out on our own.

I offer 2 caveats: Many folks (me included) have been having MAJOR problems with JKL Needles. I've ordered from them many times but of late orders and emails go unanswered. I've heard common complaints on ALL the knitting lists/groups.

Secondly, I live in Florida and I've knit lace shawls in both cotton and linen and they are quite lovely! Their "beauty" is certainly equal to any animal fiber lace knitting but it is admittedly different...the WONDERFUL difference being blocking is NOT required! The lace comes off the needles pretty much looking like the desired end product which can be a huge plus for many a back! Plant fiber lace most definately has it's benefits too! I just thought your readers might appreciate a different perspective.

As a devoted (and fairly experienced) lace knitter, all I can say is "Well done!" Informative, thorough, well thought out, and easy to read. Great job helping new lace knitters along! I'm looking forward to the next installment.

I worship at your feet........

Thank you so much for doing this! You're a GODDESS!!

Hey E, So I know you like to work with Merino Oro but doesn't merino have a lot of snap back? I mean shetland wool, being a bit hairy and with less memory, doesn't shrink after blocking and time but merino does... or at least in my experience. I would think this makes a difference in gauging cause the blocked gauge, will with humidity etc, want to go back to a less tauntly, even totally [un], blocked gauge. Just wondering how you account for those changes while you are knitting lace~ me? I avoid merino for lace or wait a good long time between swatching and making final needle size decisions.

Installment two is just as wonderful as the first! Thanks so much for the informative, clear text, the great illustrations, and beautiful photographs. If you ever do decide to write a book, I'll be first in line at the book shop.

I've been knitting for years, and have yet to find a clearer introduction to lace. I very much admire both the effort and experience you are sharing with all of us. Keep up the good work.

I am astounded by your generousity in taking the time to share all this wonderful information with your readers, as well as with your skill in organizing, explaining, and illustrating this process! Have you ever thought of writing your own book? Your directions are some of the most clear and easy to follow knitting directions I have ever read.

another thank you, ooo you are wonderful.

now that's done, comment:

I just wanted to second importance of thinking about swatches, especailly if mixing two lace stitches together, one lave effect won't always give the same gage evenly in the same way as another, and mixing lace in with st st or garter or another stitch sometimes needs a bit of working out (and on of the reasons garter st boarders sometimes really annoy me...)

This is absolutely fantastic!! My SP gave me some lace yarn recently and I didn't even know where to begin to start knitting lace! Your post is so so informative, and timely!! Thank you!!!

I'm LOVING the lace lessons! The bit about how to read a chart is so helpful. Can't wait for the next installment.

Both segments are just exception, many thanks for giving lace knitters a wonderful resource!

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I recently tried to knit some lace and gave up... After reading this I need to give it another try.

Wow, this is wonderful. I've never tried lace knitting before but now I'm definitely giving it a go. Thanks so much for these tutorials !

Thank you so much for this tutorial. I wasn't ever going to try knitting lace, but this makes it seem not so bad. In fact, I've even ordered some yarn and a pattern to try it out.

I'm currently knitting Anna's Nautilus socks- and I only have Addis. OUCH. I had to order some Inox needles last night because my fingertips are absolutely killing me with all the K2togs and SSKs. In the meantime, I think I should tape up my fingers when I knit.

I love your tutorials. I have seen lace weight yarns referred to as 2/28 and 2/48, etc. What do these numbers mean?

Any thoughts on glass needels or Knit Pics needels for lace? I hear both are very pointy but wonder about control issues for lace.

As always, lovelovelove your work!

awesome, thanks so much for this!

i'm doing a lace scarf using "Silky Wool" - and there's only ONE needle out there so far that picks this particular stuff up with ease - i know a lot of people swear by wood and cringe at plastic, but i couldn't find a set of wood needles sharp enough for this - Bryspun plastics are amazing for lace because of their pointy, "scoopy" tip.