Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Lace Basics

Since I'm at a loss for something to blog about, here's an article I wrote a while ago that never got published. Enjoy!

One of the first things I did as a knitter was lace. (I didn’t know any other knitters, and there was no one around to tell me it was hard, or that I was insane to knit a doily on 3mm/size two needles as my second or third project.) Over the next twenty years, I learned a good bit through trial and error, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized a lot of what I considered common knowledge, wasn’t. So here’s what I’ve learned.

What IS knitted lace?

There seems to be an inordinate amount of finger-pointing, defining, and sneering going on over what, exactly, lace knitting is. So for the record, here are the standard definitions:

-Knitted lace: lace that is worked every row. Historically (and among hard-line types even now), one-row or knitted lace gets more respect.
-Lace knitting: lace that is worked every OTHER row, with a ‘plain’ round or row in between eyelet/decrease rows. It is supposedly easier to work, but of course I could produce an easy one-row lace pattern and a hard two-row lace pattern that blows the whole theory out of the water.

In my opinion (e-mail me with complaints as you like), anything with an eyelet or yarnover in it is lace, and the rest is hair-splitting. For practical purposes I call the two types of knitted lace one-row lace and two-row lace. The two types of lace are different in terms of structure and difficulty, but really, it’s all lace.

Many two-row lace patterns can be converted to one-row lace by simply removing the plain row/round, though not always. Swatching will tell you what you need to know. In the photo above, the increases, decreases, and yarnovers are in the same place. The only difference is, in the lower swatch, there is a 'plain' round between each 'action round. So, technically, it is knitted lace on the top, and lace knitting on the bottom. If you wanna nit-pick.


Two row lace, with its ‘reset’ row of plain knitting, is – generally speaking – easier to work than one-row lace. (I assume this is where the ‘real lace’ bias comes from.) With a plain row in two row lace, all the stitches are put back on the needle neatly in the standard presentation, for the next row of lace stitches. This means that all your decreases, yarnovers, and other stitches are worked into nice neatly aligned stitches that make working them much easier.

With one row lace, there is no ‘reset’ row, and you’re working knit three togethers, or whatever, into the lace knitting of the row below, and physically working the stitches is more difficult. (Knit three together, worked in one-row lace, is my own personal Waterloo. Takes forever. Drives me nuts.)

The exception to these rules, sort of, is two-row lace based on garter stitch (worked flat, you do one row of ‘action’ lace stitches and then knit back on the plain row, instead of purling). Even though there is a plain row to put the stitches back on the needle neatly, the way they present themselves on the right side of the work makes multiple decreases and other specialty stitches tricky (and frustrating).

Weird stitches (by weird I mean anything beyond the standard knit, purl, yarnover, knit two together types of stitches) always make things more difficult. Very large eyelets made by multiple yarnovers that are then taken off with multiple stitches the next round can be very frustrating to deal with; the more stitches there are in such a hole, the more bothersome it is (for example, yarnover eleven times, then on the next row, take it off with eleven knit-in-back stitches). Lace knitting contains a lot of odd increases and decreases if you look at enough patterns, and for first projects it’s probably best to stick with something containing types of decreases you already know how to work.

The color of your yarn can have a good bit of impact on how hard your lace is to work with. (Seriously.) Darker colors are harder to see; for those of us who are getting up in years, or have eye problems, or both, that can make a big difference. This applies to all knitting, really, not just lace knitting. I can only work with black yarn in direct sunlight, even if I’m knitting plain old stockinette.

Needle size makes a difference, of course. Not as much as many people think, but still. It’s of course easier to see something worked on size ten needles, than on quadruple zeros. Of all the difficulty considerations, I’d say that really, needle size has the least bearing, but it does matter. The worst thing about needle size is how it intimidates knitters. It really doesn’t make that much difference. I swear. Give it a try.

Then of course there’s yarn choice, which matters more than anything else, other than the basic pattern. Forgiving yarns are best to start with, both in terms of how the lace looks when finished, and in how your hands feel. You need something with a bit of give; wool is the obvious choice, but you can also use silk and the new processed cellulose fibers like corn, soy, and sea ‘silk’. Cotton and linen make fantastic lace, both for wearing and decoration, but they’re harder to work with, harder on your hands, and more difficult to work evenly (in fact this applies to all knitting, not just lace). Fuzzy yarns like mohair look wonderful and are VERY hard to work with – the hairs catch like barbed wire.

Synthetic fibers can, of course, be knitted into lace, but they have no ‘memory’ and don’t block well at all, so they don’t look nearly as good in a finished product. But it’s your choice; if you want something you can run through the washing machine, the trade-off might be worth it to you. And here’s some food for thought: What’s the point of working lace, when the yarn obscures the stitches? (I am talking about eyelash and think-and-thin yarns.)

One of the most common questions about lace knitting is, ‘how much yarn do I need for a project?’ Unfortunately, the only answer is ‘knit the project once with the needles and yarn you intend to use, and keep track of the yarn you use up’. There’s no good answer. Guess. If you’re using a commercial pattern, there are yardage requirements listed, but they’re not always accurate. A rule of thumb is, the smaller the needles and the bigger the square yardage/meterage is, the more yarn you’ll need, by length.

Don’t ever use yarn WEIGHT when converting from one type or another in a lace pattern. The meterage/yardage can vary amazingly, by weight. Always use length.

What your needles are made out of can make a big difference, but of course needle choice depends a lot on yarn choice. It also depends on the knitter. I like to use smooth aluminum needles, no matter what, but then I like knitting through lace darn fast and have had a good bit of experience at it. Wooden or bamboo (or plastic) needles hang on to the yarn a bit more, so if you’re having trouble keeping track of your stitches, they’re a good choice. 3mm/size two or smaller, bamboo needles are a little less likely to snap than wood. If you do snap knitting needles, it’s a sign you’re holding them too tight. (Or sitting on them.)


There are a few things you can do to make lace knitting easier. The simplest is to put stitch markers every pattern repeat. I use embroidery floss tied in loops; that way I can color-code to my heart’s content. Mark corners, increase zones, you name it. If you aren’t willing to put markers everywhere, you can find the center of each pattern repeat (there’s usually a column of stitches slap in the middle of a motif) and make sure each time you knit a repeat that it’s centered. Unfortunately that only works after you’ve established the pattern, and only if you’re good at ‘reading’ your knitting, and can tell what you’re looking at.

The other ‘trick’ is known as a life line. (I don’t know who invented this. I’ve seen it from several sources; if anyone knows, drop me a line and tell me – I’ve always wondered.) What you do is, when you’ve finished a row you KNOW is correct, thread some smooth waste yarn on a needle and thread it through the stitches on the needle, leaving the stitches ON the needle as-is. Then keep on knitting. If, later on, you find some huge screwup, you can unravel back to the life line, being sure that your lace won’t unravel further, you’ll be somewhere you can start again easily, and best of all, picking the stitches back up will be about as easy as it ever is.

Otherwise, your best bet is to practice, and to flip through technique books and study how all the different kinds of decreases are made. There’s only one way to make a yarnover (okay, two, maybe). There are infinite ways to do the decreases that go along with them.

So what’s a good first project?

Something square. By ‘square’, I mean without a lot of shaping. You’ve got enough to worry about with the lace pattern, without trying to knit circles and curlicues and what-all, into the bargain. Doilies, knit from the center out, (and shawls based on that method) are very cool, but the first couple-twenty rounds are hard to work (on the other hand, if you’ve got experience with toe-up socks, it’s really the same thing, only with yarnovers – give it a try). Knitted-on edgings are also very nice but kind of tricky. Here, for anyone wanting practice, is the easiest lace scarf pattern ever:

Really easy lace scarf:

Use any yarn you want, with the needles suggested on the ball band, or larger. (Shown in Art Yarns Regal/Royal Silk, one skein, on 6mm/size ten needles.)

-cast on 30 stitches
-knit back
-Right side row: slip the first stitch, *yarnover, knit two together* repeat to last stitch, knit last stitch
-Wrong side row: slip the first stitch, purl back
-repeat right and wrong side rows until almost out of yarn, then knit a right side row plain, and bind off.

After this, you’re ready to branch out into something using more complex stitches.

To design any kind of project, I’m afraid that yes, you’ll have to swatch. And then block the swatch in exactly the same way you intend to treat the finished product. That means pins and blocking boards and possibly starch.

And then we come to finishing.

Which means blocking. But not quite yet.

First you need to darn in the ends. Darn it. (Ahahahaha. Sorry. Couldn’t help it.) Unfortunately I don’t have any good answer on how to do that. Thread your end onto a needle and work it into the backs of the stitches on the wrong side. If it doesn’t look like a dog’s breakfast on the front, then it’s done right. (Oh. And if it doesn’t unravel, of course.) Leave about half an inch/1 cm of yarn dangling until after everything’s blocked – stretching out the lace can pull the darned-in-ends loose. After it’s blocked, you can go back through and trim the ends a little closer.

After all is said and done, blocking lace is really just wetting the fibers and then laying (or pinning) them out in whatever way you want them to lay, and leaving them to dry. (Sort of like washing and setting your hair.) Every lace book in the world contains blocking directions, so I’ll hit some high points they seem to leave out.
-for most lace, water is the only thing acting on your fibers, to make them behave. Make sure those fibers are good and wet. I usually put the knitting in a sink full of room-temperature water and leave it until it sinks to the bottom, meaning it’s water-logged. Sometimes I leave it in a little longer for good measure. Once you pull it out, DON’T squash all the water out of it – blot it until it’s not dripping, and then pin. It’s the water working the magic; don’t remove it before you even block the thing.
-ironing is really, really bad. Steam can be good, if you don’t overdo it.
-for decorative lace, smooth yarns can be starched and will hold their shape almost perfectly. For most laying-around lace I use regular liquid laundry starch (though more of it than suggested on the bottle), but if I want something to stand up, I use watered down glue (pick a glue that dries hard and clear, of course; Elmer’s is the one I use).
-stretch out your lace to about 90% of its total stretch-ability, and pin it there. You want the finished fabric to have some give.
-be careful with loosely spun or very thin yarns. They tear. I learned this the hard way.
-avoid pinning things out with steel pins; they rust. Otherwise, use whatever pins you want. I prefer quilting pins, which are extra long and have a nice colored ball on the head so I can see them easily, but you don’t HAVE to use those.
-blocking boards, while very nice, are a real investment for a beginner or intermittent lace knitter. You can also use your bed, the carpet, or (my personal favorite) foam-backed ‘core board’ from the art store (it’s like two layers of poster board with Styrofoam in the center). Core board won’t survive a great many wet blockings, but if you only do one or two lace projects a year, it beats the investment in a blocking board. (I still don’t own a blocking board; I just use core board and replace as needed. Don’t tell anybody.)
-for lace clothing, you can usually skip pinning it down and block it like you do other clothing; give it a good wash and lay it out flat in whatever shape you want it to be when you wear it.
-every time you wash lace, you’ve got to block it again.

I hope this has cleared up some questions about how to knit lace and what to do with it once you have. Really, though, the best way to learn is to sit down with some yarn and needles and try it. The yarn police won’t come for you if you make a mistake.

One row and two row lace swatches knit from the ‘dainty chevron’ and ‘dantier chevron’ patterns in Barbara Walker’s Second Treasury.

Suggested reading:
“Knitting Lace” by Susanna E. Lewis. BACK IN PRINT JUST RECENTLY!!!. Contains a lot of great information about how lace works in terms of decreases and increases and structure.

“Victorian Lace Today” by Jane Sowerby. The patterns are nice, but the information in the back on techniques, blocking, and designing your own lace is great.

“Heirloom Knitting” by Sharon Miller. Pricey, but so, so worth it. Primarily it deals with Shetland lace knitting, but it has a lot of excellent information on design and technique.


Celestial Siryn said...

This is a great post - very informative. I'll definitely be bookmarking it for future reference!

Nalamienea said...

perfect timing! I'm about to dive in to my second ever lace project and I'm hoping I'll sorta understand what i'm doing this time. lol

Liz said...

Great post! Thanks!

I'd also recommend the two Marianne Kinzel books - some of the projects are a little old-fashioned looking but the techniques information is good...

Susan said...

As usual, well written, well researched. I am with you, it's all lace knitting if there is more than one yarn over..lol

Donna Lee said...

I'm a self taught knitter and there was no one around to tell me what to start with so I just picked projects I liked and they became "learning experiences" (big time!). My first lace was an adventure but it hooked me. There is nothing like taking that pile of string and then blocking it out into something airy and delicate.

Emily said...

Perfectly wonderful post. I had not known what a "lifeline" is, but now that I do, it makes sense. Thinking ahead, as it were!

I don't get much chance to knit lace; nobody I know (including me) wears shawls or lacy scarves, and my usual knitting is pretty utilitarian. That said, I have knit lace & really really enjoy it. Sigh!

Alwen said...

Lace was what sucked me back into knitting.

Lemme tell you, it's really hard to knit a lace pattern when you have to keep flipping back in the book for the instructions on how to do a k2tog and an SSK!

Kathleen said...

Thanks for sharing! I recently added Susanna E. Lewis's book to my library and think Heirloom Knitting may be next. Otherwise for lace I usually just hit up Barbara Walker (esp. book 2 with the borders and edgings).

Robin said...

And, it's absolutely addicting! Great info.

Amy Lane said...

I loved this post the first time I saw it, and it's so very timely now... Very awesome work, here...

Anonymous said...

My main problem with lace knitting is that I'm a combination knitter -- I knit continental, but I purl 'backwards' (because it's about eighty times easier than the way I'm 'supposed' to do it). This means my stitches often slant ways the pattern-writer didn't anticipate.

And because patterns are written in Standard, Expected ways, and tell you to manipulate stitches certain ways (ssk/k2tog, for example), instead of telling you what you should GET (decrease, right-leaning), it's about three back-and-forth rounds of swatching, ripping, swatching before I can even attempt any new lace or complex-texture stitch.

Drives me up a wall, but there you are; I don't hate it enough to try to teach myself to purl 'non-backwards'. :-> It does mean when I write knitting patterns I have to go through and get someone to standardize my terminology, though, because to me it seems most natural to write 'method-neutral' instructions, and just tell you what you're meant to GET, not how to DO it ...

Experimental Knitter said...

Great post.
Another cheap material for blocking is interlocking foam tiles. I bought a bunch of seconds from a website. They can be used over and over again.
Eunny Jang's archived site has some additional tips on knitting lace, such as never knit lace when you are upset/frustrated; how to cast on for circular shawls, etc.

Iclal Bicer said...

ellerinize sağlık çok güzel :)

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome amount of excellent information! thank you thank you.