(Left: “Lace Mesh Triangular Shawl” from Successful Lace Knitting by Donna Druchunas; designed by Evelyn A. Clark.)
Lace is incredibly gorgeous. The delicate eyelets create patterns in varying degrees of intricacy that delight the eyes. There’s something elegant and ethereal about the carefully stitched fabric. And yet, lace can strike fear into the heart of even a seasoned knitter who’s never attempted it.
I remember being mesmerized by a beautiful lace shawl a friend knit to wear at her own wedding just a couple of years ago. Even after I’d been knitting for nearly a year, having mastered advanced techniques like cables, increases and decreases, and reading charts, I was still mesmerized and perplexed at the thought of knitting lace. But just this month I’ve been convinced to swallow my fear and cast on my very first lace shawl—with the helpful encouragement of Mary and Karen, two of our most experienced knitters here at the office.
As you can imagine, I was very excited when Donna Druchunas, a well-known and respected lace knitter and Martingale author, agreed to do a guest post for Stitch This! with some helpful tips and encouragement about how to knit lace. And now I’m pleased that we get to share her post with you—because I know it will give you, like me, the confidence to pick up (or have a second attempt at) that beautiful lace pattern calling so sweetly to be cast on! Donna offers helpful tips on how to pick yarn and patterns for lace knitting, as well as a little encouragement for those who are still nervous about a first attempt.
So if you’re still dreaming about lace but don’t feel ready to cast on, have courage and read on for help from Donna!
Knitting Lace is Easy!
I used to think that knitting lace was beyond my ability and that I would never be able to duplicate the beautiful shawls and cardigans my grandmother had made when I was a little girl. Friends had told me, "Lace is easier than cables," but I didn’t believe them.
“Copper Queen Beaded Stole” from Successful Lace Knitting; designed by Renee Leverington.
Practice Makes Perfect
Musicians don’t pick up a guitar and play Flamenco—or even their favorite pop song—perfectly the first time. As a writer, I’ve never published an article or a pattern without first writing a rubbish first draft and spending untold hours revising my work. Why is it that as a knitter, I so often expect to succeed at every new technique I try on my first attempt? This approach only led to failure. But even my failures taught me something new and gave me time to practice and build my skills.
Three Strikes and You’re Out!
The first lace project I attempted was going to be an afghan with a simple two-row pattern in chunky blue boucle yarn intended to hide my mistakes. The texture of the yarn also hid the stitches so well that I had no idea what I was knitting. Here’s the pattern I knit, although it wasn’t what the designer intended:
CO a whole bunch of stitches. *Work a few repeats and have the wrong number of stitches. Carefully rip back and work the few rows again. Repeat from * until frustrated. Bind off and call it a scarf.
Choosing the right materials for your first lace project is important. I recommend wool because it has give, which makes it very forgiving to work with and any unevenness in your tension will disappear in blocking. Although you might be tempted—as I was—to choose a textured yarn that will hide mistakes, do remember that this will also make it more difficult for you to read the stitches on your needles, so you will have many more mistakes to hide!
For my second lace project attempt I chose a circular shawl made with smooth cobweb merino yarn in black designed by Meg Swansen. It started in the center with eight stitches on double-pointed needles. The design was mostly stockinette stitch with a few spiral lines of yarn overs. I knew how to knit in the round, so I thought this would be a breeze. Circular knitting is sometimes easier than flat knitting, but not when you have only eight stitches on double-pointed needles! Here I was juggling all those tiny needles with only a few stitches, trying to figure out where to put yarn overs.
Trying to work with black cobweb yarn only made things worse. Much worse. For new lace knitters, I recommend light-colored yarn that is thicker than a human hair. Fingering-weight wool like Koigu KPM, sport-weight wool like Brown Sheep Nature Spun Sport, or any wool sock yarn are good choices. Icelandic and Shetland lace-weight wool also work well for beginners because they have a lot of body and are not slippery. Whatever yarn you choose, stick with light, solid colors so you can clearly see your stitches without squinting or using a magnifying glass.
(Left: “Filigree Diamonds Afghan” from Successful Lace Knitting; designed by Deborah Robson.)
To a knitting muggle, “lace” would probably conjure up an image of something made out of fine black or white thread, perfect for trimming a handkerchief or a bra. But knitting lace does not require tiny needles or fine yarn.
I define knitted lace as anything knitted that uses yarn overs to create decorative holes on purpose. That means you can knit lace with any weight yarn and any size needles you like. Many of my favorite lace projects have been made with chunky yarn on large needles. Although a non-knitter might not recognize these projects as lace because they aren’t dainty and don’t look like doilies or the trim on lingerie, they are made with decorative holes. Working on these heavier-weight lace projects can give you the practice you need to succeed when knitting finer lace projects.
Try, Try Again
A few years later, when I was reading an article in Piecework magazine about a group of Native Alaskan women who knit lace using musk ox wool, I became so intrigued that I wanted to write a book about them.
As I was beginning my research for Arctic Lace, I discovered the lessons the Alaska co-op used to teach new knitters and I worked through those lessons on my own. I didn’t want to read any other books on lace knitting or take any other classes. I wanted to learn the same way the knitters in Alaska did. These lessons were developed by Dorothy Reade, whom I later wrote about in my book Successful Lace Knitting. Her instructions and tips for knitting lace are what made a lace knitter out of me. (Right: Dorothy Reade writing a chart.)
I was lucky. The type of lace that Dorothy Reade worked with is one of the easiest types of lace. It has plain wrong-side rows and the number of stitches remains the same on every row. This doesn’t mean the stitches are plain or boring. It just means they are easier to knit.
(Left: “Eyelet Diamond Stole” from Successful Lace Knitting; designed by Karin MaagTanchak.)
I’ve since learned a lot more about knitting lace. There are easy, intermediate, and difficult lace stitches. Some lace has yarn overs and decreases on right-side rows with plain wrong-side rows that are worked with all knit or purl stitches. This is known as lace knitting. Some lace has yarn overs and decreases on every row. This is known as knitted lace. (The names are not important, the difference between the easy and hard types of lace is.)
But it gets even more complicated. The yarn overs used to make holes in lace are increases. Each yarn over must be paired with a decrease to keep the stitch count the same. In easy lace designs, each yarn over will have a matching decrease on the same row. To put it another way, each row will have the same number of yarn overs and decreases. In more difficult lace, the decreases that correspond with yarn overs might not come until a few rows later. This makes the number of stitches in the pattern vary on each row, so it’s much more difficult to check your work and find mistakes.
New lace knitters should be careful to start out with the types of patterns that have plain rows in between the challenging rows. Get some practice in before you attempt lace stitches that have yarn overs and decreases on every row and patterns with ever-changing stitch counts.
Some of the sayings we’ve heard from our mothers and friends are true. Practice does make perfect. And lace, as it turns out, can be easier to knit than cables. If you don’t believe me, look at the gorgeous projects in Successful Lace Knitting. If I can learn how to do this, you can too!
Thanks to Donna for sharing her tips with us! For more instruction on knitting lace, check out How to Knit Lace part 1 and How to Knit Lace Part 2, and the videos below from Donna. You can also pick up Donna’s book, Successful Lace Knitting—and don’t forget that when you buy the book on ShopMartingale, you get to download the eBook version for free right away!
See a gallery of all the projects from Successful Lace Knitting in the slideshow at the bottom of this post.
What tips or techniques would you like to see on the blog in the future? Tell us in the comments!