Demystifying the Structure of Lace, for Function and Adornment

Some designers revel in technical details, while others prefer to immerse themselves in aesthetics. And then there’s Sarah Solomon, who embraces both sides of the design process. She creates fantastic and visually appealing sweaters; then she explains the design’s underlying math and science for those knitters who like to know how she did it. Here, she explores the beauty and challenge of lace. If you’ve ever felt as though you can’t manage lace, Sarah can change your mind. Originally published in knitscene Winter 2016.

Lace is perhaps the most intricate-looking surface texture in all of knitting. Even an accomplished cable knitter can regard knitting lace as a challenge.

Lace knitting uses a combination of decreases and increases to create patterns out of positive and negative space. Decreases and increases must function together and remain in the correct placement and ratio to form the pattern. Perhaps this is what can make lace so intimidating; as anyone who’s ever missed a yarnover knows, locating just where you went wrong can be a challenge. In addition, blocking in lace is critical—more so than in any other form of knitting. The way lace looks on the needles is extremely different from the finished product, and as most lace knitters will tell you, the magic is in the blocking. Despite these hurdles, the allure of lace and the endless variety of stitch patterns it offers endure.

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of how lace stitches are made, to demonstrate how the placement of increases and decreases determines the lines of the pattern, and to help you dive in and start a lace piece of your own. As with all things in knitting, an understanding of the basic principles can train your eye and your mind to recognize patterns and give you an element of control over the knitting, which will help you to better follow patterns and locate mistakes.

Let’s begin with the basic structure of lace: the pairing of increases and decreases. The most common decreases in garment shaping, the single decreases k2tog and ssk, are also the basic building blocks of lace. The increase method is really what sets lace apart—in garment shaping, we usually try to minimize the appearance of increases and decreases to avoid disrupting the fabric, so it is most common to use an invisible increase method such as M1. In lace, the most common increase method is the yarnover, and its distinct appearance is integral to the structure and appearance of the fabric.

A yarnover is worked by wrapping the working yarn around the right needle before proceeding to the next stitch. When you knit or purl into the yarnover on the following row, a hole is created, and it is the holes that give lace its airy texture. Adding a hole means that you are adding a stitch to your stitch count, so in order to keep a piece of fabric the same width, the yarnovers must be paired with decreases.

In its most basic form, the pairing of a decrease and a yarnover in a single-row pattern results in what is called fagoting. You are adding a stitch with the yarnover and immediately reducing a stitch with the decrease, so your stitch count remains the same as holes are formed in the fabric.

Basic Fagoting Stitch (Swatch 1)
Even number of sts
Row 1 K1, *yo, ssk; rep from * to last st, k1.
Rep Row 1 for patt.

Even this simplest of structures generates a large number of patterns simply by varying the decrease used, its placement relative to knits and purls, and the multiple of stitches. If you replace the ssks in the basic fagoting stitch with k2togs, the result will be a very different fabric. One of the many wonders of lace patterns is how very small changes in the pattern can create dramatic changes in the fabric.

Pairing a single decrease with a yarnover and purling back in a two-row pattern results in something quite different: a bias-slanting trellis pattern. The placement of the yarnover before or after the decrease, in combination with the slant of the decrease, determines the slant of the work to the right or to the left.

The bottom half of Swatch 2 uses the right-leaning decrease k2tog.

Trellis to the Right (Swatch 2)
Even number of sts
Row 1 (RS) K1, *yo, k2tog; rep from * to last st, k1.
Row 2 (WS) Purl.
Rep Rows 1 and 2 for patt.

The top half of Swatch 2 uses the left-leaning decrease ssk.

Trellis to the Left (Swatch 2)
Even number of sts
Row 1 (RS) K1, *ssk, yo; rep from * to last st, k1.
Row 2 (WS)Purl.
Rep Rows 1 and 2 for patt.

Once again, with very little manipulation you can use an existing pattern to generate a variation. By stacking these left-leaning and right-leaning trellises and changing between them at regular intervals, you create a zigzag.

Zigzag Trellis (Swatch 3)
Even number of sts
Rows 1, 3, and 5 (RS) K1, *yo, k2tog; rep from * to last st, k1.
Row 2 and all WS rows Purl.
Rows 7, 9, and 11 K1, *ssk, yo; rep from * to last st, k1.
Rows 12 (WS) Purl.
Rep Rows 1–12 for patt.

By placing elements of the Left and Right Trellis side by side in the fabric, we create the beautiful Arrowhead Lace. The relative placement of decreases and yarnovers isn’t the only factor affecting the pattern; the type of decrease used can also produce a change in the appearance of the lace. Notice how the use of a double decrease at the center of each repeat creates a bolder central line.

Arrowhead Lace (Swatch 4)
Multiple of 10 sts + 1
Row 1 (RS) K1, *[yo, ssk] 2 times, k1, [k2tog, yo] 2 times, k1;
rep from * to end.
Row 2 (WS) Purl.
Row 3 K2, *yo, ssk, yo, sl 2 as if to k2tog, k1, p2sso, yo,
k2tog, yo, k3; rep from * to last 9 sts, yo, ssk, yo, sl 2 as if to
k2tog, k1, p2sso, yo, k2tog, yo, k2.
Row 4 Purl.
Rep Rows 1–4 for patt.

If you take the same idea of the diagonal lines used in the Arrowhead Lace and reduce it to its smallest proportions, you get Little Arrowhead Lace.

Little Arrowhead Lace (Swatch 5)
Multiple of 6 sts + 1
Row 1 (RS) K1, *yo, ssk, k1, k2tog, yo, k1; rep from * to end.
Row 2 (WS) Purl.
Row 3 K2, *yo, sl 2 as if to k2tog, k1, p2sso, yo, k3; rep from *
to last 5 sts, yo, sl 2 as if to k2tog, k1, p2sso, yo, k2.
Row 4 Purl.
Rep Rows 1–4 for patt.

If you redistribute the decreases and yarnovers within the row, you end up with something entirely different. The Gull Wings stitch reverses the decrease placement of the Little Arrowhead Lace and shifts the pairs of decreases and yarnovers outward to create a wing-like motif. In contrast to the stitch patterns above, the Gull Wings is a panel of 7 stitches worked with purls between each motif. Lace stitches can also be worked in this manner, as panels separated by background stitches or other motifs.

Gull Wings (Swatch 6)
Panel of 7 sts
Row 1 (RS) K1, k2tog, yo, k1, yo, ssk, k1.
Row 2 (WS) Purl.
Row 3 K2tog, yo, k3, yo, ssk.
Row 4 Purl.
Rep Rows 1–4 for patt.

When you are working a lace pattern for the first time, read through the pattern and visualize the placement of the increases and decreases; think about which type of decrease is used where and the slant of the decrease. Note how these elements work together to create the pattern. Remember that every yarnover will eventually have a matching decrease and vice versa. Understanding how the stitches work together to form the pattern can make all the difference in working it more accurately and free you from being buried in your pattern. As with anything, doing it for yourself is vital—before embarking on a big project, try choosing a few patterns you like from a stitch dictionary and make yourself a sampler. With a little practice, you will be ready to embark on your own path of lace knitting and improvisation.

Sarah Solomon is a knitting instructor and designer in New York City.

Give Lace a Try


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