Swatch the Lace Landscape: Designing Lace Patterns Part II

In Part 1 of our designing lace series, Deborah Newton discussed the basic elements of lace: yarnovers paired with knit two together and slip, slip knit decreases. In Part 2, she goes even deeper into designing lace patterns, explaining how to use a basic motif to create larger, more complex lace patterns.

Knitted lace has long fascinated me, to the point of obsession. More than any other family of patterns, those for lace have given me more respect for our knitting ancestors and their skill in devising patterns. Without formal graph paper, without computer software, with just the work in their hands and probably some primitive paper-scratching, our brilliant knitting forebears from all over the world came up with stunning openwork fabrics. Yarnover and knit two together, or yarnover and slip, slip, knit—such beauty from simply pairing an increase and a decrease!

As a young knitter, as I became acquainted with each volume of Barbara Walker’s now-famous A Treasury of Knitting Patterns, I was captivated by the range of allover lace patterns, not to mention the lace trims and borders. Many are amazingly complex, some with increase and decrease elements on both right-side and wrong-side rows. Some laces are smooth, others deeply textured. I was astounded that many lace patterns in Walker’s books had been contributed by “real” people, such as Mrs. Leona Hughes of Sarasota, Florida. Who was she and how could she be so clever?

My interest in lace has not diminished over the years. Recently I purchased a book from the late 1800s full of patterns, many new to even a well-versed lace-lover like me. If I ever retire from designing, I hope to explore lace with increased devotion and contribute more of my own efforts to our tradition.

Learning about Lace

Swatching, combined with dissecting the elements that make up lace patterns, is an efficient way to learn about them. And I’ve found that the basic elements of lace can be taken apart, played with, and moved around to make lace patterns of my own. Although there’s software for designing lace on a computer, I like to use a pencil and graph paper to work out charted lace patterns. Sometimes, I’ll design a pattern on paper, arranging yarnovers and decreases or arranging basic “units” of lace, then knit a swatch. At other times, I’ll work out a pattern while I’m knitting, noting the elements on a chart. With the help of a photocopy machine and some tape, I can cut and paste a chart, rearranging the basic elements to make variations, which I knit into a swatch to see how the new lace composition looks.

Simple Experiments

Let me share a simple experiment that offers one way to design lace: take a basic lace unit, alter and expand upon it, and use it to devise a range of different lace patterns.

In this case, I chose a simple diagonal line of lace patterning for my initial unit. The diagonal line is five stitches wide by eight rows high. I decided to place the knit two together (k2tog) decrease element before its accompanying yarnover, creating a line of texture in the patterning. (Had I placed the decrease after the yarnover, the decrease would face into the opening, instead of away from it, creating less texture.)

My process for working with this unit of lace can be seen in the swatches and charts shown here. The basic process of manipulation applies to any other small shape you might start with. For example, you could use a lace element that formed a vertical line, a small diamond or leaf shape, or a shape excised from an already existing pattern.

A lot can happen as you knit swatches to test your patterns, so have some paper at hand—to make changes or to record an inspiration.

Getting Started with Yarn

With a range of yarns for summer, I set out to design some lace patterns that would suit the garments of the season.

Swatches 1 and 2

I chose the simplest way to arrange my basic unit of lace for the first two swatches and repeated it horizontally. Doing so creates a fabric with visual interest, almost as easy to knit as plain stockinette. Swatch 1, worked in a soft cotton and alpaca blend, forms a sweet fabric made even more suitable for the season with the addition of openwork.

To show how a yarn can affect the pattern, I repeated the same pattern for Swatch 2, in a thick-and-thin tubular knitted cotton tape. Although I thought the texture of the yarn might obliterate the pattern, it actually contributes another layer of interest. I pressed my swatch lightly to fix the patterns in the fabric. The pressing gave Swatch 2 a crunchy-cool quality that would be perfect against the skin in warm weather.

Swatch 3

I used a lightweight hemp yarn with a soft sheen to take the unit of lace to the next level. I re-drew my unit as a mirror-image of the original, reversing k2togs into slip, slip, knits (ssk). Now, I had two units: the original k2tog unit slanted to the right, and my new version, using ssk as the decrease element, slanted to the left. I arranged the patterns horizontally again, but this time I alternated the different units in bands, divided by some garter stitch. For additional detail, I repeated Row 1 of the bands between the ridges of garter stitch.

I used a fairly large needle for the yarn: the result was a cool fabric that would be perfect for a lightweight vest or flowing cardigan. The garter-stitch ridges flatten the typical curl of stockinette stitch–based lace, making it more suitable for reversible pieces, such as a summer scarf.

Swatches 4 and 5

Continuing to manipulate the two units, I tried what’s called a half-drop. By looking at the chart, you can see that one unit is placed halfway down the side of the other. I overlapped the units by one stitch, to bring the lace elements closer together. I swatched the pattern as repeating nine-stitch panels, and recognized that the pattern was one I’ve seen in pattern dictionaries! It’s fun to see how many patterns have already been explored!

I worked Swatch 4 in a soft blend with a small shiny slub that added interest. Drapey and cool to the touch, this fabric would work well for any summer garment.

To experiment with using this panel in an isolated way, I placed 3 purl stitches to either side of the panel on my chart. I knitted Swatch 5 with a cotton-ball-soft textured yarn. The resulting fabric had a soft bumpy texture, in a weight that would be perfect for a cozy beach cover-up. The deep purl ribs make the panel stand out: it would be an easy-to-knit lace focal point for a simple pullover.


Swatch 6

Then, to create a repeatable lace motif, a shape that could be arranged in isolation on a more solid fabric, I clumped the slanting units in groups of six, facing them toward each other. As I knitted the crisp and shiny cotton yarn for Swatch 6, I decided to separate my units with bands of textured seed stitch. Such a crisp fabric would work well for a somewhat structured summer garment, one with more shape and detail.


Swatch 7

For my next experiment, I used an escalator arrangement of the basic units, an approach not often seen in lace.

When I try something totally new, I find it useful to chart the idea first. Unlike a simple arrangement where I can cast on and knit intuitively, this idea required a logistical layout. I decided to stack my mirror-image units, arranging them in a not-quite half-drop method. To emphasize the upward escalator movement, I drew in some staggered garter-stitch ridges at both top and bottom. As I knitted, I corrected the little ridges on my chart to achieve a look I preferred.

Knitted in a slightly heathered, crisp yarn, a simply shaped garment in plain stockinette would highlight this pattern. Swatch 7 cries out to be an allover pattern in a summer cardigan.

Swatches 8 and 9

My last two swatches, worked in a softly mottled cotton, are related, and represent an exciting process that I like to employ. I start with a clear-cut arrangement of shapes, as in Swatch 8: two-unit clumps of the basic elements in a zigzag fashion. The resulting allover pattern had some additional visual interest where double yarnovers met. The texture of Swatch 8 would inspire a wonderful panel, dead center, in a long, dramatic pullover.

Then, I copied my chart and cut it up! I taped it together in an altogether different way, even turning some elements upside down. I added some texture, using seed stitch and reverse stockinette. As I knitted, I adjusted my chart, and even pasted in a few extra rows here and there. The result was a highly unpredictable arrangement, shown in Swatch 9.

In the End

I always encourage knitters in my workshops to set up a self-directed course of study to learn something new. Try using this sequential technique to explore a lace “unit,” letting one swatch lead to another. The possibilities are endless. And you’ll come to understand and maybe replicate— and even improve on—some of the great patterns of the past.

Deborah Newton has written over 50 patterns for Interweave Knits and knitscene. Check out some of her fantastic lace patterns, or try designing your own!

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One Comment

  1. Barbara G at 9:50 am June 29, 2017

    I would love to design my own lace for a sweater or even a scarf/shawl. Doing this experimenting takes time away from actually knitting a garment. But I guess that’s the price you pay for designing an original. Excellent article and very inspiring.

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