Swatching the Lace Universe: Designing Lace Patterns
Now that you’ve learned how to read charts and use the best cast-ons and bind-offs for lace shawls, try creating a unique lace pattern for your own custom wrap! Designer Deborah Newton shares several stunning swatches and describes her approach to designing lace in this two-part series.
I remember my first encounter with lace. After years of garter stitch squares, I was ready to branch out! I was a freshman in college, and my lace shawl (from the pages of Good Housekeeping) was a simple rectangle in worsted-weight wool. But I became instantly confused. Were those diagonal strands across the needle—called yarnovers—really stitches? Why were the various decreases placed in different ways? I never had the same number of stitches on any row, and the diamond pattern was fractured and uneven. But I toiled on, and in the end I loved it. The open fabric was like no other.
Soon after my first attempt, I began to read more about knitted lace in Barbara Walker’s classic stitch dictionary A Treasury of Knitting Patterns and its follow-ups. I found other books with modern lace and antique lace samplers and researched more about my favorites, the curious Shetland lace motifs. But my real understanding of knitted lace came from knitting dozens of swatches.
When I became a professional knitwear designer, lace became a staple in my work. I’ve used traditional lace patterns as allover fabrics and as accents, integrated lace into other patterns, and added texture to flat laces. But even after decades of knitting and designing, I still find much to explore.
Introducing the Elements
Lace patterns are unique in that they feature the yarnover, a strand brought to the back of the needle before working the next stitch to make a hole in the fabric. A single yarnover is simply an eyelet: an isolated hole in a solid fabric.
Lace patterns are more complex than a single eyelet or even a series of eyelets: in knitted lace patterns, multiple yarnovers are arranged adjacent to each other in clumps—row after row, or within a single row—to form a design. An eyelet fabric is dimpled with occasional holes; a lace fabric contains multiple adjacent yarnovers.
Each yarnover creates an extra stitch. To maintain an even width, a lace fabric must also incorporate one decrease for each yarnover. If yarnover elements lack accompanying decreases, the fabric expands. Triangular and circular lace shawls are based on the insertion of yarnovers in a regular way without accompanying decreases, so that the fabric blossoms outward.
Some lace fabrics feature a double yarnover. To form this larger opening, you wrap the yarn around the needle twice and work two decreases to accommodate the two new stitches. These actions can form large isolated eyelets, but they can also contribute to making laces that are very open or have unusual textures, such as the lace pattern in Swatch A, which contains both double and single yarnovers.
In lace patterns, the decrease that balances each yarnover is either a right-leaning knit two together (k2tog) or a left-leaning slip slip knit (ssk). The decrease may be placed directly adjacent to the yarnover or somewhere else in the row. Or two yarnovers may be teamed with one double decrease, such as a slip one, knit two together, and pass slipped stitch over (sl1, k2tog, psso).
A k2tog leans to the right, and its mirror-image twin, the ssk, leans to the left. These directional qualities can be used to give shapes to motifs and units within motifs. Swatch B shows a motif with strong diagonal lines centered in a diamond of stockinette stitch.
Creating Variety in Lace
As you can see from my swatches, lace patterns have shapes and textures all their own. Lace can be both open and/or frilly and have scalloped or jagged edges. Lace can incorporate colorwork and deep texture. Lace can have spots of dense patterning next to web-like areas.
Although lace is characterized by its open holes, the textures that decrease elements create are often just as notable. Lines of decreases can depress, raise, or bias (see sidebar below) the fabric into a variety of shapes, including diamonds, leaves, zigzags, basketweaves, and branching motifs. Swatch C features three very different lace patterns that rely on decrease textures and lines for their distinctiveness. In the swatch, I see sprays, curving vines, and straight columns.
Many lace patterns have a smooth stockinette-stitch base, where the right-side rows are knitted and wrong-side rows are purled. When you work stockinette stitch- based lace in the round, all rounds are knitted. Stockinette-stitch-based patterns will often use lace-patterning stitches—yarnovers and decreases—only every other row or round, with a plain row or round worked in between.
Some lace patterns have you work lace patterning on both right-side and wrong-side rows. In these patterns, the decrease elements tend to form more sharply angled diagonal lines than when they’re worked every other row. You can see the angles in Swatch D, where the small lines within the columns, which result from decreases worked every row, lean more aggressively than the lines that form the columns themselves, which result from decreases worked every other row.
Shetland lace patterns, prized for their vivid flower and fernlike motifs, are often knitted on a garter-stitch base, where every row is knitted. (When you work in the round, you knit and purl alternating rounds.) Swatch E, a glove, is knitted from side to side in garter stitch and features a “peerie flea” on the back of the hand as well as “cat’s paw” and “fern” motifs at the wrist. The jagged cuff echoes the fern motifs of the wrist, with bind-offs and cast-ons worked between each motif to create a toothed edge.
Lace on a reverse-stockinette surface is rarer but intriguing. Swatch F shows the unexpected beauty of the contrast between background purl stitches and smooth decrease elements. The lace holes retreat on a reverse stockinette background and provide subtle texture. Lace patterns can also provide texture within other knitting patterns. In Swatch G the delicate etched-looking cables at either edge have pretty interior lace elements, and I inserted columns of lace to decorate the broad central cable as well.
Composing in Lace
The easiest and simplest allover laces are meshes formed entirely with yarnovers and decreases, while more intricate patterns use complex combinations of repeating units.
In Swatch H yarnovers are arranged in vertical formations. The center panel is one of my favorite patterns, a curious lace in which long strands of yarnovers worked over several right-side rows are gathered from above and clustered. The narrow columns at either side feature yarnovers worked on both sides of the fabric. Note how the decreases slanting away from the central yarnovers toward either edge give the column texture.
Although many laces are symmetrical, they need not be. Swatch A shows a fascinating mesh lace that features both single and double yarnovers, giving the fabric a subtle unevenness. Look carefully to see how the decrease elements contribute bias lines that both shape the lace and serve to deepen the texture of the fabric. What is known as a “half-drop” lace is created when units are staggered so that one unit begins at the middle of the adjacent unit. You can see the half-drop in the fern lace in Swatch I.
Wavy and jagged edges are familiar elements in lace patterns. One familiar wavy pattern is Feather and Fan, or Old Shale, of Shetland origin. Old Shale has garter-stitch ridges that make the fabric textured as well as open. In Swatch J, I’ve used a single repeat of Old Shale in a column between flanking cables. This arrangement takes advantage of the wave to add shape to the lower edge of the swatch.
Lace patterns can be used in unusual ways, and they tend to combine well with each other. For example, Swatch K shows a single narrow lace panel on the left. On the right, you can see that I used two of these lace panels to form the strands of an unconventional cable. Swatch L was created for the Frost Feather Stockings I designed for Sockupied, Fall 2011. The swatch allowed me to test how the decrease lines of individual lace patterns would flow into and out of each other when stacked. The ribbing at the top of the swatch is made of lace columns divided by purl stitches.
Knitted lace is its own universe. On my lace-knitting tour, you’ve seen how familiarity with the elements of lace makes all kinds of creative knitting possible. I encourage you to experiment, swatch, and start your own lace discoveries.
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!
Knit at Your Own Peril