Shaping Lace Shawls and Sweaters

Knitting lace patterns by hand is a satisfying exercise in a world that often moves too fast. The knitting is rhythmic and meditative; the finished project is a tangible expression of tradition and history. Previously we discussed the basics of knitted lace: how yarnovers and decreases are paired to create lace patterns and how to read lace charts. This week, former Interweave Knits editor Eunny Jang describes the process for shaping lace garments in pattern.

Shaping lace projects

Many lace projects—shawls, stoles, and scarves—require minimal shaping, or none at all. Rectangular scarves and stoles, for example, are knitted straight up from the cast-on edge. After the lace pattern is established, it repeats without interruption. In circular shawls worked from the center out, increases are worked into the pattern repeats, and triangular shawls often use columns of yarnovers (without accompanying decreases) along a center spine and/or along the edges for shaping. In these projects, the basic repeat of the lace pattern remains intact as you knit, and the charts and written instructions spell out where to place the increased stitches and how to work them.

Garments of lace, however, are often shaped with increases and decreases along side seams and bind-offs at armholes. Shaping often cuts into pattern repeats, wreaking havoc with the balance of yarnovers and decreases. Remember that in lace pattern repeats, the number of stitches increased through yarnovers is usually balanced by the number of stitches decreased to maintain a constant stitch count. Adding or removing stitches for shaping purposes interferes with that balance unless the knitter understands the yarnover/decrease structure in the pattern repeat and takes time to plan ahead.

Two methods for shaping will allow you to add and subtract stitches at the edges of your piece while maintaining the correct number of stitches overall. The simplest method is to work any edge stitches that fall before and after the first and last full repeats of the pattern in a plain stitch that matches the background of the lace fabric—usually stockinette stitch. The second, least conspicuous, way to shape lace is to continue the pattern right up to the edge by working partial repeats on either side of the first and last full repeats. Either way, becoming thoroughly familiar with the pattern, anticipating the stitch count on every row, and using a visual guide can all be helpful.

Using a chart to plan for shaping

Patterns that provide charts often indicate shaping lines on the grid, but written instructions may not give any clue beyond, “Work X repeats of lace pattern, decreasing 1 stitch at each edge every 4th row 3 times and then increasing 1 stitch at each edge every 2nd row 6 times.” Charting the lace pattern and drawing the decreases and increases as they occur will help you to keep the stitch count consistent. On graph paper, chart two or three pattern repeats beginning with the first row of the work, as shown in Figure 1. (You don’t need to chart the entire width of your knitting, only enough repeats at either edge to accommodate the number of stitches added or removed by the shaping.) Then draw a line to indicate the shaping and another vertical line to show the beginning of the first full repeat and the end of the last full repeat. In Figure 1, the heavy black line shows the right edge of the knitted piece and a series of decreases worked every four rows, beginning with Row 1. The dotted line indicates the beginning of the first full repeat.

shaping lace


After mapping your lace pattern and adding the marker and shaping lines, compare it to the knitting on your needle. From the right side of the work, divide your stitches in the following way: place two stitch markers, one at the beginning of the first full pattern repeat and one at the end of the last full repeat. If the row begins and ends with a full repeat, place the marker one repeat in (in this example, it would be six stitches) from either edge. You’ll have three sections: the shaped right edge of the piece to the right of the first marker, the straight middle of uninterrupted pattern repeats, and the shaped left edge of the piece, to the left of the second marker.

Decreasing stitches in stockinette stitch

The simplest way to work decreases in a lace piece is to switch from the lace pattern to plain stitches (usually stockinette) in the areas before and after the markers as soon as it is no longer possible to work a full pattern repeat. Allover-patterned garments (and some triangular shawls) are often shaped this way. The gauge difference between the solid and openwork sections is usually negligible after blocking. However, if the body pattern is very open and airy, a distinct “stair step” effect will be visible where solid fabric and lace meet.

Whenever the number of stitches between marker and edge is fewer than the number required for the full repeat—in this example, the repeat requires six stitches—simply ignore lace patterning and knit the stitches plain, incorporating any shaping at the extreme edges of the piece. In Figure 2, Row 1 shows the first decrease. (Remember that each square on the chart represents one stitch after the row has been completed.) Work the first six stitches as ssk, k4, work the center section in pattern, and work the last six stitches of the row outside the second marker as k4, k2tog (not shown on the chart)—five stitches remain between each marker and the selvedge. On Rows 2–4 work the five stitches at each side in stockinette as shown in Figure 2.shaping lace

If, eventually, all the stitches between marker and edge have been eliminated, and there are still decreases to be made, simply reposition the markers at the beginning and end of the first and last full repeats, and continue in the same manner.

Decreasing stitches in pattern

If you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the lace pattern by working plain stitches at the edges, you can work with partial repeats in a way that maintains the necessary stitch count while keeping the integrity of the pattern. Once you’ve charted your pattern and have marked off the stitches on your needle to correspond with the sections on the chart as previously explained, focus on the number of stitches between the marker and the edge (the incomplete pattern repeat), noting the relationship of those stitches to the row below, and to the whole repeat. Remember that yarnovers make a new stitch without affecting any stitches from the row below, while decreases reduce two or three stitches from the row below into a single stitch. For example, according to the chart of the original pattern in Figure 1, there should be five stitches between the marker and edge on Row 3 after working the first decrease in Row 1. Take a look at the work on the needle, and imagine each stitch you’ll make, going from the marker out to the edge. Following the chart in Figure 1, you can see three plain stitches immediately precede the marker, then a yarnover, and then a double decrease (which eliminates two stitches) to begin the row. If you make a double decrease over the first three stitches and then work a yarnover, you will be left with only four stitches before the marker instead of five, and the pattern will be off by one stitch.

Think of how pattern elements work together in the whole repeat: the double decrease represents an action happening to three stitches from the row below, the stitch to the right of the decrease symbol (which has already been decreased away), the stitch directly below it, and the stitch to the left of it. In order to keep the stitch count correct, the actual work needs to turn two, not three, stitches into one. Figure 3 shows how to work a partial repeat of the pattern in a way that maintains the stitch count. In Row 3, the symbol at the beginning of the row has changed to show a single (ssk) decrease. Count this decrease as the first stitch of the row. Then work yo, k3 to the marker. When you finish the row, five stitches will remain between the marker and the edge.

shaping lace

In Figures 1 and 3, the chart shows a shaping decrease at the beginning of Row 5. Work the first two stitches together as ssk and continue in pattern.

According to the original pattern (Figure 1), Row 7 would begin with a yarnover as the first of four stitches between marker and edge. Consider again what the whole pattern repeat looks like—a double decrease and another yarnover originally preceded the remaining yarnover in Row 7. A single yarnover without an accompanying decrease is unbalanced—if worked, it would create a new stitch and increase the stitch count by one. The solution? Simply ignore the yarnover and knit the first stitch of the row to maintain the right number of stitches between marker and edge.

In Rows 9 and 13, each double decrease removes two stitches, and the single yarnover restores one of those two stitches, resulting in a decrease of one stitch. Because both Rows 9 and 13 are decrease rows, simply omitting the yarnover in front of each double decrease, as shown in Figure 3, will reduce the stitch count by one stitch as the shaping requires.

Increasing stitches in stockinette stitch

Stockinette stitch can also be used to work increases along the edge of a sweater body or sleeve. Place markers before and after the first and last full repeats as explained before, and work the stitches between the marker and the edge in stockinette stitch, increasing when shown on the chart and using the increase technique called for in the pattern. If no particular increase technique is spelled out, you can cast on a new stitch at the edge using the backward loop cast-on, or work a make 1 (M1) or raised bar increase one stitch in from the edge. When enough stitches have been added to work an entire repeat, move the marker to the outside of the new repeat and work the newly introduced edge stitches according to the row of the pattern you’re on. (You don’t need to wait until Row 1 of the pattern to start working the pattern over the new stitches.)

In the example in Figure 4, one stitch is increased every right-side row, beginning with Row 19. When Row 25 has been completed, there are six stitches between the marker and edge— enough stitches to work a full repeat if you are increasing by casting on a new stitch at the end of the needle. If you are working an increase one stitch in from the selvedge, you’ll need to wait until you have seven stitches between marker and selvedge to begin a new repeat. On the next lace pattern row (Row 27 in this example), move the marker to the outside of the new six-stitch repeat and work stockinette between the new marked position and the selvedge as before.

shaping lace

Increasing stitches in pattern

You increase stitches in pattern in much the same way that you decrease them. Plot the pattern, marker, and shaping lines, and first and last full repeats on a chart, as shown in Figure 5 (the figure shows only the first full repeat). Place markers on your needle before and after the first and last full pattern repeats. Again, focus on the number of stitches between marker and edge and remember that each square on the chart equals one stitch on the needle after the row is completed. In Row 17 of this example, there are two stitches before the first marker. Count stitches from the marker to the edge to decide how to handle the partial repeat. Here, instead of working a double decrease and yarnover as shown in Figure 5, work a single decrease to balance the single yarnover and maintain the stitch count of two as shown in Figure 6. Row 19 is the first increase row, and you can simply increase one stitch to bring the stitch count before the marker to three as shown.

In Row 21, the three stitches of the preceding row need to become four stitches worked, according to the chart and counting back from the marker, as a yarnover, a double decrease, a yarnover, and a plain stitch (the increased stitch). The yarnovers create a whole new stitch without affecting any from the row below, but the double decrease will reduce all three available stitches of Row 20 into one stitch, leaving nothing to increase from. To solve the problem, cast on one stitch at the edge with a knitted or backward loop cast-on, knit that stitch as the first stitch of the row, and continue. In Row 23, the four stitches of the preceding row must become five, but the row as shown in the original chart (Figure 5) starts with the same, unbalanced partial repeat that appeared at the beginning of Row 17.

Again, count from the marker—three plain stitches precede it, then a yarnover, then a double decrease. Using the principles learned when decreasing, think about how the previous row’s stitches will be used in this row—three available stitches can be used for the three plain stitches of Row 23, and the yarnover doesn’t require a stitch from the previous row, leaving one stitch for the square containing the double decrease symbol. Of course, working a double decrease would throw everything off by two stitches. Solution? Work the first stitch plain, work the yarnover required by the pattern without any companion decrease at all to increase to five stitches between the marker and the selvedge, as shown in Figure 6, and continue.

After Row 25, there are six stitches between marker and edge, enough to work a full repeat. On the next lace patterned row, Row 27, move the marker to set off those six stitches as the new first full repeat, and continue.

As you grow more familiar with how lace works, markers will take a back seat to your own ability to read the work and intuitively know what needs to be done. If you understand how the unglamorous building blocks of knitted lace—yarnovers and decreases—work together, then you’ll be able to master shaping in the most complex constructions and patterns.

Check out these fantastic lace sweaters!

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