19 Jan 2011

Successful Lace Knitting: Ethnic Traditions & Charts


This is a continuation about my post about charts the other day, but with a focus on ethnic traditions. There are all different kinds of lace knitting and knitted lace. Yes, there are two names. I don’t know which is which, but there is an important difference between the two. If you can remember the concepts, the names are not important:

  • Lace knitting has plain knit or purl rows between the pattern rows
  • Knitted lace has yarn overs and decreases on every single row

You can see how this difference is important. The latter is much more difficult than the former!

Another important thing to note before staring a new lace project is the number of stitches in each row.

  • Some lace pattern stitches have the same number of stitches on every row – that is for every yarn over there is a matching decrease on the same row
  • Other lace pattern stitches have a varying number of stitches – that is yarn overs and their matching decreases occur on different rows

Again, you can see how the latter can be more difficult to follow and knit than the former.

Those are both general differences. What about different types of ethnic lace? Are there specific differences between lace that has developed in Estonia, Russia, the Shetland Islands, Spain, and other places? Yes there are. Here are a few interesting unique features of some of my favorite types of lace. (Click on each image to zoom in.)

Orenburg chart sample from Gossamer Webs

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Orenburg lace from Russia is knitted with very fine yarn made from a strand of goat hair (like mohair) and a strand of silk plied together. The lace is worked on garter stitch so there are no purls. Sometimes of the motifs have plain rows on the wrong side and some have yarn overs and decreases on every row. But only one type of decrease is used: knit two together, which keeps things simple even when there are no plain rows. Orenburg knitters memorized the pattern stitches and techniques of shawl knitting when they were young girls, so they didn’t need exact charts or instructions. They generally just sketched out an idea of where they would place different motifs.

Estonian Chart Sample

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Estonian lace generally has plain wrong side rows and the lace is worked on a stockinette stitch ground, with the wrong side rows being purled. The estonian motifs have a couple of very interesting (to me) techniques: 1) nupps, which are little bobbly things made by wrapping the yarn 5, 7, or 9 times around the needle and purling all of those wraps together on the next row and 2) little floral-looking designs made by knitting a bunch of stitches together and then increasing back to the original number all on the same row. Estonian books use a type of chart that’s been quite common in Europe over the years, so most experienced knitters probably can read the charts without a legend. This is very handy in Europe since there are so many different languages spoken.

English Instruction Sample

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Shetland lace reminds me of Orenburg in that it’s worked in very fine yarn on a ground of garter stitch. As with other British knitting, the old books and patterns are all written out with line-by-line text instructions. Charting is fairly new in English-language lace patterns and was typically used only for color patterns in the 19th and early 20th century, when knitting books were spreading in popularity. Before those days, knitters would make swatch samplers which they kept as a reference guide to help them remember the lace stitches they’d learned from relatives and friends. In the book Knitting Lace: A Workshop with Patterns and Projects based on a sampler from the Brooklyn Museum, Susanna Lewis examines one such sampler and explains how to decipher and chart out the stitch patterns. Older lace patterns used only knit 2 together for a decrease, later sl1-k1-psso became popular as a mirror image of k2tog. Today slip-slip-knit is more popular for a left-slanting decrease and, for most knitters, easier to work.

German Chart Sample

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German or Bavarian Lace is charted in a variety of ways. Most books use charts that are similar to the Estonian chart above, but some use very original ways of charting. The lace patterns in the 3-book set Bauerliches Stricken, use a charting system that does not have a grid and likely was created because it was easy to type for creating the book. The stitches and motifs used are classic European patterns and sometimes, in Bavaria especially, they are combined with twisted traveling stitches or cables.

Japanese Chart Sample

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Japanese patterns very often combine lace, cables, bobbles, and other unusual types of stitches. The results are at the same time, elaborate and elegant. Each level of the garment may include simpler motifs and stitches used in other portions to build on one another. A ribbing may include a simple bobble, that is used together with cables on the collar of a sweater, and further combined with lace for the main body or the sleeves. The Japanese also use all different kinds of decreases. I think the Japanese knitting charts are by far the clearest charts used today. My favorite thing is that there is a Japanese national standard for knitting charts, so they symbols are the same in every book published in Japan!

Dorothy Reade Chart Sample

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Arctic lace, or the type of lace used by the Oomingmak knitters in Alaska, was originated by Dorothy Reade. It is one of the simplest forms of lace, in that it is almost always worked on a stockinette stitch background with plain purl rows on the wrong side and the number of stitches does not change on each row. Some of the motifs, however, are incredibly large because the yarn over holes are used to outline and create drawings, rather than just textures or small all-over patterns. Dorothy Reade (the subject of my newest book, Successful Lace Knitting) created her own charting system and was one of the pioneers in charting in English-language knitting. She used k2tog through the back loop as the mirror image of k2tog. This twists the stitches but it’s not really visible on fine lace work. She also twisted the stitches on the next RS row above yarn overs to help create a more defined outline of the lace motifs she designed. Her system of charting was perfect for the Native Alaskan knitters of Oomingmak because many of the knitters at the time did not speak English. It is still used today, even though almost all Native Alaskan’s are bilingual these days.

Be sure to check out the book Successful Lace Knitting by Donna Druchunas.

About the Author

2 Responses to Successful Lace Knitting: Ethnic Traditions & Charts
  1. Hi Donna,
    What a nice and informative post.
    As you might have seen we are doing an Estonian Lace knit along on Historic Crafts. It’s only my second lace project. The first was a pair of stockings. But it is so much fun.

    I was really interested in the Orenburg lace as I have some mohair that I am spinning at the moment. I could easily ply this with some silk and it would make the type of yarn you mentioned in this paragraph. Do you know of anywhere I can read more about this type of lace and maybe find a pattern to try it out with?

    Take care,

  2. […] I will instead share with you what I have learned about knitting Estonian Lace. Donna Druchenas (from Sheep to Shawl) talks about Estonian Lace knitting that generally has a plain wrong side row […]

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