Original post #552

Lace Knitting Around the World

by Donna Druchunas
Originally published in Black Purl Magazine, Spring 2007.

Lace knitting has become my obsession. It’s surprising in a way, because just a few years ago, I thought I would never be able to learn how to knit lace. I tried several times, and failed repeatedly.

The first time I tried to knit a lace pattern, I chose a very simple 2-row feather and fan stitch. So far, so good. But to go with the easy stitch, I chose a chunky bouclé yarn to make an afghan. I thought the yarn was a good choice because it would hide my mistakes, but it turned out to hide the stitches so much, that I could barely knit 6 rows without my stitch count being off. I knit and ripped and knit and ripped and re-knit over and over again. Finally when I had about 6 inches of knitting complete, I bound off and decided my project was a scarf!

The second time I tried to knit lace, I chose a smooth, wool yarn. One that just happened to be about as thick as sewing thread–and black! I saw a pattern by Meg Swansen for a gorgeous circular shawl. The pattern looked simple and repetitive and I thought, “Surely I can knit this!” Alas, I could not. The project began with 8 stitches on double pointed needles. And the needles were size 10! I did manage to get a few inches knitted, with mistakes, but it was so frustrating and so difficult for me to see the pattern as I was knitting with the dark, fine yarn on large needles, that I also gave up on this project. Defeated once again, I went back to knitting my favorite cables.

I knew I had to get serious about learning how to knit lace when I decided to write a book about lace knitting. I had read an article about the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative in Alaska, owned and operated by over 200 Native Alaskan women who knit lace with musk ox wool. As soon as I read about these amazing knitters, I knew I had to learn more. And after I started gathering my research, I knew I had to write a book to tell their story.

I didn’t want to read any other lace books before writing my own, however, so I was worried about how I would be able to design an knit projects for the book. I was thrilled to discover in my search through decades old archives, that the founders of the co-op had developed a 3-step lace knitting lesson plan. I followed it, and voila!, I had 3 successful lace swatches. (The lessons are presented in an updated version in Arctic Lace.) What were the secrets? You may laugh because they are so simple, but I believe these were the keys to my ultimate success:

1) Practice with medium weight wool yarn on “normal” sized needles. I now swatch all new lace patterns with smooth, sport-weight yarn on size 5 needles.

2) Use charts. I know some knitters don’t like charts, but for lace I feel that they are a life saver. Because the chart looks like what your knitting will eventually look like, it is so much easier to avoid mistakes. Charts also allow you to knit patterns from other parts of the world when instructions are not available in your language.

3) Do not use slip 1-knit 1-psso or slip-slip-knit for a left slanting decrease, even if that’s what the lace pattern calls for. Each of these decreases requires three steps to make one stitch. It can throw you off your rhythm and you will easily lose your place. Instead use k2tog-tbl (knit two stitches together through the back loops).

With these 3 tricks up my sleeve, I became a proficient lace knitter…. proficient enough to design my own lace stitches and the projects in Arctic Lace.

After I finished the book, I finally allowed myself to explore the world of lace knitting and discovered that is is much more varied and elaborate than I could have imagined. Around the world and over time, knitters in different countries and regions have developed unique styles of lace knitting that range from easy-intermediate (like the knitting of the Oomingmak knitters) to advanced-insanely-difficult (like some of the Victorian patterns designed by English knitters). Other lace styles are used in Estonia, Russia, South America, Lithuania, Germany and Austria, and New Zealand. I’m sure there are even more, but these are the styles I’ve explored so far.

Here is a list of books (not all in English, but all with lots of photos and charts) that can take you on an armchair tour of the world. Even if you don’t plan to knit lace in all of these styles, you will enjoy the history and stories about the knitters and their traditions.

Arctic Lace by Yours Truly: Explores the lace knitting of Yup’ik and Inupiat knitters in Alaska who use qiviut (musk ox down) to knit lace patterns inspired by traditional Native Alaskan art and crafts designs.

Folk Shawls by Cheryl Oberle includes patterns based on traditional designs from around the world. They are worked on larger needles and heaver yarn than many traditional patterns, so this book is great for those who are new to lace knitting to learn many different stitches and patterns without fussing with thread-like yarn and teensy needles.

Gossamer Webs by Galina Khmeleva & Carol Noble takes you on a tour of Orenburg Russia to meet the knitters who live there and to discover the techniques they use to knit featherweight lace shawls from handspun yarn.

Folk Knitting in Estonia by Nancy Bush is the story of knitting in the Baltic nation of Estonia. It includes information about both lace and color knitting. For more on Estonian lace, you’ll have to buy an Estonian book called “Pitsilised Koekirjad”! I don’t know of any US store selling this book, but you can buy it from Martina’s Bastel- und Hobbykiste on the web. Martina’s shop also stocks many other European lace knitting books and patterns.

Stahman’s Shawls and Scarves by Myrna Stahman includes instructions for making traditional Faroese shawls as well as Seaman’s scarves. There are a huge number of charts in this book, so it’s also a great stitch library.

Victorian Lace Today by Jane Sowerby is a history of the lace knitting of Victorian England. The author takes a fascinating look at the way lace patterns have developed and evolved over time, and examines some of the very first English-language knitting books every published.

Shetland Lace Knitting from Charts by Hazel Carter includes charts for many of the beautiful lace designs from the Shetland Isles.

In Creating Original Hand-Knitted Lace, Margaret Stove explains in detail how she designs her own lace stitches and patterns inspired by the beautiful flora and fauna in the New Zealand landscape. There are no projects in this book and it’s not really meant for beginners, but it is a fantastic source of inspiration for knitters of all skill levels. (Alas this book seems to be out of print!)

This list is far from comprehensive, so make sure to check out what’s in stock at your local yarn shop as well. You never know what treasure’s you’ll find lurking in the corner of their bookshelf!

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