Clean Cup

A Primer on Knitted Lace

Airy, light, and a bit mysterious—the delicate tracery of knitted lace is hard to resist. Even the simplest lace patterns look impressive and inspire admiration. But intricate as it may appear, knitted lace is simply a fabric punctuated with deliberate openings that can be arranged in myriad ways to create patterns that range from basic to complex. The wonderful thing about knitted lace is that in spite of its apparent intricacy, it follows a simple logic. The openings are created by special increases called yarnovers, and each yarnover is accompanied by a compensating decrease. Once you understand how yarnovers and decreases work together, you’ll be on your way to mastering the vast array of lace patterns.

Traditional laceweight yarn yields beautiful lace patterns, but sport, worsted, and bulky yarns can be equally effective. A smooth, light-colored fingering or sportweight yarn worked on a needle three to four sizes larger than you’d normally use creates a fluid fabric in which the lace pattern is clearly visible. But fuzzy yarns and dark, variegated colors yield impressive results, too. Experiment with different yarns and needle sizes when you’re swatching lace patterns to see the variety of effects that you can create with a single pattern; you’ll quickly find out what appeals to you.

Getting Started—Yarnovers and Decreases in a Simple Lace Pattern

A yarnover is a stitch made by a loop or strand of yarn placed on the right-hand needle as you work. On the return row, this loop is worked as you would any other stitch; once knitted, it leaves a small opening in the knitting. Each yarnover is counted as an increase of one stitch. Every yarnover is paired with a decrease that may immediately precede or follow the yarnover, appear several stitches away from the yarnover in the same row, or even be worked on a later row. The decreases used in lace knitting are standard: k2tog, ssk, and any of the several kinds of double decreases. The specific kind of decrease to use in any lace pattern is spelled out in its instructions.

A good way to see how yarnovers and decreases work together is to knit a swatch.

Lace Pattern #1

In Lace Pattern #1, the yarnover is made between two knit stitches and is worked as follows: After knitting the stitch (or working a knit decrease) before the yarnover, bring the yarn forward between the needle tips. When you knit the next stitch, bring the yarn up and over the right-hand needle to the back of the work again, ready to knit the next stitch (Figure 1). The strand that travels over the top of the needle is the yarnover, and it counts as one stitch, so the stitch after the yarnover shouldn’t be counted as part of the yarnover.

Note that in this pattern, you are working the yarnovers and decreases for lace patterning on the right-side rows. The wrong-side return rows are considered “rest rows” because they are worked without any yarnovers or decreases. Although some lace patterns have patterning on every row, it is quite common for lace patterns to have rest rows that alternate with pattern rows.

Reading a Chart for a Simple Lace Pattern

Instructions for knitted lace are often presented in chart form. Charts offer a graphic representation of the front, or right side, of the pattern.

Each line of the chart represents a row of the stitch pattern. Each square represents an action (which doesn’t always correspond to working a single stitch from the left needle). The symbol key tells what to do for each square; for example, a plain square represents a knitted stitch and a circle represents a yarnover. A right-slanting line represents k2tog and means that you knit the stitch that corresponds to the k2tog square with the stitch to the left of it. Note that in this lace pattern, the chart shows that the number of stitches stays the same in each row—for every yarnover, there is a corresponding decrease, and vice versa. On Row 1, the right-slanting k2tog decrease is paired with the yarnover that follows it, and the left-slanting ssk decrease is paired with the yarnover that precedes it. On Row 5, the centered double decrease (sl 2 as if to k2tog, k1, pass 2 sl sts over) decreases two stitches, and the yarnovers made on each side of the decrease add two stitches to compensate.

The chart is read from bottom to top, and right-side rows are read from right to left, in the same direction as one normally knits. If working back and forth in rows, purl the wrong-side rows (or knit these rows on the right-side if working in rounds).

Yarnovers and Decreases in a Bias Lace Pattern

In Lace Pattern #1, the yarnovers and decreases are balanced. In each repeat, one yarnover falls to the left of its decrease and the other falls to the right of its decrease. Other lace patterns, such as Lace Pattern #2, create zigzag patterns by arranging the yarnovers to fall consistently on one side of their corresponding decreases for several rows before reversing the order.

Lace Pattern #2

After you have worked several repeats of the pattern, you’ll notice that the edges of the sample are wavy and the stitches tilt away from the vertical to create a bias-lace fabric. The stitches tilt to the right for the first eight rows because the yarnovers’ position to the left of their decreases forces the grain of the fabric to lean to the right. At the same time, the fabric angles to the left. On the following eight rows, the stitches slant to the left because the yarnovers line up to the right of their decreases, and the edges lean to the right. The cast-on edge is slightly scalloped because the yarnover increases and their compensating decreases are separated by other plain stitches. The bound-off edge is also slightly wavy due to this separation of yarnovers and compensating decreases, but the scallop is less pronounced than on the cast-on edge. You can increase the scalloped effect of the bind-off row by binding off in pattern and working the decreases extra tightly and leaving the yarnovers and stitches on either side of them extra loose.

Reading a Chart For a Bias Pattern and “No-Stitch” Symbols

As mentioned above, one advantage of a lace chart is that it shows a rough picture of the actual knitted fabric. Charts for bias patterns with wavy edges may employ a “no-stitch” symbol, which is simply a placeholder that’s usually represented by a gray square. You don’t do anything when you see a gray no-stitch symbol. You only knit according to the symbols represented by the white squares.

Besides bias patterns, there are other types of lace that may use the no-stitch symbol in charts. Examples include patterns with stitch counts that vary from row to row (a yarnover’s compensating decrease is deferred until a later row in the pattern), some lace edgings, and certain garment shapes.