Master Class: Complex Lace
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Lace Knitting in its most complex form is a true work of art. When you incorporate advanced lace techniques into your knitting, you take lace to a higher level, worthy of the compliments and your effort.
What Makes Lace “Complex”?
There are techniques which move lace knitting from intermediate to advanced skill level. You will often see increases and decreases created on both the right and wrong side rows, double decreases and multiple yarn overs, and double decreases on the wrong side rows.
Lace is usually worked over a background of Stockinette or Garter stitch. Stockinette allows designs to show up better and is preferred for intricate replicas of petals, leaves, or shells. Lace worked over Stockinette is pretty but has two disadvantages; the edges will curl and there is a definite right and wrong side. The right side must be worn facing out in order for the pattern to be recognized. Blocking with wires or adding an edge or border is usually done to allow the garment to lie flat.
Lace worked over a background of Garter stitch is usually reversible, lies flat and hangs nicely. The disadvantage is that some lace patterns are difficult to see, especially on smaller pieces. It's best to keep small designs on a background of Garter stitch simple.
Besides stitch patterns, yarn weight also determines the best background. A thinner, finer yarn will perform best over Garter stitch but a thicker yarn will look better on Stockinette. A thicker yarn used
over Garter stitch makes the lace difficult to see. There is no hard and fast rule to the weight of a yarn. A lace garment knitted in bulky yarn can be very attractive, but since the holes will be larger, it will need to be worn over an undergarment. The heavier and thicker the yarn, the larger the needles need to be, and the needle size determines how large the lace holes will be. Experient with different yarn weights and needles sizes to find out what looks best. Sometimes very fine needles and lace weight yarn produce a fabric that has a spider web or mesh look that hardly feels like a fabric at all. I
f this is not what you want, try working the same stitch pattern in a heavier yarn like fingering or sport weight, with larger needles.
Lace can be worked in most any fiber and popular ones include pure silk, pure wool, wool blends, cashmere or combined blends of multiple fibers. The fine wedding-ring shawls of Shetland are traditionally knit from an extremely fine 2-ply, 100% wool. Silk adds strength and a little sheen to your lace garment and is best when blended with wool for ease of knitting. Inelastic yarns like cotton or linen are a little more difficult to work with, especially with complex lace, as you will need some give to create the multiple decreases. But linen lasts a very long time and while the actual knitting
can be more difficult, the finished product is lovely. Estonian nupps for example, require 5-1, 7-1 or 9-1 decreases where you are purling five, seven or nine stitches at a time into one. This is easier to accomplish with a fiber that has some elasticity.
Lace is created through a combination of decreases and yarn overs. For every decrease there is a yarn over. These pairs need to be worked together in order to maintain the shape of the garment. If the pair is situated side by side on a row, shaping is a little easier. When you are increasing stitches, for example on a sleeve worked from the bottom up, it’s fairly easy to place your increases outside of markers on each side of the sleeve, and work the increases into the lace pattern when possible. But when you are decreasing, you need to be mindful of which stitches you are removing. Whenever you remove a decrease, its paired yarn over must be removed as well. Whenever you remove a yarn over, its paired decrease must be removed.
In complex lace the pair is not always positioned together within a row. You may have a series of yarn overs grouped together, with the decreases placed at the beginning or end of the row. You may also find a yarn over on one row that is not decreased until the next row resulting in changing stitch counts from row to row. In the sample chart below, the chart begins with 10 stitches on row 1 and ends with 9 stitches on row 6.
When this happens, you will often see a pattern instruct you to take a stitch count only after finishing certain row numbers. Separated pairs make it more difficult to find each counterpart. To help identify the pairs during shaping, try using color coordinating locking stitch markers on the decrease that is to be removed and its corresponding yarn over.
As with everything in knitting, there is the easy way and the way that looks best. The easiest way when shaping lace, is to work all stitches that can’t be worked in a full repeat in the background stitch. But what if you have a 12-stitch repeat on DK weight yarn? Those 12 stitches in stockinette will really break up the lace pattern. I suggest that you work the lace pattern as long as you can before transitioning to the background stitch. This means working partial repeats, taking care to maintain paired decreases/yarn overs. If the shaping is not charted, make a note of which stitch you ended so you know where to begin on the next row. If you work a partial 12 stitch repeat over 9 stitches, make a note to begin the next row with that 9th stitch.
Shaping Lace by Creating Bias
A lace fabric can take on a whole new shape based on the placement of the increases and decreases. A center line of stacked decreases will cause the columns of knitting to the right of the decrease to slant inwards, towards the stacked line. This creates an effect that looks like a wedge attached to your knitting with the bottom flaring out and top angling in on the “bias” side or the right side of the decreases.
A column of stacked increases will cause a bias to occur in the opposite direction. The stitches to the right of the stacked increases will turn away from the center line of increases and lean outwards, causing the bottom to drop down and the top to angle out.
An increase used at each end of every row will cause the fabric on each side to slant outwards. This is commonly used in shaping crescent shawls. A steep slant will occur if the increase is made every row, and a more gradual slant happens if you space out the increase to every second or fourth row.
Tips to Creating Perfect Lace
Lace benefits from taking frequent breaks and holding your work back to examine it. Can you see your pattern? Does anything look off? Can you see the paired decreases/yarn overs?
When beginning a new lace pattern, it’s a good idea to place a stitch marker between each repeat, especially in complex lace with shaping. Stitch markers isolate the full repeats, which help with shaping and allow you to quickly count stitches across a row to uncover where an error may lie.
When balancing lace patterns, selvedge stitches are used to create edges for seaming, to avoid beginning or ending a row with a yarn over, and to balance out the pattern. Place a stitch marker between the selvedge stitch and the beginning of the lace pattern repeat to help you keep your place. You’ve probably guessed by now, that stitch markers in lace will become your best friends!
Some complex lace patterns will have revolving beginning of rounds. At the end of each round, the beginning of the round marker moves over one stitch. This is required to maintain some diagonal patterns. When you reach the end of the round, remove your marker, work the next stitch, replace the marker, then begin the next round.
If your row or round begins or ends with yarn over, be sure to hold it in place until you work your next stitch. When you begin the next round, make sure your yarn over is to the correct side of the stitch marker. If the yarn over pops off or gets looped to the other side of the marker, you will begin your round by being off one stitch. Placing locking stitch markers on these yarn overs may help.
Ripping back in complex lace is tricky and you must be sure to replace the yarn overs on the needles as well as the formed stiches once you’ve ripped back as far as you need. This can be a nightmare. Before ripping back, know exactly which rows you are ripping out and which one you will resume on. Refer to your pattern when inserting the needle into the stitches again to make sure you catch all of the yarn overs. If you have rows of even stiches, for example a purled wrong side row, rip back through a right-side row so that the next row, the row that you need to re-insert your needles into, has all plain stitches without any yarn overs. Before continuing, count your stitches and make sure you can see the pattern.
Lifelines can help with ripping back. If you need to rip out a few rows, you can safely rip back to the lifeline and salvage most of your work. To create a lifeline, thread a tapestry needle with scrap yarn in a contrasting color, but close to the same weight or lighter than your working yarn. Periodically check your work and when you’ve finished a row that marks a good stopping point, like the last row of a pattern or chart, before starting the next row leave your knitting needle in place and thread the scrap yarn through all of the stitches on the needle. This marks the point in your knitting where everything up to this line is correct. If a mistake is made later, you can rip back to this line with the confidence that your stitches will be secure. As you work another repeat, slide out the lifeline and re-insert it.
Difference in Edges and Borders
Edgings in lace knitting are usually worked by casting on a small number of stitches to give you the width of just the edging, then worked lengthwise until the desired length is reached. The edge can then be sewn onto to a finished piece and is seen in sleeve cuffs, necklines, hem trims on scarves. Traditional Haapsalu shawls of Estonia are worked with the center pattern first, then the lace edge is knitted separately and sewn on by hand.
Borders tend to be worked from the bottom up or from the top down and begin by casting on the number of stitches equal to the entire width of the fabric or garment. They are worked in the same direction as the piece is knitted for a few inches/centimeters before transitioning to the main pattern.
Lace must be blocked aggressively by wet blocking and using pins or wires to hold the lace in place until dry. All gauge measurements for lace patterns apply to lace that has been blocked. It is necessary to stretch the lace out during blocking to open up the pattern. This is the time to make sure all of the holes are even. You can manually even these up with your fingers if you need to at this point to create a more uniform piece of lace once it dries.
Lace is a wonderful exploration in knitting. The rewards for your extra attention can be great and as an added bonus, knitters who struggle with hand or arm pain, can turn to lace knitting since it puts less strain on the muscles than cabled or texture knitting. It’s more engaging than stockinette and holds the interest of knitters for longer.
It is a faster form of knitting, even when you’re paying attention to a chart, because you will normally knit fewer stitches to achieve the same size garment as any other type of knitting. When blocked, the holes created in lace open up to enlarge your piece, which allows to you knit less and receive more. It is an impressive form of knitting that can be addictive. I hope you are able to carve out some quiet time and dive into more complex lace stitches with your next project.
Bush, Nancy. Knitted Lace of Estonia. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press LLC, 2008.
Gonzalez, Leslie. “Demystifying the Yarn Over/Decrease Relationship in Lace.” Cast On Nov 2014 – Feb 2015.
Lovick, Elizabeth. The Magic of Shetland Lace. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Vogue Magazine Editors. Vogue Knitting. New York, NY: Sixth & Spring Books, 2002.