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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hints for Beginning Lace Knitters

Despite many years of knitting experience, I'd never (until now) gotten into what I consider real "lace knitting."  Oh, I'd done my share of woolen scarves with simple lace motifs, but Tiong Bahru, that enticing, geometric confection by Asa Tricosa, has taken me into new territory—the real Land of Lace.

Here's what I'm learning.  I leave these little markers along the path for those of you "brave enough to knit" lace.

Marker #1

Choose yarn that is tightly plied.  I fell in love with the color and sheen of an unplied, 8-stranded silk yarn I found on Etsy, but working it is a real challenge.  Those tiny unplied filaments are snagging mercilessly.  A rough bit of cuticle, a prong on a ring will catch on a single strand out of the eight, pulling it into a free-form loop I have to go back and repair.  Even keeping the eight strands together to knit (or purl) them is problematic.  It's an exercise in patience.  Save yourself the extra hassle and start with yarn whose strands are firmly plied together.

Marker #2

Choose a pattern from an established designer.  It takes a meticulous technical edit and precision test knitting (optimally, from more than one test knitter) to produce an error-free pattern.  Beginners don't need the hassle of encountering errors.  It's better to choose a designer with a track record for proven excellence.  I've been very happy with the work of Susanna ICBoo KnitsCarina Spencer, and Asa Tricosa, to name a few.  

As a corollary to this principle, never be an early adopter.  Beginners should always make sure that a significant number of others have successfully knitted any given design.  You don't want to be the first to discover errors in a written (or charted) pattern; leave that for the expert knitters who will know a mistake when they see it.  And be skeptical of any pattern for which a number of errata have been published, because there may be more on the way.  

Marker #3

Choose a lace pattern that is obviously symmetrical.  Motifs (the "picture parts" of the lace) should have a clear center line; each side of that center should precisely mirror the other.  For a beginning lace knitter, this will be of great help as you get into the actual knitting.

Marker #4

Choose the right needles to suit your yarn.  If you're working with a slippery silk, you don't want it sliding around on aluminum needles.  Bamboo needles are far better suited to silk yarn.  Save the slippery needles for a yarn with some "tooth," such as wool or mohair.

Marker #5 

As I used to tell my computer students in a metaphorical sense, "Never let it see you sweat."  Now I mean that literally.  If your palms or fingers are moist, your yarn (especially if it's silk) is more likely to bunch up and balk at climbing from nylon cord to bamboo needle. 

Marker #6

Think design.  For the first few rows of a lace pattern, we are usually following the written instructions by rote.  Until about the fifth or seventh row, it's hard to see the picture that's developing from our conscientious observation of "k2, k2tog, yo, ssk, k2," and so forth.  But as soon as the pattern begins taking shape, we must pay careful attention to the picture we're developing and use it as a constant reality check.  Does that k2tog seem out of place, given what's gone before, what's already established?  Maybe you dropped a stitch.  Learn to refer less to the written code and more to what's developing under your fingers as you follow that code.

Marker #7

Think symmetry.  Lace depends upon pattern repeats.  Most lace motifs depend upon mirrored symmetry.  Use this to your advantage as you begin each row.  Seek out the internal symmetry in the written instructions.

This:  *ssk, k22, k2tog, (yo) twice, k5, yo, k5tog, yo, k5, (yo) twice, rep from *

symmetrically, is really this:

ssk, k22, k2tog [balanced and symmetrical, with a decrease on each side of a 22-stitch knit section]
(yo) twice, k5, yo, k5tog, yo, k5, (yo) twice [balanced and symmetrical, having at its center the k5tog, flanked on each side by the yo, k5, (yo) twice].

Learn to see the symmetry in the written code, and you're way ahead with your reality check about whether your knitting is producing the balanced and symmetrical vision of the motif.

Marker #8

Slow down.  Narrow your focus.  It's exciting to watch a lovely pattern develop from our patient efforts, and we can get in a rush to "get there."  But with lace, the devil is in the details, and the details must be consistent with each and every pattern repeat.  So try to see each and every row of each and every pattern repeat as an end in itself, to be worked to perfection before the next repeat can be begun.

If it helps you to see it this way, consider installing stitch markers at the end of every pattern repeat.  It will slow you down, but that can be a good thing.  Nothing is more Zen than knitting lace.  Try to see each step of the journey as its own destination, and you'll be knitting perfect lace before you know it.

Marker #9

Pay careful attention to your return rows.  On most lace patterns, the operations that produce the lace—the yarn-overs, the knit-togethers—occur on the right side, or knit row.  The return (wrong side, usually purl) is basically a consolidating row, so it's easy to get impatient and rush to get back to the "fun stuff."  Trouble is, those yarn-overs can have a sneaky way of riding up over neighboring knit (now purl) stitches, which leads to problems.  To make it easier to distinguish the yo from the p (and to avoid mistakenly purling both together), I've found it helpful to use my left thumbnail to tease that yo back into its proper position.  Again, slow and careful is the watchword for beginning lace knitters—even on the return rows.

Marker #10

For multiple knit-togethers, call in a spare needle.  The typical k2tog or ssk usually doesn't present a problem, but you may find yourself instructed to knit as many as five stitches together at once (see Marker #7 for an example), which can be tricky if you're a tight knitter.  Here's a little strategy that will help:

Slip those five (or however many) stitches onto the left end of a short circular needle or a cable needle at least two sizes smaller than your master needle.  Then slide these stitches to the right end of that spare needle and knit them together, using the right end of your master needle.  If the stitches still seem too tight to knit together, try poking the right tip of the master needle into each stitch and tugging downward to gain whatever slack may be available.   


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