Thursday, June 30, 2005

Notes on Knitted Lace

Each skill you learn has corollaries that you may or may not choose to explore. I don’t like the look of needle tatting, so despite being an advanced shuttle tatter I’m barely competent at it. Ditto most of the specifically woolen crochet techniques. I concentrated on shuttle tatting and thread crochet because those were what I liked best – I’m a lace addict, remember? In the same way, knitting is about a great deal more than lace. There are color work, slipped stitches and texture stitches, among other things. An expert lace-knitter may have to really work at Fair Isle or entrelac knitting, and may have no interest in felting whatsoever until her grand-daughter requests a felted hat!

Yet everything we do builds on the experiences that have come before. I wouldn’t find knitting shapes relatively simple if I hadn’t done years of crochet, garment sewing and hand weaving. I might not understand the structure of knitted lace nearly so easily if not for all the other lace experience I’ve gained through the years in all those other lace methods, including a little bit of bobbin and needle lace.

Let’s face it – lace is, at bottom, simply empty (negative) space surrounded by filled (positive) space. Holes in some sort of a background. When those holes are arranged in a deliberate pattern, they’re called lace. How the holes are formed is specific to each technique. In tatting the holes are surrounded by rings or picots or chains. In crochet, holes are usually formed by some variation of chain stitch. In weaving, holes are made by gathering threads together and using the weave structure to lock them in place around the hole. In knitting, holes are generally formed by yarn-overs.

Because of the utter simplicity of its hole formation, knitted lace is the most potentially complex of the so-called peasant needle laces (more on this term later). Those yarn-over holes can stand alone, in which case your knitted piece will widen. They can be evenly paired with decreases, in which case the width of your knitted piece will stay pretty much the same. Or yarn-overs can be unevenly paired with decreases, in which case your knitting will either increase or decrease in width, depending on the distribution of the pairing.

A firm grasp of these principles will assist in lace knitting– you’ll be able to analyze a lace pattern and see why it’s knitting up as it is. Lace edgings make excellent use of this, increasing one stitch every row or two to a specified point, then decreasing one stitch every row or two back to the starting width. Corollaries of this principle can be used to form undulating edges on knitted pieces.

Lace can be chosen as a knitting structure for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you need a piece of variable utility. You’re going to be traveling and will need a shawl for this occasion, but an afghan would really be nice for huddling by the fire at the next destination. It also makes a nice portable change house when you drop your lunch down your shirt-front. Or perhaps you want to make a special gift for a young lady. A square or round lace shawl would be nice for a shoulder wrap for formal or informal occasions, could be used over a bridal gown or going-away ensemble, and be stored for later use as a christening shawl. That same shawl can also be used as an afghan for a hospital stay or a wall decoration for a new house. For that matter, that first travel shawl can be used for all of those things!

Maybe you need something that can vary in size a good bit. You want a nice three-season sweater, and have just started a diet or learned of a pregnancy. A lace design can ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ with blocking quite a bit more than a stockinette or color-stranded one.

Whatever the reason you choose to make your first lace piece, it will probably not be your last. As noted in the examples given above, lace has a great ability to be utilitarian as well as beautiful. I’m constantly amazed by how often I pick up a shawl and for how many different purposes. And knitting lace is addictive. Watching the pattern grow in a lace design is just as rewarding as watching the colors change and intertwine in color knitting.

Now back to that term – “peasant needle laces”. If you aren’t a student of the history of fiber arts you may not recognize it. Basically, it is a historical term. Yes, it is sometimes used in a derogatory rather than merely descriptive way, usually by rabid bobbin lace fanatics (of whom, luckily, there are fewer each year). But the original historical meaning referred to those laces which could be executed with minimal tools and were thus frequently utilized and manufactured by the lower economic classes of a society.

Many of those laces were not only utilized by the lower economic groups, they were developed by and indeed became a valuable addition to the economy of an otherwise deprived area. The Shetland and Faeroe Islands come immediately to mind, of course, but there were also the southern steppes of Russia and parts of France, Spain and eastern Europe. It is difficult for us today to relate to the value placed on lace during the Middle Ages. Lace was a fashionable and necessary addition to attire (unless legislated otherwise – Google ‘sumptuary laws’ for more information) from around 1000 AD through the middle part of the twentieth century. Lavish displays of beautiful lace showed your supposed financial standing.

Lace has only lost popularity in recent history. And, no cheating now, how many of you ladies have some sort of lace trim on your underclothing right now? Yet machine-made lace is of quite recent origin. Before the 1800’s all lace was of necessity hand-made. And a sign of status well into the twentieth century was to wear or use only handmade lace trims.

Lace making was a respectable and legal means of support for the woman who had no other income or skills. Or for the woman or man who was trying to supplement a meager family income. Perhaps those practitioners were peasants, but they were far from unskilled.

Lace making now is a hobby for most. The rewards are usually less tangible than money, but no less important. We can usually afford to choose our supplies carefully, and our meals are not dependent upon our production. We can take our time, practice and perfect our art to whatever degree we choose. Some decry this, sure that we lose some level of skill by relegating lace making to hobby status. I don’t agree. There have always been varying degrees of skill among lace makers. Some people don’t choose to become experts. Some have always learned the skills involved more easily than others due to either native talent or long practice in other mediums. But everyone can find knitting lace rewarding and pleasurable. The only things you need are a desire to make lace and the patience to study and practice the needed skills. Then you can reap the rewards of a special sort of satisfaction.

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