Many people consider knitting too three-dimensional to produce the traditionally fine, flat, and fluid fabric of lace. While this is somewhat true, the same innate depth and texture of knitted fabrics can be manipulated to produce beautiful lace effects.
Finished knitted lace may look brain-staggeringly complex. But lace is essentially composed of two simple elements: increases and decreases. Once you’re familiar with those, you can achieve anything.
The Standard Increase: YO
The most common increase you’ll encounter in lace patterns is an open increase called a yarn-over (referred to as a YO in patterns and shown above). The increase is made by wrapping your yarn once around the right needle, as if you were working a regular stitch but without doing anything to the stitches on your left needle. It’s the simplest possible increase you can do.
By not connecting with stitches from the previous row, yarn-overs produce the large, open holes in your fabric that are essential for the open, airy look of lace. For this same reason, yarn-overs are often used sparingly and only for effect in non-lace patterns.
Unless you’re trying to create a progressively wider piece of fabric, you’ll want to balance out all those increases with a reduction in stitches elsewhere in the row. Here’s where the second element of lace knitting comes in: the decrease.
Right-Slanting Decrease: The K2Tog
The first decrease most knitters learn is simply knitting two stitches together, or K2tog (shown above).
This produces one stitch that tilts to the right. The same is true if you work the decrease on a purl row, or P2tog.
Left-Slanting Decrease: The PSSO
If you’re working any type of garment that needs parallel decreases tilting in opposite directions—such as working the toe decreases in a sock—you’ll want to pair the K2togs on one side with another type of decrease that will cause the stitches to slant in the opposite direction, or left.
The most common way to create left-tilting decreases is to slip one stitch to your right needle without working it, knit the next stitch, and then with your left needle lift the unworked stitch over the one you just knit, letting it drop off the needle.
You’ll see this written as psso, or pso, with whatever slip and knit combination noted beforehand. For example, s1k1psso would mean slip one stitch, knit one stitch, and then pass the slipped stitch over the knit stitch and off the right needle. But you’ll also see larger decreases like s1k2togpsso.
Here’s the slipped stitch in action.
Slip one stitch to the right needle. Many knitters feel that the best way to slip this stitch is knitwise as if you were going to knit it. This will position it so that, when slipped, it has a subtle twist that more closely matches the standard K2tog look. (Ultimately, I’d say do what you like best.) Then knit the next stitch as you would normally.
Select the slipped stitch with your left needle and…
…lift it over the knitted stitch and off the needle. See how it tilts to the left?
Left-Slanting Decrease: The SSK
Recently designers have favored another type of left-slanted decrease called the SSK. While those letters technically spell out “slip-slip-knit,” you’re doing more than that.
You begin by slipping two stitches to the right needle, one at a time, as if to knit. (Some prefer to slip the first stitch as if to knit, then the second as if to purl. Again, try all techniques and choose the one you like best.)
Then slip the tip of your left needle, left to right, behind the fronts of those two stitches, keeping the tip of the left needle towards you. Take your yarn and wrap it around the working needle to make a stitch.
Pull that loop through the two slipped stitches and let them slip off the needle. Again, see how the stitches tilt to the left?
Slipping Knitwise or Purlwise?
The real goal is to produce a left-slanting decrease that matches the right-slanting decrease most closely. See a fuller description of the different increases and decreases and how each matches the other.
The Art of Placement
The soul of knitted lace lies in the relationship between your increases and decreases. The possibilities are surprisingly infinite.
A YO followed immediately by a decrease will create a standard eyelet hole. If you follow the exact same YO/decrease pattern from row to row, the holes will stack on top of one another, as you see above.
But if you stagger the repeats by a few stitches every other row (for example K2Tog, YO, K2 one one row and then K2, K2Tog, YO on the next) you can create a very simple diamond-like effect, which you see above.
The type of decrease you use (the right-pointing K2Tog or left-pointing SKPSSO) and the location of the decrease in relation to the increase (both within individual rows and the entire fabric) will produce dramatically varied results. Designers essentially use the diagonal lines of decreases and circles of YOs to draw patterns in the knitted fabric.
The more you experiment with different patterns, the clearer this will become. For now, let’s get you started on a project that demonstrates how increases and decreases can create lacy patterns.
Believe it or not, the elegant pattern you see at left is based on an extremely easy combination of stitches.
Perfect for beginners, this stitch—called “Feather and Fan” or “Old Shale”—will familiarize you with the basic dance of increases and decreases in lace, producing gorgeous effects that knit up quickly and easily. This stitch achieves its wavy, puckered effect by grouping all the decreases together, and then following them with a series of increases.
Feather and Fan looks particularly dramatic with finer, lace-weight yarns, but you can use a heavier yarn (such as DK) without losing too much of the intended effect.
Choose a yarn that will wear comfortably against your bare neck. I used Classic Elite Lush, a now-discontinued, smooth four-ply blend of angora and wool that knits up at 4.5 sts per inch on US 8 needles. One 123-yard skein will produce the scarf you see here, which measures 4 x 45 inches.
The yarn’s recommended needle size is US 8, but I wanted the stitches to have plenty of room so I bumped my needle size up to US 9. Fortunately you don’t need to be too obsessed with gauge since this will only wrap around your neck.
Cast on 22 stitches and knit 2 rows.
Now you’re ready to begin the lace pattern, which is as follows.
Row 1: (RS): K all sts.
Row 2: K2, p18, k2. (Those 2 border stitches on either end will always be knit in garter stitch—their role is to keep your fabric from curling.)
Row 3: K2, (K2Tog) 3 times, (YO,K1) 6 times, (K2Tog) 3 times, k2.
Row 4: K all sts.
Repeat rows 1 through 4 until you’ve reached your desired scarf length or run out of yarn, whichever comes first. End by completing Row 4, and then knit 1 more row and bind off all sts.
Finishing: Darn in any ends and fill a sink with lukewarm water and add a gentle detergent (such as Eucalan or Soak). Drop your scarf into the water and gently squeeze it until the water has fully saturated the fibers. If using Eucalan or Soak, you can skip any rinse. Otherwise, gather the scarf together, lift it out of the sink, drain the water, re-fill it with lukewarm water, lower the scarf back in the water, and gently squeeze. Repeat this process until the rinse water runs clear. Then blot the scarf dry in a towel and lay it out to shape. If you’re using a finer, lace-weight yarn you’ll want to use pins to help open up the fabric to its desired shape.
Note: The knit stitches on row 4 (a wrong-side row) produce a garter stitch-like effect. If you’d rather have a totally smooth surface for your pattern, you can opt to purl that row (as shown in the picture at left). If you do so, prepare for extra blocking to keep your scarf from curling in on itself.
If you want to tackle this project in a superbly decadent finer gauge yarn such as Windy Valley Muskox or Ravenwood Cashmere, by all means go for it. You’ll just need to cast on any multiple of 18 stitches and add 4 stitches for the border. And prepare for something wonderful.