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Friday, February 07, 2014

Choosing a lace pattern

You see a beautiful new lace shawl and you're keen to knit it? A friend gifted you a beautiful skein of lace weight yarn or you got tempted by a skein of cobweb lace at a knitting show months ago? But the yarn is so fine and the patterns look so complicated and there's so much choice. You're worried about choosing the wrong pattern and getting stuck and ruining that beautiful yarn.

Sounds familiar? I've certainly been there in the past, when I was new to lace knitting.
Avia is one of my easier patterns which is worked from the bottom up and starts with the wide lace border.

Recently I received an e-mail asking me which of my patterns were suitable for knitters new to lace knitting, so I thought I'd do a blog post about choosing patterns if you're new to lace knitting.

Many knitters with internet access buy patterns from sites like Ravelry and Patternfish these days. And the choice of patterns is huge! How do you choose the right pattern?

First, let's talk about difficulty levels. I find putting difficulty levels in my patterns extremely difficult. 'Easy' can mean different things to different people. 'Easy' on one of my patterns doesn't mean that someone with no knitting skills can knit it. But it does mean that if you have basic knitting skills, ie knit, purl, cast on, cast off etc, and you're willing to try something new then you can knit from one of my 'easy' patterns.
Tivoli is a big shawl but starts out very easy although the lace edging does have decreases on both right and wrong side rows.

I have considered listing 'skills' needed to knit a pattern but how basic and detailed do I go? Is it enough to list 'increases, various decreases, short rows' and assume that it's a given that you can cast on/off, knit and purl? Or do I need to list everything 'cast on, cast off, knit, purl, yarn over, k2tog, ssk'? And if skills are listed, do you look at the list and if there's something you haven't done before, does it put you off buying the pattern? I'd really like your opinion on this in the comments as it's something I'm considering at the moment and if I decide to change it on my patterns, I'd like to do it before I order patterns for this year's shows.

So 'difficulty level' or 'skills' is one thing to look at when choosing your first lace pattern but what else do you look for?

Balmoral has lots of garter stitch, simple shaping and simple lace.

One of the most important considerations when choosing a lace pattern is yarn weight. If you're not used to knitting with very fine yarn, lace weight yarns can be very intimidating. When I bought my first skein of lace weight which was a beautiful mohair blend. I can't remember which company it came from but it was a beautiful, hand-dyed skein. I eventually wound it into a skein and cast on and almost immediately ripped it out and put it down. It was too scary knitting with such a fine yarn. For months it sat there looking at me, mocking me! Eventually I bought some sock yarn and got used to knitting with that. Then I went a little bit thinner then a little bit thinner and before I knew it I was knitting with very fine lace yarn.

So choose a pretty skein of 4ply/fingering weight yarn or a skein of sock yarn (which are usually 4ply/fingering weight). Don't choose an intricate large shawl knitted in fine cobweb lace as your first shawl. Yes, they look stunning but be patient! Choose a pattern which only requires 100gr of 4ply/fingering weight sock yarn as the yarn will be less intimidating than a finer yarn and the pattern will be quicker to knit. Also, remember that these days most designers knit lace on much bigger needles than was common in the past. For lace weight yarn I normally use 3.25mm or 3.5mm (US3 or 4) needles. If you knit socks you'll be used to knitting with thinner needles than that. For sock yarn I normally use 4mm (US6) needles which is what we normally use for DK.

If you're mainly used to knitting with aran or chunky yarn then even a sock yarn can be scarily thin so go for a scarf in DK. Many shawls can be worked in different yarn weights than what they're designed for. You could easily knit one of my sock yarn shawls in DK. You may need to allow a bit more yarn, just in case.
Anna Mae is worked sideways with the main boy in garter stitch and the lace section and edging in stocking stitch, with a few beads added.

Do you like knitting from charts or from written instructions? This is a key consideration when considering a pattern. Many designers these days offer both charts and written instructions and I try to offer both, although I do have a few patterns with only charts (but these aren't beginner patterns).

My personal opinion is that charts are easier to knit from once you know how to read them. And it's not difficult to learn to read a chart. I'm teaching 'Chart Magic' at Spin A Yarn in June. I also cover how to read lace charts in my Easy Lace and Lace Improver classes and I'm teaching those in a variety of locations this spring, incl Wales, Devon and Jersey.

So if you're new to charts, don't let charts put you off. Choose a pattern that has written instructions as well as a chart and use both. Look at the charts and compare them to the written instructions to help you out.

Some lace patterns have a 'rest row' on every other row. This means that every other row has lace patterning on right side rows only and wrong side rows are plain knit or purl or a combination of knit/purl. Some lace patterns have lace patterning on both right and wrong side rows and although this is considered more difficult, some knitters think it's easier. When you're new to lace, I'd recommend choosing a pattern which has lace patterning on every other row only. The problem is many pattern descriptions won't tell you if there's patterning on every other row or every row. Most of my lace patterns have lace patterning on every other row only as I prefer the look of that but I do have some patterns where there are some rows which have lace patterning on every row. But I try not to do this throughout the whole pattern. And I would mark a pattern like that as 'intermediate'.

My Montana shawl is knitted in a thicker lace weight and has a few rows in each pattern repeat with lace patterning on both right and wrong side rows but it is a small shawl.

Think about how much lace there is in a pattern. Is there a section of plain stocking stitch or garter stitch and perhaps only lace on the edging? Or is the shawl half stocking/garter stitch and half lace? Let's take an example, you're working on a top down triangular shawl and you've never knitted a shawl this way before. If the pattern goes straight into a lace pattern and you're also learning how the shaping works then it can get confusing. If the shawl starts with a plain section so you can get used to how the shaping works before you move on to the lace section then you may find that easier. My Calypso shawl starts with garter stitch while you get used to the shaping, then there's some very simple eyelet lace.

Most of my crescent shawls, like Cora, are the other way. You start with a lace section then when you get to the short row section, you work in stocking stitch or garter stitch.

Choosing a design which has the same stitch pattern used throughout will probably be easier than designs with several different stitch patterns. Carmen is one of my earliest lace designs and one pattern I regularly recommend to new lace knitters as the lace pattern is easy to memorise and knit and is repeated throughout the whole shawl until you get to the edging.

You may be able to see from the photos how complicated the lace pattern is. More intricate lace patterns are likely to be more difficult to knit. However, there are lace patterns that look complicated that are actually very easy. My Starlight handwarmers look intricate but the lace pattern is only made up of 2 pattern rows. Each pattern row is repeated several times with plain rows inbetween.

Think about where you buy your patterns from. It's very convenient to buy patterns online these days. There's a huge choice, you can download your pattern immediately and you don't even have to print it. If you have a tablet you can read your pattern on there. And if you do choose to print it and you loose your printed copy then you know your pattern is still safely stored on your computer and you can knit out another copy of you need it.

But the advantage of buying a pattern from a yarn shop or directly from the designer at a show is that you can look through the pattern before buying it. You can check out how many charts the pattern has. If the pattern looks long or if you read through it and it doesn't make sense, don't immediately give up on the pattern. Reading through a pattern and actually reading the pattern while you knit it are two very different things. It's usually much easier to actually understand a pattern when you see what happens on your needles.
The Arctic Circle cowl is worked in lace weight but it's a small project with an easy lace pattern. Only 4 rows (and 2 of them are knit only) which are repeated over and over again.

Are you an 'expert' knitter? When I teach in different yarn shops and shows around the UK and when I sell my yarn and patterns at shows I meet a lot of different knitters and to me there are two main types of knitters. It's the 'expert' knitter who's been knitting for all their life and think they know it all although they mainly knit similar things over and over again. On the other hand there are new knitters, some young and some old, who like to try new things and aren't afraid of giving new techniques a go. Most knitters probably thing I'm an expert knitter and in my topics I may describe myself as a knitter but the truth is that if I come across a technique or a sweater construction method that I've never knitted before then I'm not an expert. There are lots of things I don't know in the knitting world. There are techniques I've never tried.

There are knitters who think they know it all and knitters who are very insecure about their skills. I meet so many knitters when I teach who are much better knitters than they think they are but I also meet some knitters who aren't the experts they think they are.

My favourite are knitters who are willing to try new things, who are adventurous and don't see things they don't know as an obstacle. These days there is a wealth of knowledge available online. If you're not computer literate then get someone you know to help you or pop in to your local library to use their computers and ask the staff to help you. Use a search engine, like Google, to search for the technique you're looking for. You will probably get a huge number of You Tube videos pop up. Some of them are rubbish but some are very good. My favourite go to knitting technique site is which has free videos showing a variety of basic and more advanced techniques which are well-filmed and if there's a difference in how the technique is worked in continental and English knitting you can choose the video which matches your knitting technique.

Tulips is a small shawl with two simple lace patterns and a great shape.

Check our your favourite designers website, do they have a tutorials page? On my tutorials page there are links to blog posts and videos to explain some techniques. I'm hoping to add some more this year.

If you have a local yarn shop which hold classes, look through their schedule and book a class in the topic you want to learn more about. Or look out for an online class. By the way, you can check out my class schedule here.

Join an online forum on Ravelry or somewhere else. When I first got back into knitting and struggled to understand English knitting patterns, I had a lot of help from an online knitting forum I belonged to at the time. If it wasn't for the support and encouragement I received there I don't think I would be an international designer and knitting teacher today.

One last thing I'd like to mention. Choose your designer carefully! Anyone can list a pattern for sale on Ravelry. Anyone can list a pattern for free on Ravelry. A professional designer (whether they work full time as a designer or not) will have their patterns tech edited. This means that a tech editor will have gone through their patterns checking for mistakes and making sure the pattern makes sense. The tech editor will hopefully catch any errors. I've worked with some great tech editors over the years but sometimes errors still creep in. It's unavoidable. We're all human and no matter how many times I read through the pattern something is bound to slipt through the net. 

If you think you've found an error, check the patterns Ravelry listing. Many knitters will leave a comment on the pattern listing with any errors. Most designers will list errata on their website or Ravelry pattern listing. I've decided to use the Ravelry pattern listing as the main place for errata. Email the designer to check if there is indeed an error. What you think is an error may not be, you may have mis-understood something or there may be an error. This gives the designer a chance to rectify the mistake and make the errata public which will help other knitters.

And remember, knitting is supposed to be fun. It's not a disaster if something goes wrong. You can rip it out and start over again. It may be annoying to have to rip our and re-knit something but it will give you more knitting time for your money and therefore providing better value.

Want to go shopping for a lace pattern? Check out my Pattern Shop.

Please share your top tips in the comments.

Happy knitting x

You could check out my Easy Lace Collection which is available in print or as a pdf (a collection of small patterns and a comprehensive how to section with detailed photos) or Lace Basics booklet (the same comprehensive how to section with detailed photos from The Easy Lace Collection but no patterns in this booklet) if you'd like to get started with lace knitting. 


Dori said...

This is a really interesting post you've written. I always thought an easy shawl was one with a lace pattern that was short and fairly easy to remember. Added borders and beads add to the difficulty. Mostly though, if the pattern is too difficult for me to understand, that's what I find hard. I've always been the kind to jump in at the deep end. I've only had to stop one shawl mid-knit, because I couldn't understand what the pattern wanted me to do! Therefore, your recommendation that a beginner look at the pattern first if at all possible is what I think is the best one.

Hedgehog said...

Thank you for this post - I think one of my past comments on your blog may have contributed to it and it's very useful. The examples and comments on patterns are helpful - I would never have given Tulip a second glance, not because I don't like it, but because I see the all over lace and think...gulp...I couldn't do that. As you say it's important to be open to learning something new (otherwise I would never have got past casting on!).

The two shawls I have made so far have started plain and finished with a lace edging; it might be fun to try the other way around (and have a "downhill all the way" finish!).

You asked for comment on:
"And if skills are listed, do you look at the list and if there's something you haven't done before, does it put you off buying the pattern?"

For me the answer is no *but* as long as the techniques/skilled are either explained in the pattern or appendix, if that's suitable, or they are clearly named in a way that I can easily Google them/find them on Knitty/linked in. If you have them on your blog then a link to the tutorial would be great or to a tutorials section, or pattern page. If you are going to list techniques then giving alternative or full names in a key is also really helpful.

For me I like plenty of information in a pattern, but with the pattern instructions compactly presented so that when you print them out to take with you you haven't got too many sheets to grapple with at the same time!

Thanks again for the post, once I've struggled through my current pair of socks, I feel a trip to your Ravelry store coming on :-)