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A Lace Knitter

Jean Miles, in Edinburgh

A lace knitter? Moi?

There's nothing to it, really, except YO, K2tog - we can all do that - and a willingness to find great pleasure in the doing of it, without looking forward too impatiently to the result. And you can say goodbye to any ideas you might have had of ever working through your stash.

I can at least tell you something of my evolution as a knitter of lace, and finish up with a couple of pieces of pretty elementary advice.

When I was pregnant with my first child, in 1958, I knit a Shetland lace shawl for the expected baby: Paton's leaflet 1085, the shawl designed by Mrs A. Hunter of Unst. We were so poor that I bought the balls of yarn one at a time. This leaflet is listed in Hazel Carter's bibliography. I think Sharon Miller mentions it somewhere, too, but if so I can't find the place.

It was knit in six separate pieces: the four trapezoids, the square centre, the edging, and then sewn together. No wonder I did no more lace knitting for nearly 40 years.

I lost the pattern, too, although I have almost all the others I have used or thought about since I got married. I sought it high and low in charity shops - and eventually, one happy day, not long ago, here in Edinburgh, I found it.

I got going on lace again in 1995, with the Old Shell Shawl in Madeline Weston's excellent "Traditional Sweater Book." I think the book is called something else on the other side of the Atlantic - the ISBN is 0-86318-179-1. Her approach to shawl-knitting is unusual, if not unique.

She has you knit half the edging, then pick up stitches from the straight edge for two trapezoids, and knit them inwards towards the centre, decreasing at each end and in the middle to make the mitred corners. Leave the stitches "live" and knit another piece the same, and then knit the centre back and forth, picking up a stitch from each side at the end of every row. When you're finished, you've got the final side of the square to graft, and two corners to sew up.

Such fun! I knit two of those, in rapid succession, for two grandchildren. Then I decided to spread my wings and knit a lace-weight shawl. It was an Gladys Amedro pattern, published as a leaflet, using the technique she preferred: knit the whole edging first, pick up stitches from the straight edge, and knit around, decreasing at the corners. The centre square is done just as Weston did it.

Well, that was fun, too. And for that shawl, for the first time, I did some proper blocking, crawling around on the floor with a wet shawl and dressmaker's pins. That's even more fun, as every lace knitter either knows -- or should soon find out.

In 1998 I moved on to cobwebs, feeling as I felt when I first tackled lace-weight, that this was the ultimate lace-knitting experience. I knit Gladys Amedro's "Cobweb Lace Wrap" from her book "Shetland Knitting". I used the cobweb yarn specified, and wouldn't do that again - it's unplyed and therefore very fragile. I now know that there are lots of plyed yarns out there as fine or even finer.

But the result was a great success - a 40th birthday present for the daughter who was the unborn baby in the previous anecdote.

And Amedro's pattern now seems easy-peasy. I've moved on to Sharon Miller's Princess Shawl. If I ever finish that, maybe I'll allow myself to be called a lace knitter.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I conceived the ambition of designing a shawl myself. I earnestly believed Mary Thomas' famous statement, in her "Knitting Book", that there were only ten "truly native" Shetland lace stitches. OK, thought I - master those, and I'm away. The result of this attempt was a pleasant enough sampler scarf, which left me as far as ever from my goal. There was a famous article in "Threads" which repeated Mary Thomas' belief about the ten patterns, but more modern authorities - Don, Amedro, Miller - don't mention it.

I have pressed on with own-design, however, and have learned a couple of things:

1) It's fairly easy to get something pretty satisfactory if you proceed like Gladys Amedro in (for example) the "Gibbie Shawl" in her book "Shetland Lace" - that is, start with the edging, as before; pick up the stitches and knit inwards, as before; but don't stop and knit a centre - just keep going until you have decreased all the stitches away. The lace patterns, in this case, are in successive rows or blocks all the way to the centre, and pretty well anything is going to look more or less OK. Just as in Fair Isle - you can stack one pattern on top of another ad lib, as long as your colour scheme is harmonious. Or so say I.

2) Designing a shawl in the traditional shape is much harder, because a design has to be fitted into those trapezoids. This is much easier if you incorporate a zigzag line of some sort, as most patterns do, to hold things together. My first attempt at design, Fergus's shawl (http://www.jeanmile.demon.co.uk/fergshwl.htm), is, by happy chance, much more successful than a later effort (http://www.jeanmile.demon.co.uk/babyshwl.htm) where I threw everything into the trapeziods bar the kitchen sink, but with nothing to unify the motifs.

3) Either way - centre-square or all-the-way-to-the-middle - it is possible to knit round and round and still achieve the traditional Shetland garter stitch if you turn the work after every round. That's a discovery of Jackie Erickson-Schweitzer's, and it's obvious, once someone has thought of it. You'll need to wrap the first stitch of the next round, and then replace it on the left-hand needle, before you turn.

And as for general purls of wisdom - that's too good a mis-typing to change -- my only advice to a beginner would be, as so often, a maxim of Elizabeth Zimmermann's: "Look at your knitting." Lace knitting fits together, and in most cirumstances you can easily see - just as you can when knitting Fair Isle or inatrsia patterns - whether or not the stitch you're about to execute is in the right place in relation to the preceeding row.

I blush to remember how recently I would become aware that things had gone wrong, and just soldier on, with the thought that, It'll be all right from here on out. I'm not a fanatic ripper-out, even now, but I can at least find the place where a stitch is missing or in excess and make the necessary adjustment on the spot. If the problem is one-stitch-too-few, it will often be the case that a YO in the preceeding row has somehow slipped off the needle, and all you have to do is pick it up as it lies there looking like the ordinary thread between two stitches.

Do try - it's fun.