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Identifying Unknown Lace Patterns

Carol Wyche

Have you ever found an old piece of lace in an antique shop or a rummage sale and wondered how it was constructed? It may have been labeled "crochet," but you know it's knitted? Here is a step-by-step method for identifying the motif and working out a pattern, from expert lace knitter Carol Wyche.

Here are the things you should have available:

The sample, good light, quadrille paper (a square grid graph paper 4 - 5 squares to the inch), pencil with a good eraser, yarn and needles to check your work with, and optional items: a magnifying glass and some good pattern books. If the sample is curled or wrinkled, you should block or iron it before attempting to work it out.

The easiest way to work out the pattern is to check for it in a variety of books, such as: ­­­Barbara Walkers vast collection, Barbara Abbey's Knitting Lace, and Suzanna Lewis Knitting Lace. Even if you don't find the exact pattern you'll find similar ones that will help you know what you are looking at.

The process:

Step 1 is to look the piece over and answer a few questions about it: In what direction was it knit? e.g. do the rows run the short way or the long way of the piece, or in the case of a doily, center out or outside in, or short rows? What are the main visual features of the pattern? Is it stockinette or garter based? Are alternate rows just knit or purl or are there yarn overs and decreases on both sides? How many repeats of the pattern do you think you have here?

A digression about charting for those unfamiliar with it: I use and love charting because it gives me a visual overview of what's going on in the pattern. It isn't exactly like the pattern of course - more of schematic than a map - but still shows the flow of the knitting and points out where yarn overs or decreases or increases aren't in quite the right position. If you don't know how to chart patterns you can write up the pattern in words, just as you are used to reading them. It's okay. I won't mark you down for it. However, if you are new to charting and want to try it, you will need to learn or invent symbols for each of the knitting maneuvers in the pattern and you will need to remember that charting shows only the right side face of the pattern. Charts are usually read and written in the same order they would be knitted, that is right to left, bottom to top.

Back to analyzing the piece and working out its pattern: Find the cast on edge and count the cast on. Mark that many squares on your graph paper. Note that this may be an accurate count and it may not be. It's sometimes a little difficult to be sure just what the cast-on is.

After you count the cast on, count the next row, whether you think it is part of the actual pattern or just a preliminary row. Did you come up with the same number as the cast on? If not, why not? Possibilities include: you miscounted either the cast on row or the first row - or - the knitter made a mistake in the cast on and increased or decreased to correct it in the first row (I've done it and I suspect you have too.) - or - the pattern starts on the first row? ( Well, maybe. It could happen.) If you can't see clear indications of an increase or decrease the the first row, it's probably a miscount, so recount and on paper, add in the stitch or take it away from the cast on, and mark the first row, usually either plain knitting or plain purling. If you still have trouble with the count, plan to go back to it later, and proceed to the next row.

With the first row that is actually pattern (that is, has yarn overs or intentional increases or decreases) we have to start paying attention to increases and decreases. Since we know that some patterns maintain the same stitch count every row and some don't, we don't want to insist that the stitch count remain the same, but we also need the sums to help us check our work. So, count the first pattern row and mark on the graph paper, in order, all the plain stitches, yarn overs, increases or decreases that you recognize, using the strong light and the magnifier if needed. Now match that to the row below. Given the number you started with, and adding one for each increase or yarn over, and subtracting one for a decrease and two for a double decrease, does it work out to the same number as the second row. If not, why not? Maybe it's making a wavy or stepped edge? If not, go back and check the count of both rows and your addition and subtraction.

Yes, all this detail is a pain, but it's really necessary, especially when just starting. Later, you will have more information, such as the pattern of yarn overs or decreases to help you.

One other way to check should now come into play. Your sample piece. Cast on the number you worked out for the cast on and the first row (generally the same) and work your sample up to the point you are considering now. Knit what you think it shows on the piece. Does it work out? Does your piece run out of stitches before you run out of pattern? or vice versa? Check back to the piece. Now is the time for the magnifying glass and the strong light.

Work back and forth between the finished piece and your sample piece. If it just doesn't work out, maybe you are misconstruing what the decrease really is. On very old pieces it's sometimes quite difficult to work out whether that's an skp or sskp. So how many stitches are feeding into that one stitch. Or, there might just be a mistake in the original piece you're copying that the knitter fudged in the row above. Or, if the knitting slants, maybe you are inadvertantly mixing rows. If you can't figure it out, go to the next row and see if what happens in the next row shines some light on what happened in the previous row.

Go through the piece like that, row by row, looking at the piece and trying to figure out from the appearance of the stitch what was done. Our knitting friends, Barbara Walker, Barbara Abbey, and Suzanna Lewis are good resources for images of what particular knitting maneuvrs look like in the finished piece. Also, keep trying your guess on your sample piece and don't be shy about unknitting a row if you thought it was sl1, k2tog, psso and it turns out it was k3tog.

So we'll run through this with the sample piece. For this article's purpose we will pretend you haven't found the pattern written out in any book. I did find very similar patterns in Barbara Walker, Volume 2, and Sarah Don's The Art of Shetland Lace.

Here is the sample we will use.

Answering the questions: This is a piece of lace edging, knit across the short side, intended to be joined to another piece. It is stockinette-based with plain rows between the pattern rows. Its major features are a curved set of decreases and increases which produces a wave-like pattern. There are clearly 3 vertical repeats of the pattern here, so it is not a very long repeat, nor a very wide edging. The outside edge is wavy so there will be a variable row count, but it should be smooth increases and decreases in the shape of the edge.

Here is the cast on charted.

Here is the chart about half finished. You will note that after the first couple of rows I didn't bother marking the plain rows in between but just left them blank. And yes, the finished one and this partly finished one are a little inconsistent on that. I did make two charts for purposes of the article.

You can see the direction and spacing of the yarn overs and increases better. I have drawn and labeled the symbols I use on the chart for purposes of this article, but don't usually do that, since I know them, and by the way, I didn't make them up myself, but learned them from a variety of sources.

Here is the completed chart. Finished chart photo and the photo of symbols I used in charting this.

Now we do the final reconciling of the count all the way up the chart, working out and correcting any errors. You know that: A yarn over takes no stitches in the row below, but adds one to the current row. A k2tog, or skp, or ssk, requires two stitches from the row below and produces one in the current row. A sl1, k2 tog psso, or sl2 k1, p2sso requires three stitches from the row below and produces one in the current row. I write this on the chart as: totals for each line - takes (number), makes (number). If row 2 does not provide enough stitches for row 4, for example, look at your piece again. Is that double decrease really a single? Was that big yarn over knit into twice or three times? Is the first stitch a knit two tog? Did the knitter make a mistake in the knitting?

Final Test: Knit your sample yourself to see for yourself that it's right.

Have fun with the knitting