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Yarn Overs and Directional Decreases
The Horse and Carriage of Lace Knitting

Mary English Morrison

The systematic pairing of yarn overs (YO) and directional decreases is what gives lace knitting motifs their open and airy character. When undertaking a lace project, it is useful to understand the nature and use of a variety of these techniques. The following workshops will either clarify these techniques or muddle them up entirely for you. This list of techniques is not intended to be exhaustive, especially for directional decreases, where innovative designers invent new ones all the time. Even the humble "yarn over" may not always be as straightforward as it seems.

Yarn Over Workshop

I have a deep suspicion that YO's came into being as mistakes that ultimately became design features, as the late Elizabeth Zimmerman has advised us may have occurred with many such things. I can just hear an ancient knitter exclaiming, "Oh gar, look there! I've left a hole in my work." Perhaps the making of those holes likely evolved into an entire branch of knitting.

For years, knitting alone in the back woods of North Carolina, I wondered if I was really doing YO's properly. I'd never had the opportunity to see anyone else make a yarn over. Along came Cheryl Oberle with her book "Folk Shawls," and gave me just the information that I needed. My result with YO's hadn't been great, so I was ready to try something else. Below is a palate of the airy increases that should work for just about any occasion.

Single Yarn Over Between Two Knit Stitches

Variously called "make 1," "yarn forward," "over" or "cast up" in different knitting cultures, this handy little tool creates most of the lacy looks that we love. When done unintentionally, of course, it's well, unfortunate.

Essentially, when inserting a YO between two knit stitches, you simply move the yarn to the front, between the needlepoints, as though you were going to purl.

Nothing to obsess about, is it? Now I wonder why I worried about it so, for years.

Single Yarn Over Between Two Purl Stitches

This maneuver is sometimes known as "yarn around the needle." When inserting a YO purling, the yarn is already at the front of the work, thus it must be wrapped over the needle, then moved through the needle points, back to the position ready to purl. It generally uses a bit more yarn that the YO in knitting, and I have to be careful not to let it get too loose.

Single Yarn Over Going from Knitting to Purling

When you're knitting along and come to a spot where a YO is to be inserted, and the next stitch is a purl, you bring the yarn to the front of the work between the needle points as before, then wrap it over the needle once more to make the hole. Sort of a combination technique.

Single Yarn Over Going from Purling to Knitting

Now you are purling along, need to insert a YO, but the next stitch is a knit. Your yarn is already at the front, so you simply let it stay there, but knit the next stitch. This YO has a tendency, for me, to be a big tight, so I have to pay attention to that, when it is the required increase.

Multiple Yarn Overs in Series

Now we get to the part that tends to aggravate me. I know, we should never become resentful about our knitting, but I just don't seem to get these to suit me. Well consider them anyway.

To make a Double YO, you do just what it implies. When knitting, perform the single yarn over twice consecutively. Not that when working the next row or round, most designers will ask you to knit, then purl in the double YO. When purling, you perform the "yarn around the needle" procedure discussed above, twice.

To make a Triple YO, you simply do whatever you need to do three times, knowing that on the return row or round, you will likely be asked to "knit, purl, knit" in the triple YO.

Quadruple YO's. I don't want to think about that.

Please note that the most usual character for YO in charting is: O, and it counts in the row as a stitch. So if we add all these YO stitches to our work, won't the piece be constantly growing chaotically? Not unless it's supposed to widen, and not if we enter the Wonderful World of Directional Decreases…

Directional Decrease Workshop

"So, what's the big deal with this directional stuff?" I once wondered. I thought I could just knit two together, three together – whatever. When I'd come to an SKP, it seemed like a lot of trouble – and for what? Well, lets' see.

The pairing of increases, typically YO's and Directional Decreases (DD), creates the balanced motifs in lace knitting. When symmetrically paired, it results in a piece of knitting with even edges, say a square, or rectangle, like the center square of a shawl.

When somewhat asymmetrically paired, YO's and DD's may produce triangles and the "teeth" of lace edgings. Thus the word dentelle, is French for lace. It yields a variety of possibilities, all of which are undoubtedly not yet discovered.

I have heard far more masterful knitters than myself debate the need for direction with decreasing, especially in garter stitch designs. I've tried it both ways and find that when I don't use DD's, I obsess endlessly about it, so it just isn't worth it. I used the DD's, and I've convinced myself that it does make a difference in the appearance of the lace. What follows is a brief survey of decreases. More keep showing up, so don't be surprised if you run across something like a "double-reverse, right-leaning decrease" or something even more exotic. The differences, however, may often be subtle.

I find it most helpful to think of DD's according to the direction in which they lean.

Right Leaning Decreases

Single: This is the venerable knit two together, generally abbreviated K2tog, and noted on charts as a right-leaning slash: /.

Double: Knit three together, usually abbreviated K3tog.

Warning: This can go on ad nauseum and ad aggravatum, but you get the picture – right?

Left Leaning Decreases

Single: Here, we have some options.

My personal favorite is SSK, translated "Slip two stitches as though to knit, then knit them through the backs of the loops." You can examine it to see that it indeed, leans left.

We can also consider the always popular SKP, or slip one stitch as to purl (unless otherwise instructed by the wise pattern writer), knit one stitch, and pass the slipped stitch over the knit stitch. It may also be abbreviated S,K, PSSO.

One other alternative, is to not slip anything, but just knit the next two stitches through the backs of their loops. I don't know what the abbreviation is for that, I just do it, sometimes.

Double: Probably the most usual double decrease that leans left is the SK2tog, PSSO. Slip one as if to knit, knit two together, and pass the slipped stitch over.

Triple: This just takes the double to a higher level. You slip 2 stitches as to purl (unless otherwise instructed), knit 2 together, then pass the slipped stitches over.

Central Decreases

This decrease converts three stitches into one stitch, without favoring either of the above directions. Slip the first two stitches together (at the same time), as though you were going to knit. Knit the third stitch, then pass the two slipped stitches over. It makes a very nice effect. It can also convert four stitches into one, if needed.

Please Note: There may well be an infinite universe of these decreases. Designers and pattern writers are constantly trying to find additional ways to work decreases into motifs that really don't want them, but must have them, anyway. When encountering these "specialty decreases" as I like to think of them, read the instructions very carefully and follow them. That's my advice.

If you have a different decrease that you just love for lace knitting, send it to the Tips and Techniques Contest. You never know.

Good knitting,


Copyright 2006 - All rights reserved. Mary English Morrison, Little Yarn Shoppe of Horrors