Is Knitting Lace Really that Hard?

Lace knittingThere are some personal preferences as to what’s easiest and what’s hardest in knitting, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that lace knitting is the hardest kind of knitting.

Or it can be.

Some knitters hate purling with a white hot passion, so their standard of difficulty is more about the amount of purling required.  Others may find twisted stitches to be too confusing to even attempt.  And so on.

Within each type of knitting there’s a lot of variation.  Lace knitting is no different.  Before you make up your mind, let’s look at lace knitting a little more closely.

What is lace knitting?

Generally, lace knitting is any pattern that involves deliberately including stable holes, called eyelets, in an attractive design.  So, lace knitting can be very simple.  Or it can be an Estonian lace shawl.

For example, you could start with a scarf made using a basic ribbing pattern, say knit 2, purl 2 all the way across every row on odd rows, purl 2, knit 2 on even rows.  A basic ribbing pattern.

Converting it to lace is simple.  After a few rows to stabilize the edge, change the “purl 2” on the odd rows to “knit 2 together, yarnover.”

Your stitch pattern would then be:

Odd rows:  *Knit 2, knit 2 together, yarnover* repeat to end of row.

Even rows:  *Purl 2, knit 2* repeat to end of row.

Every yarnover – that is, wrapping the yarn over the top of the needle creating a loop to be treated as a stitch on the even rows – creates a hole, the eyelet.  Since these holes are somewhat decorative, this is a lace design.  Since it’s a scarf pattern, it’s a very easy project.

A simple lace pattern like this is very easily memorized and easily repaired if or when you make a mistake.  Compare this to an Aran style sweater.  Which project is easier?

Almost every knitter is going to agree that the simple lace scarf is much, much easier.

But lace patterns can quickly become complicated.  Then you’re going to want lifelines and stitch markers.

The Fundamentals

That simple lace pattern covers the basics of lace knitting.  Eyelets, aka stable holes, are created through the use of yarnovers and decreases stitches.  (Increase stitches are used in more complex patterns, but right now we’re only talking about the absolute necessities for creating knitted lace.)

If you’re panicking because you have no idea what a yarnover is and you’ve never done a decrease (on purpose), relax.  They’re not that hard.  Like most things in knitting, the trick is to jump in and give it a shot.  It’ll make more sense in your hands than it will on a piece of paper or a screen.


Chances are, you’ve already done a few yarnovers.   Every time you accidentally looped the yarn over your needle between one stitch and the next, you’ve done a yarnover.

Between every 2 stitches, there’s a small, straight section of yarn.  When that straight section of yarn ends up on top of the needle instead of underneath, it’s a yarnover.  Take a look at your current project and you’ll see what I mean.

In non-lace knitting, the occasional, accidental yarnover doesn’t leave a hole because the small bit of extra yarn is easily absorbed by the other stitches.  It also doesn’t leave a hole because it’s not next to a decrease stitch.

Lace knitting requires holes and the best way to make a knitted hole is to deliberately place a yarnover right next to a decrease stitch.

Decrease stitches

There are a couple of different ways to decrease one stitch.  The simplest and most obvious is to simply put your right hand needle through 2 stitches instead of just one and knit as usual.  This is called “knit 2 together” or “k2tog.”

The other common method is called “slip, slip, knit” or “ssk.”  This technique requires you to insert your right hand needle into each stitch as if you were knitting them and slide them onto your right hand needle.  Once you have both stitches on  the right hand needle, slide the left hand needle into both stitches and knit them as one stitch.

It took me years to figure out that it really does matter which technique you use because each one results in a slanted stitch.  The direction of the slant is determined by which technique is used, so follow the instructions in your pattern!

Lifelines and Stitch Markers Are a Lace Knitters Best Friends

Lifelines in lace knitting have nothing to do with calling a friend for help.  Not typically.

Here’s how it works.  Knitters make mistakes.  Somehow, at the end of the row, you have too many or too few stitches.  This happens in every kind of knitting and to every knitter, so don’t feel bad.

The difference in lace knitting is that there are a lot of holes from all the decreases and yarn overs.  Add to that the other increases and decreases. Trying to rip out even one row becomes a nightmare.

You could find the whole project falling apart on you or you lose stitches, but you don’t know where and you quickly end up giving up or deciding to start over from the beginning.  Yikes.

The lifeline is simply a contrasting color length of yarn threaded through all your live stitches, using a large-eyed, blunt needle.  Write down or mark on your chart where you placed the lifeline, and you have a handy backup point, no matter what goes wrong.  And you won’t drop any stitches when you rip out the rows.

Lifelines could definitely be considered lifesavers!

(There’s no rule that says you can’t use lifelines in other kinds of knitting, but usually they’re not that helpful.  Follow Elizabeth Zimmerman’s advice and do what works for you.)

In the simple lace pattern above, there is no need for a lifeline or stitch markers, but say you wanted to make something a little more ambitious.  Stitch markers and the lifeline could save your project and your sanity.

Stitch markers are used to remind knitters of many things:

  • where the end of the row is – for knitting in the round
  • where to change stitch patterns, or where to begin or end a repeated pattern
  • keep track of your stitch count within a row so you can spot problems more quickly and avoid ripping out an entire row

If you’re knitting a lace cowl, you’ll end up using stitch markers for all of these reasons.  When you’re using stitch markers for more than one reason, it helps to color code the markers, i.e. white means the end of the row, blue at every 10 stitches, red at the end/beginning of every stitch pattern repetition.

Here‘s a video tutorial on lifelines and stitch markers, courtesy of Knitpicks.

How do I know when I’m ready for lace knitting?

The simple answer is you’re ready whenever you think you are.  But choose a pattern that matches your skill level, and assume your skill level is less than you think it is.

Remember the easy lace pattern in the first section?  If you can knit ribbing, you can knit that lace pattern.

If the thought of a yarnover makes you panic, well, you can let your fear make the decision or you can take a deep breath and dive in.  I’m almost certain that anyone who can do a 2 by 2 ribbing can do that simple lace pattern.

Remember, knitters make mistakes.  And when we feel like it, we fix them.  Mistakes are just part of the process.

Now, if you want to know when you’re ready to knit an Estonian lace shawl, I can’t help you.  I can only tell you I’m not ready for that!

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