Shaping Lace Knitting

Lace stitch patterns create the most beautiful knit fabrics, but not without some challenges. Have you ever asked yourself questions like, how do I shape the armholes while maintaining the lace pattern, or at what point do I stop the lace pattern? These are common questions from knitters. When shaping pieces, that is increasing (adding stitches) or decreasing (removing stitches), it’s easy to maintain simple stitch patterns like stockinette stitch or a rib sequence. But shaping fabric knit in lace requires some planning. The amount of planning depends on the complexity of the lace stitches, and the effect on the lace fabric as you remove or add stitches. Let’s look at some common shaping solutions for lace, but first here are tips that help with the knitting part.

Lace Patterns

The structure of lace is created from matching pairs of yarn-overs and decreases. Each decrease made in a lace pattern must be paired with a yarn-over to maintain a consistent stitch count. When shaping with decreases, the corresponding yarn-over must be removed.

It’s a good idea to keep a selvage edge or keep the edge stitch in stockinette. Work increases and decreases one or two stitches in from the selvage or edge. This approach keeps the edges even and easier to seam together.

When working in the round, keep the first and last stitch of round in stockinette. 

Lean the increases or decreases away from the edge. For example, an “ssk” decrease is left slanting, as is the “M1L” increase; these shaping techniques look better placed at the right edge of the work as it is facing you, and they lean towards the center of the fabric.

Chart a Plan

Charting out shaping is not essential, but a chart that maps out the shaping provides a clear guide for working the increases and decreases into the lace fabric, to maintain consistency throughout and alleviate errors.

If the instructions contain a lace chart, make a copy of it and use this copy to mark the shaping lines. I’ll make reference to shaping lines in next section.

If the garment is made with small pattern repeats and no chart is provided, you can draw a chart of the pattern sequence on graph paper. 

Although tedious, the full width of pattern pieces can also be charted out on graph paper, particularly for complicated lace patterns, and then the shaping lines drawn in for the increases and decreases. In simple situations, chart the plan with only the repeats close to the shaping lines.

Add lace repeats to your sequence only when there are enough stitches for a yarn-over and compensating decrease within the selvage or edge stitch.

Solution #1 Replace small repeats with stockinette stitch

When a garment is made in narrow lace panels or consists of small repeats, the simplest way to shape is to replace the lace repeat with stockinette. For example, if the lace pattern consists of a 6-stitch repeat, knit 6 stitches in stockinette at the beginning and end of a row or round. Work decreases within this 6-stitch panel.

When decreasing, place a marker between the two repeats closest to the selvage. If working from a chart, mark this point with a vertical line. As you shape, the stitches between the marker and the selvage will be worked in stockinette. When there aren’t enough stitches to decrease between the marker and selvage, move the marker and repeat process until decreases are completed. The chart presented below shows decreases made with a small 5-stitch repeat. The blue vertical line indicates where a marker would be placed on the needle. There are 4 decreases made indicated by the heavy, black line. As you make the decreases, the stitches between the blue line and the bold black line showing where decreases occur will be worked in stockinette, eliminating the repeat.

chart from Interweave Knits

The same rule applies to making increases; if the number of stitches added doesn’t accommodate the decrease and yarn-over, then add the stitches in stockinette until there are enough stitches to continue the lace pattern. 

To keep track of increased stitches, place a marker at end of first or last full repeat nearest selvage. Draw a vertical through the chart at this point. Work stitches between the marker and selvage in stockinette until there are enough stitches to work a full repeat. Keep the marker in place until you have enough stitches to continue in pattern. Move the marker back to the edge between repeat and selvage; repeat the process until all increases have been made. 

Switching to stockinette at the edges works well for areas like underarm sleeve seams, because they aren’t that visible.

Solution #2 Maintain lace pattern as close to the edge as possible

When decreasing, rather than eliminating an entire lace panel or repeat, remove the stitches individually from the repeat, keeping the lace pattern as close to the selvage as possible. This is an appropriate solution for highly visible areas of garments, where you don’t want to see large sections of stockinette stitch. 

For aesthetics or how the fabric looks, you often have to make a judgement call, as to whether to keep a yarn-over/decrease pair or remove it. Seeing the shaping mapped out in a chart helps you to make this decision. 

When shaping with increases, a yarn-over by itself can be a substitute for an increase, or replaced with a M1 increase.

Solution #3 Treat a lace panel as the “selvage” by moving location of decreases

This solution maintains the lace panel by moving the location of decreases. Say you’re making a V-neck cardigan in lace panels separated by stockinette or another filler pattern, with a lace panel running alongside the borders. In this case, treat the lace panel as the selvage or edge, placing the decreases at the edge of the lace panel farthest away from the edge within the stockinette or filler section. Doing so keeps the lace panel intact, and aesthetically pleasing.

Casting Off and Binding Off in Lace

Casting on methods for lace projects are typical of those used for any other types of knitting. However, it’s essential that stitches are cast on loosely for lace knitting. The work shouldn’t be tight, or this edge will pull in. Casting on with larger needles helps. Some instructions may use other methods to cast on stitches for lace, such as casting on over two needles, and garter tab cast on.

Binding off should also be performed loosely, so the fabric is flexible and doesn’t pull in. Some patterns bind off on wrong side rows, so you don’t have to bind off yarn-overs. Pattern instructions may use other bind-off methods that create smooth or decorative edges. As with casting on, binding off with larger needles can help keep the edge flexible.

Shaping lace requires some planning, which may include charting out a guide for the accurate placement of increases and decreases to make knitting almost error-free. Selecting the best solution depends on the type of lace pattern or width of panels and repeats combined with the shaping. And finally, you have to consider the aesthetic effects of removing or adding stitches to the different areas of a garment.