Knitty�: little purls of wisdom
Yarn Workshop

For almost as long as I’ve been a knitter, I’ve been fascinated by the history of knitting. I’ve especially enjoyed the mind-twisting process of working with the often obtuse and obfuscatory language of antique patterns. There’s a thrill, I find, in watching a project emerge row by row and knowing that other knitters, long gone, followed the same path.

The process of decoding, testing and correcting isn’t for everyone, though; and so in this column I hope to share the excitement of the journey by removing as many of the roadblocks as possible. You don’t need to be a historian to come along–just a knitter with a curious mind.

Lace for Short Attention Spans

Perhaps you have wondered, in a dreamy moment, whether it might be fun to put down that sock for a while, and try knitting a fine lace shawl.

You have imagined conjuring ferns and flowers in yarn so light it floats on the breeze. You have imagined saying quite casually, as admirers fawn over your completed masterpiece, “Of course, the entire shawl slips right through my wedding ring.”

Then, perhaps, you have imagined spending two months to a year or more concentrating on a single project, broken a cold sweat, and gone back to your sock.

If this sounds familiar, pray allow me to introduce you to the knitted lace sampler.

The idea is simplicity itself: a collection of motifs, worked one after another as a continuous strip of fabric. They were a common Victorian undertaking, and many nineteenth-century examples survive. Possibly the best-known, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, was knit in Germany or Austria and includes a whopping 91 different stitch patterns–83 of them lace.*

Such pieces probably served both as learning tools and memory aids. Once practiced and perfected in a sampler, each motif was preserved for future reference. Miss Pole and Jessie Brown, characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel Cranford, are said to have formed “a kind of intimacy on the strength of the Shetland wool and the new knitting stitches.” I like to imagine the ladies** spending many happy hours sharing the lessons recorded in their samplers.

If you’re a timid beginner, or easily distracted, a sampler may be your perfect entrée to the art. It requires no large commitment of time or materials. You’re not asking lace to marry you, you’re just meeting it for coffee to see if there’s chemistry. Use what you have at hand, or buy a small quantity of something you like. Pick a motif, work it until you feel you’re finished with it, then choose another motif. That is all.

A Quintet of Victorian Laces

You may of course put patterns from any source into a sampler, but to get you started I’ve translated five from Frances Lambert’s My Knitting Book (1843), which also gave us the Pence Jug (Winter 2008). They are a potpourri of large and small, plain and fancy. Most are lace knitting,*** with alternate rows worked in purl or knit without patterning. One, “Fish-Bone” [sic], includes yarnovers in every row, but as there are only two rows in the pattern it’s an easy go even for beginners.

These patterns are part of a dozen the author recommend as suitable for “d’oyleys [sic], tidies, etc.” “Tidy,” in this context, is probably used as a little-known synonym for antimacassar,­**** a term that itself is seldom heard today. “Tidy” is also, of course, quaint English for a receptacle in which keeps small items that would otherwise be untidy. I’m thinking of making one for all my loose diamonds–but not from a pattern that’s full of holes.

*The Brooklyn Museum’s sampler was splendidly chronicled in a classic book, Knitting Lace: A Workshop with Patterns and Projects by Susanna E. Lewis. It has been out of print for years–but a knowledgeable little bird who may or may not work at the Brooklyn Museum has tweeted to me reliable rumors of a possible reissue. Cross your fingers.

**Because I am a total geek and this is the kind of thing I do in my spare time.

***As opposed to “knitted lace,” which includes patterning on every row. Please make a note of the difference, as it will be included in your final exam.

****A subspecies of doily that lives on the back of an armchair or sofa, to keep macassar oil (the 19th-century precursor of Brylcreem*****) off the upholstery. Aren’t we learning an awful lot today, boys and girls?

*****A men’s hair styling gel. And now I’m just being silly.


by Franklin Habit



will vary;
sampler shown is 36 inches long and 4 inches wide

spacer Any white or light-colored natural fiber lace- or fingering-weight yarn that tickles your fancy. The quantity you need will vary according to the size and number of patterns you wish to include. For the model, I used less than an ounce of a mystery remnant from the stash cupboard

spacer Needles in a size suited to your choice of yarn

spacer 2 stitch markers
spacer Yarn needle

[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here]

german chartThe lace patterns used for the sampler shown were taken from
My Knitting Book (1843) by Frances Lambert.

Miss Lambert’s “Lace” motif includes a clever centered double decrease (cdd) indicated by a triangle (see Symbol Key) and worked as follows:
cdd: Slip one stitch as if to purl. Knit the following stitch, then pass the slipped stitch over it.
Return the knitted stitch to the left needle.  Slip the next stitch on the left needle over the knitted stitch, and off the left needle. Pass the knitted stitch back to the right hand needle. 2 sts decreased.

sk2p: Sl 1, k2tog, pass slipped st over. 2 sts decreased.

The Lambert Motifs

german chartFish-Bone Pattern
(Worked over a multiple of 4 sts + 3)

Row 1 [RS]: Sl 1, k1, [yo, k2tog, k2] to last st, k1.

Row 2 [WS]: Sl 1, [yo, p2tog, p2] to last 2 sts, p2.

Repeat these two rows until you can’t take it any more.

german chartGerman Pattern
(Worked over a multiple of 21 stitches)

Row 1 [RS]: [(K2tog, k3, k2tog, k1, yo, k1, yo, k1) twice, k1] to end.

Even-numbered Rows 2-12 [WS]: P all sts.

Row 3 [RS]: [(K2tog, k1, k2tog, k1, yo, k3, yo, k1) twice, k1] to end.

Row 5 [RS]: [(Sk2p, k1, yo, k5, yo, k1) twice, k1] to end.

Row 7 [RS]: [K1, (k1, yo, k1, yo, k1, k2tog, k3, k2tog)] to end.

Row 9 [RS]: [K1, (k1, yo, k3, yo, k1, k2tog, k1, k2tog)] to end.

Row 11 [RS]: [K1, (k1, yo, k5, yo, k1, sk2p)] to end.

Repeat Rows 1-12.

german chart

Scotch Pattern
(Worked over a multiple of 7 stitches)

Note: The number of sts in the piece will increase by 1 in Row 1, then decrease by 1 in Row 13.

Row 1 [RS]: [K2, k2tog, yo, k1, yo, k2tog] to last 7 sts, k1, k2tog, yo, k1, yo, k2. 1 st increased.

Even-numbered Rows 2-14  [WS]:  K all sts.

Row 3  [RS]: K1, [k2tog, yo, k3, yo, k2tog] to end.

Rows 5, 7, 9 [RS]: [K2, yo, k2tog, k1, k2tog, yo] to last st, k1.

Row 11 [RS]: [K3, yo, k3tog, yo, k1] to last st, k1.

Row 13 [RS]: [K3, k2tog, yo, k2] to last 8 sts, k3, k2tog, yo, k1, k2tog. 1 st decreased.

Repeat Rows 1-14.

german chartPoint Pattern
(Worked over a multiple of 6 sts + 8)
Row 1 [RS]: K2, [k2tog, yo, k1, yo, k2tog, k1] to end.

Even-numbered Rows 2-8 [WS]: P all sts.

Row 3 [RS]: K2tog, k1, [yo, k3, yo, k3tog] to last 6 sts, yo, k3, yo, k2tog.

Row 5 [RS]: K2, [yo, k2tog, k1, k2tog, yo, k1] to end.

Row 7 [RS]: K2, [k1, yo, k3tog, yo, k2] to end.

Repeat Rows 1-8.

german chartLace Pattern
(Worked over a multiple of 6 stitches + 1)

Rows 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 [RS]: [K1, k2tog, yo, k1, yo, k2tog] to last st, k1.

Even-numbered Rows 2-24 [WS]: P all sts.

Row 11 [RS]: K2tog, yo, [k3, yo, cdd, yo] to last 5 sts, k3, yo, k2tog.

Rows 13, 15, 17, 19, 21 [RS]: [K1, yo, k2tog, k1, k2tog, yo] to last st, k1.

Row 23 [RS]: [K2, yo, cdd, yo, k1] to last st, k1.

Repeat Rows 1-24.

This is your own private sampler, so there’s no pattern as such; but here are a few guidelines to get you moving.

Casting On
Keep your cast-on edge loose and stretchy to allow the beginning of the sampler to expand properly during blocking. There are many ways to do it, but the simplest is to use a long-tail cast on, worked over two needles held together.

Creating a Garter Stitch Border:
If your motifs are set off by borders of plain garter stitch, they’ll show up better.

Begin by casting on enough stitches to accommodate your first motif, plus 6 stitches.

To determine the number of stitches needed, look at the length of the pattern repeat; for example, the German Pattern used at the beginning of this sampler is worked over a 21-st pattern repeat. To use this pattern, cast on 27 sts ([1 x 21] + 6) or 48 sts ([2 x 21] + 6).

Work 6 rows in garter st (knit every row).

Knit 3 stitches, place a marker, and work the first row of your motif.  You should have 3 stitches left. Place another maker, and knit those last 3 stitches.

From this point, keep your edge stitches (outside the markers) in garter stitch. End with 6 rows of garter stitch.

Choosing and Working Stitch Motifs:
The choice of what patterns go into your sampler is yours and yours alone. So is the choice of how long you work each pattern. You may feel that one full repeat is enough; or you may continue until the phone rings, the plane lands in Albuquerque, the baby wakes up or the Survivors decide who gets voted off the island.

For the model, I worked the Lambert motifs in this order: German, Scotch, Lace, Fish-Bone, Point, lather, rinse, repeat.

Adding Garter Stitch Sections:
When you’re finished with a motif, work 5 or 6 rows of garter stitch–whichever number brings you the proper side of the fabric for the beginning of the next motif.

These garter stitch buffer zones not only look handsome, they also hide the increases or decreases needed to begin a new pattern with the proper number of stitches; work these on the third or fourth row of garter stitch. (In a fine yarn, you can easily add or subtract 5 to 8 stitches in these rows without an appreciable change in the finished width.)

They’re useful, too, if you decide to pull out a motif because you’ve messed it up or don’t like it. Rip with carefree abandon past the pattern rows to a garter stitch row; return all the nice, plain stitches to your needle; and press on.


Once your sampler is the length you want  it to be, work 6 rows in garter stitch, then bind off loosely. Weave in ends and block; links to information about blocking lace can be found in the Pattern Notes, above.

Franklin Habit is a knitter, writer, illustrator and photographer who lives in Chicago. His first book, It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons, was recently published by Interweave Press.

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