Knitting Geekery – Knitted Lace Traditions

You might have noticed that we have lace on the brain a bit here at Knit Picks, what with our customizing, beginner-friendly Shawls for All and the drool-worthy Luxurious Lace. Lace knitting in particular has a certain mystique, with storied, esoteric traditions shrouded in mystic legendry. Flipping or clicking through Luxurious Lace in particular, you might have seen references to various traditions. Though adapted to modern tools and methods, when you work these and other patterns you are participating in that craft lineage. Let’s take a bit of time to explore a few of these styles, and look at what exactly makes Estonian lace Estonian lace.



Advanced Estonian motifs with traditional nupps, from Knitted Lace of Estonia

Estonian lace centers around the fabled city of Haapsalu. The town became famous for its restorative mud baths and was something of a tourist destination for Russian nobility as far back as Tsar Nicholas in the early 1800’s. Though no historical record exists about the origin of the lace shawl specifically, it is likely that the local women started it as a cottage industry to sell to the visiting gentry.

Detail of traditional Estonian Shawl and diagram of construction, from Knitted Lace of Estonia

Estonian lace is traditionally worked in stockinette with lace pattern rows only on the right side. Being a peasant industry, it makes sense that the traditional motifs were largely natural in origin, the most venerable being the haga (twig) and lehe (leaf). But the most telltale sign of the Estonian lace tradition is the bobble or nupp (“knob” or “button” in Estonian). The traditional shawl consists of a center panel, knitted together with a garter stitch “frame”. The lace edging was always knit separately, being grafted to the center. Historically, the edge was knit in two parts so it could fit onto the only needles used: single-pointed straights!

Knitting Geekery - Lace Traditions, Diamonds of Eos Pattern Knitting Geekery - Lace Traditions, Diamonds of Eos Pattern Knitting Geekery - Lace Traditions, Diamonds of Eos Pattern

Our Diamonds of Eos features traditional Estonian patterning and motifs, including the iconic nupp. Though not strictly traditional in shape or construction, it carries on the spirit and beauty of the tradition.



Traditional “medallion” style Orenburg shawl, from Gossamer Webs

“One Cossack woman knitted the first shawl and sent it to the Russian Czarina, Catherine the Great. Catherine was so impressed that she ordered the woman be given a large sum of money which would be more than enough for all her life. But the Czarina also ordered that the woman be blinded so that no other woman could ever wear the same shawl as the Czarina. However, there was a mistake in Catherine’s plan—this Cossack woman had a daughter, also an expert knitter.”

And thus the legendary history of the Orenburg Shawl began. (I’m sure this a better story than what actually happened!)

Traditional “five diamond” style Orenburg shawl, from Gossamer Webs

The traditional Orenburg shawl generally falls into three basic designs: Five Diamond, Medallion, and Allover. The lace is densely textured and truly traditional shawls are strictly geometric in their ornamentation. Orenburg lace is always garter stitch, with lace pattern rows on both right and wrong sides. For most of the rich history of the Orenburg shawl, charts were unknown and even frowned upon. Expert knitters worked mostly from memory and instinct! Only in the mid-20th century did charts become common amongst Orenburg knitters.

Traditional “allover” style Orenburg shawl, from Gossamer Webs

The unique ingredient in the Orenburg shawl recipe is not any design, construction or skill, but the fiber. Strictly speaking, an Orenburg shawl is always made from the incomparable down of the goats of Orenburg. The long and bitter Winters on the steppes of the nearby Ural Mountains causes the goats to grow thick, long down, uniquely soft, strong, and durable. Repeated efforts to expand the husbandry of Orenburg goats have been made, from England to Australia, and all have failed.



Traditional Shetland Shawl from Art of Shetland Lace

The history of knitting on the Shetland islands goes back nearly as far as history there, with the woolen industry firmly established as far back as the 14th century. (The history of sheep on the Shetland Islands goes at least as far back as the 7th century Viking explorations.) Like the harsh Ural Mountains of Orenburg, the bitter Winters of the isolated North Atlantic island are the ideal breeding ground for the finest fibers. The unique quality of their fiber might be why both of these places share the tradition of the “wedding ring shawl”, a lace shawl so finely spun and knit that it can be pulled through a ring without a snag.

Diagram of traditional Shetland construction from Art of Shetland Lace

With lace patterning on both right and wrong sides, the traditional Shetland lace shawl can be either stockinette or garter stitch and has a very specific and unusual construction. Contrary to the common contemporary methods, the lace edging is worked first. For the border, lace loops pick up along the inside edge and knit inward, decreasing to achieve a rhomboid shape. One of these borders continues to form the inside square. The remaining three borders graft onto the center square, with the diagonal edges grafted, forming a complete square.

As in Estonia, Shetland lace originated as a cottage industry, so it should be no surprise that the traditional lace motifs have similarly natural inspirations. Being an island many of these are oceanic in theme, such as Print o’ the Wave, and Shell.

Knitting Geekery - Lace Traditions, Geraldine Shawl Pattern Knitting Geekery - Lace Traditions, Geraldine Shawl Pattern

Our Geraldine Shawl enjoys some traditional shetland lace motifs, as well as a traditional lace edging, while forgoing the unique and complex construction of the full shawl in favor of a one-piece, modern-style crescent.

Further Reading

Knitted lace of Estonia; Nancy Bush, Interweave Press, 2008. Available from Knit Picks (with DVD)!

Wrapped in Lace: Knitted Heirloom Designs From Around the World; Margaret Stove, Interweave Press,2010. Available from Knit Picks!

The Magic of Shetland Lace Knitting; Elizabeth Lovick, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Available from Knit Picks!

The Gossamer Webs: The History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls; Galina Khmeleva, Interweave Press, 2000.

The Art of Shetland Lace; Sarah Don, Lacis Publications, 1980.

1 comment

  1. EmilyVictoria / July 20, 2017

    The last lace project I did was a baby shawl out of Hawthorne fingering, it came out beautifully! It was the first time I had done the three part construction of center, middle and finally a knitted on edge. It was actually really easy, I didn’t use a life line! I’m hoping to make a shawl for myself out of Hawthone before the fall gets too chilly.