episode 0

Random Lace Tutorial

by Catherine J. Hall



Have you ever wanted to attempt lace, but you just aren't sure if you really have all of those stitches "down"?  Have you tried lace and ended up with a pile of nasty, limp noodles full of mysterious holes and unexplained knots?  Or are you just afraid of all of those tiny, tricky stitches done on barely-there thread, all demanding to be lined up just right on size 0000-0000 needles?  What about all of those hours of precious time spent laboring over row after row of charted hieroglyphics, only to find that there is a mistake in your cast-on row, and the only solution is to start again?  Maybe a pattern that interests you only has a chart, and you only know how to knit from row-by-row written instructions.  Perhaps the entire idea of lace terrifies you, despite the fact that you are a long-time knitter.  Or maybe, as a new knitter, you are looking for a good way to strengthen your stitching skills while turning out something beautiful, despite your lack of expertise.


Please, try Random Lace!!!  I want you to (that is why this is a free tutorial), and I want you to succeed with lace on your first try.  Lace knitting can become a passion, even if you think that you have "failed" any past attempts.  Did you know that you can knit lace on any weight of yarn?  That's right, you don't need to find laceweight, or even lightweight yarns to make pretty, patterned pieces.  Even bulky yarns are right for lace.  Remember that each yarn, in every possible combination of weight, fiber, and color can be a canvas for lace.  That is why knitting lace can become a life-long passion.  You may find yourself wondering how certain patterns will look in a variegated mohair, or why twisted stitches don't lie flat.  This technique is a great place to begin knitting lace, to answer questions about certain techniques or stitches, and to try out new ideas.


If knitting has become a way of life for you, remember, it is YOUR thing.  It is up to you to take control of your own vision, and knitting Random Lace could be the perfect place for you to experiment.  There are so many ideas inside of you, and with each row you stitch, you are building up a very personal "library" of techniques, tricks, and even mistakes (also known as "design elements").  I, like countless other knitters, owe a very big debt to the late, great, Elizabeth Zimmermann, for reminding us that we are ALL designers.  Even if you simply substitute a yarn color in a pattern, you are adapting that design to work for you, and with each project you are able to see more clearly what your vision is.  You gain confidence as you master the tools to express that unique perspective.  This is true even if you do not see yourself as an artist.


One very positive thing about the Random Lace technique is that, instead of following another designer's pattern, you are generating your own pattern as you go.  While that can be a very scary thought to novice and pro alike, think for a moment how empowering that is!!  It would be a very rare thing indeed for someone else to duplicate even one row of the same stitches that you use in the very same order, so imagine how unique an entire piece will be.  This is your very own design, no matter how or where you learned to do it. 


I am sure that I didn't invent this technique.  It seems too simple.  I have never seen it anywhere else, though, and I would like to share it with you.  I simply found myself with a desire to make my own lace, and was too lazy to take charted notes one day by the pool.  Instead, I cast on and alternated different increase and decrease stitches as they occurred to me.  It was fun, and I couldn't believe how beautiful my little pieces of lace were.  Since then, I have used it for everything from bookmarks (perfect knitting for birthdays, even while riding in the car to the party) to baby things.


Random Lace is a great way to get acquainted with lace making, and it serves as a perfect opportunity to learn the basic stitches of almost any lace pattern.  You can use any stitches you want to; just look at the stitch dictionary in any knitting reference book. Introduce the stitches one at a time as you master each of them (hint:  one simple way to introduce additional texture to your lace is to add purl stitches here and there in a knit row).


Use any or all of the stitches explained below, use your own knowledge of other stitches, even try twisting some of your stitches by knitting (or purling) into the back of the next stitch on the left needle.  There are no "mistakes" in this kind of lace knitting, which is a relief to those stitchers who may be nervous about evenly-textured cobwebs, or perfectly-executed heirlooms designed by masters.  Relax!  Even a dropped stitch has the potential of adding texture.  Random Lace is easy, and crowd friendly.  There is no need to keep track of a chart.  You just count the number of stitches every row or two to ensure that you are pairing the increases and decreases.  And, if the count is off, there is no need to rip back.  You can repair the problem on the next row simply by adding or subtracting stitches to get back to the correct, original number of stitches between markers.  If that sounds like too much counting, forget stitch count and go on instinct.  Your edges may not be even, but this is an experiment!


Even though you don't need a pattern or a chart for your lace, you may wish to have a notepad and pencil handy to jot down what you did on certain rows, or if you want to repeat an especially stunning section later.  Of course, my idea of "random" is that it is different each time, which means that I take no notes while making lace in this way.  If, however, you are attempting new stitches, and want to know what they look like after being blocked, or have an idea for a beautiful repeat, by all means take copious notes!  It can be frustrating to try to "read" a piece of knitted lace after it is finished.  I leave this up to you.


You never know what you will get with this type of knitting.  It is the perfect place to try out new ideas, or to let your subconscious lacemaker free.  When you block your finished piece, you will be surprised to see a pile of wrinkled nonsense magically turn into an elegant panel of lace.  Your brain will automatically look for patterns among the open spaces and ridges of your one-of-a-kind random design.  Best of luck to you, Lace Knitter!



Yarn - Any yarn.  Yes.  Really.  And any amount.  My recommendation for a first timer:  a sportweight (think baby yarn) wool in any light, solid color.  Why?  Variegation, darker colors, and texture hide details.  Wool stretches and is more forgiving.  But this is really, really up to you.  Use a superbulky thick-and-thin with ten color changes.  Try that gossamer silk.  Go for it.  If not now, when?


Needles - Start with what the yarn label tells you.  Now forget that.  Think instead what you are going for.....do you want a crisp piece of lace?  Maybe use a needle smaller than you normally would to get the gauge recommended on the label.  Want it to drape nicely?  Go up a size or two (or five).  I personally knit very loosely, and sometimes have to use a very small (those 0000-0000 needles I mentioned above) to get what other knitters easily accomplish on size #2 or 3US needles.  If you want to make your lace in the round, use a circular needle or a set of double pointed needles.  Just use your favorites!

            After determining what needle size you will use, you may also need a needle 3 to 5 sizes larger than the main needle for a loose cast-on row.


Notions - Tapestry needle (to weave in ends)

            Notebook and pencil (optional for note-taking, if you desire)

            Crochet hook in size appropriate for the yarn you are using (optional for edgings)

            Stitch markers (optional, but recommended if you are casting on over 30 stitches)



Hey, guess what?  Gauge doesn't matter!!  OK, that's not entirely true.  It just depends on the look you are trying to achieve.  You may want to just jump right in and get going, or maybe you would rather make a series of swatches to see what needle size you prefer to use with the yarn you have chosen.  I simply cast on 12-20 stitches, alternate all "Knit Even" rows with "K2tog, YO" rows, and change needle sizes every 10 rows or so, then I bind off and examine the little piece.  Remember, if you do just jump right in, there is nothing in the world that says that you cannot change needle sizes once, twice, or even every time you start a new row while knitting Random Lace.  You are experimenting here!  You may need to guess at the number of stitches needed for your cast-on row, or you can use a swatch to determine how many stitches are needed for a specific width.  Think of your swatch as your first foray into Random Lace, and see what happens.


Common Stitch Abbreviations:

CO = cast on                                                   BO = bind off

st = stitch                                                          sts = stitches

K = knit                                                           P = purl

YO = yarn over                                                K2tog = knit two sts tog

tog = tog                                                          K3tog = knit three sts tog

pm = place marker                                           sm = slip marker                                              

k-wise = as if to knit                                         p-wise = as if to purl

sl = slip a st either k-wise or p-wise, as indicated

M1 = make one (increase)  Insert left needle from front to back under the horizontal bar between the st you just worked and the next st on the left needle.  Lift this strand onto the left needle and K it through the back loop.

Kfb = (increase) K into the front and back of the next st.

SSK = slip, slip, knit (decrease)  Slip next 2 sts k-wise, insert tip of left needle into fronts of these 2 sts and Ktog.

SKP = slip, knit, pass (decrease) Slip next st k-wise, K next st, pass the sl st over the st just K.

SK2P = slip, K2tog, pass (double decrease)  Slip next st k-wise, K2tog, pass the sl st over the st just K.



PATTERN (Or Lack Thereof)

Select a needle size based on the notes above, or go with your gut feeling.  Now CO the number of stitches to get the width you want your lace to be (either guess or figure this out by swatching).  CO very loosely.  I use needles up to 5 sizes bigger than the one I am going to use for the lace for the CO edge, as it needs to be VERY elastic.  Nothing is worse when blocking lace than for one of the ends to be too tight.  Take my word for it.  I have an entire stack of "wasted" samples with bunched-up ends.  Can you think of any uses for those?  Anyone?


If your piece of lace is to be worked in the round, join the CO row, being careful not to twist, and place a marker to indicate the beginning of the round.  If you are going to use several stitch markers, make sure that the first one is a different color.


If your CO number is greater than 30, you may consider using stitch markers.  Place them evenly throughout the row.  This will make things easier when you are trying to keep track of how many stitches you make per row.  Take note, mental or written, of how many sts there are between markers.


K 8 rows/rounds even (or K and P alternate rows, or K,P alternate numbers of stitches to make a ribbed beginning to your piece).  This is a suggestion.  Maybe you want to just start in with the lace.  Good for you!  A rule-breaker after my own heart.    Skip ahead to R9.


Row/Round 9 (and all odd rounds) - HERE WE GO!!!!   Create a Random Lace pattern of your own.  To do this, choose any increase and decrease methods from the list of sts above, mixing in K sts to create lace.  YO's (yarn overs) create the holes that define lace.  Pair increase sts with decrease sts to maintain the original number of sts between markers.  For example, one section on a row of lace with 22 sts between markers could be:

K3, YO, K2tog, K1, SSK, YO, K4, YO, SK2P, YO, K2, YO, SSK, K1, YO, K2tog =22 sts.


In the beginning, you may want to end and begin each section between markers with at least one K st, so that markers can be slipped between these K sts and are not slipped next to a YO, which can confuse marker placement.  After a time this won't be necessary.


Relax and enjoy yourself while you are making Random Lace.  Soon, pairing increases with decreases will become second nature.  It is not imperative that you keep the same number of sts between each marker on every single round.  This can be adjusted every few rounds, or on a rest row.


Row/Round 10 (and all even rounds) - P even (K even if knitting in the round), counting sts between markers.  If your st count equals more or less than the original number between markers, increase or decrease as many times as necessary to adjust the st count.  These rounds of P (or K) even are called "rest rows" in lace knitting and are used to align lace patterns and provide some stability.  If you are knitting your lace in the round, the rest rows are knitted.  In flat lace knitting, they are usually purled.  Rest rows are not always necessary when one knits lace, but I have included them here to give structure to your lace as well as to provide you with a place to even your st count.  You may wish to continue experimenting with lace sts on every row, or switching K's for P's (many lace patterns use P sts between increase and decrease sts on the front side of the piece, and K sts on the back side).  No one said that your lace has to exist on a background of stockinette stitch.  You may wish to make columns of stockinette stitch and reverse stockinette stitch by alternating K or P background sts every time you slip a marker.  Or, why not go completely random?  Try a little of each.


Continue repeating Rows/Rounds 9-10  -  Yes.  That's all!  Now, mix it up.  As you conquer one new st, move on to the next.  Make sure to count the number of sts between markers every few rows, or don't.  Live on the edge and be happy with your lace, even if that edge turns out to be a little "wobbly".


Finish with 8 more rows of what you did to begin (again, just a suggestion).


BO loosely (again, VERY loosely!).  Use the larger needle that you used to CO.  Make the BO edge much more loose than you think it needs to be; it will all come out in the blocking.  Sometimes I use a crochet hook to make a picot border as I BO, chaining 2-5 sts between each BO st.  Or, I use a knitted on border (below) in lieu of binding off, as it is very elastic, and provides a perfect edge to lace.



For a "neat" edge on flat knitting, I slip the first stitch of each row as if to purl, and knit the last stitch of each row, whether the row is a knit or a purl row.  This leaves a very nice border on the sides of your knitting, which not only looks great on its own, but makes it so much easier when seaming flat pieces together or when adding a border.


When knitting a piece back and forth (instead of in the round), you may want to purl the first and last 6 stitches on knit rows and knit the first and last 6 stitches on the purl rows.    This will keep the edges of a piece of stockinette stitched knitting from curling.  Fewer than 6 stitches on each side won't do much, but you may want to make it 7 or even 10.  You can combine this with the instructions for a "neat" edge mentioned above, just allow 14 extra stitches per row outside of the Random Lace (12 side stitches plus 2 edge stitches).


If you would like to add a very elastic, perfect-for-lace border, see "Knitted On Border", another free Luscious Gracious Tutorial.  This is especially fetching, and functional, on a shawl, and can be used as a binding off technique.



Use the tapestry needle to weave in all ends on the back (or inside) of the lace.


Get ready for a huge surprise!  Your lace may look a little disappointing, and very, well, "wadded".  Now comes the magic.  Blocking!  I spray mine liberally with water, or dunk it completely.  Some people take out "Lace Knitting Aggression" by drowning the thing with the garden hose.  Do what you like.  If the piece has been carried around in your knitting bag for awhile, or is otherwise in need of a little TLC, you may want to add a little gentle conditioner to a sink of cool water, soak your lace, and rinse in another sink of water (most yarns don't take too kindly to being held directly under running water) gently.  Drain water, squeeze excess water out (never twist or wring, as this can damage fibers and/or cause felting).  Carefully carry your lace to a blocking board and pin it in place with rust-proof pins.  I stretch my lace mercilessly, and hold it taunt with hundreds of pins.  No blocking board?  You could do this on a large towel or a sheet that you spread on a bed or carpet. 


Never iron your knitted garments (or almost never - sometimes silk specifically calls for ironing), but a little steam through a few layers of towels is not likely to hurt your finished piece.


Let your Random Lace dry, admiring all the while.  Use as desired.



So, there, it is finished.  What are you going to do with this rare, one-of-a-kind piece of lace?  Frame it as the fiber art it surely is.  You can use a long, thin piece to edge a skirt or a pillowcase.  A square can become a hanky.  A long length of lace can serve as a dainty scarf, while a shorter sample can dress up the collar of a coat or blouse.  A thick, twisted rectangle could be a perfect pillow for the couch.  You can make the bottom of any sweater more interesting by adding a few inches of Random Lace.  Add some more and that sweater is a dress (see my "Illanna" pattern).  Use it everywhere.  Use small pieces as samples of what a certain yarn can do, or of how that yarn looks on different needles.  Collect your swatches and sew them together into a blanket.  For me, the ultimate use of Random Lace is a panel out of something exquisite that can be worn as a shawl.  Wear it out some chilly night, and bat your eyes when someone gushes, "Where did you get that?"  It's up to you to tell them the truth.  Or, you could just smile silently, and perpetuate the belief that the mysteries of lace knitting are too sacred for explanation.