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For anyone who is new to lace knitting, here are a few suggestions and tips that might make things a bit easier and less stressful as you begin knitting your first shawls or other lace projects.

  • Use a light or medium color yarn for your first fancy lace project to make it easier to see your stitches. Sticking with solid, heathered or tonal hand-dyed yarns (without a huge variation between the lightest and darkest tones) is recommended for the same reason. Variegated yarns are usually not a good choice for a first lace project, as all the different colors can also obscure the lace patterns. And be sure to use a yarn color that contrasts a bit with your needles. I add this advice as I remember how hard it was to knit up one of my first lace projects using a dark red yarn with dark red wood needles.

  • Many lace knitters find it a comfort to use lifelines after the last row of each chart. This is done by running a thinner yarn or thread with a tapestry needle through the stitches next to the knitting needle. That way, if you make a mistake, you can rip back to the lifeline and it will be easier to put the stitches back on the needles. You'll know exactly where you'll have to start knitting from since the lifeline is always at the end of a chart. Just be sure not to use fuzzy yarn for your lifeline! There are lots of videos on YouTube to check out about lifelines.

  • The next one is very important—learn to read your knitting! Take the time to notice how the previous pattern row lines up under the current pattern row you are knitting. For example, let's say you are knitting a lace pattern where the lace action (meaning where the yarn overs and decreases are worked) is on the right-side rows only. There might be a case where there are 5 knit stitches in a row (let’s call that a k5 group) that line up directly over a [yo k3 yo] series from the previous right-side pattern row. As you begin to knit your row and come to that first knit stitch of the k5 group, it should line up over the first yarn over of the [yo k3 yo] series. It will appear that you are knitting into the yarn over. If you notice halfway through the current row you are knitting that the first stitch of the k5 group is now over anything other than a yarn over, well, you’ll know you’ve made a mistake somewhere. How to find it? Start comparing the stitches on your needles to the chart stitches, one by one. As soon as something different is happening on your needles than you see on the chart, you'll know you found the culprit. Once you do, mark that bad stitch with a locking stitch marker and tink (unknitting one stitch at a time) back until you get to the good stitch before the bad marked stitch. Start knitting from the chart again, correctly this time (fingers crossed)!  

  • Until you are really comfortable with the pattern, it's a good idea to do a quick visual check of each completed right-side row, since the pattern repeat will be fresh in your mind. For example, you might check that you didn't miss any yarn overs. For patterns where the yarn overs are worked on the right side only (which is the case for the majority of lace patterns), a missing yarn over is easily fixed on the next wrong-side row by just pulling up the strand in between the stitches where it belonged and placing that strand on the needle. Or you may have swapped the order of a yarn over and a knit stitch. This can be fixed by dropping the misplaced yarn over on the next wrong-side row, and then picking up the the strand on the correct side of the knit stitch and placing it on the needle where it belongs.

  • As you are checking over the row just knitted, also glance down to have a quick look at the previous several rows and make sure everything looks okay and the yarn overs are forming the proper pattern. Most lace shawls have fairly obvious geometric lines, so if there there should be 5 diagonal yarn overs forming chevrons, your lace project should have that same yarn over placement. You may also wish to check that you didn’t split the yarn in two with the needle on a previous row. Sure, this may take a teeny bit of extra time, but once you get in the habit, you'll be glad you did, since it's way easier to deal with a mistake a few rows away than 20!

  • Before automatically grabbing stitch markers to mark off pattern repeats--particularly those under 12 stitches--keep in mind that using them to do so can sometimes be more confusing than not using them at all. Not all lace patterns work well with marking off repeats due to the decrease and yarn over placements that may fall on either side of the repeats, necessitating moving the markers back and forth as the pattern repeats are worked. This can really slow you down as you work across the row. I truly think it is better to learn how to read your knitting to make sure that your stitches are lining up properly and use that as the way to double check your work. It is quicker and really more accurate in the long run. (You can have the right number of stitches between the markers, but they might not be the correct stitches!) Ultimately, how many stitch markers you choose to incorporate into your knitting is personal choice. (Like for pattern repeats that are over 20 stitches, you can bet that I'll use stitch markers for those!)

  • Same with counting stitches after every single row--it is really not necessary if you are carefully reading your knitting. On the other hand, for sure count those stitches at the end of each chart. I always provide end-of-chart stitch counts on all of my patterns because that is an important number to verify. If the count isn't spot on at chart end, there is no way the first row of the next chart will align properly.

  • Should you have to rip back several rows and have no lifeline in place, here is a good trick so your stitches don’t all come apart: Rip back to the first good row before mistake that you still can’t believe you made. Then spray around the area of the live stitches with spray starch or hairspray and wait until it dries and hardens. It’s going to be much easier to put your needles back into those live stitches now that they are more secure due to the starch/hairspray sort of gluing them to the previous row. Make sure the stitches are oriented properly as you place them back on the needle. Don’t worry—the starch/hairspray will be washed away when you soak your shawl prior to blocking.

  • You are going to make mistakes! And that's okay! There is no getting around this incontrovertible fact about lace knitting. Your spouse or roommate or sister or cat is going to distract you and you will mess up a stitch or forget a yarn over. You will realize this much later than you would like. But you will learn more about knitting from finding and fixing one mistake than knitting 50 rows correctly. That I can promise!