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.
If your taste in design bends toward minimalism
and you agree with that nice Mr. van der
Rohe that “less is more,” you
might want to look away. Because today we’re
going to talk about embellishment.
Although it has perfectly respectable roots
in Old French and Latin expressions meaning “to
make more handsome,” the word “embellishment” is
an expletive in modern design circles. If
something has been well designed, so the
thinking goes, it does not require embellishment.
Embellishment is a trick, a cheat, a smokescreen.
Embellishment obscures form and hinders function.
Embellishment is gilt on a plastic lily,
lipstick on a lopsided pig, a rhinestone-studded
fourth wheel on a tricycle.
That’s what they say, anyhow. But
I like it.
I grew up admiring my mother’s and
grandmother’s skill at taking the plain
and making it fancy. It might be only a little
touch, like decorative stitching around the
collar of a home-sewn blouse. Or it might
be what were, to my young eyes, the almost
royally ornate Sunday best handkerchiefs
my grandmother had saved in her lavender-scented
top drawer. Cut from the backs of white men’s
work shirts that had passed their prime,
the generous squares of cotton were bleached
to a fare-thee-well, hemmed by hand, embroidered
with a tiny rosebud or a set of initials,
and edged with homemade (usually crocheted)
Some might have thought them fussy, but
for the women like my grandmother – who
grew up poor but proud in a Pennsylvania
coal patch – they were a rare bit of
pure luxury, of beauty for beauty’s
sake. Those women couldn’t afford to
buy it, but they could create it for themselves.
If you’re a typical twenty-first century
knitter, chances are you can sympathize.
The impulse to embellish pervades nineteenth-century
knitting books. Not surprising, I suppose,
considering that the Victorians were notoriously – some
might say infamously – preoccupied
with applied decoration. Mixed with the patterns
for sensible socks and mitts are scores (if
not hundreds) of curious stitch motifs, including
enough lace edgings to connect New York and
San Francisco with a thin white ribbon of
faggoting, leaves, vines, scallops, peaks,
Below you’ll find three superlative
examples by the gloriously-named Mademoiselle
Eléonore Riego de la Branchardière.
Mademoiselle R. de B. was an early knitting
and crochet rock star, with a string of wildly
popular pattern books and a gold medal for
crochet at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
She was – or so her biographer claimed – the
child of a displaced French nobleman and
an Irish aristocrat; and there is certainly
something in her laces that could be seen
as the combination of French elegance with
Irish imagination. They are also, once one
has worked the bugs* out them, a hell of
a lot of fun to knit.
The question, I suppose, is what earthly
use lace edgings are to a modern knitter.
Not many of us carry handkerchiefs in the
Kleenex era, on Sunday or any other day.
And you may be a fancy collar sort of person;
but then again, you may not.
On the other hand, consider how many special
occasion knits seem to be called for just
when other demands of that special occasion
(i.e., finding a caterer, sending invitations,
talking to a therapist about your new in-laws)
begin to cut into your knitting time. It
may be that a lace edging, rather than a
larger undertaking, will serve the purpose
and save your sanity.
A few possibilities for Mademoiselle’s
Weddings. Instead of undertaking a shawl,
consider a new lace edging for a vintage
linen handkerchief; or knit up a lace garter.
Rather than knitting an entire veil, trim
a sewn veil with your own handiwork. Knitting
for a wedding need not be epic to be beautiful
Births. Nothing shows off a newly-minted
baby like hand-knitted lace. Attach manageable
lengths to a simple store-bought ensemble
for low-stress luxe; or collaborate with
a relative or friend who knows his/her way
around a sewing machine.
Housewarmings. To celebrate
a new home, or some other milestone event,
give a table runner, a set of pillowcases,
guest towels or napkins with lace trim. (And
sake don’t worry that they might spend
most of their time in a drawer. That’s
what they’re supposed to do.)
*One of the featured patterns was missing
the entire middle row. Another ran off the
rails just before the end of an otherwise
successful journey. I admit that while undertaking
repairs, I called Mademoiselle quite a number
of unkind names in both French and English.
translated by Franklin Habit from Knitting,
Crochet and Netting (1846) by Eléonore Riego de
Will vary according to yarn and needles employed. Single repeats
of the models shown (knit with materials indicated below) measure
Scollop Lace: 2.25 inches long x 1.5 inches
Treble Diamond Lace: 1 inch long x 1 inch
Point Lace: 1.25 inches long x 2 inches
Coton Perlé 12 [100% cotton; 131yd/120m per 10g ball];
color: White/Blanc; 1 ball Note: Quantity needed will vary
according to pattern chosen and length
of desired edging. All samples shown were knit with less than 1 ball.When
selecting a yarn, keep in mind that these edgings were designed for slender
thread and will look their very best when worked at fine gauges. Don't
be afraid to go small–your fortitude will be rewarded.
Recommended needle size [always use a needle
size that gives you the gauge
listed below -- every knitter's
gauge is unique]
set US 0/2 mm straight needles
sts / 48 rows = 4” in stockinette stitch (unblocked,
because let’s not kid ourselves)
PATTERN NOTES [Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]
Yarnover at beginning of row: To work a yo
as the first stitch in a row, wrap the working yarn over the
needle from front to back, then work the next stitch as directed.
The little loops thus created along the outer edge of the piece
will look especially pretty if you take care to open them up
K3tog: Knitting 3 sts together is Mlle Branchardière’s
standard double decrease. It’s also a gigantic pain in
the kazoo when using fine cotton thread and/or less-than-sharp
needles. If you choose to substitute another double decrease,
I promise not to tell anybody. I find slipping the first st,
knitting the next 2 sts together, then passing the slipped
st over them to be quite satisfactory.
Information about blocking lace can be found here and
DIAMOND EDGING CO 7 sts.
Row 1 [RS]: K1, k2tog, yo, k1, yo, k2tog,
Even-Numbered Rows 2-12 [WS]: Yo, k2tog,
k to end.
Repeat Rows 1-16 until edging is desired
length. See finishing directions below.
When desired length is reached, loosely BO all sts; use a needles
1-2 sizes larger than working neede to achieve a loose BO edge
Wet block firmly. When dry, weave in ends.
ABOUT THE DESIGNER
Franklin Habit is a knitter, writer, illustrator
and photographer who lives in Chicago when
he’s not on the road cajoling other
knitters into playing with lace weight
first book, It
Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons, is
available from Interweave