To many, lace knitting is the ultimate achievement in knitting. Many associate lace knitting with the wispy, delicate handiwork of generations past. While lace doilies are the stereotype image, lace knitting goes so far beyond your grandmother's doilies. My grandmother's lace doilies are beautiful, mind you. But so are lace shawls and scarves, lace sweaters, and lace mittens. You'll find lace can come in any size, color, and type of project. And knitted lace work can make a beautiful border or accent to an otherwise non-lace project. The possibilities with lace knitting stitches are endless. And the good news is- lace knitting itself is not difficult.
The shortest, most generally accepted answer is that lace is any pattern that creates holes throughout the project. Some purists might insist there is a difference between true knitted lace and lacy knitting, but the techniques are the same and the differences are often only readily apparent to the purists.
All lace knitting patterns involve a combination of the two basic lace knitting stitches: a yarn over and a decrease. The combination of the two creates the strategic holes throughout the piece. A yarn over is a very loose stitch increase, so it helps to establish the flexibility lace knitting is known for. As we know, the way we make a decrease can affect the slant of the work. By carefully plotting specific decreases with yarn-over increases, lace knitting patterns can create wonderfully elaborate designs that can be deceptively simple to make. People who truly know what they're doing can craft intricate leaf or floral motifs, scalloped shells, or beautiful geometric patterns. Fortunately for the rest of us, they publish those patterns so we can follow them without creating our own. (But our friends will still think we're geniuses when they see our final product.)
Many lace knitting patterns are worked only on the right side row, with the wrong side always consisting of a simple purl row.
Eyelet patterns have fewer openings and more visible structure to the fabric. An eyelet hole can be used for embellishments, as well, by incorporating ribbon or functioning as a buttonhole.
The more traditional lace knitting projects call for more open work, often incorporating pattern action on the purl rows as well.
Other patterns call for the increases to occur on one row and the corresponding decrease to come on the next row. These patterns can have scalloped edges instead of straight edges as the number of stitches per row ebbs and flows over the course of your project.
The most extreme style of lace knitting is referred to as faggotting. In this style, every stitch is either a yarn over or a decrease. With every stitch involved in the creation of a hole, faggot lace is the most open of all the styles of lace knitting. The end result will be a project that truly appears to be more hole than fabric.
Any style of lace knitting can be used to create a panel within a larger project. Knitted lace does not ever need to be a stand-alone project. A lace panel can add visual interest to any piece. If you want to incorporate a bit of lace work into another project, you can easily do so. When considering where to insert a lace panel into your project, be sure to find a spot where the panel can be worked in where your project does not call for any increases or decreases.
When knitted lace work is done on small needles using lace weight yarn - the finest weight of yarn - the combination of such fine yarn and small needles creates a delicate, web-like effect. The above picture is of a lace weight mohair yarn, yarn so delicate you worry you might break it just by touching it. (It is heartier than it looks.) This particular hank of yarn, while looking so small, actually contains over 300 yards of yarn. Another fine weight of yarn often used in lace work is called cobweb yarn precisely because lace made with those yarns can appear as insubstantial as a cobweb. As an example of how delicate knitted lace work can be, the famous wedding ring shawl is a lace shawl made of such delicate yarn and in such an airy pattern that the entire shawl can pass through a wedding ring.
Sometimes, though, it's better to work the superfine yarn weights on bigger needles, both for ease of work and to further exaggerate that light, airy feel of a project that is more open than other knits.
Knitted lace does not need to be restricted to lightweight yarns, though. I made this wrap for my mom (also a knitter) out of a chunky yarn on size 13 needles. When I asked her to take a picture of the lace wrap I had made her, she didn't know what I was talking about because it had never occurred to her that something made from such thick yarn could be called lace. But when she looked at it closely, she realized it was indeed lace, worked in a series of yarn-overs and slipped stitches passed over.
It just goes to show that lace knitting is more versatile than you might think.
Many standard lace knitting patterns call for something between the gossamer threads of the superfine yarns and super chunky yarn. Sport weight and DK weight yarns are popular choices for knitted lace work because they can still create the airy look of a lighter yarn while offering a little more substance in the final product.
No matter the weight of yarn and size of needles, lace knitting results in more flexible finished products that can drape beautifully because they can easily adapt to the structure of the object they're draped on. Because lace knitting is so stretchy and flexible, it is important to block it well so the pattern emerges. In the end, you will have a beautiful finished project with tremendous visual interest that looks much more difficult than it actually was!