By Clara Parkes
It's time to talk about lace again. We've swatched plenty of patterns that mingle SSKs and K2togs among well-placed yarn-overs, but lace can be so much more than that.
With thought and skill, lace can become a breathtaking landscape of meandering roots, restful open spaces, radiant stars and diamonds and leaves and flames. That is a fair description of Marnie MacLean's Farro shawl. I want you to have this experience for yourself.
A Delicious Knit
Lace is the best delayed-gratification project there is. On the needles, it looks like a crumpled wad of tissue paper. No matter how hard you try to stretch it open on your thigh to show friends (which we've all done), they just don't get it. Only after you've bound off that last stitch, dropped the bundle of chaos into warm soapy water, given it a swish, let it rest, and pulled it out does the magic start.
Where once we saw only a jumble of loops, a landscape unfolds. With each stitch you pull taut and pin to the blocking board, the picture gets more and more astonishing. When the last pin is placed, you finally see your masterpiece for what it is—and your heart swells with pride.
Much of this glory depends on some crucial decisions you make at the very beginning, long before you even start to swatch. If you swatch, that is. Most people tend not to swatch for lace shawls since there's no concern about making a garment that fits. Your shawl is your swatch.
With this in mind, let's go off-script from our normal swatching regimen and walk through the decisions you'll need to make before embarking on a project like this one.
First things first: As with all lace-inspired projects, you'll want to use a fine yarn and big needles. The space around each stitch is as vital as the stitch itself, sometimes more so. Knit too tightly and you'll lose that space and the clarity it gives to the stitches around it.
Two-ply yarns are always recommended for any kind of lace featuring openwork, and that's precisely what MacLean uses for Farro. Those two plies constantly rotate like airplane propellers within your fabric, holding open the space around them and rendering even a simple yarn-over like a vaulted ceiling.
The more plies you add, the more the stitches begin to move inward, rendering the yarn-overs more like cozy little caves. In Farro you do have some leeway because the fabric is so open, but still. Cozy cavelike yarn-overs are beautiful if you want them, but in Farro, you may not.
The second decision will be fiber, which impacts how your shawl will look and how it will behave when set in motion on your body. Questions need answers.
How do you want light to shine off the shawl? Do you want a sheen? Then look for smooth, highly reflective fibers like silk or mohair. Juniper Moon Farm Findley, used in the sample, is a perfectly blended 50/50 mix of Merino and silk. An added benefit of silk is that, lacking any elasticity to resist the stretch, it helps your shawl block beautifully in place. Viscose bamboo will also shine and block in place, but it tends to stretch when subject to gravity (i.e., every time you wear it). Then again, you could use this to your advantage if you want a shawl that's twice as big.
Would you rather see a little halo along the shawl's surface? You have two options. The biggest lace-safe halo producer would be a fingering-weight brushed mohair and silk combination, like the Shibui Silk Cloud shown here. On its own in Farrow, however, I fear you'd risk losing the calligraphic detail of the cables that figure prominently throughout the pattern.
Shibui Silk Cloud. Photo by Clara Parkes.
Instead, consider a slightly more subdued halo produced by cashmere, baby alpaca, yak, or even qiviut. You can go 100 percent all the way down to about 20 percent and still be assured some degree of fuzz.
Sheen and halo are not mutually exclusive. If you want a bit of both, let blends be your friend. High-sheen fibers such as silk blend perfectly with high-halo fibers such as cashmere or qiviut. A true 50/50 blend will have highly reflective qualities, luxurious drape, and an ethereal halo. It will block much more easily, too.
Keep in mind that the more silk you add, the more dense your shawl will feel and the heavier its drape. If you want to keep things light but still want that halo, consider a blend that keeps a higher-bounce fiber in the majority. Shibui Lunar (shown here) is a fitting example, with a spongy and tender base of 60 percent extra-fine Merino to which 40 percent of mulberry silk has been added.
Shibui Lunar. Photo by Clara Parkes
Beware the Bounce
Another rule of thumb: The more elastic the fibers, the more your shawl will resist any kind of forceful blocking. This is fine if you want a smaller, squishier shawl. But if you're looking for vast and elegant rendering of the stitch pattern, you'll want to steer clear of any tightly plied 100-percent Merino. The minute you remove the blocking pins, the stitches will bounce back together. But if you reduce that Merino to even 80 percent and combine it with a less elastic fiber, your shawl will begin to hold that open shape.
Not to say all 100-percent wool yarns are off limits, because they certainly aren't. Just seek a breed that's more known for its drape than its bounce. (Bluefaced Leicester and Wensleydale, I'm looking at you.)
The Question of Color
Finally, a quick word on color. When it comes to lace, the more elaborate the pattern, the more monochromatic the yarn should be. Stick with a solid or a vaguely shifting semisolid, and you'll preserve all the beauty of the stitch motifs. Work Farro in speckles or a variegated yarn and all that color will compete with the design rather than flattering it. There's a reason you don't see clown costumes in Swan Lake. Stick with a solid color and prepare for glory.
Clara Parkes is the brilliant mind behind knittersreview.com and the author of several fantastic fiber books.