Designing Lace Shawls

When I first started knitting, I started reading blogs from more prolific knitters. In addition to learning common knitting mistakes and how to avoid them, I also got to see many pictures of their works in progress, and it wasn't long before I fell in love with lace shawls. The patterns, the colours, the versatility! I made up my mind that someday, I'd learn how to make them for myself.

I didn't get around to it for a while. I kept ogling various lace shawls that I saw on blogs, and marveling over how someone could make such wonderful detail in a garment. It seemed so complex, so incredibly fine, that I thought I'd never be able to get that level of skill.

As it turned out, it was much easier than I first thought it would be.

First I knit from patterns I found in books and for free online. Then, when I'd come to understand more about knitted lace and about shawls themselves, I decided to try my hand at designing one or two of them for myself. Which, incidentally, also isn't as hard as it first sounds.

The initial trick is to understand how a particular type of shawl is constructed. Adding the details of the pattern can come in later, once you understand the basic construction.

Which is exactly what this Hub is all about!

The Seascape stole, as featured on www.knitty.com.
The Seascape stole, as featured on www.knitty.com.

Stoles

There are four kinds of common shawl shapes. The first one I'll talk about is the stole or wrap, which is a long rectangle. If you think it looks like an extra long and extra wide scarf, you'd be correct. An easy way to make this kind of shawl is to take a pattern for a scarf that you like and cast on enough stitches for a few extra repeats. If a feather and fan scarf tells you to cast on enough stitches to make 2 repeats of the pattern, then consider casting on enough to make 4 or 5 repeats. Stoles are wider than scarves, so that they can wrap around your shoulders comfortably, not just your neck.

Typically, stoles also tend to be a bit longer than scarves, so that they can not only wrap around your shoulders, but also tie or be pinned in the front so they don't fall off. If you don't have an easy way to measure the stole you're knitting, try holding it out in front of you and spreading your arms out to your sides. The stole should typically be long enough that even when you do this, the fabric isn't stretched, and still sags down in the middle.

Or, if you don't trust that method, try wrapping the stole around your shoulders even when it's still on the needles. Does it wrap around comfortably and still leave enough at the ends to tie it or pin it? Will you still be able to move your arms when you do this? If so, it's probably long enough.

The Feather and Fan Comfort Shawl, found at Knitting-and.com.
The Feather and Fan Comfort Shawl, found at Knitting-and.com.

Triangular shawls

Triangular shawls are the most recognizable, and tend to be seen around a bit more than stoles. I'm not sure why that is, really, seeing as how stoles can be very easy to design. You'd think designers would milk the simplicity for all it's worth.

But maybe the value really lies in a bit of complication. The more impressive it looks to construct, the more people will ooh and ahh over it. There's the trick, though. These wonderfully attractive shawls aren't always as complicated as they seem.

Most often with triangular shawls, you'll find them constructed from the top down, starting with only a few stitches and increasing, if you can believe it, to the bottom point. Sounds ludicrous, right? The top is the longest part of the shawl, so how can you cast on only a few stitches and increase the amount to get to that small point at the very bottom? I'm betting there are a few of you who think I don't know what I'm talking about, or that I must have gotten something mixed up along the way.

Because of where the yarn-over increases are placed in such a shawl, they help to shape it.

To give you a better idea of how this works, try these basic directions:

Cast on 7 stitches. Knit straight across for one row, then begin the following pattern.

  1. K1, YO, K2, YO, K1, YO, K2, YO, K1 (11 stitches total)
  2. K to end.
  3. K1, YO, K4, YO, K1, YO, K4, YO, K1 (15 stitches total)
  4. K to end.

If you do about 5 repetitions of that 4-row pattern, then bind off the shawl, you'll notice, when it's off the needles, that because of the placement of the increased, it really does have a triangular shape, and the place where you started is in the very centre of that long top section, with the middle section coming down to a point. The miracle of cool construction!

But what to do with all the stitches between the yarn-overs. That's where the fun of designing comes in. Pick a stitch pattern that you like, and pattern, and start knitting it in those panels. The Feather and Fan Comfort Shawl pictured above is a great example of this, inputting the very popular feather and fan pattern that gives that shawl its distinctive waves.

This can be done with any stitch pattern. Browse your stitch dictionaries to see what you like best, and work with it. Don't be afraid to switch stitch patterns, either, to spice up the shawl. Maybe do one stitch pattern for the bulk of the shawl, and then a few repeats of a different one to act as a border or edging. The possibilities are endless!

As you increase in stitches, you'll find that you have too many to use in your current pattern, but too few to add another repeat alongside it. This isn't a problem. Just work those extra stitches as you normally would, knitting or purling depending on what kind of pattern you're using, and leave them along the centre line. That's where you'll start the next repeat of your pattern anyway, and doing this for a few rows won't detract from the overall look of the shawl you're designing.

Another way to make a triangular shawl, one that's a bit easier and doesn't involve quite as much shaping, is to start at the bottom and increase towards the top, the way one would normally think such a thing should be done. Still add your yarn-over increases toward the outside of the shawl (leaving a few extra stitches after that to use as a border, of course), but start your pattern from the bottom. For example:

Cast on 5 stitches.

  1. K2, yo, K1, yo, K2 (7 stitches)
  2. Knit to end.
  3. K2, yo, K3, yo, K2 (9 stitches)
  4. Knit to end.

And so on and so forth, until you have enough stitches to start your pattern. For some patterns, this may mean that you have straight lines running up the shawl, but for others, if they can be staggered a bit or don't require too many stitches, you can avoid that appearance.

If those ways of making your triangular shawl don't suit what you have in mind, or you want to design something a little bit out of the ordinary, then Fleegle has an excellent blog post on a different kind of triangular shawl construction, which I heartily recommend reading if you're really interested in designing your own shawls.

The Veil of Isis shawls, by Badcatdesigns.
The Veil of Isis shawls, by Badcatdesigns.

Square shawls

Square shawls can be fun to knit, even if they are a bit trickier to construct than triangular shawls. Most, like the Shetland Butterflies shawl, start with a centre square, which can often be knit flat. Pick up two straight knitting needles (or a circular one, depending on your preference), and knit the centre panel flat. Easy as pie. And if you want, you can cast on such a large number of stitches and knit the shawl completely flat. No shaping of elaborate construction involved, and so long as the shawl's large enough, there's no problem. Think of this like a square version of the rectangular stoles I mentioned earlier.

Most square shawls, though, start off with a centre square knit flat, and a border is added afterwards. Perhaps multiple borders, depending on what the pattern calls for. I would definitely recommend familiarizing yourself with how to attack borders before attempting to design one of these shawls

Other square shawls, such as the Veil Of Isis shawl pictured above, have a construction that can be likened to two top-down triangular shawls put together. They increase in the same ways, by placing a yarn-over on each side of the stitch that you want to represent a point on the shawl. It may look complicated, but it's actually very simple. Just larger than the triangular shawls, that's all.

This sort of shawl isn't one that can be knit flat, and must be knit in the round. As such, you're going to need both circular needles and double-pointed needles, also known as dpns. The dpns are for the centre of the shawl, when you've got too few stitches to allow a circular needle to work. As you increase in stitches, you'll eventually have enough to move your shawl onto a circular needle. Depending on how large you want the shawl to be and how many stitches you can cram onto one needle, you may beed a few different lengths of circular needle, too. This can make knitting and designing this kind of shawl a bit expensive.

As always, use a pattern you love to fill in the spaces where otherwise there'd just be garter stitch or stockinette stitch. Experiment with a few different stitch patterns to see what you like and what goes well together.

Knitted lace "doily" from www.knitting-and.com
Knitted lace "doily" from www.knitting-and.com

Circular shawls

Now, I'll admit that I haven't had the greatest amount of experience with circular shawls, but I know the general construction of them. They are visually very impressive, and I wouldn't recommend trying to design one of these until you've got a very good understanding of pattern placement and how to increase evenly. They're definitely a bit tricker than most. But one great thing about them is that they allow for a great deal of versatility in terms of pattern design. Many people will use this shawl shape as a way of working flower patterns into their designs, which can look lovely and pay homage to the beauty of the natural world. This isn't always so easy to achieve when working with other shapes of shawl.

Much like the previous square shawl design that I talked about, making a circular shawl will also require both circular needles (possibly of varying lengths) and dpns to start off in the centre, making this sort of project another somewhat expensive one.

Again, I'm not much of an authority of knitting circular shawls, so I can't, unfortunately, give much advice on designing them. They do, I know, involve increases over steady periods at even intervals, to make the shawl curve in a circular fashion, and part of the shaping occurs when you block the shawl, to make sure that everything is as nicely rounded as it can get. Unfortunately, though, beyond that I can't give much detail.

This is one type of shawl I think I will need to knit a few of before I get comfortable explaining how to design them. However, if you're already comfortable with knitting circular shawls from existing patterns, then feel free to experiment with using a preferred pattern from a stitch dictionary. Anything from the ubiquitous feather and fan, to something more complicated, all can look wonderful in a circular shawl.

Extra tips

As always when dealing with lace, natural fibre content in your yarn is key, since synthetic fibres simple will not be able to block to show off the full extent to the lace pattern that you're knitting. (There's a link below to a good blocking tutorial, for anybody interested.) Some synthetic fibre content in a yarn is fine, but it must be in a minority when compared with the natural fibre content. I personally prefer my yarn to be 100% natural fibres, but that's simply preference.

As with most designs, there will be some successes and some failures. The best advice I can give is to keep trying. Sometimes it takes a few failures before you find a single success. It's this way with just about anything, especially when you're venturing into new territory. Don't get discouraged, and remember that even the occasional failure or two is all part of the learning process.

Enjoy your designing! And don't be afraid to show them off a little, either. Feel free to post comments here with links to lace shawls that you've designed yourself. I'd love to see them, and no doubt they'll end up being added to my "To Knit" list.

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Comments 18 comments

RGraf profile image

RGraf 7 years ago from Wisconsin

Just plain beautiful. I don't know how to knit (though I would love to learn), but I do crochet. I love to make shawls as gifts because most people don't buy themselves one.

Thank you for putting the urge to crochet back in me. I haven't touched it in so long.


RiaMorrison profile image

RiaMorrison 7 years ago from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada Author

Thanks, RGraf! I can't crochet to save my life, but I have seen some wonderful crochet patterns lately that make me very tempted to try again.


\Brenda Scully 7 years ago

I love to knit.... I knitted my first garment when I was 10, and used to knit for a shop..

My mum used to knit beautiful shawls for all our babies, but I would not attempt them, I can knit aran though..

Once again I really enjoyed your style of writing, and you seem really kind, thanks for the patterns, I may try them sometime...


ashyknees 6 years ago

Thank you! I'm really looking forward to trying your triangle shawl instructions. This may be just what I have been looking for.


infinitenesmith 6 years ago

I'm usually a sucker for socks, but lace patterns have been catching my eye more and more lately. Thanks for encouraging the idea of shawl design! It's something I never considered, since, like most people, I find it a daunting task.


Laughingrat 6 years ago

I really liked this article and found it super helpful! I'm about to design a center-outward square shawl and this had exactly the info I needed to give me a little more confidence. :)


edwinaj 6 years ago

I was reading Jared Flood's blog about a shawl and I could not envision what he was talking about - starting at the top with ten stitches! You have cleared that up nicely. Thank you.


Giselle Maine 6 years ago

LOVE to see something on knitted lace! I used to knit lace of all kinds (never on anything as big as a shawl though!) and it's so great to see an article on this less-well-known art.


Crystal (Silver) 6 years ago

What about the half-circle shawl? ;) I know you can probably get a kind of half-circle using triangle shawl principles, but is there another way, that you can think of? I've been wondering about this for a while, but I have yet to actually finish any of the shawls I've started knitting, so I haven't quite been able to convince myself to *really* research ... ;)


Renata 5 years ago

Ria, Circular shawls can be extremely simple using Elizabeth Zimmerman's Pi shawl formula, in which all increases are knitted in specific eyelet rows and the lace in between is knitted straight. There are also 1/2 pi shawl and pi square (horseshoe shaped) variations of her formula. Happy knitting


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA

This is a beautifully detailed Hub! I have knit many shawls, including EZ's Pi shawl (a circular one.) I love shawls because I don't have to worry about gauge and can make them any size to suit the amount of yarn I have.


MercyGrace profile image

MercyGrace 5 years ago from USA

I love shawls. I make them for everyone but I never had the courage to make a lace one. This is a great hub. Thanks!


RNMSN profile image

RNMSN 5 years ago from Tucson, Az

oohh these are gorgeous! I just crochet, my str in law is the knitter :) fantastic hub! makes me believe I could knit,,,almost :)


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA

I make shawls because I love to enjoy the pattern without worrying about exact fit. Sweater knitting is stressful for me, while shawl knitting is almost meditative. Voted up and beautiful!


ranjini 4 years ago

i used to wear stoles.. coz its really comfortable and awesome


Terry Mendicino 4 years ago

I am looking for a simple poncho pattern.

increase on each side and yo k2tog every other.

I have a pattern but it is not working.


Diego 21 months ago

i was in the middle of coetmnming here this morning, and well, you know.I was gonna say the skirt looks so perfectly swingy! I have several vintage knitting books etc etc, but have felt kinda lost when it comes to knitted boy things. and why is it that the goodwill has so many more girl clothes than boys? not fair. For all of the crafty-goodness to be made, I can't help but hope for a girl next.


jennabee25 profile image

jennabee25 9 months ago from PA

Very interesting! Shawls sometimes scare me when thinking about knitting them, but you did a great job of demystifying them here.

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