I enjoy knitting Shetland lace, but several times I’ve tried to follow traditional shawl patterns and been extremely unsuccessful. That got me to wondering why Shetland shawls are designed the way they are.

Traditional Shetland shawl construction

The “traditional” Shetland shawl is generally square, and made in three basic parts as shown in Figure 1: narrow edging (dark grey); wide lace border (light grey); and central square (white). To begin, a strip of narrow lace edging is made (apparently expert knitters can do this part while walking around!). This is generally no more than 20 stitches wide, and is worked until it reaches the length of one of the sides of the shawl, which is typically about 54 inches (marked 1 on the schematic). Then you’re supposed to pick up and knit a large number of stitches — at least 250 in most of the patterns I’ve seen — along the long plain edge of the narrow lace edging. These stitches become the wide lace border, which is decreased on each end as you work towards the center until you end up with a trapezoid shape. You make four of these edging-and-border units. On one of them (marked 2 in the schematic), at the end of the border piece you can keep going to work the central square. To complete the shawl you graft all the pieces together along the sides of the central square and along the diagonal seams of the borders.

Unfortunately I would say that grafting and picking up stitches are probably the two most loathed techniques in the knitting universe. The traditional Shetland architecture maximizes the amount of each one that you have to do. The actual lace knitting, while time-consuming, isn’t that tough (seriously!); it’s the construction techniques that pile on the difficulty. I have nothing against technical difficulty if it’s truly necessary to get a certain effect; but I wondered if there was a better method, and if so why the expert knitters of Shetland chose such an annoying and unproductive alternative.

Gladys Amedro, resident of Shetland and author of the well-produced book Shetland Lace, tries to solve the problems of the traditional Shetland technique by knitting her shawls in the round — a method that probably was not available to 19th century knitters.

Amedro circular Shetland shawl

First she knits a strip of edging lace long to go around the entire shawl. Now comes the hard and tedious part: she picks up and knits enough stitches for the entire shawl, generally at least 1000, in one go. But the reward for this punishing step is that from here on out, it’s all cake. You simply knit away in the round on a series of circular and then double-pointed needles, pair-decreasing at each of the 4 corners as needed to create a square shape instead of a circle. The design tradeoff is that there is no central square any more. You can approximate the effect with clever stitch choices — as Ms. Amedro does in her “Sheelagh” shawl pattern — but the truth is that you aren’t going to get the effect of a large unbroken block of a single fine lace pattern using Ms. Amedro’s method.

Another alternative is to knit from the center out as in Figure 3.

Center out method

Hazel Carter’s Spider Queen shawl is constructed by this method. First you knit the large center block — beginning with the open, invisible, or provisional cast-on (different names for the same thing). At the end of this, you go right into one of the wide border trapezoids — obviously in this direction you’ll be increasing each row to shape — at the end of which you do not bind off but rather keep the stitches on the needle while you knit-on the narrow lace edging. Then you unpick your provisional cast-on, revealing a row of open stitches, and knit the second border in the opposite direction. The two side borders require picking up and knitting, but a much smaller amount than with the traditional method. To finish you simply sew the diagonal seams between wide borders.

This is a very clever construction method with relatively minor tradeoffs: 1) the patterns will all point outward rather than inward as with the other methods; 2) there is some picking up and grafting, although much less; 3) increases generally don’t look quite as nice as decreases; 4) it may be somewhat more difficult to nicely place the repeats of the narrow edging (although strictly speaking this should be a concern of the pattern writer, not the knitter). The downsides are so trivial though that it makes you wonder whether the old-time Shetland knitters simply did not know about the provisional cast-on — or whether not having circular needles forced the old-timers to compensate by having smaller pieces.

Even though I’m generally in favor of painstaking traditional methods, in this case I believe that the old-time construction techniques have been superceded. I suspect that if the 19th century production knitters of Shetland had possessed circular needles and the broad range of techniques that we know today, they would have enthusiastically adopted them. The gentle art of Shetland lace knitting is so little known today that any outdated and cumbersome method that might be a barrier to adoption should be jettisoned without a qualm.