Lace Knitting History

Lace knitting has always been one of those types of knitting that gives me a little chill.

Let me assure you, you’re not alone: lace knitting is something generally considered to be really difficult. Together, yarn overs and decreases can form anything from flowers to geometric shapes in a way that almost no other type of knitting can.

So where – and when – are the origins of lace knitting history? Like for most other knitting traditions, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact history of lace knitting, but if we have a look on their origins it becomes a little clearer.

Lace Knitting History

There are three well-known traditions in Europe: Orenburg, Estonian and Shetland lace.

Orenburg Shawls

The Orenburg Shawl is one of the classic symbols of Russian handicraft. This type of finely knit, down-hair lace shawl originated in the Orenburg area about 250 years ago, in the 18th century.

In the English-speaking world, they are often called “wedding ring shawls” because, although the shawls are quite large, a shawl knit in the traditional fashion is so fine that it can be pulled through a wedding ring. There are wedding ring shawls in Shetland tradition, too; but more on this later.

The shawls are made from a blend of silk and indigenous goat fiber, similar to cashmere or mohair. These shawls are so famous in Russia that even a stamp has been made to honor them in 2013. It shows a typical Orenburg lace shawl.

Orenburg Shawl: Stamp of Russia 2013 No 1715
Orenburg Shawl: Russian Stamp 2013 No 1715 (Source: Wikipedia)

The most comprehensive reference book on Orenburg shawls is Galina Khmeleva’s Gossamer Webs: The History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls, published in 1998.

Shetland Lace

Lace is sometimes considered the pinnacle of knitting, because of its complexity and because woven fabrics cannot easily be made to have holes. This is especially true for Shetland lace knitting: personally, I find it the most challenging type of lace knitting. Most patterns used in Shetland knitting use very fine yarns on small needles (many stitches, many possibilities for mistakes) and yarn overs on both sides.

Famous examples include the wedding ring shawl of Shetland knitting, a shawl so fine that it could be drawn through a wedding ring (as in Orenburg lace).

Shetland lace: Wedding veil

Shetland knitted lace became extremely popular in Victorian England when Queen Victoria became a Shetland lace enthusiast. From there, knitting patterns for the shawls were printed in English women’s magazines where they were copied in Iceland with single ply wool.

The number one reference book on Shetland lace knitting is Heirloom Knitting by Sharon Miller.

Estonian Lace Knitting

Estonian knitting is very particular in its techniques and patterns. The most different pattern feature is the so-called Nupp –  a bobble, basically. The picture below shows the pattern Crown Prince by Nancy Bush, a typical Estonian lace shawl.


Nancy Bush popularized Estonian knitting worldwide with her book Knitted Lace of Estonia.

The main source of Estonian lace stitch patterns and techniques is the book Pitsilised Koekirjad by Leili Riemann, published by Kirjastus Monokkel in 1995; known in American lace knitting community as Estonian lace book. It is currently out of print. I purchased mine on Ebay in 2006 (and am very happy to own it as it is a fruitful resource for different lace stitch patterns).

Austrian and Bavarian Lace

Unknown by many is there is lace knitting traditions outside of he three major regions Orenburg, Shetland and Estonia: there is knitted lace in Austria and Bavaria, too. Although not used for shawls but mostly for socks and sometimes traditional knitted cardigans, similar lace patterns can be found here.

The most comprehensive resource I came across so far is the book Omas Strickgeheimnisse (in German only, sorry).

What’s your favorite tradition?

Make sure to let us know by leaving a comment below!

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