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.

This article is part of the Complete Guide to Lace Knitting.

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.

History of Lace Knitting
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).

History of Lace Knitting


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.

History of Lace Knitting

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 favourite tradition?

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

14 thoughts on “Lace Knitting History

  • Margaret

    I’ve learned that for me, lifelines are a necessary evil. They’re a pain to put in, a pain because they interfere with the pattern when you look back at what you’ve already knit. But they’re even more of a pain when you need one and it isn’t there. I love lace, and I love to make it.

    Galina’s classes are a wonderful experience. I love to listen to her tell her stories.

    Thank you for your articles, Julia!

  • Remington Mac Arthur

    I think knitted lace really really pretty but i think i would like to weight until i am a better knitter.

  • Rebekah Mac Arthur

    It all sounds sooo cool,I can`t what to learn knit lace. 🙂

  • Ashley Abbiss

    I’m afraid I’ve never understood the belief that lace is difficult to knit. The truth is, it’s simple as long as you’re careful to follow the pattern and stop now and then to count your stitches. Yes, it takes a bit more concentration than other patterns. You can’t really do it and watch TV at the same time, at least with the more complex patterns, but it can certainly be done. As long as you know how to cast on, cast off, knit, purl, do a yarn over and decrease, you can knit lace. Just don’t let it intimidate you, that’s all. It’s a bit like turning a sock heel, I think. People are afraid of what they don’t know, and because it looks complicated they think it must be difficult. All I can say is, try it before you decide you can’t do it. You might be surprised.

  • Mary Meyer

    mary meyer, I Love knitting lace! I done Orenburg , Shetland , Estonian, I just love doing lace and seeing the different patterns you can see and put together, from yarn overs and decreases . Amazing!

  • vaschafer

    Estonian with th bobbled. I had just asked you about lace ìin an email following your Friday Freebies, then… tada.. I got this email.

  • Kathleen Roe

    I love lace and have knit doilies, a lace collar, and am knitting a lace capelette right now. But I feel like I need to learn and know more about lace. So lead me on Julia. 🙂

  • Ellen Griffin

    I am tempted!!!! I love lace and learning anything new is so VERY possible:-) My fav would be Shetland Lace.

  • Jennifer

    I’ve met Galina Khmeleva and taken a class from her; she still teaches but doesn’t travel as often as she used to. She is in Colorado and when you attend one of her classes she has copies of her books, individual patterns, DVDs, lace, etc available for sale. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience so keep an eye out for her classes; she is an excellent and patient teacher!

    • Julia

      Wow, that sounds awesome! Wish I could meet her too. I’m sure it’s something very special to leaan from somebody like her!

  • Barbara Evans

    I love lace knitting. I think my favorite of those three traditions is Orenburg

  • Pingback: The Complete Guide to Lace Knitting -

  • Daniella Abel

    i am a passionate enthusiast.. its on my bucket list to learn and do


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