A Lace Primer

It’s spring, and spring means lace! Mostly when I knit lace, I just think of it as lace. But from time to time I think about traditional Irish lace, or the fancy needle laces I watched little old ladies make in Venice, or how people wax poetic about Estonian lace on the boards of Ravelry.  Being a naturally curious person I always kind of wondered about the differences and the definitions of each type of lace, but an interesting recent thread on Ravelry finally inspired me to look into it properly. Unsurprisingly, many of these laces are just as tied to their cultures of origin as language or music. Read on if you’ve always wondered too!

Non-knitted Lace

Needle lace

Needle lace, By Unknown – Diacollectie Kunsthistorisch Instituut Universiteit van Amsterdam, CC BY 3.0

Since this is primarily a knitting blog, I’m going to keep this one short. There are actually quite a few ways to make lace that don’t involve knitting needles. Most of what we see in stores is some persuasion of needle lace, which would traditionally be made with only a needle and thread. Turkish knotted lace is technically also a form of needle lace, as opposed to other knotted laces like macrame that use only thread or yarn. Cutwork, which you often see on linens, is woven fabric with pretty holes cut out and then reinforced with embroidery thread. Bobbin lace is a rather complicated form of weaving involving a pillow and many bobbins (shocking, I know!) Interestingly, chemical lace also came into being just over 100 years ago. This uses a continuous motif of embroidery on a “sacrificial” woven background, which is then dissolved via water or heat, leaving only the embroidery behind.

Crochet Lace


Filet crochet by FranzJosef

There are a few forms of crochet lace, but I am a mediocre crocheter at best, so I won’t go into too much detail here either. Irish crochet was created in the mid-1800s to imitate expensive Venetian needle laces. Typically, it uses a very fine steel hook and similarly minuscule cotton or linen thread to crochet separate motifs which are then basted onto a mesh background in a pleasing arrangement. Filet crochet uses varying combinations of chain stitches and double crochet stitches, traditionally in fine mercerized cotton, to create interesting motifs on a mesh background.

Orenburg Lace (Russia)


Orenburg Shawl postage stamp, By Russian Post, Publishing and Trade Centre “Marka”

Orenburg lace originated in Russia in the 17oos and is most typically used for shawls. The ever popular “wedding ring shawl” (technically, any full-sized shawl that can be pulled through a wedding ring) is a well-known example of Orenburg lace. According to legend, the wives of soldiers stationed in the remote Ural steppes were so bored they began to create the most ornate, fine-gauge shawls they could imagine just to fill the long winters. Historically the shawls were made in various geometric shapes from very lightweight, undyed threads of Orenburg goat wool. Orenburg down is thought to be the thinnest, softest goat down in the world – 16-18 micrometers, as opposed to Angora’s 22-24. As Orenburg goats living outside of the harsh winters of the Urals often develop rougher wool, Angora is commonly substituted in the rest of the world. Common Orenburg motifs include honeycomb, peas, and strawberries.

Shetland Lace (Scotland)

shetland lace

While no one seems to be entirely clear on how or when Shetland lace started, the oldest known example was found on a body buried in the late 1600s. Shetland lace does not appear to have been popular outside the islands until it became a particular favorite of Queen Victoria, who commissioned many pieces for herself and as gifts. Eventually, Shetland lace also developed a “wedding ring shawl” tradition, although many decorative and occasionally practical items beyond shawls are also made from Shetland lace. Like Orenburg lace, it traditionally uses thread spun from the undercoat of a local animal, although in this case it is a breed of sheep and not goat. Shetland shawls are generally square, featuring knitted borders basted onto a knitted center square. Common Shetland motifs include cat’s paws, old shale, and distinctive versions of the almost universal shell and horseshoe stitch patterns.

Estonian Lace (Estonia)


Swallowtail uses several Estonian techniques, including nupps.

Estonian lace began during the Russian rule of Estonia (early 1700s-early 1900s), when the town of Haapsalu became a popular resort town. Local women began creating ornate lace pieces to sell to the tourists. If you’ve ever heard of a nupp, you know about Estonian lace. This k-yo-k pattern, worked in a single stitch, creates a bump that is distinct from a bobble and is very characteristic of Estonian lace. Star stitches are also generally thought to be an Estonian creation. Like Shetland lace, Estonian lace pieces generally have borders. Unlike Shetland lace, Estonian borders are created by picking up stitches all the way around the project and knitting in the round.

Modern Lace

You’ll notice that many of the most well-known and beloved knitting styles originate in rather remote places. It takes a certain amount of isolation for unique styles to really develop. With the development of world travel and more recently the internet, all of the wonderful knitting traditions out there are rapidly blending to create a whole new sort of lace. I can’t wait to see what new styles evolve and separate in the coming centuries with access to so much information!



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