Sunday, May 17, 2009

Portrait in Yarn: the lace knitter

Friend-of-the-blog Lew agreed to be interviewed by phone from his home in Rocklin, California.

How did you get started knitting?
I was born and raised in England where I started knitting at 5 years old. My first teacher was our Welsh housekeeper. I had a large stuffed rabbit and during the cold winters she taught me to make scarves to keep him warm. This was in 1930, and there was no television or radio in our home. In the evenings, the whole family sat around the kitchen table while one person read a book out loud and everyone knitted, boys and girls. Ever since, I have found that knitting makes difficult times easier.

How did you come to the United States?
I served in the British military during WWII, and in 1948 I came to the US. I arrived on a Friday and joined the US Navy on Saturday. I had a 32-year military career in the Navy as a Master Chief parachute rigger. That was good job for a knitter, as it involves a lot of use of the hands. In one of the schools the Navy sent me to I had to take a sewing machine completely apart and re-assemble it.

Did you continue to knit through your years in the service?
Oh, yes. And when I married (in 1955) and had children there was more reason to knit -- baby blankets and such.

Does your wife knit?
Not at all! But I knit for her. I once knit her a full-length coat that she quite liked. And she liked the socks.

What kind of knitting are you doing now?
For the last 30 years or so, I've been knitting lace. Not lace garments, but tablecloths, bedspreads, shawls and afghans. I belong to the Lace Knitter's Guild, a group of lace knitting enthusiasts. We collect and preserve traditional lace patterns, some of them 100 years old or more. There's a newsletter that goes out once a month that always reprints 3 or 4 lace patterns per issue. We have a lot of patterns by Marianne Kinzel, who published patterns in the 50's and 60's for what she called "Viennese Lace Knitting."

Quite often the old patterns need updating to make sense today. For example, rather than saying "knit two together" old patterns will say "narrow." There may be no charts, just written-out instructions; or if there is an original chart it has all the blanks and repeats in it so that it takes a huge sheet of paper to print it out. One contribution I make is to construct charts for patterns that don't have them, or to condense and update the old charts so they fit on a standard sheet of paper. At one point, I had design my own font to render the chart symbols.

On the second Saturday of every month a group that calls itself "Lew's Lacey Crew" meets at Filati's, a local yarn shop in Rocklin. There are about a half dozen regular members. We share patterns and help one another. You don't have to be an expert lace knitter -- as long as you want to knit you can come and get help if you need it.

Describe some of your recent projects.
I did a 68" diameter tablecloth in a Kinzel pattern called "Summer Garland" using Lorna's Laces wool/silk. I knitted a king size bedspread as a gift for my daughter; I did the whole thing on size 1 needles. {see closeup, left, and in-process, top} I worked on it among other projects and it took me two-and-a-half years to complete. Most of my knitting is on small needles -- I've experimented with needles as small as 00000000 (8 zeros), which are only .5 mm in diameter. They're used for making miniatures. However, now that my eyesight is dwindling, I find bigger needles a bit more appealing.

What advice can you give aspiring lace knitters?
Learn to use lifelines! It's so easy to miss a single yarnover when you're working lace. A lifeline will save you. When I'm working a really complicated pattern, I may put in a lifeline every five rows.


  1. Terrific blog post. I really like the idea of keeping 100 year old patterns alive. It's important we pass our knowledge to our children. While I'm new to knitting, I've already purchased a book to teach children to knit.

    Thanks for your blog and your Portraits.

  2. Thank you, John! There is definitely a subset of knitters who are pouring their energies into preserving the history. For example, at the upcoming Sock Summit there is a knitalong to recreate historic sock patterns for the (virtual) sock museum. See the description here.