Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Gauge in lace

This is for Alison, who was wondering if she should drop down a needle size in her alpaca Madli. [No! It looks wonderful!]

Gauge preference is definitely a personal thing, but there are some general guidelines that are driven by yarn structure, the engineering of knitting, human vision, and gravity, all inter-related. Since the topic is a shawl, I'll focus on that format. I always start by swatching in the field or ground stitch, usually either stockinette or garter. The field needs to be close enough to display a clear visual contrast with the openwork areas, especially if the openwork predominates. Kinzel was magical at determining the perfect gauge to maximize the visual value of this relationship. I do push myself to knit lace at the open end of the envelope because it *is* lace.

Gravity is the easiest. If the gauge is too open, the shawl will droop instead of draping pleasantly about the shoulders. The heavier the grist, the more important this consideration. If your yarn is low-twist and/or slippery (alpaca singles spun lopi style), gravity will streeeetch the shawl over time, so a closer gauge is necessary to sustain the yarn itself.

Yarn structure. If the yarn is long-staple, relatively thick in terms of microns (Wensleydale instead of Merino, for instance), and has a fair bit of twist, it can support a more open gauge. It's like building with steel instead of straw. If you knit a sturdy yarn at a close gauge, you can end up with wings or something so dense that it's like wearing a wet dog about your shoulders. If you can use your swatch as a frisbee, go up a few needle sizes!

Sharon Miller knits heavenly shawls with fine Shetland and relatively large needles. The minimal mass makes gravity irrelevant. She pays close attention to the engineering aspects and builds her shawls in ways that support the various elements. Her work defines one end of the spectrum. Because of the interrelation of gauge and grist and traditional stitch patterns, her shawls are wedding ring caliber, but not obvious examples of positive/negative space.

Fiddlesticks has great shawl patterns. Her Reef shawl shows the importance of letting the field set the gauge. Tina is an especially nice example of positive/negative space *and* correct gauge in the field.

The silly bit of lace I'm playing with for the Olympics is all about positive/negative space because the yarn is a marl of sepia viscose and olive drab cotton which obscures stitch definition and makes the whole thing look like a wad of muddy moss. (Yes, I dislike the yarn color and the shawl is definitely a gift for the first person who actually likes it!) The yarn structure is strong enough to be knit on a larger needle, but the decrease vine looks sloppy with larger loops, and the yo's are sufficiently big to show their wandering path as is. Speaking of which, instead of dueling with Blogger to post photos with this, I'll get back to my knitting. Remind me to post about tatting someday...