Deciphering Antique Knitting Patterns

So.  We’ve Gone Time Traveling,

reading knitting patterns and books from a century ago or more.  And instead of neatly formatted, proofread patterns with standardized notation, we are dealing with typos, antiquated phrasing, incomplete finishing instructions, and of course the bane of every knitter’s life, mistakes in the pattern.

Ugh.

But.  If you’re up for an adventure, some creative thinking, and are perhaps naturally inclined towards solving puzzles, there’s a lot of fun to be had in decrypting knitting patterns from the crypt. :)

Let’s give it a go.

1. The Need for Source Material

You might think that old knitting patterns are hard to come by.  Not so.  We just need to look in the right place.  I’m a huge fan of used book sales, my mother’s personal library, the public library, antique stores, and of course, the internet.  We’ll keep it simple for this post, and use one of the knitting eBooks available at the Gutenberg Project (which didn’t make the top five list in my last post).  But if you’re curious about where else on the internet antique patterns are available for free, scroll to the end of this post and look in the related links section.

  • Title: Knitting, Crochet, and Netting, with Twelve Illustrations
  • Author: Mlle. Riego de la Branchardiere
  • Published:  S. Knights; London, 1846
  • Download Link

1846, London.  Which means that when the book discusses lace edgings, the author was probably envisioning garments trimmed along these lines: 1846 french le moniteur de la mode fichus bonnetsThe above image is a lovely French color fashion plate from 1846, Le Moniteur de la Mode, depicting lace fichus (shawls or wraps) & bonnets.

In this post, I’ll be looking at the Point Lace Edging pattern from the book listed above.

2.  The Actual Pattern – Feel free to scroll down past quote

Pins No. 19, boar’s head cotton 34, cast on 15 stitches.
1st row—Knit 2, make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 3.
2nd row—Make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, make 1, knit 3, make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 3, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together.
3rd row—Knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, make 1, knit 4.
4th row—Make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, (make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 1, twice,) knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together.
5th row—Knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2.
6th row—Make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, (make 1, knit 3, make 1, knit 3 together, twice,) make 1, knit 3, make 1, knit 2 together.
7th row—Knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together, (knit 2 together, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, twice,) knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2.
8th row—Make 1, knit 2 together, (knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, twice,) knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together.
9th row—Same as 7th row.
10th row—Make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) (make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 3, twice,) make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together.
11th row—Knit 2, (make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 1, twice,) knit 2 together, knit 2.
12th row—Make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) (make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 1, twice,) knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together.
13th row—Knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 1, (make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, twice.)
14th row—Make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) (make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 3, twice,) make 1, knit 2 together.
15th row—Knit 2, make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 3.
16th row—Make 1, (knit 2 together twice,) make 1, knit 2 together, make 1, knit 3 together, make 1, knit 1, make 1, knit 2 together, knit 2, make 1, knit 2 together.

Source:  Éléonore Riego de la Branchardière. Knitting, Crochet, and Netting, with Twelve Illustrations: Point Lace Edging

16 rows of a fairly basic lace pattern.  Don’t worry if you didn’t read the whole thing, I already have and here are a few things that stood out [in no particular order]:

  • No stitch counts at the end of a row.  This might seem like a small omission, but without knowing how many stitches with which you are supposed to start and end a row, catching mistakes quickly becomes tricky.
  • No abbreviations.  I hadn’t realized how attached I’d grown to them until I read the whole pattern without them.  There are multiple places where the length the line could be shortened considerably, which would make the pattern easier to read, easier to remember, and easier to memorize.
  • No differentiation between right and wrong sides in pattern.  Every stitch is knit, no purls.  This begs the question why.  If it is intentional, does that make this pattern fall under the garter stitch lace category?  Or perhaps all knitters in 1846 understood that “knit” referred to stockinette stitch, and therefore implied knit on the right side and purl on the wrong side?  Or perhaps it was left up to the knitter’s discretion?  How they preferred to knit?  Or perhaps it was unintentional, in which case I have no idea how to interpret the pattern.
  • No differentiation between “make 1″ and the increase more frequently used in lace, “yarn-over”.  I usually interpret a “make 1″ as an increased stitch made by picking up a stitch, increasing into the base of a previous stitch, or whatever is least noticeable/most orderly in the knitted fabric.  But this is lace knitting, and I’m pretty sure that at least some of the increases are meant to be decorative yarn-overs.  The trick will be figuring out which are which.
  • All the decreases are k2tog; no ssk.  Again, this will affect the clarity of the lace pattern.  The slant of the stitches is usually a distinct factor in how a lace pattern appears.  For all the decreases to slant the same way, regardless of which side of the pattern they are on triggers warning bells.

I’ll confess here that my initial reaction was to just grab yarn and needles, and knit the pattern straight from the book.  Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that well.  In fact, it didn’t turn out at all.  After eight rows or so, it was apparent that all I had on my needles was a mess instead of the elegant lace edging I’d been hoping for.  So I gave up, and started working on the pattern from scratch with a paper and pencil.  And that’s how I collected the above bullet points.

Sorry, but you’ll be happy to know my super-observational powers just haven’t kicked in yet. :)  I had to get it all wrong first.

3.  Graph It

After my initial analysis above, I realized I had absolutely no idea what this pattern was supposed to be doing or what it was supposed to look like.  So I booted up the graphing software, and plotted out two repeats for a total of 32 rows.

point lace 2In order to get something which made sense, I ended up graphing the pattern by working from the beginning of the instructions for the odd-numbered rows, and the end of the instructions for the even-numbered rows.

Also, you can see that I have not changed any of the slants for the decreases, and translated all the “make 1″ stitches as “yarn-overs”.

It seems fairly obvious that something is wrong with row 11.  It doesn’t match the scallop pattern coming from the right or the left, and the stitch counts are off.  But, I now know that the lace is supposed to be scalloped, and there seems to be some kind of circular motif going on in the middle of the scallop.

4. Fiddle With It

This is where the creativity, problem solving, and modernization happen.  Technically, what comes out of this step is an interpretation of lace from 1846, not actual lace from 1846.  Inspired by, derived from, any term will work to show that we are no longer dealing with an antique lace pattern.

This might seem like a sad thing.  Why go to all the effort when your end result won’t be strictly authentic?  The answer is painfully simple:  the authentic pattern didn’t work.  I’m not even going to post photos of it, that’s how badly it didn’t work.  But what did work is the graph below:

point lace correctedI started out by looking at the first graph, and deciding where I wanted the scallops to land.  It seemed ambiguous to me whether the decrease from the scallop peak began on row 10 or row 12.  So I made an artistic decision to keep the circle motifs centered in each scallop, which led me to place the first scallop decrease on row 10.  Placing the scallop decrease in row 12 would have left the ring pattern and scallop pattern un-synchronized, and I decided I didn’t want to go there.

Having decided to center the ring pattern, I then made the increases and decreases leading to and away from the scallop peak symmetrical.  Again, this isn’t what the original pattern said to do, but to me it made sense.  Also, I enjoy symmetry for its own sake. :)

I’m going to insert here that I repeatedly tried knitting the lace after each stage, only to unravel my work because there was something new I wanted to change.

I changed the slants of some of the decreases.  I cleaned up the straight edge border and separated it from the ring pattern.  I shifted where the pattern ended by one row, so that every new repeat would always begin with an increase row rather than a static row.  Finally, I changed the stitches between the rings so that they would be purled and further recede, pulling the rings closer together.  The changes I made can be seen by starting at the bottom of the corrected graph image, and working upwards.  The first repeat is what I started with after correcting and interpreting the book, and the final repeat is my fully modified version.

5. Knitting It

point lace

Knit version of above graph (extraneous yarn, size 4 needles)

Honestly, I’ve never seen a lace pattern exactly like it.  The “point lace” in the name refers to the circle-shape recurring throughout the lace pattern, and since creating circular motifs while knitting vertically is one of the hardest things to in knitting, I think it’s pretty cool.

At the far right end of the photo is where I was still knitting all the stitches in both the right side and wrong side rows for the circle shapes, or two repeats of the first segment of my graph.  Towards the middle, I transitioned to the smoother, and I think cleaner look which is what I left in the middle two repeats of my final graph.  And in the last two repeats on the far left, you can see the difference purling the stitches between the rows made, which is shown in the third and final repeat of my final graph.

A note about the graph:  The colors have no significance beyond making the graph easier to read and remember.

Summary:

1.  Find source material
2.  Do not just start knitting.  Read the pattern, take notes, and analyze your notes.  Think about what is missing from your pattern compared to modern patterns.  Doing this will save you a lot of time later.
3.  If it’s a lace pattern, Graph it.  If it’s a sweater pattern, Make a schematic.  It amazed me how quickly the mistakes became visible when I laid it out on paper.
4.  Fiddle with it.  Start by making small changes, then see how it affects everything.  Every time I changed a decrease, I had to go back and recalculate the stitch count for that row and the rows following it.  You can’t knit or decrease stitches which do not exist.  It’s important.
5.  Knitting comes last, or you can let it sort of seep into the middle.  😀 The goal should be to use your knitting prowess to test the altered pattern, just as if you were knitting the pattern straight from the book.

In the end, I could easily picture the lace from the pattern I ended up knitting ornamenting the shawls and bonnets in the fashion plate from the same year.  So I would consider my attempt at knitting 1846 lace a success.

But more valuable to me is what I learned during the process, and the new insight I gained into how knitting works.  I gained much more from having to correct the pattern than I would have if I had been able to knit it straight from the book.

So here’s to learning experiences, and to discovering the past through knitting.

Happy Knitting Everyone!

Sources for Old Knitting Patterns:

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