Lace knitting is meant to create an ethereal, light, and delicate fabric. The fineness of the fabric can allow an entire wedding shawl to pass through a wedding ring. But it can be a challenge to find that exact perfect balance between gauzy lace and ‘sleazy’ lace.
I don’t know if I’ve ever run across the term ‘sleazy’ in the knitting world, but I learned it very early on when I first learned to weave. It was related to finding the right sett or density of the warp threads (how closely spaced the warp threads were on the loom). If the warp threads were arranged too close together, the fabric might feel stiff or rigid and lack drape. But if the warp threads were too loosely spread, then the resulting fabric might become unstable, with the possibility of fingers poking through the fabric and pushing the threads out of place. That kind of fabric was called ‘sleazy’. It was basically an unreliable, untrustworthy fabric and I feel that the same concept works with knitted fabric too. The idea that once a yarn is knit too loosely, on too large of a needle, then the structure of the knitted fabric is untrustworthy and might snag or deform easily.
At SweetGeorgia, we learned to publish needle size and gauge suggestions on our yarn labels, however, we don’t typically publish a gauge suggestion for our lace yarns. This is because it really depends on what you want to knit with the yarn and how you want it to feel. Firm? Loose? Drapey? It all depends.
Years ago when I knitted swatches for my own wedding shawl, I spent a significant amount of time considering how gauge affects the drape of the lace fabric. And each yarn, depending on the fibre content, could knit up differently. So a 2-ply lace yarn that was 5000 yards per pound in pure silk would behave differently than a 2-ply lace yarn that was the same yardage and fineness in pure merino wool. Ultimately, it depends on what you want it to feel like.
The other major variable of gauge is knitting needle size. So, given the same yarn base, knitting it up on different size knitting needles could have significant changes to how the fabric feels.
In this example, I’ve taken our CashSilk Lace yarn and knit it up into three swatches using different needle sizes: 2.25 mm, 3.25 mm, and 4.5 mm.
There is a happy medium where the fabric feels perfectly soft, supple, AND secure. Lace fabric should not feel so loose and full of long strands that could catch or snag. That would be a challenge to wear or preserve well. But on the flip side, lace stitches need to have breathing room to make the fabric drape and hang beautifully. In these sample swatches, the tightest gauge produced a firm fabric with a clear definition in the lace pattern, but the firmness would not make it suitable for a shawl.
At the other extreme, knitting the lace yarn with the 4.5 mm needles produced a fabric that was borderline sleazy. The size of each stitch was so large that the lace pattern was somewhat obscured and the whole fabric felt too loose. The swatch in the middle knit with the 3.25 mm knitting needles felt the closest to a balance between lace definition, drape, and stability, but still felt a little firm to touch.
Knitting one last swatch at the 4.00 mm needle size yielded the ultimate, perfect balance in a lace fabric, ideal for a shawl.
However, one last consideration is that these results are specific to my own natural knitting tension. Perhaps you hold your yarn a little tighter or a little looser… you might find your results to be different than mine!
So my suggestion would be to swatch. There, I said it.
There’s no better way to discover the limits of your yarn than to work with it at different gauges to find the exact perfect “hand” or feel of the fabric.