Knitting, Make & Hue

Making Lace Modern: With Sylvia McFadden and Kieran Foley

Warning: You might think less of me for the following confession, but I LOVE watching Say Yes to the Dress. Not for all the drama, no, but seeing all those dresses and tulle and frothiness, well, I just find it kind of fun.

Watching the show though, I’m always struck by the intense debate that seems to happen around the subject of lace. Is it classic and old-fashioned or traditional and demure? Or is the lace seen as old lady-ish, like grandma’s net curtains and therefore somehow tacky? Rarely lace is viewed as edgy or modern.

Which begs the question, how is lace being made modern? Is there a large effort underway to modernize these gorgeous stitches? What does the future hold for lace knitting?

To try and answer these questions I reached out to two lace knitting designers whose work I consider to be pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally think of when we think of lace. Close to our SweetGeorgia home is Sylvia McFadden of Softsweater Knits, a Canadian designer whose patterns seem to incorporate lace into everything, and in unexpected ways from thicker yarns to as part of short rows. Across the pond is Kieran Foley of knitlab, an Irish designer whose lace creations are as intricate as they are colourful.

Sylvia McFadden

Kieran Foley

How did you come to focus on lace in your designs? What is it about lace that you keep coming back to?

SM: I am not entirely sure why I am SO drawn to lace but I know that lace is my favourite part about knitting! When I started knitting I was always drawn to these weird lace neckwear things. Not even shawls, but cowls and dickies and lace headbands.

My desire to knit lace was there waaay before my ability to actually knit lace. I was actually very often frustrated trying to knit these complicated lace motifs barely having learned how to increase and decrease! I am very stubborn though, and am glad I stuck it out. Once I got the hang of knitting lace I started almost immediately designing with it. What I wanted in lace shawls was not on Ravelry at the time, so I made it up myself. With a lot of trial and error.

KF: Thanks for your interest in my work! I’m not sure why I’m drawn to knitting and specifically lace knitting more than to other textiles or crafts – apart from the fact that there were knitters in my family, and I learned the basics and some colourwork (back and forth stranding) at home at an early age. I didn’t really know about the possibilities of lace knitting until relatively recently – probably the most important influences have been the books Arctic Lace by Donna Druchunas (2006) and Heirloom Knitting by Sharon Miller (2006). The fine ethereal nature of the cobweb patterns in Heirloom Knitting looks much more modern and abstract than any domestic lace knitting I had previously been aware of.

Apart from traditional patterns, lace knitting seems to offer endless possibilities for combinations and permutations of scale, weight of yarn and use of colour. For example, I love combining self-striping yarns with lace patterns for unexpected results (Jasper Lace). Also the addition of clusters of coloured glass beads to a simple lace pattern can result in something glittering and fabulous, combining lightness and weight (Harry Clarke).

Water, by Sylvia McFadden

Late August, by Sylvia McFadden

Do you consider yourself a modern lace knitter? How are the projects you design different from traditional ideas of lace – or are they?

KF: I try to keep away from stitch dictionaries. I generally start with a combination of ideas – maybe a certain type of stitch and a certain structure, or a layout of symbols on a chart – and then make an exploratory swatch. There’s a lot of trial and error, and usually the swatch just remains a swatch, or gets frogged. But from time to time something interesting emerges. MagicWaves happened this way as a series of swatches made over a couple of months. In the process of making the swatches I modified and refined the position of the symbols on the chart and by chance the final result was a more fluid wave pattern than my initial abstract idea.

I also like to mix lace stitches with colourwork – in some of my designs, for example Sari, Atlas and Renaissance Stripes, you might start a row with a lace pattern in colour A, then introduce colour B for some stranding, drop colour A, work some lace with colour B, introduce colour C for some more stranding, etc. The combination of different colours and gradations adds an extra dimension of visual interest – I call them hybrid patterns.

SM: When I first started designing lace shawls my main inspiration was to have it fit in with my fashion sense, which was a sort of East Van, patched up, ripped faded black jeans, punk style. You can’t just throw a classic white lace weight Swallowtail Shawl onto someone dressed like that (well, you totally can, fashion is subjective). But that wasn’t the look I was going for so I was inspired to use more faded and rustic yarns to match the fabric and feel of that style. The best example I have of this is The Lonely Tree shawl. That yarn and lace combo on my friend Savanna just really worked!

My style has definitely evolved (although still influenced by all that) so my designs have evolved too. I would say that I’m definitely not a very traditional lace knitter. Back when I first started designing, I loved the look of lace in thicker weight yarns. It was so novel and hadn’t been done much on Ravelry. Of course, a lace motif in lace weight yarn is a lot smaller and more delicate (which is usually the draw of lace), but if you step up your needle size and your yarn you have a totally different look and feel. I think that delicate look of lace had gotten boring for most folks (myself included). So I started to design in thicker weights, and that’s still my schtick that I go back to often.

What are the attitudes that you’ve experienced from knitters with regards to lace or lace knitting? How do they react to the idea of lace knitting, whether in general or your designs?

SM: This is a great question! I have noticed that just like with everything else there are trends in this industry and also styles of knitters. Lace is a big draw for folks. People love working lace into their shawls and sweaters. Also, there are such a big crew of knitters who are Lace Knitters. Just in the same way that there are Sock Knitters and Sweater Knitters. It’s just the kind of knitting that they like doing. I think lace is a bit more all-consuming than other types of knitting. You need to focus on lace in a way you don’t on knitting the body of a stockinette sweater. I know I like to be distracted by what I’m working on, I think that’s the Lace Knitter type.

I see a lot of desire by knitters to knit lace. Desire and I think some fear too. The fear of it going badly adds to the attractiveness of lacework in general (at least it did for me).

KF: My more popular designs in terms of sales and projects on Ravelry are lace patterns. A lot of knitters seem to prefer a more portable quick project and many are daunted by the thought of colourwork! However, at trunk shows people are definitely drawn to the drama of patterns combining lace and colourwork, and are curious about the techniques involved.

Sari, by Kieran Foley

Sound of Waves, by Kieran Foley

How do you see lace and lace traditions or ideas changing in the 21st century? What is the future of lace? Will it continue to evolve to be more modern? How?

KF: I don’t know! Xandy Peters has recently given us stacked stitches, a completely new and wonderful element to add to the lace designer’s repertoire.

SM: I love thinking about this stuff, I don’t have any concrete answers though! I love the idea of adding lace knitting into modern fashion. I’m not sure what the next wave of knitting fashion will bring! I am fairly certain that as knitting grows in popularity we’ll start to see a resurgence of knitted items in the regular fashion industry. That will bring a whole other pile of changes to the look and feel of hand knitted lace projects. I’m just open and curious about what this will all look like. There’s such a big resurgence of slow fashion and hand knitting, we’re bound to see new trends and new looks surface. It’s exciting!

Any other thoughts you have about lace that you’d like to share?

SM: Lace is great! It’s my absolute favourite thing to design! I can’t wait to see the future of lace and lace knitting! Thank you for interviewing me! You can of course expect more lacework from me in the future.

KF: Lace knitting is a way of creating garments or accessories of incredible delicacy relatively easily and at a low cost.

Huge thanks to Sylvia and Kieran for sharing their thoughts on modern lace knitting! 

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About Allison Thistlewood

Allison is a Canadian expat with a passion for knitting and the fibre arts. Located in London, she's thrilled to be introducing SweetGeorgia Yarns to yarn shops around the UK and the EU. Allison also freelances in marketing and communications for the knitting community at large and is one of the co-organisers of Yarn in the City, a London-based knitting-centric events company. Yarn in the City organises the annual Great London Yarn Crawl.

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