The History of Lace Knitting

by Carol Sheasby

In many countries, there is a long tradition of lace knitting. Three well-known traditions in Europe are Orenburg, Estonian and Shetland lace.

In the Orenburg region of Russia, at the southern tip of the Ural Mountains, knitters use patterns that have been handed down from generation to generation for the last 300 years. There are 10 basic patterns: Peas, Honeycomb, Fish Eye, Mouse Print, Strawberry, Large Strawberry, Cat’s Paw, Accordion, Chain Heart, and Diagonals. They are combined in a variety of ways to create elaborate patterns. The lace is knitted in garter stitch and the holes are created in one row, two rows (Honeycomb), and even three rows (Fish Eye).


The tradition of creating shawls in the town of Haapsalu on the west coast of Estonia began about 200 years ago

When Russia ruled Estonia from the early 18th century until 1918,  the town of Haapsalu, on the west coast of Estonia, become a flourishing resort. To take advantage of the tourist trade, the women began a cottage industry of knitting lace shawls that has continued to today. Nancy Bush in her book, The Gossamer Webs Design Collection, describes being told, "If you visit Haapsalu and see smoke coming from the chimney of a house, there will be a woman inside, knitting lace."

The dozens of patterns reflect everyday life: Twig, Leaf, Ash Leaf, Birch Leaf, Blueberry, Ligonberry, Lady Bug, and the distinctive Lily-of-the-Valley. The outstanding characteristic of Estonian lace is the nupp or bobble, which is used to beautiful effect.

Most Estonian lace is knitted in stocking stitch and the pattern is worked on the right-side rows only. The basic method of creating a hole is to bring the wool forward and then knit the following two stitches together to compensate for the loop just made.   However, instead of following this regular procedure, interesting textures can be created by varying where to place the “knitted-together” stitches. 

In Orenburg and Shetland lace, the pattern is worked on both right and wrong-side rows. Orenburg lace is always in garter stitch, while Shetland lace can be either garter or stocking stitch.


There are various accounts on the origin of Shetland lace knitting. One theory, suggested by Sarah Don, is that in the 11th century, Spain was the centre of hand-knitted lace and Spanish lace patterns had a great influence on Shetland lace patterns.   Delectable though this idea may be, the earliest record of lace knitting in Shetland is 1830. In 1837, Arthur Anderson, in a bid to popularise Shetland knitwear, presented some fine Shetland stockings to Queen Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. After the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, a merchant, Edward Standen, did much to market and popularise Shetland knitwear.   In particular, the delicate Shetland shawls were highly prized. 

As with the Orenburg and Estonian lace, the names of the patterns reflect everyday life and in particular, the sea, which plays such an important part in Shetland life: Crest of the wave, Old shale, Print o’ the wave, Shell, Cat’s paw, Spider’s web. Paisley shawls were also in fashion between 1840 and 1870, and the well-known Paisley motif was possibly imitated in the Shetland Pine and Fern patterns.

Structure of a Shetland shawl

The actual making of a shawl is a huge undertaking. The knitter starts with the lace edging, then knits on the borders and finally the central square. Traditionally, the work starts by casting on half-dozen stitches and ends by casting off half-a dozen stitches!


The Gossamer Webs Design Collection: Galina Khmeleva, Interweave Press LLC, 2000
Knitted Lace of Estonia
: Nancy Bush, Interweave Press LLC, 1953
The Art of Shetland Lace
: Sarah Don, Mills & Boon Limited, 1980
Traditional Knitted Lace Shawls: Martha Waterman, Interweave Press, 1998