Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Niebling Adventure Begins

Herbert Niebling (1905-1966) was a master of German Kunststriken or "Art Knitting," who brought us the famous Lyra pattern and many other fancy doilies and tablecloths. Many of his designs feature elaborate flowers and/or foliage in fascinating geometric arrangements, and he is said to have had the unusual gift of being able to look at something (e.g. a vase of flowers) and translate what he saw directly into lace knitting. Read more about Niebling here.

The patterns were originally published in European magazines, which made them extremely hard to come by in the US market for a long time, until the spate of recent republications instigated by and/or available from Lacis in Berkeley, CA. Rare copies of the original Lyra once sold on ebay for $100's, but now the Lacis reprint is available for a mere $7. There is also the book called Knitted Lace Designs of Herbert Niebling, an English translation of Eva Maria Leszner's 1986 Gestrickte Spitzendecken. I have learned that the English title is a misnomer, in that many of the patterns are in fact *not* actual Nieblings. But positively verifying such attributions can be an impossible task, partly because the original published patterns often do not include the name of the designer for each piece, but also because there was in fact a Niebling "school" or design team that worked under his name and stylistic influence, like the ateliers of the Renaissance.

So there has been an explosion of Niebling work in the English-speaking world in recent years, with the formation of at least one Yahoo group and much activity on Ravelry, etc. It has become quite popular to knit doily patterns at a larger gauge so that they can be worn as shawls: Lacefreak's purple Lyra is a lovely example, marked as a Ravelry "favorite" by nearly 800 people to-date. I bought the Lyra pattern and the Leszner book last year, along with a cone of Gossamer Silk from Heirloom Knitting in stunning silver (see left), in hopes of starting a Niebling adventure of my own. And with a family wedding coming up in mid-July to serve as the excuse, I decided that the time had come to make it happen.

For the wedding gift I chose a rectangular design (shown on p. 87 of the Leszner book), consisting of two identical squares that are grafted together down one side before an elaborate border/edging is worked all the way around the outside. It may or may not be an authentic Niebling design, but it has enough complex elements to it so as not to be a dull knit, and I can interpret a fair bit of wedding imagery out of it as well. I decided to do a single practice square first, with no. 10 crochet cotton and 2.75 mm (US size 2) needles, to be sure that I understood the chart. I used up an entire ball (400 yards) of the crochet cotton just on the main chart!!

The original plan was to finish the cotton piece before even touching the silk, but then part way along I suddenly realized that the wedding was only 3 weeks away (yikes!!), and so I reluctantly laid the practice piece aside with its edging incomplete. And then there were (*sigh*) thirteen... Then again, a case could be made to consider the cotton and the silk together as a single project rather than two separate ones. And both are short-term investments rather that will not become permanent fixtures on the WIP list. I fully intend to finish the cotton one ASAP, both as a matter of principle but also because it will give me something to keep, since I am giving the silk version away. Here are a few pictures of the crochet cotton at different stages, starting with dpn's and moving to a circular needle.

Notice the little brown pelican stitch marker in that last picture? I originally commissioned four pelicans, two white and two brown, from Jillian at Wee Ones, as a tribute to my maiden name (Pelikan), but working on this piece and thinking about recent headlines I discovered that the emblem could also serve as a meditation focus or prayer bead for the Gulf Coast oil spill, which made the knitting that much more meaningful.

The silk version has taken up the preponderance of my knitting time this whole past week. In fact, I have done very little else, because I am eager to finish it in plenty of time without any last-minute panic or midnight marathons. Just last night I finished the first of the two squares, which means that I am right on schedule and ~30% done with the piece as a whole. I am working with 1.75 mm (US size 00) needles, which is a step up from the 1.5 mm (US size 000) that I used for the Princess Shawl and other CashSilk projects. I could have chosen the smaller size for this project too, but I wanted to ensure that the lace would really open up. The fabric will require some serious blocking, of course, but I think it is going to shape up nicely and will make a big impression as a wedding gift. Fingers crossed...

Here are some pictures of the silk square as a work-in-progress, with knitting notes below. I have been photographing it against both pale and dark backgrounds, because the varying contrasts show off the lace in different ways (color vs. pattern). As always, click on any of the images to take a closer look.

Casting on in a circle with the tiny, slippery silk thread was a veritable nightmare at first. But after trying several “clever” new methods of circular-cast-on with the gossamer yarn to no good effect, I finally adopted an old-school approach, especially because the silk was likely to break when attempting to adjust a slip-ring at the center. So I got out my 1.0 mm crochet hook, made a fixed ring of 6 tiny chain stitches, placed the live loop onto a dpn, pulled a new stitch through the chain loop with the crochet hook and transferred it to the dpn (= 2 stitches), wrapped the yarn around the dpn once (= 3 stitches), then created another stitch with the crochet hook through the chain loop (= 4 stitches), and so on, until I had 16 stitches, which was 1/2 the desired amount. I then knit one row plain (figuring that the gossamer yarn could handle an extra mm or two near the center), then a row of knitting into the front and back of every stitch to double the count, then two rows plain as per the pattern, before starting the chart with row 3. Worked like a charm, and felt like a huge accomplishment.

In rows 3-15 the pattern calls for a number of crossed stitches (really mini-cables) in adjacent pairs, and the one modification that I made to the chart as written was to angle these away from each other for symmetry, rather than crossing them all in the same direction. It was a bit of a nuisance, but my friendly crochet hook proved its usefulness yet again, by serving as the world’s most convenient cable needle. One more floppy stick was the last thing I wanted in the midst of 5 dpn’s on that tiny scale!! Fortunately, though, I got through those early rows relatively fast.

My 1.75 mm dpn's are fully 8" long, and so I had originally acquired only 24" and 32" circular needles in that size, which meant that I was not able to take the first square off the dpn's until after 31 rows (when it would finally fit on the 24" circular). The slippery silk made some serious ladders at the junctions between needles. I don’t know if these will eventually block out or not, or maybe part way, but since they are evenly placed on all four sides of the square I keep telling myself that they will not detract from the finished product in any case, provided that both conjoined squares match. So even though I ordered both a 16" circular needle in the 1.75 mm size, and even a 12" one as well, I will probably use the dpn’s for the first 31 rows of the second square as well and save my new shorter-circumference circs for future projects, of which there are bound to be many. ;-)

When the first square was finished, I transferred it to a crochet cotton lifeline so that I could see what the pattern looked like (and get pictures) and to facilitate the grafting process as well. The latter should not pose an insurmountable difficulty, since it thankfully involves only single stitches alternating with yo loops. And once it is done, I will place the remaining live stitches from both squares onto the 32” circular needle for the edging. I deliberately postponed the last row of plain knitting from the main chart, so that the graft can take the place of it down the center seam, and so that I can use it to establish the unified path all the way around the outside of the rectangle prior to starting the edging chart.

One little footnote: the only other knitting that I have managed to squeeze in around all this Niebling lace is the Evenstar, where I am happy (and relieved) to report that I now have 30 out of 56 edging points complete. It felt really good to pass the halfway point at last, and to empty the first container of beads as well. Progress... My goal is to wear the shawl to the same wedding where the Niebling will be a gift. So far, so good.

1 comment:

  1. lovely work! Can't wait to see the two finished pieces.