As we spend some time discussing lace, we would be remiss if we didn't talk about wedding ring shawls. Wedding ring shawls are large, intricate lace wraps that can measure up to three or four square feet, but are knit from thread so fine that they can pass through a wedding band. These magnificent works of art are symbols of their regions and have histories steeped in tradition. There is so much more to learn if you enjoy this brief overview, but at the very least, we hope you feel a deeper appreciation for this art form and the generations of talented hands that have kept these skills alive.
The Shetland Islands are known for their lace knitting and have a number of traditional patterns used to knit their gossamer strands into delicate shawls. (Most pattern names are straightforward and descriptive as the islanders are nothing if not practical!) The fine fibers of the shawls are taken from the throat area of the hearty Shetland sheep as these fibers are less coarse and less affected by the day-to-day activities of the sheep. Beyond the stitches and patterns used, Shetland lace shawls are unique in that they are fitted to a frame and knit from the outer edges toward the center. Queen Victoria was a Shetland lace enthusiast and helped bring the craft to prominence in the early to mid-1800s.
The shawls of Orenburg, Russia are also iconic knits. Made from silk and native goat fibers (think along the lines of mohair or cashmere), these traditional pieces of handiwork have been made for over 250 years. Women would knit to help support their families, and it wasn’t uncommon for entire villages to export shawls as a primary means of economic subsistence.
The wedding shawls are so famous in Russia that a pattern was featured on a stamp in 2013. (You know you’ve “made it” when you’re on a stamp, right?!)
To be a true Orenburg “gossamer web” shawl, the yarn is handspun and each edge is knit point to point before being grafted. The center is then knit and an outer border added. There are ten motifs used in Orenburg shawls: accordion, cat’s paws, chain hearts, diagonals, fish eyes, honeycomb, mouse prints, peas, strawberries and large strawberries. With just a handful of basic stitches you can create these motifs and design beautiful pieces!
Estonia is another home to lace shawl traditions, but adds an element not found in Shetland and Russian patterns - the Nupp. Nupps are essentially bobble stitches that set Estonian lace apart and are most likely the reason they are only a caveat in the wedding ring shawl discussion.
Today, most Orenburg shawls and Shetland lace shawls are created by master knitters seeking to preserve the traditions of the past. The patterns are not for the faint of heart and require patience, commitment and unwavering focus as patterns were not typically written down. Older generations would teach the younger generations the basic motifs and construction at an early age. Don’t get too frustrated if you want a genuine pattern and find it to be less thorough than modern patterns. Take your time, read the full pattern, work small swatches to learn the motifs and make good notes!
With that in mind, if you are brave enough to try your hand at creating an heirloom quality shawl in the traditional Orenburg fashion, Galina Khmeleva has three patterns in a collection called The Gossamer Webs Design Collection which you can preview here. You can also search on sites like LoveCrafts and Ravelry and find the right combination of modern and traditional for you!
A few designers to follow for Shetland lace patterns would be Gudrun Johnston, Sharon Miller and Gladys Amedro. Gladys’ Rosemary Shawl and Sharon’s Queen’s Ring Shawl are two particularly incredible examples, but again, a quick search for Shetland lace will bring up oodles of options for you to choose from.
Unless you are a master spinner and happen to have beautiful fibers from the throats of Shetland sheep or lustrous Russian goats, you may have to modernize the yarn for your project. You’ll want to find a yarn that works with your intended pattern and desired outcome. For a softer shawl with more halo, something like Shibui Silk Cloud or Ella Rae Silky Kid would be good options to consider. For smoother shawls, Madelintosh Pure Silk Lace or Cascade’s Forest Hills are definite possibilities.
Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this overview of the wedding ring lace shawl tradition, here are a few books we came across during our research that you may be interested in.
- Gossamer Webs: The History and Techniques of Orenburg Lace Shawls
- Heirloom Knitting
Legacy of Shetland Lace: Shetland Guild of Spinners
About Orenburg Shawls
How to Knit Orenburg Lace
Lace Knitting History: Delicate Stitches
A Love Letter to Galina Khmeleva and the Orenburg Lace Shawl
Shetland Lace Shawl Architecture
The Why Behind Wedding Shawls