Filet lace tutorial

This tutorial was originally on my personal website, but I have now moved everything that matters over here.  It makes life a lot easier.  Filet lace, or filet embroidery if you prefer, is a technique of darning on net to create various designs.  Nobody is sure how old it is, but the technique is certainly very ancient.  Instructions for making your own net can be found in several places online, and you are advised to do this if you can for the most authentic effect.  Sadly, I can’t, due to my wrist problem.  This is why the work is shown on machine-made net.  I apologise for this.

This is what filet embroidery looks like; the bird motif is taken from a larger design by Vinciolo.  This is actually a box of hand-made chocolates for a friend’s 50th birthday gift.

The tutorial follows.

* * * * *

We will start by working a very simple pattern, shown below.

If you are making your own net, first make a piece the correct size, with appropriate borders. Otherwise, cut a piece of machine-made net as shown below, and allow a slightly larger border as it will have to be bound or incorporated in a hem. Tack [baste] the netting to a piece of strong brown paper. I find it helpful to do this on a flat surface, rather than working in mid-air. Now copy the pattern onto the brown paper through the meshes of the net.

Filet should always be worked on a flat surface. If you are using hand-made net, you will probably want to pin or tape the edges of the brown paper to something suitable; I have a large flat cardboard box stuffed with biodegradable packing chips, and on this I work all but the smallest pieces of filet. Machine-made net tends to be stiffer and should not need to be kept stretched, but a flat surface is still important.

Temporarily fasten one end of the thread you are going to use somewhere near the pattern. You can either do a small back-stitch or use my preferred method of sticking a pin through the net and winding the thread around it a few times. It doesn’t usually matter a great deal where you start, but I find it helpful to work from the left of the pattern as shown below, and you should follow exactly for the purposes of the tutorial. Once you know what you’re doing, start anywhere you feel comfortable.

In the picture above you can see that the thread is anchored just off the bottom of the image and that I have gone under the first thread of the net. I have then woven over and under alternate threads in the first column of the pattern. When I returned to the bottom of the column, I had just gone over a thread, so now I had to go under one. The only possible thread that qualified was the one just to the right, which took me into a pattern square. The first rule of working out thread paths in filet is as follows:

Whenever you enter a pattern square which has not been previously worked, start working it.

In this case, that means I have to go across the pattern and work a row as shown. When I return to the left of the row, again I have just gone over a thread, so I have to go under the next one. This is the thread at the base of the square to the immediate left of the row I have just worked. This time it takes me into an unmarked square, so I have to keep on going round the corner. I cross over the next thread, which takes me into another unmarked square; however, continuing round the corner, going under the next thread takes me into a marked square which has already been half worked. Always be careful when working corners; poor cornering is one of the main causes of mistakes in filet work.

Weave through the threads which are already laid down just as you would weave through the threads of the net. Once again, at the bottom of the column it is necessary to work a row. It is now possible to see how the basic technique works. Note that there is a small error in the above picture: on the lower of the two half-worked rows, I have accidentally gone under two threads on the left-hand side when coming back. Errors of this sort can usually be spotted and corrected almost at once, because they will cause paradoxes when the work is continued.

The motif can now be worked without any further instruction until the point shown in the picture above. It now becomes necessary to carry the thread along the side of a fully worked square in order to continue, and this, straightforwardly, is known as edging. Edging is important for several reasons:

  • It enables the whole design to be worked without having to break and re-start the thread
  • It ensures that all edges of the work look the same, because it duplicates the loops left by the cornering procedure
  • It opens and flattens the loop left at the edge of a square by turning back along a row or column, so that it looks more like the pair of distinct threads coming in from other sides of the square

The edging technique is shown above (motif shown sideways on). The thread goes under a and over b, as is normal when cornering. It then goes through the edge loop in such a way that it will open it out when the thread is pulled. Since there are two possible orientations for the edge loop, depending on whether you pass into the adjacent square by going over or under a thread, it follows that there are two different ways to do this, depending on which one you have. You will never go wrong if you remember that the edging has to open out the loop, not twist it further. Once you have edged through the loop in this case, you can go under c and continue to work the motif.

This shows a square being edged the other way (motif shown upside down). It is a little harder to see, but the thread has come into the square under a, edges through the loop, and will go out over b to weave the row of two squares just to the right of b. I actually find it easier to turn the work the other way up and do this type of edging left-handed, being somewhat ambidextrous. If you are left-handed, you may find it helpful to copy these two photos of the edging technique onto your computer and turn them the other way up.

You now know enough to be able to complete this motif. Remember to edge all the way back to your starting point.

All that is left to do now is to finish off. Unfasten the starting thread from its anchor point, and either tie the ends in a neat reef knot across the last thread, or run the finishing thread along the line of the starting thread a little way into the work, and then cut the ends off close to the net. The method used depends on personal preference, and also partly on the thickness of the thread used relative to the gauge of the net. If the thread is significantly thicker in relation to the gauge than it is in the example shown here, the second method may look excessively bulky and a knot is neater. All of this also applies to joining in a new thread when the old one is finished.

* * * * *You now know how to work a straightforward design without holes. However, much of the beauty and delicacy of classic filet lace comes from the pattern of holes in the work, so it is important to know how to handle them. In the second part of the tutorial, you will learn to do that.

This charming little butterfly motif has four holes. In filet, a hole is defined as any empty square or group of squares which is surrounded by worked squares on all four sides, but not necessarily at the corners. This can make them hard to identify in certain patterns, so it is worth studying the pattern carefully before you start and marking the holes in a different colour, as I have done here.

The pattern is transferred to brown paper in the same way as before, marking the holes in a different colour. I tend to fill in the grid squares when doing this because I find it makes it easier to see holes made up of several squares as a single entity, but everyone will have their own favourite way of marking.

I’ve chosen to start at the top of the lower wing, and this takes me into a hole almost immediately. The technique for working them is evident from the photo: as soon as you come to a hole which has not been previously worked, work all the rows and columns leading out of it, as shown. In this case, as often happens, we end up hitting another hole. The next photo shows what to do.

Just keep to the same rule: you have entered a hole which has not been previously worked, so work all the rows and columns leading out of it until it takes you back to the previous hole. You can now go back along the row that led you into the original hole, as shown. I have worked the single-square column that follows on from this row, and am just about to work the row to the right of the needle tip.

You now know enough to be able to complete the butterfly, and this is left as an exercise.

In some patterns, you will find yourself re-entering a hole that you have already started working. This has to be handled in a special way. Our example will be the abstract motif shown in the pattern above.

The pattern set up ready to be worked.

Sometimes, due to the placement of the holes, it can happen that you need to work across a square which has only one thread going the other way. Holes with indentations like this one will cause this situation, but it can occur in other ways too. If it happens, just go over (or under) two threads, as shown here; the weave will eventually be completed when you finish going round the hole. In the photo above, you can think of it as going over the existing thread, then under the missing thread, then over the next thread of the netting.

On arriving at the next hole, start working it as you did in the previous example.

Working in this way, we return to the first hole. If we just continued in the usual way, a whole area in the middle of the design would end up unworked. This means that we have to “cheat” very slightly: the rule here is that whenever you return from elsewhere to a hole that you have already started working, turn round immediately and go back. This will leave a loop on the inside of the hole, which you will have to edge when you eventually go back and finish working it.

This shows the “cheat” being implemented. The thread passes up the same column of squares back into the hole at the top left which has just been partially worked, so we can now simply continue working this as though there had not been another hole. In fact it is almost finished, so rounding the corner will take us back to the top right, which in turn can be finished quickly, and so on until we return to the original hole at the bottom left. The rest of the design can then be finished straightforwardly.

Congratulations! If you have worked all the way through both parts of the tutorial, you now have all the skills you need to take on any filet pattern you can find (or design for yourself). May you gain as much enjoyment from this beautiful and rewarding craft as I do.

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