Herbert Niebling: Grand Master of Lace Knitting

Niebling’s designs are not for the faint of heart or the impatient knitter. Some of his larger table covers contain as many as 300 rows, with the outer rows comprising hundreds of stitches, all to be worked in fine thread from pages of complex charts.

Mary Frances Wogec Sep 4, 2020 - 16 min read

Herbert Niebling: Grand Master of Lace Knitting Primary Image

Peony tablecloth designed by Herbert Niebling, knitted by Mary Frances Wogec, using size 20 crochet thread and size 1 (2.25 mm) circular ­needles. Photo by Joe Coca

At the beginning of the twentieth century in Germany, lace knitting was taking a new direction. The patterns of Kunststricken (“art knitting” in German, later introduced to English knitters as “Viennese” or “modern” lace knitting) drew on the lace stitches of the Bavarian and Tyrolean folk traditions to produce sophisticated designs for pieces much larger than the traditional stockings, sweaters, and gloves. Rather than combining repetitions of small motifs and edgings in concentric bands as in traditional Shetland and Russian lace knitting, German designers used the more intricate twisted and crossed stitches of their tradition to make bolder, unified design statements. But whereas the simple combinations and repetitive motifs of folk knitting had been easily memorized, allowing projects to be easily portable, patterns for the new, larger, and more complex designs had to be written out, and the knitter was tied more closely to them.

The first written knitting patterns had appeared in the 1830s, unwieldy affairs with line-by-line instructions dictating each stitch. The idea of writing patterns using symbols—letters and numbers—to indicate the type and number of stitches in each row seems to have arisen in Germany toward the end of the century. Such patterns had the advantage of requiring fewer words and therefore less space on the printed page. The first lace designers to use this method were Christine Duchrow, Gussi von Reden, and Marie Niedner; their charted designs were widely disseminated in magazines and in individual leaflets. Worked in fine cotton crochet threads or the newly invented -rayon or “art silk,” the geometric designs bear many resemblances to traditional doilies, but the larger scale allows the kaleidoscopic forms to blossom into full-sized tablecloths. Among those who knitted lace from their leaflets was a precocious young knitter who already as a schoolboy had begun knitting the “modern” lace and who was destined to become the acknowledged grand master of lace knitting.

Born December 20, 1903, in Averlak in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, Herbert Richard Niebling learned to knit at an early age. Few details of his life are known, but a short biography published in a 1987 issue of Burda Special Gestrickte Spitzen [Burda Special Knitted Lace] states that by the age of six Herbert was knitting stockings for himself; later, during World War I (1914–1918), he also knitted and sent stockings to soldiers at the front. At school, he was proficient enough to give knitting lessons to his female classmates, and at age nine, he copied an Old Master painting from a postcard in needlepoint—without first making a chart! Fortunately, his parents recognized his gifts and encouraged him to attend the Kunstgewerbeschule [School of Arts and Crafts] in Hamburg. There, he studied techniques ranging from ceramics to tapestry, but it was at knitting design that he excelled.

Niebling published his lace patterns in a number of publications but was most closely associated with the knitting publisher Otto Beyer Verlag in Leipzig, whose leaflet No. 46 by Marie Niedner and Gussi von Reden had inspired him to embark on lace knitting as a boy. During the1930s, in collaboration with Beyer, Niebling developed a set of symbols that resembled individual stitches, thus making the charted patterns universally accessible and giving the publications in which they appeared a wider readership. The symbols also made patterns easier to read since the printed chart more closely resembled the knitting in progress, and an entire group of stitches or rows could be read at a glance.

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Frosted Ferns (the original name for this pattern translates as Oak or Acorn Forest) doily designed by Herbert Niebling, knitted by Jane Hong, using size 30 cotton thread, size 00 (1.75 mm) needles for center motif, and size 0 (2.0 mm) needles for the remainder. Photo by Jane Hong

In July 1935, Herbert married Olga Linda Zehring in Brandis, near Leipzig. The newlyweds settled first in Averlak but soon relocated nearby to Itzehoe. During World War II (1939–1945), Herbert was conscripted into the German army. In issue 7 of Ratgeber für Haus und Familie [Home and Family Advisor] (1955), he recalls knitting for his commanding officers lace tablecloths, “which were widely admired.” After Herbert’s return home in 1945 from a prisoner-of-war camp, the Nieblings eventually settled in Freiburg, a university town and commercial center at the southern tip of the Black Forest, where Herbert returned to his chosen work of knitting lace.

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Ruth doily ­designed by ­Herbert Niebling, knitted by Yenju Chen, using size 40 Kinpyo thread and size 00 1.75 mm) needles. Photo by Yenju Chen

Niebling’s major sources of inspiration were the flowers in his garden and the unusual plants and flowers that he collected on his travels. His floral designs reflect a gardener’s attention to details of shape and texture, and many of them bear the names of flowers from the garden and the hothouse. Indeed, his best-known likeness shows a somewhat bookish man with sharp features and a broad, high forehead, with attention closely focused on a pot of cyclamen as he works at the drawing board. (In the magazine interview mentioned above, he speaks of breaking the heaviest spade handles while working in the garden—which allowed the interviewer to assure readers that while he excelled at “feminine” pursuits, he was quite capable nonetheless of “manly” work.) Although much of his early work resembles the geometric style of his predecessors, Niebling’s most notable pieces are those featuring botanically accurate flower and leaf forms worked in highly textured stitches and twining against a background of mesh stitches. These pieces resemble the “true” needle and bobbin laces of earlier centuries with their densely worked floral motifs, often outlined in bolder threadwork and embellished with textural ornaments, set against a background of braided mesh (in bobbin lace) or connected by a network of bars or brides (in needle lace).

In more than four decades as a designer, Herbert Niebling produced hundreds of knitted lace designs, mostly for tablecloths, which were published in German, Italian, French, Dutch, Belgian, and English magazines, as well as in his own periodical, Frau und Mutter [Wife and Mother]. Niebling himself knitted samples of his designs using long steel double-pointed needles and cotton threads as fine as size 200 (no longer available). His finest work was a tablecloth measuring about 39 inches (100 cm) square and weighing only about an ounce (30 g) that could be drawn through a finger ring.

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Lily of the Valley doily designed by ­Herbert Niebling, knitted by Violet Bianco, using size 30 cotton thread and size 0 (2.0 mm) needles. Photo by Violet Bianco

Linda died in 1963, and Herbert followed three years later on May 15, 1966. Although he was known throughout the world for his lace knitting, an obituary from the Protestant church in Freiburg lauds Herbert Niebling for his prayers and good works on behalf of the residents of a home for elderly people.

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Detail of Anemone tablecloth designed by ­Herbert Niebling, knitted by Violet Bianco, using laceweight silk yarn and size 1 (2.25 mm) needles. Photo by Violet Bianco

The art of lace knitting fell out of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, but ardent lace knitters kept Niebling’s patterns alive; his designs continued to appear in Anna Burda and other needlework magazines through the 1990s. Because some of his patterns have been published without attribution, cataloging his work has been difficult. Through the Internet, knitters around the world have found a new medium for sharing their interest in lace designs and designers. Numerous list servers and websites are currently devoted to the preservation and republication of Niebling’s lace designs.

Working Herbert Niebling’s Designs

Niebling’s designs are not for the faint of heart or the impatient knitter. Some of his larger table covers contain as many as 300 rows, with the outer rows comprising hundreds of stitches, all to be worked in fine thread from pages of complex charts. Nonetheless, the beauty of these designs makes them well worth your time and effort. To make the knitting easier, I’ve compiled some time-tested hints suggested by generations of experienced lace knitters.

  1. If the very thought of size 100 thread on size 000 (1.5 mm) needles intimidates you, try a small doily in size 10 -crochet cotton or fingering-weight wool on larger needles. Some contemporary knitters have discovered that Niebling’s circular and square designs make lovely shawls when knitted in lace- or fingering-weight yarns.
  2. Lace needles should have sharp, long points and circular needles should have smooth joins. A bit of grab in the texture of the needles can be helpful when working with slippery threads.
  3. Although lace traditionally has been worked in white or ecru threads, colored threads also make beautiful lace. If you are considering using multicolored threads, look for those with long color runs and subtle color variations; abrupt and sharply contrasting color changes tend to compete with the complex lace stitches and obscure the design.
  4. Use markers. At the least, a marker placed after each repeat of the pattern will help you keep track of your place, maintain an accurate stitch count, and spot errors quickly. Choose very thin markers to avoid creating “ladders” over a long sequence of rows. Locking stitch markers or safety pins are great for securing dropped stitches until you have time to fix them. (I find coil-less safety pins invaluable for holding a few stitches, saving dropped stitches, and as stitch markers.)
  5. Most of Niebling’s patterns have interim or “resting” rows of plain knitting. Use these rows to count your stitches, thus identifying errors on the first row after they happen, when they may be corrected easily.
  6. If, despite your most careful counting, an error goes undetected for a few rows or a stitch is dropped and you must rip back, a “lifeline” placed after every tenth row will catch stitches so as to minimize the distance that you have to rip back. To insert a lifeline, thread a tapestry needle with smooth, tightly twisted thread (such as crochet or pearl cotton) and run it through the row of stitches on the needle, catching each stitch but avoiding the markers. Choosing a contrasting color for the lifeline will make it easier to see, but be sure that it is colorfast in case your work gets wet. If you must rip back, use a smaller needle to pick up the stitches from the lifeline and then resume working with your regular needle. Leave the -lifelines in place until the piece is finished.
  7. A row counter, preferably attached to the knitting, will help you keep your place on the chart. To track the charted rows, I like to place a magnetic strip just above the row that I am knitting so that I can see the chart rows below and compare them with my work. Use a pencil to cross off rows as you work them in case you must rip back and restart.
  8. If disaster strikes and you drop many stitches at once, remain calm. Drop your work in your lap or on a table, then carry it carefully (and fully supported) to an ironing board. Open it out gently and steam it well. Once it is dry, leave it on the ironing board and carefully rip back to an undisturbed row, then pick up the stitches with a needle several sizes -smaller than your working needle. Never lift the piece or let it sag—the weight will pull the threads and encourage loose stitches to run.
  9. Lace must be blocked to achieve its true beauty. You can steam or wet-block it, stretching the piece out to its full size on a flat surface. Most Niebling patterns are finished with a row of crochet loops, each of which should be pinned out separately into a loop or point. Many knitters lightly starch cotton or linen cloths, which not only helps maintain their shape but also helps prevent soiling. If you can’t find old-fashioned powdered laundry starch, use liquid starch or a thin solution of cornstarch boiled just until clear and then cooled to room temperature.
  10. The internet is a wonderful knitting source, offering demonstrations of various stitches and techniques as well as a vibrant community of generous lace knitters who will gladly answer your questions and help you work your way through the most intricate of patterns.

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Acorn Woods (also called Frosted Ferns) doily ­designed by ­Herbert Niebling, knitted by Bill Turner, ­using size 10 cotton thread and size 1 (2.25 mm) needles. Photo by Bill Turner

Further Reading

Niebling’s Predecessors

  • Duchrow, Christine. The Knitted Lace Patterns of Christine Duchrow, Volumes I, II, and III. Berkeley, California: Lacis, 1993, 1994, and 1995, respectively.
  • Niedner, Marie, and Gussi von Reden. Knitted Lace [Kunst-Stricken]. 1921. Reprint, Berkeley, California: Lacis, 1993. ———, Gertrud Billforth, Edith Wallach, and Margarete Lang. Knitted Lace II [Kunst-Stricken II]. 1922 and 1926. Reprint, Berkeley, California: Lacis, 2002.

Publications Containing Patterns by Herbert Niebling

  • Burda’s monthly magazine Anna featured a lace design in each issue; many were Niebling patterns; English-language edition.
  • Ichida, Kazuko. Knitted Lace Designs of the Modern Mode, Book I. Berkeley, California: Lacis, 2007.
  • Ichida, Naoko. Knitted Lace Designs of the Modern Mode, Book II. Berkeley, California: Lacis, 2007.
  • Lavori artistici [Artistic Knitting]. Milan, Italy: Mani di Fata, 1997.
  • Leszner, Eva Maria. Knitted Lace Designs of Herbert Niebling. Translated, revised, and edited by Mary Frances Wogec. Berkeley, California: Lacis, 2009. Originally published as Gestrickte Spitzendecken [Lace Knitting] (Rosenheim, Germany: Rosenheimer Verlagshaus, 1986).
  • Spitzenstrickerei 1 & 2 [Lace Knitting 1 & 2], Kunst-stricken [Knitted Lace], and Kunststricken: Grosse und kleine Decken [Knitted Lace: Large and Small Table Covers]. Reprints of pattern portfolios by Buch Verlag fuer die Frau, Leipzig, Germany (the company was formerly Verlag Otto Beyer, the original publisher of much of Niebling’s work).

Mary Frances Wogec has been an avid lace knitter ever since she discovered the magic that can be wrought by strategically placed holes. She thanks Luc Cuvelier and Lisa Neidinger for information on the life of Herbert Niebling.

This article was published in the May/June 2010 issue of PieceWork.

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