Shawl design for beginners: Part 1

If you love knitting shawls, why not take the next step and design one yourself? In the first part of our workshop, Rosee Woodland explains how a little inspiration and some basic maths are all you’ll need...

Shawl design for beginners Part 1

There are only so many times you can knit a shawl before you start to think, “is this it?”. Because the shape is so basic, it’s the perfect starting point for creating your first unique design. You can keep it very simple, or go wild with complex stitch patterns and still not come unstuck – as long as you keep a calculator and a bit of common sense handy!

Of course, not all shawls are easy to design or make, but if you’ve never written a knitting pattern before, this kind of accessory is the perfect place to dip your toe in the water.

In part one of our workshop, we help you find inspiration for your design, and show you how to plan the basic construction.


Step 1


Ideas for your design can come from the most unlikely sources – a beautiful old painting, a brightly coloured company logo, a historical costume or a character in a film. Whatever pushes your creative buttons can be used as a starting point.

For my ‘Cornice’ design I was in part inspired by the yarn itself, Renaissance Dyeing Poll Dorset. I had seen it knitted up in stocking stitch, and it was so plump and squishy that I knew it would really shine in garter stitch. But the colour also made me think about egg shells, and old houses with blue walls and coving on their ceilings.

Rosee Woodland Cornice shawl
Rosee Woodland’s ‘Cornice’ shawl from The Knitter issue 56.

In the end, I used the garter stitch to create ridges which mimicked the coving (hence the name!) and gave the design a strong architectural feel. This might all sound rather pretentious, but inspiration can come from anywhere!

Step 2

Yarn choice

The type of yarn you work with will have a direct impact on your design, so choose carefully. If you’ve not designed before, it’s advisable to choose a yarn with familiar properties, which you know will be easy to work with.

Silk and alpaca yarns, for example, both produce fabric with a beautiful drape, but their lack of elasticity means the end results you’ll achieve can be hard to predict or control. A wool, or wool-mix option, will give lots of bounce and stretch, which will be much more forgiving to any baggy yarnovers or messy decreases…

Step 3

Basic construction

Shawls can be made very complex with intricate lace patterning, yet the basic shapes are easy to achieve.

For this workshop we will be starting from the top of the shawl and working downwards, increasing at regular intervals around a central ‘spine’. The advantage of this method is that you can keep knitting until you run out of yarn (saving just enough for the cast-off!), and make the biggest-sized shawl possible.

Shawl design central stitch
Using a central ‘spine’ for increases gives a clear structure to your shawl.

With a clearer idea of how much yarn you need, you could also cast on a larger number of stitches and decrease at regular intervals to a central single stitch.

We will work with the principle of increasing from a small cast-on, but all of the stitch templates given below work equally well in reverse.


For a triangular shawl, with two short sides and one long one, make 4 increases on alternate rows.

Place a marker around the central stitch at the halfway point.

Your increase row would look like this: K1, inc, K to central spine stitch, inc, K1, inc, K to last st, inc, K1.

Half circle

For a half circle shawl work 2 increases on your first increase row, and 4 increases on your second increase row, working in 4 row repeats, making 6 increases in total over 4 rows.

Place a marker one-third and two-thirds of the way across the row.

Your first increase row would look like this: K1, inc, K to last stitch, inc, K1.

Your second increase row would look like this: K1, inc, K to one third marker, inc, slm, K to two thirds marker, inc, slm, K to last st, inc, K1.


For a full circle shawl worked from the centre out, make 8 increases every 4th row (but see the Pi shawl variation below).

Place markers at a quarter of the way along the row (around a single stitch), the halfway point (around a central stitch) and three-quarters of the way along the row (around a single stitch).

Your increase row would look like this: K1, inc, K to quarter point stitch, inc, K1, inc, K to central spine stitch, inc, K1, inc, K to three quarter point stitch, inc, K1, inc, K to last st, inc, K1.


For a square shawl worked from the centre out, make 8 increases on alternate rows.

Place markers as for the full circle shawl.

Make increases as for the full circle shawl, but noting you must increase on alternate rows, rather than every 4th row.

Step 4

Construction variations

Pi circular shawl

This design was made famous by knitting innovator Elizabeth Zimmermann, in her book Knitter’s Almanac.

Increases are made to double the number of stitches at regular intervals. In the most common variation, the number of rows between the increases also doubles each time. So if you start with 3 stitches, and increase to 6 stitches on the 4th row, you would increase to 12 stitches on the following 8th row, and to 24 stitches on the following 16th row and so on.

Rectangular strip cast-on

Cast on enough stitches to make about 2cm width and knit until the rectangle is about 4cm long, ending with a WS row.

Knit back across the row, and then pick up and knit along the long side of the rectangle and across the short cast-on end.

You now have a crescent shape to increase out from, which you can do using any of the formulas given above for different shawl shapes.

The difference is you will have a small straight wedge across the back of the neck, which can help the shawl sit better if it’s worn in the classic fashion.

If you are feeling adventurous you could also look at knitting a long edging strip and picking up the main body of the shawl stitches lengthwise. Jared Flood’s ‘Rock Island Shawl’ is a great example of this.

You could also knit the main shawl with an edging all in one, by working in short-row wedges. For something similar try Ysolda Teague’s ‘Emily Capelet’.

Step 5

How to make your increases

There are three basic increases that you can make. Yarnovers will create a hole at the increase point, and were used throughout this sample shawl. You could also work KFB, or M1, both of which do not form a hole, but are slightly visible. Swatch with your chosen yarn and see what you like best. There is no right answer.

Shawl design yarn over edge
Yarnovers make a pretty scalloped shape if worked one stitch in from the edge.

If you are working KFB, bear in mind that the stitch created falls to the left of the original stitch. So if you want to increase at either end of the shawl you would work KFB, work to 2 sts before end, KFB, K1, in order to make the appearance of the extra stitches symmetrical.


In part two of our shawl design workshop we’ll show you how to make your chosen construction and stitch pattern work together.