About That Stripe: Knitting A Fairer Fair Isle

Tomato by Wendy Bernard

Maybe some of you are Fair Isle Wizards, but I am not. In fact, I'm kind of a Fair Isle Chicken. Give me lace knitting, and I purr and behave myself in public (well, mostly…). But Fair Isle—Fair Isle and I have a History. Fair Isle and I have had Words, unseemly and unknitterly words. Hence, I usually avoid Fair Isle with mumbled excuses and protestations of having too much lace to knit.

I bring this up, because in knitting the Tomato, I realize that I am facing twelve entire rounds of Fair Isle knitting, in look-at-me-I’m-a-STRIPE bright teal and orange, right up front where everyone can see it. (We'll talk about that "right-up-front" issue at the end of the post.) I could knit the Tomato without That Stripe, in a solid color, but given that I'm so far out of my comfort zone with the whole orange thing anyway, why
The Intricate Stag Bag by Norah Gaughan
not just have a total attitude party and face my Fair Isle fears? Why not, indeed. It's only yarn, and I am, after all, a knitter. I can do this. Right? Right.

But no way am I doing this alone. I need help. Time to call on some knitting superheroes. Time to call on the Knitscene Team.

The Knitscene Team is Lisa Shroyer, Katie Himmelberg, and Laura Rintala—the editorial staff of Knitscene magazine. Lisa grew up in a Fair Isle knitting family, and from watching her knit, I think stranded colorwork might be her idea of “mindless knitting.” Katie can pretty much do anything with color, yarn, and a couple of pointy things (and I do mean anything!). As for Laura, she loves to knit gorgeous Fair Isle gloves on teeny tiny needles. So when I went upstairs to the Knitscene office to ask for help with my measly twelve rounds of
A peek inside the Intricate Stag Bag
two-color Fair Isle, I figured I was in very good hands.

The first thing Katie did was show me a finished Fair Isle project: Norah Gaughan’s Intricate Stag Bag. For those of you who are already pretty confident with Fair Isle, this bag is a Fair Isle fiesta, and so I have included it as this week’s featured free pattern in case you are feeling like having a little fun. It’s only two colors throughout, but the way Norah uses those two colors to form a lovely forest scene is pure magic. After petting the bag for a few minutes (it’s alpaca yarn, and therefore it must be petted), I did what any knitter would do: I turned it inside out so I could see the stranded floats on the back of the colorwork.

Masterful. Look at that—the back of Norah’s work is as pretty as the front. You can
The outside of my swatch for Tomato
clearly see the proud silhouette of Mr. Stag himself, even on the back. I was in awe. But how did she get all those floats so lovely and even? Determined to tackle this, I started swatching. Yes, again; this time, to practice my floats. After several rounds in the colorwork pattern used in the Tomato, I sat back to examine the outside and the inside of my swatch.

Not bad. But definitely could be better. My floats are kind of all over the place—some of them are too tight, some of them are too loose, and some of them are just right. I remembered that back in the Fall 2005 issue of Knitscene, there was a nice tutorial on Fair Isle, so I pulled out my copy and read it over. More swatching ensued, with the copy of Knitscene open next to me on the table. On the inside,
Inside the same swatch
my floats were still uneven, and on the outside, some of my stitches were puffed out, whilst some of them looked like they were hiding.

Whatever I was doing, it wasn't quite working. So I decided to go back to the beginning, pretend I was in knitting school, and get serious about my technique—with some help from the aforementioned Knitting Superheroes. On Wednesday, after I've had some more time to practice and do my Fair Isle homework, I'll share what I learned from Katie, Lisa, and Laura.

P.S. You'll notice I have been avoiding (for now) the fact that That Stripe is not necessarily going to be very flattering on everyone. I've got an idea about this, so let me have a few more days to do a bit more knitting, and on Friday I'll tell you what I've got in mind and we'll see what you think of my idea.

Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


Knitting Daily Blog

67 thoughts on “About That Stripe: Knitting A Fairer Fair Isle

  1. In all practicality, does it really make a difference on the right side if the yarn it isn’t carried over cleanly on the back? As a new knitter, the only problem I see is that the loops may catch on something.

  2. I know what you mean about the stripe not necessarily being flattering on everyone – including myself – so I am doing it as a darker color around the waist, making a belt effect – I think that will work better . . . and keep at the Fair Isle – for some reason I don’t click withh Intarsia but love doing Fair Isle – so engaging and the pictures that can be created are amazing – as the Stag bag shows.


  3. Thank you for incorporating the reference to the Stag Bag and pattern. It gave me chills to see it – I have had such a bag on my mind of late. For many years (I am dating myself and proud of it) I carried Grecian motif bags very much on the Stag Bag idea. I have saved these bags and hoped to resurrect them. However, the motif of the Stag Bag is far more appealing to me and coordinates with my lifestyle. The designer is a knitting oracle!

  4. Hello, thank you for sharing this bag. It’s really nice but tell how do I do it now ??I’m moving and with all the nice things you propose, I’ll need 48or 72 hours per day!!Thank a lot from France

  5. For that one section of fair isle you’ll want to go up a size needle from what you’re using with the rest of the body. This will prevent the fair isle to “pull in” across the area.
    Also, wumbly-bumbly’s (the bumpiness) of fair isle all but disappear with blocking. Try steam blocking your swatch before giving up in frustration.

  6. I can’t wait to see what you do with that stripe! I think it’s very cute indeed, but I also find the placement to be just every so slightly off to my eye – starts above the lower curve of the bosom. I’d like it better if it began a bit lower. But I think this of many top designs, both knitted and ready to wear and woven. Could be just a personal foible…

  7. I’m curious to see what you do with That Stripe. I’ve been looking at this project since I bought the book and would love to make it….But that stripe needs to be moved. With my curves and that stripe..I might as well have it say “censored” 😉

  8. You are doing FINE. I commend your dedication to perfecting the technique. I learned to Fair Isle from the Philosopher’s Wool book, Fair Isle Sweater’s Simplified. So instead of floats I weave the strands as I go. It is very easy to do and there is no problem with snagging. I do have to use a larger needle though.
    I love this bag and can’t wait to get going on it!

  9. I’m looking forward to making this sweater, although in my case it’s eggplant. The stripe? The placement should give my piece the empire waist effect I need to balance out my waist. Won’t know until it’s on.

  10. I can’t wait to read your comments on The Stripe b/c while I admire the sweater greatly, and wouldn’t even mind the fair isle(not saying I’m good at it, just wouldn’t mind trying it) I am a bit worried about the attention-calling stripe.
    I love this newsletter ! Thanks

  11. A hint about keeping floats even (not too tight, not too loose): take a page from EZ and others and make one colour the “over” colour, one colour the “under” colour for carrying. I don’t know exactly what happened with the mechanics, but incorporating this made my Fair Isles go from “okay” to “great”, and made them much easier to work too (I incorporated the two-handed method at the same time). To be honest, I don’t even block most of the time — although that’s true of my knitting in general. I figure it’s better to get it right the first time :-).

  12. The floats on the WS side of Fair Isle knitting affect how the stitches appear on the RS side of the work. Tight floats make RS sts look too small relative to surrounding sts, and can give a puckered look. Loose floats will indeed catch on the WS, and will make the RS sts appear too big and uneven. As with all knitting, it’s just practice. In no time, you find it becomes automatic, and then it’s fun.

  13. Man, my sentiments exactly! I’m an excellent knitter, and I’ve done Fair Isle, but there’s something in my technique that causes problems. Plus, I’m never relaxed. Aaaagh!

  14. I am a fairly new knitter and I am no expert, but I have knitted 2 Fair Isle sweaters and the back of my sweaters look nothing like yours. My Mom (who is from Scotland) showed me a techinque to weave the yarn in with the other stitches so there are no loops on the wrong side. I will try to post a picture to show you.

  15. I haven’t done a lot of Fair Isle knitting. I know how to do it but it just doesn’t seem to be my thing. So I’m reading everybody’s tips and hints very carefully in hope of absorbing some Fair Isle mojo.

    I think I will be moving that lovely strip on the Tomato as well.

  16. Fair Isle Hints; Usr two hands. Knit background color using continental. Knit color accent using English method. Carry no more than three stitches for floats. Push stitches on right hand needle far to the right when catching floats – which ensure correct tension.

  17. I’ve made a study out of how to cover up what I think are my unflattering bits. Here’s what has worked for me: I put patterens or bright color accent over my best feature because that is what will be the focus of attention. I stay away from not so good bits. Example: My hips are slightly wider than my bust measurement, so I put the accent on bust and above and the plain work over the stomach and hips. For a color to be a true accent-attention getter – it has to be a stronger vallue than the back ground color and what you see first when squinting at the sweater colors. I am terribly sorry about my typing skills.

  18. i am very interested to see what you do with the stripe. this is an issue arises often. many patterns are boxy and squarish – fine if you’re a plank model, but completely the wrong thing for those of us with womanly curves. hint to the powers that be: i’m interested in patterns with shaping. a few increases and decreases are okay with me. thanks for listening to my ideas.

  19. i am very interested to see what you do with the stripe. this is an issue arises often. many patterns are boxy and squarish – fine if you’re a plank model, but completely the wrong thing for those of us with womanly curves. hint to the powers that be: i’m interested in patterns with shaping. a few increases and decreases are okay with me. thanks for listening to my ideas.

  20. I love the stag bag but like you Fair isle Knitting is not my style If you could reprint the tutorial on fair isle knitting I would really apperciate it Thanks
    Sheron from Mi

  21. The stag bag pattern looks awesome! If there ever was a pattern to try out your fair isle on, that has to be it – small enough to be able to finish it fairly quickly, large enough to get lots of practice carrying yarn. I’m going to make one as my next project.

    And thank you for the wonderful Knitting Daily postings. I am enjoying them immensely!

  22. A wee comment on the term “Fair Isle”. FI is a very specific type of stranded color work from Fair Isle, one of the Shetland Islands. Only 2 colors are used in a row, the carries usually don’t extend beyond an inch but are never woven in, the colors gradiate, both pattern and background, and motifs are generally very geometric/bilaterally symmetrical.

    What is being discussed is “stranded color work”, the broader category of using two or more colors across any one row which can include FI but is not exclusive to it. Stranded color work is different from intarsia or mosaic/slip stitch patterns and FI is a sub-group of it.

    Joan Schrouder
    Eugene, OR

  23. I plan on placing the stripe at my waist as it is my best womanly feature, also I will consider making it in a less saturate color and darker as well.

  24. I love color, and I know I’ll be making the Stag Bag for the same reasons I will love making the Caspian Sea Socks. By the way, I learned to knit, after years of crocheting, and I think that’s why the Continental style of knitting fits me so well. The only thing I have to adjust for is that because I pick up the yarn the same way I do as when I crochet, my stitches appear to be twisted. (They look alright to me, and they aren’t really twisted!)

    I like using one of those yarn thimbles, that separates the two or three colors I’m using in the round, and it’s easy to scoop up the yarn and make a stitch. My intarsia has been even and balanced since day two, doing it this way. I shall not speak of day one.

  25. I’ll be curious to see what you do with the stripe, as well. I actually have an FO of this project, but I should have a) thought about the placement of that danged stripe and b) had my waist measurement handy and not just the bust. While it fits perfectly over my bust, below that it fits like a big ol’ sack! Any tips will be appreciated– I’m going to have to frog and add waist shaping, might as well move the stripe while I’m at it!

  26. For many of us a sweater with a stripe across the bust might not be the most flattering style. What I think I would do is when doing the ribbing around the neck…work the last row and the bind off in the contrast color. This would bring attention to the face..the best part of all of us

  27. Just wanted to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the Knitting Daily e-mail/blog posts. They are wonderful and so are you! Thanks for sharing. It’s nice to know that not everyone out there is the world’s best knitter. I’m not so great, but I’ve gotten somewhat comfortable with fair isle. It just takes patience and practice. Can’t wait to see your Tomato. I love the colors you chose.

  28. Oh, my! I love the Stag Bag, nearly sprained a finger in my hurry to print it off. I’m halfway done with my 2nd Caspian Sea sock (hope to send a picture soon) & the Bag will be next. I enjoy the Knitting Daily site; you’ve already given us some great patterns – Thanks!! MKP

  29. I am so smitten by that bag that I almost forgot to exhale!!! It is beyond stunning! Yes keeping the stiches even is a challenge for us begining Fair Isle knitters…but that bag is a must do! I am doing a hat in Fair Isle using Alpaca and I find it to be easier because it is a less elastic yarn.

  30. Everyone who hates fairisle will love you. I can do it, but don’t find it relaxing & I am anal about perfect tension and never feel it is good enough in fair isle. D.B.

  31. I am so glad I’m not the only avid knitter out there who has a problem with fairisle. I have been knitting since I was four and am now in my forties – still haven’t really mastered it – any suggestions would be warmly welcomed as I often look at these intricate projects and i too, always find an excuse as to why i can’t complete them.
    Mary O’R

  32. About that stripe… you are quite right! I for one try NOT to draw attention to something almost missing 😉 – so I incorporated the stripe around the waist and put one tiny crocheted trim around the neck with the color of the stripe – looks very pretty! Laura

  33. I have just recently learned that I am knitting backward and have had to re-learn the correct way. I really want to knit the Tomato. Can you tell me if there is a book out there that teaches Fair Isle? I knit continental.

  34. wow, so many people commented already!
    sandy, bravo on your on efforts, i think i could use some clear explanation on the fairisle technique from scratch. i am one of those that takes yarn and throws herself into it and sees it working, but i’d really like to know the “right” way to do things.
    i knit continental living in france and my trick isto put my forefinger in the back at every pass to loosen the “passage”, that i learned alone.
    also, your take on colors made me like “tomato”, i had not liked it at first, i lacked something, so again bravo on the color choice. don’t you get tired of the color you’re knitting as you go further and further in a project?
    i find myself desperatly disgusted with a color and needing to change after i’ve knit one item, hehe.
    thank you for your lovely letter, big hug from france.

  35. So it’s not for everybody. I knit for lots of ‘other bodies’ – more so than my own – so thanks much for all the wonderful patterns and your hard work.

  36. Have you looked at the Philospher’s Wool website? I highly recommend looking there. They have a wonderful video clip online that shows Ann teaching two-stranded fair isle knitting. Ever since I learned to do it that way I have been in love with fair-isle knitting and there aren’t any floats, so it is all nice and flat.

  37. Okay- the bag is amazing!! I actually like fair isle, but I don’t think I pay too much attention to the floats. It just seems to work! I use the over/under method like one of the other postees. Knitting Daily is great! I have already made the squatty sidekick bag, have plans for the mesh tote & now I must do this stag bag. It is just too gorgeous!

  38. wow cayenne, that blew me! i am parisian and found out that i knit english and not continental!!!
    i had seen on TV a short film where they showed how germans knit different but forgot about it until now.
    hm. and that thing they say on american blogs that continental knitting is done with the left hand and i always looked at me and thought: where’s the left hand knitting in “this”?
    *laughs* so i do not knit continental although i live in the old continent (europe).
    it’s fun i guess to learn everything so i will give this technique a shot. thank you again.

  39. now did any of you learn through an online video or images on the net how to knit fair isle using the over under method?
    thank you for pointing the site.
    Zaz, paris france

  40. Don’t worry a bit about your floats-Norah is like a knitting goddess (just look at that BAG … I call her stuff knitter’s porn), and we sometimes have to be content with being happy knitting mortals. And the “big” floats in the swatch are barely noticable.

  41. I love this bag! I’m going to make it using the Philosopher’s Wool technique, which I find much nicer when finished than floats. I’ve been looking for a good fair isle project for myself after doing lovely sweaters for my daughters.

  42. I’ve done some fairisle knitting so I’m a little confused by the “stag” bag on the post. I thought in order to strand across back without bunching-up the pattern shouldn’t have more than 5 stitches of a color at a time. I thought some of the bag was intarsia, but I see she stranded the “stag” (and other parts)…how’d she do that? How did she strand behind on the back over more than 5 stitches? Gee, I hope I’m making sense. 🙂

  43. I’ve just finisihes YTomato nd find that the 2K2P rib using the same needle at the bottom of the sweater does not work very well; it makes it sticke out, speciallly the bottom two knit rounds.. The rib around the neck with a smaller needle looks a lot better…I love this website. Keep it going…

  44. I’m enjoying the Tomato saga, particularly the installment about choosing a size. I own the book (No Sheep For You), love the pattern, and was unsure which size to choose. Thanks!!

    Cindy in NJ

  45. Thank you for sharing your Tomato knitting process. I love hearing that you have much of the same angst I develop when choosing a size, a color, doing something new and out of my knitting comfort zone. I am enjoying your saga!

  46. Brenda – if you want/need to strand across more than 5 stitches, you twist the yarn about every 4 or 5 stitches. You knit the 5 stitches in color a and then wrap color b around it just as if you’d just done a color change and knit more with a. That shortens the strands and locks them. (I hope that makes sense.)

  47. I love the stag but, as knit bags just aren’t me, I am adding this project to my “gift” list and plan on using it for a pillowcase for my FIL, who is avide wildlife guy.

  48. I learned continental from Maggie Righetti’s Knitting in Plain English. Once you can master the cont purl stitch by holding the strand down with your left thumb, it’s all downhill from there. I like bamboo ndls for FI because you can spread out the sts and the ndls grab them for proper floats. If you come to prefer continental, try the little plastic Clover yarn-holder for your left index finger that will keep two strands separate on the left. Could someone write in to tell us how real Shetland knitters hold both strands on the left without gadgets?

  49. My second-ever attempt at Fair Isle was greatly improved by knitting in the round–inside out. The tension went from bad to wow with one small change. It is the same chart, same direction, just knitted inside the work on the far side, if that makes sense. FI was something I never thought I could do and was thrilled when I finished the first mitten! Everyone should try some of the techniques listed here and do what works best!

  50. It’s been awhile since I did a stranded knitted piece, but I loved it! I’ve always done stuff by trial and error. I was originally told to pick up a new colour from underneath. As soon as I mastered that, I learned to use both the English and the continental methods which assured a lovely back and good tension. I’m old fashioned enought to think the piece should look good inside out as well! I sometimes wrap with my thumb in the way deliberatly to attain a consistant spacing for tension. It works for me. Sally Oo

  51. I also recommend the Philosophers Wool instructional clip and knitting the fair isle using that method. It is so easy and none of the floats. Add in a bit of EZ and you have it made!!

  52. how high speed of a connection do you need to see that clip? i have DSL and when i click on that page, all i find is the written blurb an no video. anyone else having the same problem?

  53. I have found that if the strand is going to be carried in back for more than 4 stitches a ‘tuckunder’ the running color is needed to keep the floats from getting too long, which can easily catch/snag when wearing or washing.

  54. What a relief to know that there are many experienced knitters who are not expert in the art of stranded color work. I’ve been knitting for 35 years, and have only done a few small projects involving this technique – some came out better than others. I still don’t feel as if these projects are “worthy” of my other work – including cables and lace. What is it about this technique that intimidates so many experienced knitters? Love the blog – I’m always amazed at how close the knitting community is! Good for us!

  55. I really really like the bust darts! I also moved the stripe to the waist and I like the idea of adding in some detailing to the neckline – bring the eye up and down around the . . .er fullness . . .and accentuate the waist curve – but had not thought of darts! Very nice!


  56. As a new knitter I was amazed that your were swatching your colourwork section. Just go for it I thought! Then as I was attempting Kitchener stitch for the first time on a finished project that took many hours it looked TERRIBLE, it was wrong. Undid it, researched some more, and knit a practice swatch. My finished project is now looks much better. Thanks for the humbling idea. Better to practice a technique on scrap rather than a project that will have hours of knitting invested.