Fair Isle Knitting: Tips and a Step-By-Step Tutorial

Fresco Fair Isle knitting pattern
Fresco Fair Isle Mitts

Note from Sandi: I’ve heard that a lot of people have fallen in love with Pam Allen’s Fresco Fair Isle Mitts (see the photo? Pretty!) in the Fall 2008 issue of Knits. I think it’s the soft colors waving across the back of the hand, with the one unexpected splash of brightness in the middle. Some of you, however, are wondering if you can pull off the Fair Isle knitting required and still have the mitts be flexible, comfortable, and stretchy enough to fit.

I remembered that there was an excellent Fair Isle tutorial in the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of Knitscene magazine, and decided it was a perfect time to reprint it here on Knitting Daily. Below, I have given you the overview from the article, plus a few important tips to make the best of your stranded knitting. However, the fab part of that section of Knitscene was the step-by-step tutorial and practice swatch instructions. I’ve put the entire Fair Isle tutorial into a free downloadable PDF.  Good stuff!

Did you know? The term “Fair Isle” refers to a special kind of stranded knitting, one in which the colors form one of hundreds of the traditional patterns of the Fair Isles. If the pattern is not one of the traditional “Fair Isle” knitting patterns, then even if it only uses two colors per row, it is more properly referred to simply as “stranded knitting.” All Fair Isle is stranded knitting, but not all stranded knitting is Fair Isle, in other words.

Fair Isle Knitting: It’s Easier than You Think
excerpted from Knitscene Fall/Winter 2005

Knitting in Fair Isle involves working two or more colors on one row of a pattern. It isn’t much more complicated than knitting or purling in one color, but it can produce some really stellar fabrics. Basically, you’ll work a few stitches in one color, then the next few in a second  color—both balls of yarn always staying attached to the work. The color that isn’t being worked is carried across the back of the knitting, making a snug loop—a “float”—before being worked again. Floats add thickness and warmth to a garment, as they essentially add an inside lining to the sweater. Most Fair Isle patterns only call for two colors in any given row.

Tips for Fair Isle Knitting

Make sure your floats aren’t carried too tightly across the wrong side of the work, or the fabric will pucker. An easy trick is to spread out the stitches on the right needle every time you change colors. This will give the float the same horizontal stretch as the stitches on the needles.

To prevent tangling of the two strands of yarn, always pick up the first color over the second, and pick up the second color from under the first. Sometimes keeping one ball on your right side and one between your legs helps keep them apart.

Download our free step-by-step Fair Isle Knitting Tutorial!

Want to learn more about colorwork in your knitting? Daniella Nii’s Video, Stranded Colorwork Styles, is a wonderful resource. Daniella covers everything you need to know, both color theory and color knitting techniques, to make you a confident color knitter.


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10 thoughts on “Fair Isle Knitting: Tips and a Step-By-Step Tutorial

  1. whoopsie…

    Fair Isle is actually an island near the Shetland islands, and has very little to do with the Faeroe Islands.

    Faeroese patterns are not as colorful as Fair Isle patterns (but are very pretty despite that fact!)

    And here’s another did you know: Faeroe islands means Sheep Islands!

  2. Gee, Sandi, you just ticked off a lot of knitters in the Shetland Islands, and particularly Fair Isle! While there is stranded color knitting in the Faroese Islands, I think it is generally agreed that what we call Fair Isle knitting – sweaters knit circularly with stranded colorwork and steeks – comes to us from Shetland and Fair Isle and not the Faroese Islands. Even today you can find Fair Isle sweaters being knitted by the locals in Shetland on long double points, using a knitting bel, and the yarns from the local spinning mill. Maybe Interweave should send you to these places so you can do some on site research just to make sure this is correct! 😉

  3. Tess wrote:
    >Maybe Interweave should send you to these places so you can do >some on site research just to make sure this is correct!

    I’d be happy to carry her knitting bag when they send her! Just send me an email stating date of departure, and I’ll be ready to hop a plane. (What do porters get paid these days?)


  4. What perfect timing. Just yesterday, having knit to the underarm of a sweater for my daughter, I realized I probably didn’t have enough yarn to complete the yoke. I decided that the way to rescue it would be to turn it into a Fair Isle, but haven’t tried that before. This will help. Thanks, Sandi!

  5. Oh come on….yes she made a mistake, but it’s online media, so she’ll change it and it will all be good.

    What i want to know is where are the shawls?

    It used to be that every issue had at least one gorgeous shawl pattern in it, but it seems like the last few have been missing to be replaced by sweater after sweater.

    Sandi, please hunt down the AWOL shawls while you are on the Shetlands and bring them back to us landlocked knitters!!

    Give us SHAWLS!

  6. Have any of you tried knitting Fair Isle by picking with one color and throwing with the other.

    This way the yarns never get tangled and your tension is fine without having to space out your knitting.

    If you are a picker you can even hold both colors over your finger, you space them by wrapping them opposite from each other on your hand.

    This is very easy to learn and after parctice goes super fast.

  7. I second the picking with one color and throwing with the other. It works really well and you get to learn how to knit in two different ways just for fun!

    ps it does take some practice, so patience is a virtue for sure in this case!

  8. I second the picking with one color and throwing with the other. It works really well and you get to learn how to knit in two different ways just for fun!

    ps it does take some practice, so patience is a virtue for sure in this case!

  9. It’s possible to throw both colors. I knit with both colors on my right hand. What I do is I flip my finger up for one color and down with the other color. And the yarn doesn’t get tangled up too much.