Fearless Fair Isle

Fair Isle swatch

A note from Kathleen: I think Fair Isle is one of the most satisfying knitting techniques to master. It's so eye-catching, and the color palette possibilities are endless. I have a sweater on the needles now that has a Fair Isle yoke, and I'm almost to the colorwork section. I can't wait.

The Spring 2011 issue of Interweave Knits has a really interesting article about overcoming Fair Isle fears, and after I read it, I felt I could conquer my sweater with ease.

Here's Knits editor Eunny Jang to tell you more.

How much do I love Fair Isle knitting?

Walking into a store that stocks shelves of glowing Shetland wools makes me feel like a kid in the proverbial candy store—my candy just happens to be hairy and soft. I love modern stranded colorwork, too, knitted in unorthodox yarns and with striking, geometric patterns, as well as new-wave knits in allover motifs or pictorial patterns—basically, I just love color in knitting. Nothing (with perhaps the exception of crazy cables) is quite as satisfying to watch grow under your needles.

You have to walk before you can run, though, and stranded colorwork can seem overwhelming to those tackling it for the first time. Or maybe the pictured colorway in a pattern you'd like to try just isn't for you, and you'd like to substitute. Where do you begin?

Enter Mary Jane Mucklestone. She's a prolific designer who's explored many Fair Isle variations over the years, always bringing her own fresh spin to a traditional technique. In "Beyond the Basics: Fearless Fair Isle Knitting" in the Spring 2011 issue of Interweave Knits, Mary Jane presented a collection of tips and tricks to get you over the initial hurdles and on to the fun part—knitting!

Here's an excerpt from her article.

Overcoming Technical Fears

There's an approach that addresses every Fair Isle knitting fear. Here are some common anxieties and ways to overcome them.

Too Many Colors. In traditional Fair Isle Knitting, you never have more than two colors in any row, ever. One color is for the pattern and motif stitches, and the other is for the background stitches. You have only two yarns to work with at any time.

Twisting Yarns. Simply keep one ball of yarn on each side of your body, well away from each other. Unless there are only one to three rounds before you use a yarn again, break it each time you finish with that color.

Bunchy Fabric. As you happily knit along, stay relaxed and spread out your work along the right-hand needle as you go. This way, when you strand the unused yarn behind the working stitches, it will automatically be the correct length. With practice, smoothing out your just-knitted stitches will become second nature, and you'll avoid the puckering that occurs when the floats are too short.

Does your work still look bunched? Proper finishing will eliminate the worst of it. Give your item a good wet blocking. Wash it carefully in a mild soap and rinse thoroughly. Gently press out the moisture between towels and dry flat, pinning it into shape.

—Mary Jane Mucklestone

Mary Jane has some sage advice on choosing colors, as well. Here I am outlining some of her tips.

For the full article, check out the Spring 2011 issue of Interweave Knits. We love exploring and demystifying traditional techniques—subscribe today to make sure you don't miss a single issue!

Happy Knitting,

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Knitting Daily Blog
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

13 thoughts on “Fearless Fair Isle

  1. Thank you. Great advice!!

    I especially like the suggestion of wrapping the yarns or doing I-cord as samples.

    BTW, another artist/painters trick to help see value, the light-dark scale, is to squint at your yarn. This can be useful when you don’t have cellophane handy.

  2. Great video! I read the article in Interweave Knits and the video reinforced the learning! I’m feeling more confident in my color choices. Thank you!

  3. ” stay relaxed and spread out your work along the right-hand needle as you go” is so important for an overall non-puckered piece of work!! When doing fair isle I find it so handy to knit using both continental and English knitting. I am a continental knitter and I use my main color in this manner. My mother is an English knitter and I use this method for my contrast yarns. The yarns automatically twist around each other when knitting this way. The yarn balls do not get tangled up either. I shall look for this magazine when I go into the city in a couple of weeks!

  4. I love this entry. I would like to add that I purchased a Norwegian Thimble that has made my life so much easier when combining yarns. It makes for a beautiful “wrong side” as well.

  5. Excellent tips! I have had times that I worked a Fair Isle item and then was not pleased with the color combos, this will help tons.

    Thanks again for your knitting wisdom.


  6. Thank you for this wonderful article, including the video bite.
    I love color-work – I actually make few mistakes because I am drawn to the colors and do less day-dreaming (as well as having to pay closer attention).

    But, I have a store-related question: When are we going to get a purchase discount (or coupon) for knitting CDs, etc? It seems it’s been a very long time since we’ve had this kind of special offer. We get plenty of advertising in Knitting Daily (too much advertising, but so far am willing to put up with it as I LOVE your articles) – but too much advertising without much pay-off (in terms of special discounts)…

    Again, great article – Thank you.

  7. that was probably the single most helpful video about fair isle I have ever watched! Choosing the colors is where I always get overwhelmed. Wow, THANK YOU for posting this, it made a huge impact on my Fear of Fair Isle! lol

    Fort Smith, Arkansas

  8. I’m thrilled that Fair Isle is getting featured! I love all of Eunny Jang’s videos – she so clear and concise. It happens that I bought a bunch of alpaca and wool yarns when we were in Peru last year with the plan of making a Fair Isle garment, so this is So Timely! I’ve just started knitting backward and adding the throw stitch to my repertoire (my mother taught me the ‘pick’ or ‘continental’ style since she learned to knit before WW I when Americans decided to change), so now I can practice the two strands in two hands technique. The lesson on dark and light colors came at exactly the right time.

  9. This inspires me to begin a fairisle project! Would you please tell how to avoid tangling the yarns as you work? I always bring the yarn under the one being dropped and this results in no holes- but sure does tangle my yarns!

  10. I’v been Fair Isle knitting, on and off for years.
    and its always been hit or miss w/ the colors.
    Now…i know what to do to correct this issue…
    Thank you, Eunny…!
    Hope your having a great day.