The Fair Art Of Stranded Colorwork

Norah Gaughan's Intricate Stag Bag

Have you read the comments from Monday’s post? Oh my goodness…There is practically an entire textbook full of tips in there about how to do Fair Isle successfully. You people are awesome! I had a completely different post ready-to-go for today, but I re-wrote things a bit at the last minute to include some of the hints you shared.

Marsha, Joan, and Kim pointed out that the Intricate Stag Bag is NOT a Fair Isle design; it is correctly referred to as “stranded colorwork.” Fair Isle is only one form of stranded colorwork, one that incorporates bands of geometric motifs and intricate gradations of colors. Many knitters use the term “Fair Isle” as a short hand for the techniques of stranding two-color knitting, which is the way I was using it in Monday’s post. Still: We’re knitting geeks here
The inside of Norah's beautiful bag
at Knitting Daily, so Marsha, Kim, and Joan all get gold stars for keeping our terminology correct.

The key to keeping the stitches on the outside of your colorwork even is to pay careful attention to what you are doing on the wrong side of your knitting. Whether you “float” the unused color across the back (as Norah does), or weave in the strands as you knit (as Amanda, Pat, Cayenne-with-the-great-name and Teresa do), keeping the tension even makes all the difference in the world. Inside the Stag Bag, Norah’s tension is perfectly even; thus, her floats lay perfectly flat. I want to knit like Norah Gaughan (don’t we all?), so let’s see what little knitting secrets we can uncover…

Roberta and Amanda suggested working the colorwork section in a larger needle than the rest of the garment in order to
Katie Himmelberg
prevent the stitches from “pulling in” as the stranding is worked. Katie Himmelberg, style editor of Knitscene magazine, suggested this: “When picking up a color after it has been unused (a float), spread the stitches out on the right-hand needle over which the float spans. This will help you make the floats long enough so that the work doesn't pucker.” Katie's advice may sound like a small thing, but I tried it and it made a huge difference. Yay, Katie!

We have space for one more hint, this time from Lisa Shroyer, the editor of Knitscene magazine, and the designer of the Road To Golden, featured in the Fall 2007 issue of Knitscene. Lisa says that the Road To Golden, a luscious, multicolored Fair Isle pullover, is "easy enough for a first-time Fair Isler". (Hearing her say that,
Lisa Shroyer
I am soooo tempted to try knitting this sweater…but methinks I ought to see if I can manage to survive the twelve rounds of colorwork in Tomato first. If no one dies as a result of that experience, then maybe I can think about trying an entire big-girl sized sweater full of stranding. We shall see.) Here's Lisa's clever bit:

Since I'm a dedicated thrower, even when I do stranded colorwork, I have to drop one color and pick up the other every time a color change is needed. To make sure I always keep the same color dominant, and to keep my strands from becoming a tangled mess, I always keep the background color to the right of my thigh on the couch, and my foreground color between my legs on the floor, and I pick the same one up
Lisa's Road To Golden
over the other every time. I know it seems counterintuitive to keep the background color "above" the foreground, in terms of where I position the ball, but this system always works for me.

So. I worked on my colorwork swatch some more. I tried bigger needles, spread out my stitches, and made sure one color was the “over” color and one was the "under" color—and all of this really helped. It also helped make the knitted fabric more elastic and less like a suit of knitted armor! (This is good, especially since in knitting the Tomato, I am going for that Hot Curvy Girl effect and not the Knight In Shining-But-Clunky Armor effect.)

All right, then. On to the That Stripe on the Tomato…but that will have to wait for Friday’s post. Wait till you see what I am doing with it!

Other Things You May Like to Check Out:


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63 thoughts on “The Fair Art Of Stranded Colorwork

  1. I think it was Elizabeth Zimmermann who talked about spreading the stitches as you change colors to prevent the floats from pulling. I have found that, when knitting in the round, it works for me to have the non-public side on the outside. It makes just that little bit of extra length for the floats.

  2. Thanks for sharing all these fair isle (okay, stranding) tips. I,too, am a fair isle chicken, so it is helpful to read these and alleviate some nervousness!

  3. Thanks for compiling these tips for us!

    I currently have two projects in progress that have stranded color knitting in them, and I heartily concur with keeping the colors one-above-one-below, as Lisa suggested. I still knti two-fisted, but it still really helps keep the tension even.

    However, does anyone have any good tips about how to deal with stranded color knitting when you have three or more colors in the same row? I am swatching for the Peerie Fleur from No Sheep for You, and I am currently doing a two-fisted approach, holding the background (MC) color in the right hand and the two CCs in the left hand, keeping one “above” and one “below” (on my finger and changing them accordingly) but this is a bit more of a challenge than I am used to taking on…

  4. I agree that anything more than two colors is incredibly daunting. I would also like some tips on how to deal with it. Bravo to Natalie for braving those waters. I recently finished Nicky Epstein’s dragon scarf in Scarf Style and it came out somewhat amateur-looking, but very cool, thanks to a great pattern. It isn’t officially stranded knitting, but I stranded some of the colors because I didn’t want tails at every single color change and carried colors over when they were close enough, so I had three strands at a time occasionally. I think I am done with the more-than-two-colors-at-a-time knitting for now. PS Thanks for liking my name.

  5. I’m almost finished with my first major two-color project – a Lopi sweater. What worked best for me was working it inside out as Jeanne C suggests, spreading out the stitches, and changing to a bamboo needle so the stitches don’t slide so easily.

  6. Me again. I don’t understand the inside out thing. You knit the whole project from the wrong side? It seems to me that it would be very hard to know where you are in the pattern.

  7. Thanks so much for clearing up the difference between stranded color knitting and Fair Isle knitting! I’m a two-handed two-color knitter and I also use Lisa’s method of keeping each color on each side of me to keep things from tangling.

  8. Oops – I forgot to say that there are 3 ways to deal with 3-color rows. You can knit 3 colors per row but your yarns will tangle. You can slip one of the colors and go back and do the same row over again, slipping the first 2 colors and knitting the third. Or you can duplicate stitch the third color later on.

  9. I learned to knit the American way that is throwing the yarn. Since I wanted to learn to knit continental I decided to knit a sweater in the round using this technique. Instead of trying to just knit, I would knit a few stitches and then purl a few stitches, no particular number or order but it made a nice pattern. This way I mastered knitting the other way but I must admit it is hard for me to get my knitting as even this way so I still knit the way I learned (American style) except when I do Fair Isle or other color knitting. I hold one color in the right hand and the other in the left. This for me is the easiest way to do Fair Isle as you do not have to worry about what to do with the yarn when switching colors. It takes a little practice but it pays off. I just finished a Fair Isle sweater using a kit from KnitPicks that uses 28 different colors.

  10. I’ve never really tackled fair isle or any other two stranded knitting, although I have made several projects using intarsia. I downloaded the StagBag pattern and am totally lost. It looks more like intarsia for the bulk of the bag because there are areas of color that are so large, but the pictures of the reverse side clearly show floats. Any help would be super! Regardless of my confusion it is a fantastic pattern,and I would feel blessed to be able to create it.

  11. My grandmother always told me taht it was important for one’s needlework to look as good on the inside as on the outside. I am a picker, but for two colors I put one color in each hand. I’ll occasionally use a bit of the weving technique, say in the middle of 5 sts, but I like hte look of a stranded fabric.

  12. Here’s a tip for knitters who also crochet (and who knit with the yarn in their right hand)— when doing 2-color stranded knitting, hold the contrast color in your left hand, just like when you crochet. As you work the pattern, you will knit the main color stitches in your usual tension, and your left hand will strand the contrasting color automatically. You will have to practice a bit in order to keep the strands loose enough, but I far prefer this method to using one color at a time. An added plus: this method helps you avoid getting the two yarns twisted around each other.

  13. Hi y’all. Knittingstranded colorwork with a traditional wool yarn has an adventage over machine-washable wool, cotton, bamboo or silk–the traditional wool has those tiny curly bits of fiber on the outside of the strand which catch onto the tendrils of its partner strands in the colorwork, and stabilize it. The guage is more consistent, and the yarns don’t slip over each other thus pulling in or looping too much. Sandi, maybe you have set yourself a more troublesome ” first stranded colorwork experience”, than you originally thought!
    I try to remember to “be good to myself” when it comes to marrying materials and techniques!

  14. It’s a great conversation. I think you should try one colour in each hand, as many have already suggested – it really becomes a cinch after practice. I am in Canada which is why I spell funny! Don’t forget to press the work also.

  15. I can’t quite figure out the background colour/contrast colour thing. If you are working with both hands, in which hand do you hold the colour you want to stand out? If you are working with two colours in the right hand, does the colour you want to stand out go over or under the other one? I’ve seen explanations that seem to contradict each other. Thanks very much – I really, really want to learn stranded knitting. Another question – I’ve been trying the two-handed approach, and I can’t figure out whether I’m supposed to pick the yarn on the left with the right needle, or throw it over with the left forefinger. Thank you!

  16. The inside-out thing is really knitting on the “far side” of the circle with your circular needle. This will make the strands behave themselves.

    I also got the hang of stranded knitting when I sat down and forced myself to knit with my “other” hand… I knit continental, and had to learn to throw the yarn with my left hand. Practice makes perfect!

    Diane BB

  17. I send heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the in-depth explanations of the patterns and how to make them the best I possibly can. I have learned so much already and jump to open your emails when I see them. There is a special file on my computer where I save all the emails, hints and patterns. The info is so well written that it is like being there in a class or sitting with a friend. Thank you so much. Excited to see more. Donna

  18. I knit the Continental way,with the yarn over my left fingers. For Fair Isle I sometimes use the first and second fingers and interlace the yarns, but I have found that a little finger gadget works very wel to keep the tension and the yarns separate. But I co=annot remamber what the gadget is called !
    the yarn over the fingers of my left hand. For FAir Isle Ican use the second finger, but a little gadget that slips over the index finger keeps the yarn separate and maintains the right tension. Can’t remamber what the gaadget is called
    Pat H

  19. I’m really enjoying reading your blog and all the usefull comments. its nice to know that a ‘pro’ knitter still strugles like us lesser mortals!!! I’m storing the info for future reference as I must be the only reader you have who actually doesnt like the Tomato!! or the bag!! (please dont throw your tomatos at meLOL). keep on doing your blog. I’m enjoying it!

  20. Thanks a lot for your tips about stranded knitting. I’m knitting a stranded sweater at the moment, and I’m weaving in the strand I’m not using as I knit, but sometimes you can see the strand shinging trough the fabric. I’ll try some of your suggestiong, hoping it’ll make a nicer fabric.

  21. I’m designing my first handbag using four different colors (yikes!!) and these tips helped me tremendously. Like Lisa, I am a thrower; the stopping, dropping, picking up, and untangling has become rhythmic to me! Anyway, thanks for your helpful hints and tips.

  22. It is interesting to note that you are referring to Fair Isle knitting in almost all colour knitting. Fair Isle is a traditional way of using colour and only 2 colours per row as well as a particular thickness of wool, not other ‘yarns’. Traditionally used in the Fair Isles in Scotland the term should NOT refer to other types of colour knitting. If you are going to use these terms, please use them correctly. People in many countries read this newsletter and don’t understand the American terminology which is not always correct.

  23. I’m curious as to whether the first st of each row of the center panel should be slipped? I’ve heard knitters comment that when working in stockinette the first st can be slipped if your going to be picking up sts along the edge. Do you think that applies here? I’m very interested in attempting this bag. I’ve taken an intarsia class (hate it!) and a (dare I mutter the words?) Fair Isle class at my LYS. I really like Fair Isle/stranding. This looks like a challenge, but hopefully do-able. I also wondered about the length of the stranding. I was taught “no longer than 5 sts”. This stag looks like it should be intarsia, but not if I’m knitting it. I’ll strand that sucker. I learned a technique to use on longer strands. When I figure out how to explain it….I’ll get back to you on this. I love the site and reading the comments. Hopefully I haven’t offended anyone with my terms. I’m just a knitter. I don’t know all the “correct” terms. Now I’m going in to go knit on some socks. Have a great evening

  24. First, I’d like to say that I am a VERY new knitter…and self-taught in the past 5 months or so. I have always crocheted and done other needlearts (heirlooom sewing, quilting, cross-stitch/beadwork), but wanted to learn to knit because I love the stretch and feel of knitted fabric. I’ve done the obligatory garter-stitch scarf, then experimented with purling with a ribbed at the cuff and sleeves baby sweater and a baby blanket, a lace scarf and then decided to try Fair Isle using a pattern from a recent Vogue Knitting mag ….even though I’ve heard so many people say they dread it. I look at Intarsia and think “Oh, my goodness … that looks just TOO hard”. Although (please don’t hate me)I don’t care for either of the two projects for myself, I am enjoying reading the comments and following along on your “Fair Isle Journey”. I’m using the ‘throw’ method, but I think that on my next project of this type, I will try the two-handed method, as it seems to be the one most people use. Keep up the good work – you are an inspiration.

  25. I am self taught Fair Isler,having turned out some very beautiful sweaters, which can be worn both inside out, right side out. My simple trick is two handed knitting, weave every two to three stitches. The reason for the short floats is they don’t break when caught on jewelry, hand.etc. Plus they block just beautiful. No worry as to how they turn out.

  26. I had an ugly thing happen recently… I accidentally switched which hand was holding which color in a stranded pattern. Even though my tension was pretty even, the yarn in one hand winds up more prominent than the other. In fact… drumroll (I can’t believe I found this!) I have an article from the Fall 1998 issue of Interweave Knits called, “The Pull-Up–Unmentionable or Just Not Mentioned” by Robin Hansen that (if I remember correctly) deals with the very issue of yarn dominaqnce in stranded knitting. (Or it may be about training pants. Not sure.)

  27. Whoops! It was called, “The Pull-Up–Unmentionable or Just Not Mentioned” by Robin Hansen, about this very issue of yarn dominance in stranded colorwork.

  28. I am a left-handed picker, combination really, and I use two hands for two colors. I throw one and pick the other and just am careful about tension. If I have three, I pick two off the left finger and throw one with the right, usually the one that has the longest float. I tell students to always weave if carrying over more than three stitches. I had one student take me to heart and weave EVERY SINGLE stitch. The back of her Dale baby sweater is a marvel to behold. Her reasoning: no little fingers are going to get caught in Grandma’s sweater, EVER. The right side is amazing also, with near perfect tension.

  29. I am an English knitter but also knit Continental. When I do Fair Isle (2 colors only) I knit both ways but have only done in round. How does one anchor when knitting back and forth?

  30. I am a picker and a stretcher. I weave both yarns between the fingers of my left hand, always keeping one color on top of the other. I find it particularly helpful when knitting socks in a fair isle pattern to knit with a larger size needle and to stretch the knitted fabric along the right needle. If a strategy like this isn’t done with socks they will come out too tight and quite a challenge to put on.

  31. I use both hands when knitting with 2 colors. Just wanted to say..your sweater looks great so far and you look lovely in orange..i just knit a baby blanket in orange Plush yarn by berocco and it turned out yummy soft.

  32. I learned how to do stranded knitting by watching a (free!)online video clip on the Philosopher’s Wool website. ( I had to watch it a few times but it really explains and demonstrates nicely the two-handed technique and how to weave using either hand. I thought that Fair Isle was so slow-going at first, but now I am really gratified with the process and the results. Good Luck and I love the darts, they are very flattering and are an awesome improvement on the original.

  33. I have knitted fir isle for some time and manage it by two-handed knitting. What I find difficult to do is stranded knitting over more than 6 stitches as in the Bohus method. I have tried twining the 2 colours on a stretch of more than 7 stiches and it still puckers up. Bohus has gorgeous patterns, but how do knit them without puckering?

  34. I have never been that tempted by fair isle, thinking it’s far too hard, there’s lots of knitting of other kinds to do, it’ll take me forever…but the discussion and tips have really inspired me. Tomato, here I come!

    Joanna, Scotland

  35. Your bust darts are darling (daring?). For us endowed girls – can you share your technique? I also didn’t like the Tomato pattern – until you moved the stripe!

  36. This is a great site! Last winter I made each of my adult sons a pair of mittens from patterns in the Folk Mittens book. I already knew the two-handed stranding technique, and I used that. My experience was that the more I knitted, the better my tension got. I believe it is a matter of keeping at it until you figure out what works for you. Don’t give up or get discouraged, just do it some more! The next pair of mittens I made (for myself) had the best tension of all. I found that for three colors in a row, laying the yarn on a table in front of me and crossing the balls of yarn as needed worked best. That was months ago… Now if I can just pick up the feel of it again next time I make a stranded pattern!

  37. does anyone know where i can pick up a dvd or other demp on picking two colors on the left hand? the gadget that holds the yarn around your finger is called a strickfingerhut. you can make one with wire from your hobby store to fit your finger perfect. mine works great.

  38. my spelling isn’t so great either. what i need to know about picking with two colors is how to strand the colors correctly while holding them both on the left hand. thank you

  39. Strickfingerhut is a German word. Stricken is knitting; Fingerhut (lit. finger hat) is a thimble. So we English speakers could call the gadget a knitting thimble.

  40. Hi, I’m a self taught knitter; I too loved the tomato but for the same resons as you did not even consider the sweater. I love your version with the lower stripe and breast darts. Now I’m no professional, but I can hold my own when it comes to knitting. But I would love it if you could tell me how to do breast darts…..I would make so many more sweaters than I do. Please could you e-mail me

  41. Thank you for clearing up the difference between Fair Isle and stranded colorwork…I’ve been searching for articles explaining it but none of them ever make sense!

  42. As far as I’m concerned, two-handed fair isle is the only way to go! I avoided color-work like the plague until I mastered this technique. It opens a whole new realm of knitting fun – well worth the effort (and initial frustration) !!
    I also use Kaffe Fassett’s technique for joining yarn and weaving in ends as you work. This has also changed my knitting experience in a big way as the work stays neat and tidy throughout and minimizes all that nasty finishing. Knitting Daily rocks!

  43. Hey, I am new to stranded knitting too. I have attempted a pair of mittens with an argyle pattern on the dorsal (back) side of the hand–it uses three colors. The mittens are made on double pointed needles in the round-typical. But what I have read so far tells me that >two color knitting should be back and forth in flat work. Then I noticed that our illustrious editor has been sampling the Tomato on double pointed needles. I am confused. Can someone clear up my confusion–remember I am new to this–keep it simple please. thanks. Julie B

  44. Success at last. I’ve tried stranded knitting before and given up. But after reading all these posts, I used the two handed method and stretched the stitches on the right needle a bit and it’s beautiful!! I can’t wait to do more. Have to finish this one first though. I’m calling it my “grape” because it’s “raging purple” with a peridot stripe. This is fun!

  45. I’m a Norwegian knitter and most of the Norwegian knitters do theyr Stranded Colorwork with the yarns through the left hand. We call it colouwork with two or more colours.I myself change to a thicker needle and stretch the work on my right hand needle, – like some of you do as well. But when the strands are longer than 5 stiches I twist the strands. I have the colour I use the most over my indexfinger and the other over the next finger and both through the rest of the hand. I never let the strands go out of my hand. When I want to twist the yarn I let my right hand needle do the work by going over the second colour for some stitches and under the second colour for some more stitches. The first stitch after a twist must be thight to avoid the colour to show of on the right side of the work, and when I change colour I also stretch the work to the right. In this way I also keep the contrast colour at the same place, which is fatal in som of the Norwegian patterns (mittens and socks. I also manage three colours in this way, but I will not even try to describe it. As a beginner in Stranded Colorwork I found it useful to put my right hand indexfinger under the strand when I started to knit with it again, – to make the strand long enough. And as somebody said before – use real wool to make it look good. Cotton and some shiny yarns are not very good for Stranded Colorwork.I really prefere to do the stranded colourwork from the rigt side of the work on the round, it takes som practice to do it from the wrong side where its hard to see the stitches because of all the strands. When we design we try to avoid strands over more than 5 stitches. We also say that a knitter can were a sweather with long strands and that a child can’t. About useing one or two hands while knitting Stranded Colorwork – do I have to say more – I’m happy I have two!

  46. I have not yet tackled Fair Isle patterns, but I have visited the Fair Isle. It is a magical, windy, green, and treeless island, tucked in between the North Atlantic and the North Sea. With only 70 residents, sheep are by far the most popular life form.

  47. I am currently taking on the stag bag,the only other color work have done was a mosaic pattern for my son’s Christmas stocking. I really find that being able to come back and look at the photos and read everyone’s own tips has really helped me! Thanks guys!

  48. I am fairly new to two color knitting, and have decided to tackle the road to golden sweater. My biggest problem is at the begining of the round – my stiches bunch terribly and the three/four stiches before and after the start of the round look terrible. Does anyone have advice about how to keep this part looking better?

  49. I am fairly new to two color knitting, and have decided to tackle the road to golden sweater. My biggest problem is at the begining of the round – my stiches bunch terribly and the three/four stiches before and after the start of the round look terrible. Does anyone have advice about how to keep this part looking better?

  50. Dear Cayenne, I like your name a lot,too! I see only one comment about the inside-out Fair Isle question you had; did this make it clear for you? If not, I’ll just add that you are actually “WORKING” on the right side, looking at the right side, but the right side is inside, and as the other comment said, your needle tips are on the far side, with the work on the cable connection toward you. The knitting is inside out, but you’re just working along the top edge, seeing the right side, on the far side of the work. Just in case you or anyone else wasn’t absolutely sure. I personally like this method a lot, and the difference it makes is subtle, but exactly enough, and uniform throughout the work. Doris F.

  51. Just want to thank you, Elin N., for your post on July 3 about colorwork knitting. I am just about to start a “car” sweater for my grandson. I’m experienced with stranding, but two of the rows in each block of cars has three colors! Ack! I panicked when I noticed this! I will give your method a try, Elin – thanks! And thanks Knitting Daily for this fabulous forum!

  52. more on car sweater…I plan to keep the “working yarn” in my right hand (as I throw my stitches), and I’ll carry the other two colors (nonworking yarns) on my index finger and middle finger, weaving them in every other stitch. Is this making any sense? I’ll let you know…to be continued…

  53. As a right-handed knitter, I found it easiest to strand three colors on one row by holding my working yarn in my right hand and the two non-working yarns in my left hand. I’m not sure if this is correct, but it’s working nicely.

  54. Well,l I may have missed it – there are a LOT of posts – but when I look at Norah’s floats and at my floats, the big difference I see is that somehow – even when she’s in the middle of a long line of one color stitches – the other color isn’t a huge long string, but is somehow woven in. That’s what I need instructions for …
    And – now that I have the deer done and the super long floats are pulling just a tiny bit – what do I do to “relax” them?