The biggest advantage of making our own handknits is the freedom to choose different colours and combine them in unique combinations. There are ways to blend colours together, to make motifs and various stripes, colour blocking and entrelac.
But probably the most loved way to mix colours is stranded knitting, especially Fair Isle. This technique is considered to be more advanced because there are quite a few rules we need to follow to make a nice looking colourful fabric:
1. Manage a few strands of yarn at the same time in the same row or round.
2. Remember to always pick one strand from underneath the other, and maintain that order throughout the row/round.
3. Keep the floats at the back of the work long enough to ensure the fabric is not jammed.
Pretty complicated, right? Well, not if you use a little helpful technique I am going to explain in this article 🙂
The general idea is simple – we don’t carry two or more strands in one row. Instead, we work the same row or round with each colour separately. That means, that if we use two colours in one row, we’ll work the row in colour A, then return to the beginning of the row and work that same row with colour B.
HERE’S HOW TO DO IT STEP BY STEP
First, let’s see how to use this technique when we work in the round.
1. Cast on the number of stitches required for your pattern. For the swatch shown below, I cast on 30 stitches to make five 6-stitches repeat of a simple Fair Isle pattern.
2. When it’s time to add the contrasting colour, attach it to the main colour with a simple knot.
3. Round 1 of the colour pattern. A few helpful hints:
a) If you want the contrasting colour motif to be more prominent, always start the round with that colour.
b) Because most colour patterns are depicted as a chart, it helps a lot to use a magnetic guide.
Now let’s get back to our swatch. Take a strand of the contrasting colour. Knit the stitches that are supposed to be worked in contrasting colour, and slip the stitches that are supposed to be worked in the main colour.
If we follow the chart below, then we will do the following:
[knit 1, slip 1 with yarn in back, knit 3, slip 1], repeat brackets to end.
In the photo below you see that the main colour (golden) is merely waiting for its turn, while we knit and slip stitches using only the contrasting colour.
Even though we worked this round once and arrived at the beginning of the round, we are not done with this round yet. Take the main colour yarn and work the same round one of the colour pattern again. But this time we knit the stitches that were slipped and slip the ones that were knit with the contrasting colour.
That means that with the main colour we’ll do the following:
[slip 1 with yarn in back, knit 1, slip 3, knit 1], repeat brackets to end.
Now we can confidently say that we finished the first round of the colour pattern 🙂
Because we worked with one colour at a time, we solved two major issues:
a) No need to juggle with several strands at once.
b) The colours are perfectly aligned one on top of the other as you can clearly see in the photo below that shows the wrong side of the work.
A few notes about the third major issue – tension. Even with this technique, we still have to pay attention to the floats to make sure we leave enough yarn at the back of the work to prevent puckering.
Because we deal with only one strand at a time, it is not hard to do – as you knit, spread the fabric nicely on the right needle after every few stitches.
If you work with a small number of stitches (as I did when I was making this swatch) and use double pointed needles or the magic loop technique, be careful with the floats that form between the needles. When you move from one needle to another, hold the float close to the fabric with your right hand, or pull the float slightly to make it bigger.
Now let’s take a look at this technique when we work flat.
The main idea remains the same – we work every row first with the contrasting colour, and then with the main colour.
To make it possible to return to the beginning of the row again (and again if you decide to use three or more colours in the same row), use a circular needle or a pair of double pointed needles.
1. Cast on the number of stitches required for the pattern + 2 more stitches for selvedges. It is not absolutely necessary to have one extra stitch on each side of the fabric, but they do make the sides look nicer and serve as an anchor point when we change colours.
To make the swatch shown in the photo below, I cast on: 3 repeats x 6 stitches + 2 selvedge stitches + I also added one stitch to make the colour pattern symmetrical = 21 stitches in total.
If you look at the chart above, you will see that the odd numbers of the rows are at the right and the even numbers are at the left side of the chart. It is the only difference from the chart we used when we worked in the round, and it shows that we need to read the even numbered rows from left to right.
To avoid the confusion, I prefer to add an extra stitch or two to make the colour pattern symmetrical.
2. When it’s time to introduce the contrasting colour, attach it to the main colour at the beginning of the knit row.
3. Row 1. With the contrasting colour yarn, slip the first stitch (this one will be used as a selvedge and we’ll always knit it with the main colour). Then knit the stitches that are shown in the chart in the contrasting colour, and slip the ones that are shown in the main colour.
That means that in our swatch we’ll [knit 1, slip 1 with yarn in back, knit 3, slip 1]. Work brackets to the last stitch (the other selvedge) and slip the last stitch.
As you see in the photo below, the yarn in main colour (golden) is not at work while we knit and slip stitches with the contrasting colour (orange).
Now slide all stitches to the other tip of the circular or double pointed needle WITHOUT turning your work. We are back at the beginning of row 1 of the colour pattern.
With the main colour yarn knit the first stitch, then knit the slipped stitches and slip the knit stitches. That means, we’ll [slip 1 with yarn in back, knit 1, slip 3, knit 1]. Repeat to the last stitch and knit the last stitch.
Twist the strands at the end of the row, and do it after you finish each row of the colour pattern.
Now we are ready to turn the work and purl the second row of the colour pattern.
In both swatches, we started working the round/row with the contrasting colour to make the colour motif more vivid. If you want to make it more subtle, start with the main colour.
This photo shows how the choice of colour changes the look of the pattern.
To make the motif at the bottom of the swatch, I started to work every row with the contrasting colour. Each row of the motif at the top of the swatch was started with the main colour.
The difference between the two motifs is not significant, but if you look closely, you will notice that the bottom one seems brighter and more prominent.
The only drawback of this way to knit stranded colourwork is that we can’t “catch the floats”. Because we work with one colour at a time, there is no way we can twist the strands at the back of the work to avoid long floats.
That means that this technique works best for the colour patterns that have no more than five stitches worked in the same colour.
Otherwise, it’s an easy way to create gorgeous colourwork with minimal effort.
Make your knits colourful 🙂
If you enjoyed this tutorial,
here’s something else you might find helpful:
“Neat Side Edges” Book
Learn twelve ways to make side edges of a knitted project nice and tidy. Plus, ways to fix side edges, and a way to improve edges of finished projects.
Dealing with Unfinished Projects
Dictionary of Knitting Symbols and Abbreviations – E-Book
Eastern (Russian) Knitting Simplified
Knitting Collection #6
Simple Socks in Any Size with Any Yarn
Top-Down Hat in Any Size with Any Yarn