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Color stranding

When knitting with two or more colors wherein the distance between color changes is short, letting the unused yarn be carried along across the wrong side is called color stranding. Color stranding creates a fabric that is -- in essence - two layers thick. The knitting creates one layer and the “floats” -- the strands being carried along the wrong side of the work -- creating the second layer... which is probably why it's come to be associated with areas known for cold weather -- Norway, Fair Isle, Iceland and the Andes for example.

Another type of color work in knitting is intarsia. In intarsia, the different colors of yarn are wound on bobbins -- one bobbin per color rather than being carried along on the back of the work. (Think Kaffe Fassett.) Intarsia is best for larger blocks of color (we'll discuss why a little later) while color stranding is used for smaller, repetitive patterns.

Side note: Think Fair Isle and Color Stranding are synonymous? Not so!

The first step in doing color stranding is figuring out how you want to hold the yarns.

If you hold the working yarn in your right hand, you'll simply hold both yarns in your right hand and simply knit with the appropriate color as you come to it...

If you normally hold the working yarn in your left hand, there are a couple of ways of holding the yarn so you can pick up the color you want to use. Either with one color over the index finger and another over the middle finger...

Or with both colors over the index finger...

According to my source (on the actual Fair Isle!) this last way is how they actually do it on (the real live!) Fair Isle. If that's the way they do it, I've got to endorse it as a very good way of doing it indeed. You might find it a bit tricky keeping the yarns separate... fortunately there is a device called a "Knitting Thimble" or Strickfingerhut which is a guide for holding the yarn over your left index finger.

I -- however -- have not quite mastered the use of it.

When I first learned to knit I learned to throw the yarn, holding it in my right hand -- what's known as "English" knitting. After investigating a bit, I decided I rather wanted to hold the yarn in my left hand -- so called "Continental" knitting. Being able to knit both ways, I do my color stranding by holding one color in each hand -- mostly because Elizabeth Zimmerman recommends it in Knitting Without Tears. More precisely, I hold the main color in my faster, left hand and the contrast color in my weaker, right hand.

The most important thing about color stranding is having the yarn carried across the back of the work at the same tension as the knitting.

If your floats are too loose the stitches will elongate and you'll be catching your fingers in the strands whenever you pull the sweater over your head or the mitten over your hand.

As you float the yarn along the wrong side of the work, keep the stitches on the right hand needle spaced out enough that the yarn floats are at approximately the same tension as the knitting.

You want for the gauge over color work to be approximately the same as over stockingette stitch -- even though the fabric is thicker.

However! Floats that are a bit too loose are infinitely better than too tight. If your floats are pulled too tightly the stitches will be pulled inwards. In the next picture you can see that the purple yarn has been stranded too tightly for a few rows, causing the stitches to "recede".

In extreme cases - where the floats are constantly too tight -- the entire knitting is puckered and unusable. Also- and this is an important - It is possible to tighten loose stranding BUT it is not possible to loosen tight stranding, so until you've had a bit of practice, err on the side of looseness.

Hopefully the back of your work will look something like this...

There are several more things I've learned about color stranding over the past few years ...

  • Knitting circularly with two colors is FAR easier than knitting flat and having to purl with two colors. Avoid purling and color stranding like the plague, unless you have masochistic tendencies. Read through your pattern a few times in advance to check. I'm sure that steeking was invented to avoiding purling with two colors and you know it takes a desperate knitter to take a pair of scissors to her knitting for the first time ever. (I mean, really. Think about that!)
  • Knitting with TWO colors is far easier than knitting with MORE THAN two colors. It's fine for a few rows, but let's face it -- you only have two hands.
  • Wool is ideal for color work for several reasons. Wool is more flexible and resilient than, say, cotton and will be slightly more forgiving of tension errors. Wool also has a tendency to stick to itself after it's been blocked and used and washed a few times which means that even overly long floats on the wrong side will lie down nicely after a time. Here is the inside of a pair of well-worn woolen mittens where the floats are all stuck together:

  • Choose a pattern that uses circular needles for your first project. A cap or an infant sized sweater is ideal. Double pointed needles bring the extra challenge of keeping the float loose over the transition from one double point to the next, so you might want to wait to use double points after you've had a bit of practice.
  • If you look at traditional Fair Isle and Norwegian color charts, you'll notice that very few places on any row have one color being knitted for more than around 5 (7 at the most) stitches. This is to keep the floats on the back from being overly long.

    If you have a chart that is a large block of color, such as this one...

You'll want to look into using intarsia.

However, if you have a chart like this one...

where there are no more than 4 stitches in a row on any one row, color stranding works very well, indeed.

  • There are ways to weave the yarn in if you need to carry the yarn over more than 5 -7 stitches. Simply knit one stitch, then bring the floating yarn over (or under) the working yarn to catch it in place.

Weaving only needs to be done if your floats are long, or if you're using a yarn will not felt down after a time, like cotton.

Here is an example of extremely conscientious weaving with cotton yarn:

Be aware, however, that weaving -- especially in colors that contrast sharply like black and white -- can be visible on the right side.

As with anything in knitting, color stranding is simply a matter of practice and absolutely nothing to feel intimidated about. If I can do it, you can too!

Want to learn more about Color Stranding? Try Nanette Blanchard's excellent booklet: Stranded Color Knitting

Knitting Without Tears

Thanks to:
The Knittyboard Chat Gurus, especially Laura Prescott for the picture of Extreme Weaving, and Angela Wiseman for setting me straight on how they really do things on Fair Isle.



Theresa is a 30-something American living in Norway with her husband and step-daughter.

She keeps a (sometimes updated) knitting journal here.