A couple weeks ago I blogged about the Wool People 13 collection of patterns from Brooklyn Tweed, and wrapped that up by discussing Bract a swingy pullover work a colorwork yoke. While I’m almost ready to cast on for this project, I got it in my brain that I wanted to tweak my stranded colorwork technique. As a continental knitter, I had previously been working one color of yarn in each hand. While this is my no means incorrect, I knew this method wasn’t conducive to proper color dominance techniques. I spent the past week tweaking my technique and having an enormous amount of fun. I also spent a lot of time thinking about why certain projects are great for learning stranded colorwork (aka Fair Isle) techniques, and why certain yarn choices are more agreeable to this as well. Whether you’re ready to start your first Fair Isle project or your fifteenth, I have some tips and project ideas for you.
Before I mention some tips as you embark on Fair Isle knitting, I’d like to mention what I did wrong this past week. I decided to cast on a pair of mittens using Magic Loop for my small-circumference knitting in the round. I chose the Isabel Mitten pattern by Junko Okamoto and I used some fingering-weight stash yarn that was a single ply wool (and fairly rustic). The Isabel Mitten pattern has one motif that is only repeated twice throughout each row, and therefore each row is pretty lengthy. Because there was little repetition and very long pattern repeats, I ended up making mistakes every other row. I also wouldn’t notice my mistake until I was at the end of each row. Also, that single-ply sticky yarn had very little elasticity, a mind of its own and wasn’t very forgiving. These issues aren’t that big of a deal on their own, but it complicated the process as I tried to teach myself to hold my yarn differently for this technique.
Rather than immediately start my second Isabel Mitten, I decided to switch gears and focus on one thing: getting comfortable with my new technique. I picked the type of project that I’d recommend for anyone new to stranded color work knitting.
I cast on for the Latvian Team Olympic Hat, a project I’ve loved since it was released during the 2018 Winter Olympics. This project is knit up in a worsted weight yarn, which is a comfortable weight for learning new knitting techniques. Not only is there a 12-stitch repeat worked several times in each row, but I love that every single row begins with the same three stitches. For this particular hat, this means there’s an anchor to each repeat, making it easy to detect a mistake quickly! As a hat, I got to most of the project on a standard 16” circular needle. Most of the learning was done without use of DPNs or or Magic Loop, allowing me once again to just focus on my stitch technique. For my yarn choice, I picked some Falkland Aran from my stash, which has a bit of twist and elasticity. Did you catch all of that? Let me sum up those tips for you:
- Pick a mid-weight yarn. Avoid skinny or fat yarns.
- Choose a pattern with a 5-20 stitch repeat. It will be easier for you to keep track of your stitches and your stitch pattern if the repeat is over a smaller number of stitches.
- Choose a project that can be worked almost entirely on a regular circular needle. Hats and cowls are fantastic for this. If you’re a confident sweater knitter, choosing a project with stranded colorwork on the sleeve and body hems or the yoke is a decent choice also. I particularly love hats. They are small and finished more quickly. If you pick a project that has a stranded color work pattern throughout the entire hat, you also get the benefit of using DPNs toward the end of the project as you do the crown shaping.
- Choose a yarn that has some give. Wool is always a great choice, and pick something that has a little bounce and elasticity. Brooklyn Tweed’s Arbor and Peerie are favorite choices of mine. Hikoo’s Sueno and Sueno Worsted are other beautiful choices. A few more include: Shepherd’s Wool, Kenzie, Simpliworsted, Shelter and Loft.
If you’re a newbie to stranded color work knitting, here are some great projects for your first Fair Isle project.
Stacy Perry’s Learn to Knit a Fair Isle Hat is everything it promises to be. I’ve always loved Perry’s instructional videos. The support she offers in pattern and via her videos are fantastic. I like this hat because it’s not inundated with color work. You get to to knit a hat and dabble in Fair Isle knitting for some twenty-odd rows. You can play with stitching with two colors of yarn every row and trying to keep your tension under control throughout the colorwork section. Once you’ve finished that motif, you can carry on with your hat! A project like this is quick and it will let you see if your tension varies significantly during your Fair Isle knitting. Mine does! If I was knitting this hat today, I’d know that for most of the project I’d use a US7 needle (for example), but for the color work section I’d have to go up to an US8 or a US9! If you’re a newbie, I’d recommend starting as written. If you notice your colorwork section has tension that is really different than the rest of your hat, you can rip out a few rows, tweak your needle size and try again. This is a learning project!
Banff is a sweet hat with a tree motif worked in a worsted-weight yarn. It’s easy to see where this design is going and to follow the stitch pattern. There’s not a lot of space between color changes, so there’s no need to catch floats in this project. This project is sized for people of all ages, and is a great project for any gender. For Banff and Stacy Perry’s Fair Isle Hat, I’d suggest any of these yarns: Shepherd’s Wool, Falkland Aran, Shelter, and Sueño Worsted.
Ballard is another great hat with a traditional stranded colorwork design. I love that this one works with an 8-stitch repeat (easier to memorize). I also like that the color extends throughout the crown shaping. However (!) that color work in the crown shaping are just little dots of color – so in the very unlikely chance that you make a mistake when you switch over to your DPNs, it’s not that big of a deal, and it’s certainly not noticeable. For Ballard, give these yarns a try: Blue Sky Woolstok, Brooklyn Tweed Arbor, HiKoo Kenzie.
Morse is a cool cowl from Brooklyn Tweed, knit up in Shelter. Brooklyn Tweed always gives you the opportunity to try out new techniques. They use a tubular cast-on and they recommend switching needle sizes between the rows where you use one color and two (I would have to do this, knowing how my tension varies so much). You can choose to skip that tubular cast-on if you want. This project also has several rows where there are several stitches between color changes. This will mean that your unused color “floats”. If you choose, this is a good project to learn to catch those floats. (Don’t worry, I’m going to include some tutorial videos below).
Joy Jannotti’s Mediterranean Hat pattern was clearly written as a learning project. It’s well written, with a 15-stitch repeat worked over 15 rows, and the 15 row chart is worked twice before you start your crown decreases. Color work is done every single row, so you get to stay on the same size needle the entire project. Like Ballard and the Latvian Team hat, you will need to switch to DPNs for crown shaping, and you will be doing color work at the same time. Think of this as a good challenge and wonderful opportunity to learn. It’s also a very small part of the project, time spent on DPNs is limited. This is also a free pattern. I love that Joy Jannotti makes it so easy for us to learn with this project! Once again, great yarns for this project are: Shepherd’s Wool, Falkland Aran, Shelter, and Sueño Worsted.
If you’re new to color work, I highly recommend checking out Brooklyn Tweed’s instructional piece on stranded color work.
This video from Arne & Carlos is fantastic for beginners. I like that Arne handles the two colors of yarn in the same way beginner would as they embark on stranded color work. He switches between knitting continental and english, which is also great for newbies.
Stacy Perry’s video that accompanies her How To Knit a FairIsle Hat is another fabulous one. Once again, she holds her yarn between her two hands. This particular video, she shows you a couple methods of catching floats, both of which are great for those new to this concept.
As I mentioned above, I tweaked my technique so that instead of carrying one yarn in each of my hands, I am now carrying both yarn on my left hand. Voolenvine’s video on continental stranded knitting best illustrates that technique, and her transition is a lot like mine. She also touches on catching floats with this method.
Does all of this make stranded colorwork sound manageable and fun? I hope so… because it is! Whether you’re a novice or building on existing skills, there’s always room to grow. Going back to basics on pattern and yarn choices can impact your learning – how you feel about it and what you get out of it. Happy knitting!