Knitting Stranded Colourwork: One of my favorite things
🎶 Let's talk about knitting!
Let's talk about you and me,
Let's talk about all the good things
That colourwork may bring! 🎶
Hooray for a long-awaited knitting post! I am so happy that I wrote this, because it forced me to go back to my roots and pick up my needles for a little knitting time.
I enjoy many different styles of knitting, but I absolutely LOVE stranded colourwork. Unfortunately, whenever I bring my affectionate stance up with other knitters, I hear things like "Ugggh, I hate colourwork.", "Carrying colour is so tedious", or "What is wrong with you?". Ok, knitting with multiple strands of yarn can be a daunting feat. It takes a certain kind of patience and steadfast persistence to move through even the shortest of colour charts.
Well, I am here today to make an argument for the joys of stranded colourwork! This technique is sometimes called Fair-Isle, Nordic, or Scandinavian knitting, although these names refer to specific genres of stranded knitting, each involving a certain number of colours and characteristic motifs (a great article about the unique elements of these different styles of knitting can be found here). Knitting colour by stranding is like building a mosaic wall. Each stitch in your pattern is represented by a box on your chart, which is akin to a tiny coloured brick. You must build up your wall, or pattern, by stacking your bricks in a particular order, creating a blocky 2-dimensional image just like pixels on a computer screen. Slowly, stitch by stitch, block by block, the picture becomes clear. Indeed, one of the greatest joys of stranded knitting is watching your pattern gradually reveal itself from the ground up (or top-down, rather!).
But what do you do with those extra colours that you are not using for your front-facing stitch? You need to somehow pick up and carry the additional strands behind your image so that they can be used for different coloured stitches further down the line. This method of carrying strands, also known as floats, is what defines the stranded colourwork method.
My love for stranding developed from my earliest successes with needlecraft; when I learned to knit Cowichan-style while living in a small rural town on northern Vancouver Island. Many a rainy afternoon was spent excitedly watching the iconic geometric patterns spring from little colored-coded boxes on paper into woolly designs beneath my needles. I was guided by my friend and mentor Karli, who was always on hand to answer my questions, help me to navigate charts, and act a sort-of personal cheerleader (I am forever in her debt!). She helped me to discover that I could very easily take the leap from beginner-knitter to needlecraft-extraordinaire by completing very vivid and seemingly complex colourwork patterns without necessarily mastering overwhelmingly difficult techniques. Stranding simply requires a groove for twisting and untwisting multiple working yarns. I will always fondly remember Karli explaining how she would enlist her young children to pick up and untangle her various skeins of working yarn while she was doing her own colour-stranded garments. I found my own (minon-lacking) method by creating a little game (or a chant?) for myself by winding one, two, three this-a-way, one, two, three that-a-way, which almost brought me to the point of actual excitement for those longer blocks of carried yarn. I ultimately realized that this stranded knitting thing just felt SATISFYING.
I eventually progressed from knitting on circular needles to double-pointed needles (DPN's), for which I also have a deep, unending adoration. I often think from an observer’s standpoint, working on DPN’s must look like some sort of Blair-Witch stick-figure black magic. But fear not, this tangle of needles and yarn is simply an elaborate stitch-holding system! Dividing stitches up across additional needles allows for clear dimensions in circular objects, and also creates evenly dispersed points of reference in patterns. In my opinion, it greatly enhances the stranded coulourwork experience, and I am hard pressed to use any implements but.
A few things to consider if you are learning to knit colourwork:
Although you can use this technique in Right Side/Wrong Side knitting (switching sides of your work and alternating between knits to purls), stranded colourwork is most easily executed when working in the round (knit or purl only).
Always remember to work from the bottom right of your colour chart to the left and then up. I have tried going right and down (like you would when reading) and everything gets muddled.
Keep it loose. I have the nasty habit of wanting to pull and tighten up the carried strands of yarn. This produces puckered, stiff work as the stranded yarn behind your stitches does not have the same flexibility as knitted yarn. Resist the urge!!!
You don't need to carry your floats after every stitch, but try not to let them get too long otherwise the back of your work will look messy and catch on things. I usually never go more than 2 stitches without bringing the floats over (although there is an argument to let them go a bit longer to prevent tightening).
You may wish to keep your different coloured yarns as separate as possible (ie – one colour on the left and one colour on the right), but I find this makes the winding and unwinding process more laborious. I use my yarn bowl to help keep my yarn flowing evenly but it does make it more difficult to untangle twisted strands, so you really have to be very on top of your winding/unwinding technique. Other knitters like to use knitting thimbles (as tested by Kate Davies); experiment with what works best for you!
I like to wiggle and pull at all of my completed colourwork to make sure all the stitches and strands are dispersed evenly. Sometimes I even poke loose stitches in with my needles. Don’t forget to block your piece for the best results!
If you happen to be experienced with colourwork, you may wish to further push the boundaries by developing some of your own custom colour charts. Composing patterns does require a bit of strategic forethought, but is otherwise incredibly easy and fun. Find a grid, and a couple of coloured pens, and away you go! Or, if you tend to digital media, you can use a free online pattern maker like Stitchfiddle. Stitchfiddle allows you to highly customize your own knitting and crochet patterns (There it is, at least one crochet plug per blog post!) and upload them in a number of formats. I can't say enough good things about this wonderful program!