OK! Picking back up with the Beginning to Knit series, let’s talk about colorwork — specifically, stranded or “fair isle” knitting. (I’m not going into intarsia in this post.) Just like cables, stranded knitting is a great thing to try when you’re still fairly new to knitting. But even or especially if you’ve been knitting a long time and have never done it, it’s time! Both seem really difficult and amazing and impressive but are actually insanely simple. In the case of stranded knitting, it’s just stockinette and it’s almost always done in the round, so you’re only ever working from the right side of the fabric. You can handle knitting in the round, right? There are only two tricks to knitting multi- rather than single-color stockinette:
1) Holding the yarn.
If a pattern row has you knit two white stitches, then two black stitches and repeat that to the end of the row, you could literally knit the two white stitches, drop the yarn, pick up the black yarn and knit two stitches, drop it, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but it would slow you down a bit. Depending on how ambidextrous you are and which hand your normally hold your working yarn in, you could hold both yarns in your left hand, both in your right, or one in each hand. (That’s my preference.) There are copious videos on the web demonstrating all the options.
2) Minding your floats.
Imagine what I described above: putting one yarn down and picking up the next one. On the wrong side of the work, that new yarn has to reach across the two (or however many) stitches you just worked in the other color, and that little bit of yarn carried behind the work is called a float. (You’ve seen floats on the back side of fair isle knitting before, no doubt, but here’s a pic for you.) The reason most people’s stranded work winds up being tighter than single-color work is that their floats are too short and it pulls on the back of the work. So for one thing, you have to be careful to keep your floats even — the same width as the stitches they float behind. And for another, when the floats get very long — longer than a inch or so — you need to “trap” them by simply twisting the two yarns in back.
The other key difference is that when you’re working stockinette in the round, the last thing in the world you need is a chart — you’re just knitting every stitch! But for colorwork, you pretty much always need a chart showing you which stitches are worked in which colors. As long as you’re knitting in the round, you read the chart exactly like you knit: from right to left, starting at the bottom and working your way up. If a chart seems daunting, keep in mind that you only knit one row at a time. Block out all but the first (bottom) row on this sample chart and you’ll see that all you need to do is knit 1 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 7 blue, then repeat that 10-stitch sequence to the end of the round. You can do that, right? Then take the next row as it comes. I borrowed this sample chart from Dianna Walla’s free Pine Bough Cowl pattern, which was a huge hit with you all in the big cowls roundup a few months ago — it would be a great introduction to both colorwork and charts for the moderately ambitious among you. (Note that in some cases on a colorwork chart you’ll see black dots in some of the squares. Those dots are just there to emphasize the motif that’s being created — chevrons or triangles or whatever it may be. It’s just a visual aid; you still just knit every stitch.) [See UPDATE below about Dianna and charts.]
So, in my mind, the ideal projects for first-timers are those that A) are knitted in the round, B) never use more than two colors within a single row and C) don’t involve any long floats. Some suggestions, pictured above:
TOP ROW: BASIC GEOMETRY
left: Dessau Cowl by Carrie Bostick Hoge — super-simple triangles pattern, maybe slightly long floats (See also: Flying Geese Cowl, Tolt Hat and Mitts)
center: Netty Cowl by Ien Sie — polka dots worked in a tube and grafted into a loop (See also: Herrington and Empire State)
right: Amira pullover by Andrea Rangel — just a little colorwork around the circular yoke (See also: Willard, Stasis, slightly more intricate Skydottir, or the Altair hat)
MIDDLE ROW: ZIGS, ZAGS AND CROSSES
left: Harpa scarf by Cirilia Rose — tube scarf with long ribbed ends
center: Muckle Mitts by Mary Jane Mucklestone — my first colorwork project, includes both 2- and 3- color versions (either way just two colors per round) (See also: the more ambitious Seasons hat)
right: Vega hat by Alexis Winslow
BOTTOM ROW: GETTING INTRICATE
left: Gloaming Mittens by Leila Raabe — there’s a slight chance there may be some 3-color rounds in here but I don’t think so
center: Selbu Modern hat by Kate Gagnon Osborn — like delicate Art Nouveau wallpaper for your head (free pattern)
right: Funchal Moebius by Kate Davies — clever play with lights and darks in a tube that’s grafted into a moebius (or a loop if you like)
I personally put off trying colorwork for two years, and then decided to take Mary Jane Mucklestone’s beginner class to get me off my duff and so I’d be sure to learn good habits right from the start. If you’re at all nervous about trying stranded knitting, then by all means sign up for a class. As I always say, you never know what else you might learn.
UPDATE: Dianna Walla left a comment below about her chart. She just did a post on her blog about working from colorwork charts, which you should definitely take a look at. See also her recent post about color dominance.