Stranded Colorwork Success

I knit a lot stranded color work. I think it’s my favorite knitting technique (it’s at least in the top two, along with cables). One thing I’ve noticed about knitting with two or more colors is the number of people who comment, both on line and in person, that they either don’t think they can do it or are afraid to try.

To which I say: don’t be! It’s awesome! And really, practice does make perfect.

The most important facet of successful stranded colorwork knitting is maintaining the proper tension in the yarn that you’re NOT knitting with. It’s very easy, especially for beginners, to tighten the yarn not being used too much (the “floats”), which will create either a puckered appearance to the knitted fabric, or uneven stitches where the stitch is pulled tighter and smaller because there isn’t enough yarn being carried behind the work to maintain proper stitches.

Likewise, leaving TOO much yarn in the floats can be problematic, as the knit stitches can become bigger and looser, and too much yarn behind the work is an invitation to get snagged on fingers, hands, whatever might catch it when putting the garment on or wearing it.

There are a number of different techniques that can help you successfully knit stranded color work. I use one that “catches” the floats behind a stitch every so often, which helps to maintain proper tension. When I first started to knit with two or more colors, I caught the float just about every other stitch to make sure the tension was correct. I don’t do that anymore, because I’m much more comfortable with how much yarn I need to leave in the back. Now I’ll catch my floats every 4 or 5, or even 6, stitches.

My favored method is called “woven floats” and appears in this video, which shows very clearly how it’s done. I hold one strand of yarn in each hand as this video details, and knit back and forth between the two (and catch the floats as needed).

An important detail when  you catch floats in this manner, though, is to realize that the float might be a little bit noticeable from the front of the work. This is especially true if you catch the float in the same vertical stitch every time, so it’s important to mix up where the float occurs to ensure it’s not in the same spot. I will also “stretch” the fabric out but pulling it from top to bottom and side to side every so often. This pulls the floats towards the back and away from the front of the work. If one is still more noticeable than I like, I’ll manually work it towards the back with a tapestry needle.

Interweave Knits’ video from Knitting Daily shows several different techniques for stranded knitting. When I first started knitting with two strands, I actually knit the first way Eunny shows in this video (dropping one yarn and picking the other one up for every color change). But knitting this way is time consuming, and it doesn’t address how to tension the two yarns, since you’re always leaving one dangling behind, dropping and picking it up.

And then there’s this technique shown by Donna Druchunas, called Stretchy Two Color Knitting, which I think is really interesting and has a lot of potential, especially for new stranded knitters.

Knitting swatches in colorwork presents a different issue. If you don’t want to knit your swatch in the round, you’ll have to knit back and forth, which means you’ll be purling the colorwork pattern as well as knitting it. I have to admit that I really don’t enjoy purling colorwork. Catching the floats when purling is a different technique, and feels very fiddly to me. The technique is shown in this video.

It’s not my favorite, but sometimes knitting a flat swatch has it’s purpose. It’s a good choice if all you’re doing is trying colors out together for a larger project, which is what the above swatches are all about. I just choose a simple pattern if I’m knitting a flat swatch.

(Edited to add: if you’re planning to knit a colorwork project in the round, your swatch should also be knit in the round. This is because often people’s purling gauge is different than their knitting. I didn’t make this clear above, and Heidi Todd Kozar pointed this important tip out in the comments. She has a good technique for swatching – basically knit like a giant i-cord – that she describes in the comments, too.)


Speaking of colorwork, I’ve been thinking about the above unfinished hat for a few weeks now. It’s been on my needles entirely too long, and I really need to get back to it! I’m knitting it in Jeane DeCoster’s Elemental Affects Civility Fingering, in Citron and St. Lucia. This is going to be a “ski” hat, long and tapered with a pompom on the end. If it works out like I imagine, I’ll publish the pattern.

If you’re new to colorwork, I recommend starting with something small, with simple shaping, and patterns that don’t include large color block areas where you’ll need to deal with tensioning longer floats. A hat, cowl, mittens, or fingerless mitts are the perfect projects to try working with multiple colors. Here are some great pattern options with shorter color block patterns:

Clockwise from Upper Left (all photos borrowed from the linked Ravelry pages): Bousta Beanie by Gudrun Johnston, Mystery of Light Cowl by Pia KammebornShine Mittens by Pia KammebornWherever it Points by Darn Knit AnywayPastures and Woods by Alicia PlummerGolden Pear by Melissa Thomson, Clayoquot Toque by Tin Can Knits

But be careful ~ stranded knitting can be downright addicting!


10 thoughts on “Stranded Colorwork Success

  1. Jennifer, thanks so much for all of these tips. I am just venturing into colorwork and found these videos so helpful. I’m marking this page for ready reference!


  2. Jen, these are beautiful projects! Just a little comment about the swatching in stranded color work. It is important to swatch in the round when you will be working you project in the round. Many people have a different purl gauge than their knit gauge. For this reason it is key to swatch in the round as you will be knitting your project in the round, unless you are a masochist! Now, Elizabeth Z would often knit a sleeve and use that as the gauge swatch or a hat. I teach my stranded color work students a technique called a speed swatching. You cast on a much smaller number of stitches, enough to give you at least four inches of fabric on to double pointed or circular needles. You work across with the front side facing you at all times. It’s like really big I-Cord that you bring the yarns loosely around behind your work. So you work across, when you get to the end of the row you slide the stitches to the other end of the circular needle, bring the yarns around the back and start knitting again on the next row. When you are done with your swatch vertical repeats you bind off. Now you can either cut all the loosely strung pieces of yarn and trim them up, or you can leave them intact behind your swatch. Block as you will your garment. Never have to purl color work again. Clear as mud, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! That’s a great idea … sort of like a giant i-cord :-). I agree about needing to swatch in the round for projects in the round – I was only writing about flat swatches to play with colors and see how they work together, not so much for swatching for an actual project :-).


  3. What beautiful projects! I love color work – it’s just amazing. Thank you for all of the instruction techniques and inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

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