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!


Grandpa Cardigan: Finished!


Grandpa Cardigan, by Joji Locatell, knit in Spirit Trail Birte in an OOAK reddish-raspberry color.

Finished! I finished my lovely Grandpa Cardigan a couple of weeks ago. It’s proven difficult to find the time to get photos taken, but I managed it last week!

I love this cardigan. It’s relatively lightweight, and the pattern is SO pretty.


I did not get gauge specified in the pattern, so I did some math and figured out where I was in terms of the pattern sizes and dimensions.The gauge I got with Birte on size 7 needles was 27.5 stitches and 32 rows over 4 inches – 6.875 stitches per inch and 8 rows per inch (versus the pattern gauge of 5.5 stitches and 7 rows). I liked the drape of the fabric on this needle size, so I increased to a size 46/48 since because this size corresponded closest with the 38/40 size at the different gauge.

There are many tutorials and posts on the internet about what to do if the yarn you want to use for a specific pattern isn’t the right gauge. Two blogs recently posted about this issue, and both do a great job explaining what to and how to do it:

Fringe Association’s How to Account for Gauge Differences, and

TinCan Knits’ How to Knit a Garment at a Different Gauge. TinCan’s post also describes how to account for gauge discrepancies when knitting colorwork projects.


Photos taken at my adorable little local coffee shop, Before and After, in Sperryville, VA. It will soon be opening a market and wine bar, too! woohoo!

Luckily, because the pattern is vertical and repetitive, the row gauge being off was not the complication that it could have been. I just knitted until I had the right length dimensions.


I love this sweater (and I love the green-tan-red wooden buttons I found in my button box, purchased years ago from who knows where!).

[Did you notice the error I made in the cable patterning? Yeah, most knitters will, and it’s very noticeable in the above photo. I didn’t see it until I had completely finished the body of the sweater, and decided I’d rather live with it than rip out literally weeks worth of work (or rip it all the way back to the shoulder seam in one spot and knit it back up … Nope). I decided it will be the detail in the project which makes it imperfect, much like the myth of Amish Quilters making purposeful mistakes to show humility. Navaho weavers do something similar in their weaving, when they leave a small opening in the border, or a line running through the border, so that their creativity and spirit don’t get stuck in the current project. For the Navaho, this is actually called the Spirit Trail  or weaver’s pathway (this is where the name of my company comes from; I was really taken with this concept, the spirituality behind it and the idea of freeing one’s spirit and creativity to move from the current project into the next). The story of purposeful mistakes in quilting may be a myth, but the Spirit Trail in Navaho weaving is very real. So, it’s my Spirit Trail. At least that’s the story I’m sticking with. :-)]

Hey, did you notice that Shannon is having her Tops, Tanks & Tees KAL? I’ve never participated in a KAL before, but I joined this one. I’m starting a Vivian in Spirit Trail Sunna this afternoon. My hope is that by joining Shannon’s KAL, i might actually finish this top in time to wear it sometime this season. Care to join? Details are on Shannon’s blog!