With a history almost as old as knitting itself, stranded colorwork is a pillar of the fiber arts. From single stitch patterns (‘lice’) common in Scandinavia, to the small motifs (‘peerie’) and intricate complexities of Fair Isle knits, you’ll find stranded colorwork traditions around the world. Each region has their own interpretation and yet they still share so much—’strands’ and ‘floats,’ beautiful motifs, and a deep love of playing with color!
The Colorwork Cap
At first glance, stranded colorwork may look a little intimidating. And a second glance at the ‘wrong side’ of a project may overawe—what’s going on with all those extra strands? But we promise that stranded colorwork looks more complicated than it actually is. In fact, almost all stranded colorwork motifs are worked in familiar stockinette stitch, most often in the round. And usually, you’re only managing two colors in a row—one extra strand is fairly easy to handle once you know how. As always, you’re just knitting one stitch at a time!
At Churchmouse, we’ve designed several simple stranded colorwork projects that are perfectly friendly for beginners. In our patterns—both the Churchmouse Classics and several free patterns—we like to take inspiration from traditional designs, then interpret and simplify them into skill-builders that are fun and straightforward. We hope to demystify those strands and floats for you, and whet your appetite for stranded colorwork!
WHAT IS STRANDED COLORWORK?
In stranded colorwork, knitters alternate two (or more) colors of yarn in a repeating sequence. As they knit, both strands of yarn are connected to the work at all times. The yarn strand that’s not in use is carried, or ‘floated,’ along the back of the work and caught in the back of working stitches until it’s needed again. Stranded colorwork is named for these strands on the ‘wrong side’ of the fabric.
As the colors alternate and repeat, a pattern or motif will unfurl! There are near infinite possibilities here—motifs can range from small and geometric, to intricate, elaborate, and graphic. They can be used all over a garment, as decorative bands and borders (think hems, cuffs, shoulders), or as a shaped yoke.
You may occasionally hear the terms ‘stranded colorwork’ and ‘Fair Isle’ or ‘Norwegian’ colorwork used interchangeably. However, ‘Fair Isle’, ‘Norwegian’, and several other terms refer to a design style rather than the actual technique. ‘Stranded colorwork’ is the umbrella term that embraces all of these traditions.
The best-known stranded colorwork styles all seem to come from chilly, damp climes like Scotland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden—in our own Pacific Northwest region, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is home to the iconic Cowichan sweater!
Of these, perhaps the most famous is Fair Isle, hailing from an island of the same name in the Shetland archipelago, off the northern coast of Scotland. In this design style, only two colors of yarn are used per round and the yarn is carried for a limited number of stitches across the back of the work. The motifs can be small, intricate, and delicate (peerie, a word oft associated with Fair Isle, is the Scottish word for ‘small.’) Another feature particular to Fair Isle is that the background and foreground of the motif can shift subtly through shades, sometimes using up to 20 colors in a single piece!
The Tam Kits from Simply Shetland are a great example of Fair Isle colorwork, using up to eleven different colors!
If your image of stranded colorwork includes snowflakes, flowers, and stars, usually in red and white or black and white, you may be thinking of the styles that were developed in Selbu and Setesdal, Norway. These larger motifs can be accompanied by the all-over flecks of ‘lice’ stitch—single specks of color spaced widely apart.
Our Snowflake Muffler, a free pattern, was inspired by Norwegian snowflakes and 'lice' stitch.
Other honorable mentions are Bohus stickning (native to Bohuslӓn, Sweden) which plays with fuzzier yarns and purl stitch textures, and the Icelandic lopapeysa—the famous yoked sweaters which pull from many different styles!
We've used our Free Charts for stranded colorwork, or to add duplicate stitch to Hot Water Bottle Cozies, slippers, stockings, and more.
In stranded colorwork patterns, designers may write out instructions or guide you with a chart (sometimes both!). If you’ve knit lace or cable patterns, you may be familiar with how charts work—they map out each stitch in a grid, with a legend to explain the symbols in use. In stranded colorwork charts, however, the grid instead maps out which color goes where! Take a look at our Free Charts page to see a few simple examples.
STRANDED COLORWORK SUCCESS
If we could tell you just three things to help you have a good experience with stranded colorwork, these are they:
1. Find a comfortable way to hold your yarn.
First, when you’re swatching to check your gauge (it will probably be different than your plain gauge), you’ll have a chance to get comfortable holding the different strands. The most comfortable way for you to hold the strands may depend on whether you’re a picker (you hold your working yarn in your left hand and ‘pick’ it up through the stitch on your resting needle) or a thrower (you hold your working yarn in your right hand and ‘throw’ it around the working needle). Some knitters like to hold one strand of yarn in each hand, picking one and throwing the other. Others may prefer looping the different strands around different fingers on the throwing hand. Others still may just want to pick up and drop one strand at a time! (This may not be as efficient as other methods and afford more opportunity for things to get a little twisted up. But hey, if it works for you, it works.)
P.S. The way you hold your strands may affect how the colors show up in the knitted fabric—see ‘A Note on Color Dominance’ below!
2. Keep your floats loose.
Next, be sure you keep an even, almost loose tension on the strands that float along the back of your work. Stranded colorwork fabric should stretch almost as much as your regular knit fabric. If you pull your floats too tight, your pretty colorwork pattern may end up looking a little puckered and uneven. To keep your stranded floats loose (but not sloppy), spread the last stitches you’ve worked along the right needle. Then, bring your new color loosely across the back to work the next stitches.
On the left, we've flipped a few projects inside out to show you the floats on the 'wrong side.' On the right, you can see how we spread the stitches out on the working needle.
3. Blocking is your friend!
Finally, wet blocking is an essential final step in your stranded colorwork project. If you give your finished project a nice bath, it will smooth out any unevenness in your stitches and floats. Plus, so many woolly wools will bloom and soften with wet blocking!
A NOTE ON COLOR DOMINANCE
In stranded colorwork, there are usually motif colors and background colors. In order for the motif as a whole to look as distinct as possible, you may want the motif color to ‘pop’ against the background color.
Whether you hold both strands of yarn in one hand, or one in each hand, one yarn will end up above and one will end up below. The yarn that is carried below as it ‘floats’ across the back will make slightly larger stitches that show up a little more (i.e. be dominant) on the ‘right side’ of the work. Thus, you should carry your chosen dominant color below.
One technique is to carry the background color in the right hand and the motif color in the left. Another is to arrange the colors on the finger(s) of the hand carrying the yarn in such a way that your chosen dominant color falls below, and your secondary color falls above.
This swatch was knit halfway with one color dominant, halfway with the other color dominant. Can you see the difference?
Take a pencil and note on your pattern which hand you use to hold which strand of yarn—that way if you take a tea break, you can pick right back up where you left off.
AN EXTRA TIP
Have a good cup of tea nearby. Stranded colorwork can sometimes require a lot of attention and focus. Take breaks, drink something soothing and refreshing, and enjoy yourself—a good rule whatever you may be knitting!
CHOOSING YOUR YARN
Stranded colorwork is traditionally knit in woolly wool yarns—nice and insulating for those isles and fjords. The style of strand—worsted-spun or woolen-spun—will have an impact on how your colorwork motifs look. For example, a worsted-spun, solid-dyed yarn has a dense, round strand with a nice, saturated color. Your motif will be crisp and clear (like the Snowflake Muffler in Brooklyn Tweed Arbor above)! On the other hand, a woolen-spun yarn has an airy, toothy texture and a more heathered dye job. Your motif will have slightly softened edges (like the Colorwork Cap in Rowan Felted Tweed or the Big Diamond Colorwork Cowl in Rowan Brushed Fleece).
And then there’s yarn weight! The thinner the yarn, the more detail you can achieve for all those gorgeous intricacies—and the more light and delicate the patterns can look. Thicker yarns bring more oomph to stranded colorwork motifs—even simple patterns can gain a graphic punch when knit at a heavier-weight gauge.
CHOOSING YOUR COLORS
Once you’ve picked out your yarn, the next step is to choose colors! If you pick highly contrasting shades—one dark, one light or opposites on the color wheel—your motif is sure to pop. Tonals—a darker and a lighter shade of the same color—will offer a beautiful subtlety.
When your motif has more than one color, you may want to pay a little more attention to the values you choose. For example, our Churchmouse Classics Colorwork Cap pattern uses four colors. We chose either one light or one dark color to use as the ‘background,’ or main color of the hat. For the motif, we picked more mid-tone colors of slightly different intensity, one with a bit more pop.
We recommend that you play around with a few options—once you have a combination you like, wrap the potential colors around a piece of cardstock. Use a photocopier or smartphone camera to create a black-and-white image of the cardstock. (No copier or camera? Squinting can help.) Do you see a distinct contrast between your colors? Start swatching! If your colors seem to wash together, play around with lighter and darker tones. Try different placements of your color choices. Have fun with it!
And, once again, keep swatching! And be sure to block your swatches. This is really the best way to get to know your yarn, your color choices, and your stitch pattern. Be sure keep your swatches, too! They’re a great reference when the time comes to pick out another color combination. They’re a record of what you tried and liked—and perhaps what you didn’t.
If you’re new to stranded colorwork, we have several little cowl projects—free patterns all!—that are sure to pique your interest and ease you into knitting with more than one color. To get started, we’ve created several easy-to-memorize two-color motifs.
The Simple Colorwork Cowl introduces you to an easy, one-by-one repeat and helps to get you used to alternating strands of yarn.
The Three/One Colorwork Cowl is a sweet, easy sequel to the cowl above. Still worked in just two colors, this pattern alternates three stitches of one shade with one stitch of another. The result is a fun, diagonal, criss-crossing design!
FOR THE NEXT STEP
So now you’re familiar with knitting with two strands of yarn. Ready to add a third? How about a fourth! Really, all of the following projects are accessible for first-time stranders—we only ever use two colors in a row and for the Churchmouse Classics Colorwork Cuffs & Mittens and Colorwork Cap, we include easy-to-read charts. All you have to do is follow along. And pay attention to those floats!
The Tricolor Triangle Colorwork Cowl—knit in squishy Alpachino Merino—features a graphic, geometric motif. One color serves as the ‘background’ while two colors alternate in rows of triangles. Again, you’ll only be working with two strands per row—easy peasy.
Finally, the Colorwork Cap—our tribute to Fair Isle! Though this is the most intricate stranded colorwork motif that we’ve created—using four colors of Felted Tweed in total—it’s much easier than it looks. As is traditional in Fair Isle colorwork, we only use two strands per row. So just like all the projects above, you’re only managing two skeins of yarn at a time. Plus, since it’s a Churchmouse Classics pattern, we include lots of guidance and information for you—including six different, full-color charts (super easy to read and follow) and a ‘plain’ chart (for when you’re ready to make up your own color combo)!
While we’ve introduced several projects in this post, we’ve barely touched the surface of the world of stranded colorwork! There are museum exhibits dedicated to this craft, there are hundreds (and hundreds) of books both in and out of print that delve into all of the different styles, and designers are making up new motifs every day! With this sampling of patterns, you’ve only just begun!