A Deep Dive into Stranded Colourwork
It is probably the Northener in me, or more accurate, me being a Norwegian that makes me crave woolly jumpers as soon as autumn is here – but not any woolly jumper – oh no, I'm talking about proper thick proper wool proper bashing around in the snow jumpers! Now admittedly it's been years since I was bashing around in the snow, but these are the memories evoked. Being wrapped up in layer upon layer, grumpy because you almost couldn't move, but as soon as you ventured out miraculously there were no limitations to how easily you could rummage around in despite of all those layers – and on top as the outer layer – that year's new favourite, meticulously worked on by my Nan throughout the summer to make sure it would fit when autumn hit.
Hours and hours of play, snowman making, snowcave digging, snowball fighting, and never ever wet or cold as a result of it.
Unlike me, my Nan never used a pattern, they were all constructed over the same formula. I was allowed to join her going to the yarn shop, and I could pick my favourite colours, which she then would work up in her favourite motifs as she went along. She taught me to knit when I was about 4 years old with a varied degree of success, a few years later and my second project to be completed was a woolly jumper, cast in the same mould as all of my Nan's jumper, strand by strand and stitch by stitch firmly guided by her towards completion. These are the memories evoked.
Stranded knitting or stranded colourwork if you like, is the technique where two colours or more is worked across a row or round to create a pattern, and where you carry along the colours not worked into a stitch on the back of your work. Stranded colourwork has rich traditions all over the world, with more similarities between them than not, but I think it is safe to say that the most known 'schools' in this respect are the Fair Isle from Shetland, the Icelandic Lopapeysa, and the Nordic Mønsterstrikk known from traditional Finish, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Knitting.
My friends and customers often ask me, what is the secret behind achieving the best results coming to stranded colourwork, and I am sorry to say that it is not achieved with instant gratification. The more you do it, the more you'll find your rhythm, which again is essential for finding your tension and stitch definition. Stranded knitting is truly one of those skills and techniques that has to be practiced to be perfectionised. But, of course I do have a few tips to help along the way …
Keep it loose!
As my Nan would say – you will always go too tight, never too loose! Meaning the main pitfall of stranded knitting is when your strands running on the back are too tight. Remember the strand must cover the full space of the stitches between with ease. When the strands are too tight you'll end up with pulled stitches and a fabric (and a motif) that is scrunched together. You want your floats, which is what we call the strand that run the distance from one coloured stitch until the next stitch in that colour, to lay flat and even against the fabric.
Catch your floats
Some of the traditional schools of stranded knitting will have strict rules about how many stitches a certain colour can cover before a new one takes over. Fair Isle is a very specific type of stranded knitting from Fair Isle, a tiny island in the north of Scotland and part of the Shetland Islands. In Fair Isle knitting, only 2 colours are used per round and yarn is carried for a limited number of stitches, never more than six, across the back of the work. On the other hand, Nordic Mønsterstrikk will often incorporate more colours in one round and often have much larger gaps between colours to carry your yarn across. When there are only a few stitches of each colour it's fine to just switch between the colours, stranding the one not in use loosely across the back, but for longer gaps you want to secure your floats, both to maintain the evenness, strength and structure of your fabric but also to prevent long loops of the back that can get caught on fingers, make the garment uncomfortable to wear and with an increased risk of getting it ruined in wash and with use. Every few stitches or so (my personal rule is never more than 5 stitches behind my float) you should then twist the non-working yarn (float) with the working yarn so that it is attached to the fabric between two stitches, making two or even three, shorter floats across the gap.
Getting into a tangle
With all the twisting and swapping between strands you are bound to get into a tangle.
There are different solutions to help with this. Some people find it easier to have each ball separated while working, as in putting each ball in it's own bowl or even tying a bag around each ball, some will unwind and re-ball the yarn into smaller and more manageable bobbins, others will use project bags that have eyelets where each strand can be pulled through individually and remain separated until the project is done. To be honest, I'm never this organised when setting up for a project, also I prefer to have my projects mobile and not 'attached' to anything, I'm more of a throw it into my handbag and lets go. So my one tip here is to regularly take your time to untangle – before it gets too tangled! Every few rounds I will untwist and make sure my balls are separated before continuing to pull at them.
So the art of stranded knitting involves the skill of holding several strands in your hand at once, while working with one of them at the time. The internet is full of tricks on how to do this, and there are gadgets like rings to wear that will help separate the strands and keep them in place in the right order. The thing is you will get just as much contradictory advice as there are knitters, because how to sort out your strands often comes down to personal preference rather than the technique in itself. And then there is the concept of dominant colour – which is one that even the most skilled masters of knitting are arguing about – does it matter or not. Some will say it is crucial, for me, I've never noticed any difference, but it is worth mentioning. The theory is that due to the way the stitches move when stranding, a colour will become more prominent than the other depending on how you hold your yarns. Before starting you will therefore have to make a decision on which colour you'd like to be more visible – the motif- or the background-colour. When working you should then make sure that the dominant colour always floats below the non-dominant colour – another way of saying this is that when holding your strands, regardless of using the right or left hand, the dominant colour should be the strand held closest to your chest. Personally, I don't give any attention to dominance, but I will make sure to hold my strands the same way consistently throughout the project. So if on my finger I have (from the knuckle to the tip) green, blue and white, I will make sure this pattern remains and never get swapped around to for instance white, green, blue – does that make sense?
Okey – those are my tips – now lets talk yarn!
If you look through those traditional 'schools' of stranded colourwork, I've already mentioned there are a wide range of variations between them, but what you'll find that they all have in common is the use of pure wool. Sure you can use plant fibres and other smooth yarns, like blends with a high silk content, but it will affect the structure of your fabric, an even look between the stitches and especially between the colour changes is so much easier to achieve choosing a grippier yarn. For anyone just diving into stranded colourwork I would always recommend wool, it will save you from a lot of grief – I promise! Wool fibres have microscopic scales, that act like tiny hooks and will interlock with each other, this is also why you can cut through knitted pure wool fabric without it unravelling - a technique called Steeking – but that's a topic for a later blog post. The point is that when doing stranded colourwork, a pure wool yarn will help make the stitches stay in place, close the gaps between colour changes and create an even surface.
From the selection at Knit with attitude – these are our upmost favourites when doing stranded colourwork projects:
The unique Norwegian Pelssau has a lustrous, curly fleece with quite a soft, fine hand. Also known as Norwegian Pelt or Norwegian Fur Sheep, originated as a cross between Gotland and Old Norwegian (known as Wild Sheep) and its wool is dark grey, grey and white coloured combined. The mixed coloured fibres result in a particular depth and richness of colour when dyed, it offers a great grip and a well-defined stitch definition making it equally beautiful in colourwork and textured patterns. The Hillesvåg Pelt Wool range is our pride and joy here at Knit with attitude – we actually love it so much that we stock it in all available weights – Sølje the 4ply/fingering, Tinde the DK, and Blåne the heavy aran. Due to the nature of the wool these yarns don't come with a white alternative – so to fulfill all your colourwork needs – we even stock the natural white Lamswool from Hillesvåg in the equivalent weights that can be beautifully used together with the pelt wool, Vilje the 4ply/fingering, Sol the DK and Troll the heavy aran.
Spun and dyed in Finland from 100 % Finnish wool, Tukuwool DK is a woolen spun two-ply yarn which is a delight to knit. A genuine workhorse yarn perfect for colourwork and textured stitch patterns. It comes in a wide colour palette combining vibrant solid and heathered shades providing endless opportunities to play with different combinations. The wool for Tukuwool DK comes from Finnish sheep farms that rear Finnsheep and Finnsheep/Texel breeds. Woolen spun Finnsheep wool is caracterised by its warmth and airy feel, soft, still rustic to the touch.
Processed in a mill in England’s historical textile region of West Yorkshire, Lore is made of 100% lambswool from the Romney sheep breed also referred to locally as Kent lamb. Lore is an honest woollen spun DK weight yarn that blooms into a beautiful knitted fabric after washing. Garments made from Lore will wear well and are perfect for everyday and special adventures alike. It has a rustic, still soft, touch and will work beautifully with textured knits and colourwork due to the wonderful grip of its fibres.
Black Elephant Wendsleydale
Quite an unusual handdyed, as Petra of Black Elephant is venturing into the use of more textured fibres for her magical and distinct colours. Wensleydale is a new addition to Black Elephant's yarns, this is a sock / 4ply weight 100% British pure wool, strong and hardwearing with a high twist, still the long staple length gives a wonderful lustre and silkyness to the touch. This is the one if you are looking for that little extra to add to a colourwork project, superb stitch definition, still with a luxurious touch.
A full sweater quantity worth of wool is no joke, but definitely joyfull, and we're feeling seriously joyous! Immersed in the woolly beauty that surrounds us on a daily basis and midst seeking inspiration for the Knit With Attitude blog, we decided to surprise you all with a small encouragement to cheer you along – we're doing a FLASH SALE on sweater quantities of our favourite yarns for colourwork knitting!
THE STRANDED FLASH SALE
Buy 5 hanks or more in one of the Hillesvåg Yarns (except Forgarn), in Lore by the Fibre Co., in Tukuwool DK or Black Elephant's Wensleydale.
15% discount will be added when you pop the code STRANDED into your shopping cart.
Additional hanks in any of the yarns listed above will also receive the discount.
We're running the FLASH SALE until midnight UK time, Tuesday October 3rd 2023, it is an online only offer.