Experimenting with colourwork

Knitting colourwork has never been my strong suit. Besides my complete inability to choose cohesive colour schemes, the technical skills involved in stranded knitting and intarsia always seemed beyond me. Recently, I’ve decided to challenge myself and take on a colourwork project to broaden my skill set.

The pattern that tempted me was Ysolda’s Saudade. With a traditional Fair Isle pattern and the colours already selected for me in a kit in her shop, it seemed the perfect way to dip my feet in.

An image of the side of a woman's head. She wears a knitted hat, which has colourwork in grey, orange and yellow colours.
How could I resist this??

I was perhaps a bit too confident to begin with, and after a hastily knitted swatch dived right into the pattern. A lot of knitting and ripping back followed, as I tried a technique, found it wasn’t right, and ripped back to try another. You can see below one of my first attempts: it actually looks lovely and even in the pictures, but in real life the fabric buckled and pulled, as the too-tight floats cinched the hat together in the colourwork sections, even after a good steam blocking.

After lots of research, I landed on a method that worked for me: before knitting the next stitch with the new colour, spread the stitches out on your right needle, hold them down with your thumb so you can apply tension, and knit the next stitch with your usual tension. That is, don’t knit it too loosely in the hopes that it will keep your floats loose, as your work will be sloppy and uneven.

I happily practiced this method on some agreeable yarn I had in my stash (5 ply wool crepe), and achieved the evenness of stitches and looseness of floats I desired.

An image of orange and red knitted colourwork.
Sorry about the hands, it was the only way to keep things flat(ish). Chart is a simplified variation from Setesdal potholders by Skeindeer Knits.
An image of the back of orange and red knitted colouwork.
That’s some nice looking floats.

Until I went back to the Saudade pattern and…….got this.

An image of a flat laid, partially knitted fair isle hat.

An image of a flat laid, partially knitted fair isle hat. The reverse of the hat with floats is showing.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

It’s not terrible, but the stitches are definitely much looser in the colourwork section, almost to the point where the pattern is lost, and those floats are looking awfully droopy. I’m hoping that things will bloom up a bit after washing and obscure the minor differences, because I sure as hell aren’t gonna rip this out again.

Do you enjoy stranded knitting? Do you have any tips for a newbie?

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

16 thoughts on “Experimenting with colourwork”

  1. Hi, I have the same problem, but I recently got a tip that I want to try, which is to knit with the floats on the outside. This makes the floats longer automatically as the circumference will be bigger. But I haven’t tried that yet, so can’t say if that is enough of a change. Also, I’m really impressed with your patience, as I simply can’t rip (I toss…). Best, Sophie

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    1. Haha, I rip quite often, I think because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I’ve tried knitting inside out as you suggest, but my work doesn’t want to stay that way – it just flips right side out again.

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  2. My mamma can knit really good and crochet as well. She learned when she was about 3 years old – her nanna taught her. She tried to re-teach me last year (after several failed attempts when I was younger), and I didn’t do too bad, but the wool I was using was not great beginners wool, so I will probably try again later. So I think you did an awesome job with your beanie. However, I can crochet pretty good and have even done Barvarian crochet which is gorgeous but tricky and fiddly. I must find the pattern for the dragon slippers I saw and see if I will be able to do it.
    Mum made we one last year, which is a slouchy one, in hand-spun rainbow dyed wool which I love. It’s a merino/cashmere mix and is the only pure wool so far not to make me itchy. (I hated wearing my proper wool jumper in high school. I was lucky that mum was able to get a synthetic mix one as well in both the green and the maroon or I would have been very itchy during winter.)

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    1. A handspun, rainbow cashmere/merino blend sounds absolutely divine! Those school jumpers were an aberration and turned a lot of people off wool. IMO they have nothing to do with a nice knitting wool which will not scratch your skin, feel heavy and smell like wet dog a lot of the time!

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  3. Love the pattern! I learned colourwork using Mary Jane Mucklestone’s Fair Isle book. There’s a lot of explanation about the foreground and background colour and holding the foreground colour yarn beneath the background colour. The yarn on top will have slightly less distance to travel and so the tension will be tighter and the stitches look smaller (only very slightly). I’ve found it’s good to be very clear in your head which is which and let the yarns sit at the tension they want to be rather than try and make both under yarn and top yarn match up exactly.
    And the holding the stitches flat you describe sounds like what I do too. I guess I hold the floats flat too. And I’m careful about running the float in its inside top or outside bottom position.
    Hope that helps. And the pictures in the book really were fantastic. It’s one of my most used stitch library type reference books.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ve borrowed her Fair Isle motifs book from the library before and just placed another hold as I didn’t really give it a good read the first time. I actually learnt stranded knitting from her two classes on Craftsy, which have all the very helpful tips you mention. Knitting with two hands makes keeping the yarns separate much, much easier, and if you keep the dominant yarn on your left it will always travel under the background colour.

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  4. I clicked over to Flickr so I could zoom in on the pictures of your stitches, and I think it looks really good. It’s totally normal/expected for the colorwork stitches to be looser than the rows of a single color. I’ve even seen Jared Flood recommend using a larger needle for straight stockinette sections than what you’d use for stranded sections as an easy work around for this common problem when knitting sweaters with a stranded yoke. In my experience, a good wet block does wonders for stranded knitting. My stranded knitting always looks weird and lumpy and uneven until it gets a good, long bath. The stitches and the floats both tend to look a lot more even and a lot less loose once they’re dry. I think your hat is going to look great! And I didn’t know Ysolda was selling kits for this hat–I think I might have to get one for myself!

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    1. Thank you so much for your feedback, this is exactly what I needed to hear. When you are self-taught it is so hard to know when you are getting it right and wrong. I don’t struggle with techniques so much as understanding what is the desired outcome.

      Oh, Ysolda’s shop is an absolute trap! She has the most delicious yarns and kits, very reasonably priced. I want to buy them all!

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  5. Only thing I can add is to use a needle length that is not too large or stressing the fabric. But also not too short as to bunch up your sts. I would add, do not try to force the tension, just relax and let it flow naturally.

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  6. That’s absolutely adorable! a beautiful design and the colours are glorious! I think you’re doing a great job! don’t worry, practise really does make perfect. Getting the hang of the correct tension for your floats will just happen, and soon you won’t even be thinking about it 🙂

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