By Robin Melanson
By the simplest definition, stranded colorwork describes knitting a multicolor pattern and working each row with at least two colors at the same time. As you knit stitches with one color, the other colors are stranded along the wrong side of the work until needed.
There are a few conventions for stranded knitting: Usually each row or round is limited to two colors (though many more may appear in the work as a whole), the length over which a single color is stranded is often not longer than five to seven stitches, and the right side of the work is generally stockinette stitch. These "rules" are for ease of working; they can be broken without fear of arrest by knitting police, although breaking them may induce pearl clutching in certain individuals. If photos of the blasphemous work are publicly available, this can sometimes result in an onslaught of messages from the above-mentioned individuals, wondering if you have not, in fact, heard of the proper way to knit with two colors. Also, be aware that the term “Fair Isle” should be used with caution, as it refers to a specific regional style under the umbrella of stranded colorwork. If your peeries aren't traditional and your yarn is from the wrong sheep, you'd better prepare yourself for some serious shunning! However, such harsh judgment is unlikely from the average knitting community, which is filled with needlework scofflaws such as ourselves. (I have magnanimously assumed that readers of this article are as prone to rule breaking as I am.)
Rules are only important if they help you achieve your goal. Let's assume that the goal is nice, even fabric that is attractive on both sides of the work—just in case someone should happen to look. (You know the first thing any knitter is going to do is turn it inside out and look at the wrong side.) You can't argue with nice fabric, regardless of whether the aesthetic of the design appeals to you.
Holding the Yarn
When stranding colors there are several ways to hold the yarn. Which to use depends on your style of knitting and personal preference.
Color Dominance and Yarn Position
The way in which the yarns are held controls which color will "pop" in the pattern. If you knit with one color in each hand, you will notice that the stitches formed by the color held in the left hand are slightly larger than the stitches formed by the color held in the right hand. (figures 1 and 2)
The color held in the left hand strands underneath the color held in the right hand on the wrong side of the work. If you knit with both colors held in one hand (either right or left), the yarn that is stranded underneath will form larger stitches. The color that is stranded underneath (the color held in the left hand when knitting with one color in each hand) is referred to as the dominant color because of this effect. It's important to consistently strand the colors in the same manner in order to produce a uniform fabric. Identify which color in your pattern would look the best held in the dominant position. This is the color that is used for the patterning—think of it as the color that is used to draw the design onto the background. The other color(s) will be the background color(s).
In the pattern below (figure 3), white is the dominant color and blue is the background color. The pattern is "drawn" in white on a blue background. On the wrong side (figure 4), you can see that the white yarn is stranded below (or held in the left hand) and the blue yarn is stranded above (or held in the right hand). There are few long floats in this design (a few instances occur where seven stitches are worked in one color), so you will notice that the yarn is mostly stranded and rarely trapped or twisted. This is a very traditional Norwegian design, and follows all the rules.
Now let’s look at two stranded colorwork designs that diverge from the design rules by leaving longer expanses over which the yarns must be stranded. In the first (figure 5), light gray is the dominant color and purple is the background color; in the second (figure 7), white is the dominant color and black the background color. There are several instances in each design where the dominant color must be trapped as it floats behind a long expanse of background color. If you look at the wrong side, however, it is apparent that the rule breaking doesn't affect the neatness of the work (figures 6 and 8).
Trapping the floated yarn is quite easy; when you insert the needle into the next stitch to be knit, bring it under the floated yarn on the wrong side, knit the stitch as usual using the working yarn, and continue using the working yarn to knit the next stitches in the pattern.
The floated yarn is trapped by the working yarn without becoming twisted or tangled. The circled sections in figures 6 and 8 show trapped floats). In each example, the yarns are stranded consistently to produce an even fabric. The pattern color is always held in the dominant position.
Different knitters getting the same gauge may strand slightly differently but achieve the same effect on the right side of the work. The arm warmer below (figure 9) was begun by one knitter and finished by another. Both knitters held the yarns so that the pattern color (green-gold) was in the dominant position (stranded underneath) and the dark burgundy yarn held as the background color (stranded above). On the right side, it looks the same. On the wrong side, you can easily see where the change in knitter took place (figure 10). The gauge is the same; one end is smaller because of decreases, not because of a gauge change. It is curious how individual work is. Obviously, to have the most perfect-looking work inside and out, you would want to have the same knitter throughout.
The swatch in figure 11 offers a good exercise in identifying which color of a design should be held in the dominant position. In the lowest band (dark burgundy and pink), the pink forms the design and should be held in the dominant position. In the second and fourth bands, the orange forms the design and purple is the background; in the third band, the dark burgundy forms the design and the background is green-gold.
This is also an example of how the same color can be held in both the dominant and background positions within the same project: dark burgundy is the background color in the first band, and is the dominant color in the third band. The same color does not necessarily have to be held consistently within the project as a whole, just within a cohesive section. Hopefully you can now dual-wield your yarns with proficiency!
Robin Melanson is a freelance knitwear designer and technical editor living in Montreal, Quebec. She is the author of Knitting New Mittens and Gloves (STC Craft, 2008), and is a production assistant for Twist Collective. Visit her at www.robinmelanson.com.