Stranded Knitting: What Is It?

By Sarah Johnson

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When I decided to become a knitter in earnest, I picked a baby blanket as my first project. I looked through patterns and found one I thought was pretty. I was a novice-enough knitter to have absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into. I'd never heard the term "stranded knitting." In hindsight, I now realize what a ridiculously tough pattern I picked for my beginning project because I picked a blanket that involved 2 colors and 6 active balls of yarn. But here's the point:

This blanket turned out pretty darn well and it's still a favorite of the little girl who received it. You can do stranded knitting with multiple colors because I promise you, I knew less about knitting when I made this blanket than you do. And you have Craftsy's stranded knitting techniques to help you!

stranded knit blanket

A knitter can go a long time using striping and variegated yarns. These yarns do allow a lot of color into your knitting. Or you can make a simple striped pattern where you alternate between two or more colors with each stripe being several rows wide. Stranded knitting, though, allows a knitter to play with colors so much more and can produce beautiful patterns.

Knitting that involves two or more colors of yarn goes by a couple of different names. You might see it referred to as stranded knitting or as Fair Isle knitting (after an island off Scotland). Technically, Fair Isle knitting refers to a more specific style, but many knitters have taken to referring to all multi-color knitting as Fair Isle. Sort of how some refer to all facial tissues by a particular brand name. Stranded knitting is the more general term that incorporates all styles of multi-color knitting.

The first trick with stranded knitting is to figure out how to hold the yarn. The most commonly taught method is to hold your main yarn in your right hand as you would for English knitting or "throwing" as it is called. Then you would hold the contrast color in your left hand, Continental or "picking" style. This is the aspect of stranded knitting that takes the most getting used to. Even an experienced knitter can feel a little awkward when working with a second color for the first time. Just keep going and you will eventually find the yarn holds that work for you.

I'll be honest with you: I still tend to hold only the yarn I'm working with on any given stitch. It may seem inefficient to keep dropping one yarn and picking the other up, but it's what works best for me. I waste more time trying to hold both yarns in different hands. The right way to do it is the way you're comfortable with.

Unlike a lot of single color patterns, stranded knitting patterns have a clear right side and a wrong side. The right side is the pretty one where the knitting stitches show. The wrong side basically looks like a big mess. It will feature a series of yarn strands, called "floats." This effect is where the term stranded knitting comes from.

get started with stranded knitting

When making a stranded knitting piece, you will need to know how to handle those floats; so paying attention to the tension of your floats is an important element. You don't want to make your float tension too tight as that won't supply your stitches with any give and it can make your project pucker. But you also don't want the tension to be too loose because then the float can easily snag. When picking up a color after you've worked stitches with the other color, don't pull the float too tight. Instead, knit the stitch first and then adjust the tension of that float. Give the yarn a slight tug to pull the float taut. But not too taut! If you're going to make a mistake with your tension, you'd rather your floats be too loose than too tight. The more you practice with stranded knitting, the better sense you'll have for what your float tension should be.

stranded knitting, view from the back

Ideally, you won't have a float that goes more than 3 or 4 stitches. Any longer than that and you want to secure your float by "wrapping" it. To wrap your float, you simply wrap your two yarns around each other. Say your pattern calls for you to knit 6 stitches in your main color. After you knit the third stitch, wrap your main color yarn around your contrast color yarn. Connecting the yarns in this way will help keep that contrast color float close to the fabric so there will be less likelihood of snagging.

You can also have vertical floats as you might go two or more rows without using one color. A good rule of thumb is to not let your floats become longer than 1 - 1 1/2 inches. Anything longer than that and you probably want to cut your yarn and start fresh. This is especially true with vertical floats as they are harder to secure by wrapping with your other yarn.

When making a stranded knitting project in the round on double points, there is one additional spot where you want to wrap the yarn. At every needle change, you want to do a yarn wrap. When knitting on double points, that spot between two needles has a tendency to produce looser stitches than the rest of your project. So that gap is also a possible trouble point in a style of knitting where tension issues are expected.

Eventually when you do stranded knitting, you will also need to take a minute every few rows to unwind your two yarns from each other. If you've ever knitted with two balls of yarns at the same time, you know this is a regular step. Your working yarns get tangled around each other and need to be disentangled from time to time. It's a small price to pay for creating a multi-colored pattern.

Yes, stranded knitting comes with a bit of a learning curve and it takes some getting used to. But in the end, you'll have a beautiful, colorful project that will make you glad you tried. So what stranded knitting pattern have you had your eye on? Now you are ready to get started knitting with two colors at once.

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