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How to Get Started Knitting Colourwork

September 24, 2021
A sweater yoke in progress with all of the yarns used beside it

Knitting colourwork (also known as stranded colourwork or Fair Isle knitting) may seem difficult, but it’s actually quite simple. When knitting colourwork patterns, you use two colours (sometimes more) in a single row or round. This looks tricky to the uninitiated; however, the pattern is formed using only knit stitches, so it’s not nearly as complicated as it looks! If you’ve been too intimidated to give colourwork a try, this tutorial will demystify the process and take you through it step by step.

The basics of colourwork knitting

  • First, you knit a stitch (or several) in one colour – let’s call it the main colour (MC).
  • Then you knit a stitch (or several) in another colour – let’s call it the contrast colour (CC).

Simply follow the colourwork chart, and the pattern appears! The mechanics are REALLY that simple, and if you know how to follow a chart, then you can stop reading, grab one of our free colourwork patterns (like the Anthology hat and cowl or the Clayoquot toque), and start knitting right now.

The rest is just details! But since you’re here – and maybe you’re in the mood – let’s talk about some of those details…

How do I read a colourwork chart?

Typically, stranded colourwork is knit in the round, rather than back and forth in rows. This is convenient because you’re always looking at the knit side of the work – and thus can ensure that the pattern is forming correctly. A colourwork chart is typically read right to left, starting from round 1 at the bottom of the chart and working your way up to the top, one round at a time.

As you work following the chart, the fabric grows to create the pattern shown, so you can look at the colourwork chart and make a fair guess at what the finished product will look like – they’re closely related.

Morse Code Yoke blog post
This Strange Brew sweater was knit from the top down using the chart shown below. For all the details on this sweater, check out our blog post here.
Morse Code Yoke blog post

But how do I hold two yarns when knitting colourwork?

Try the first timer’s easy-peasy method (just drop the yarns when changing colours)

For YEARS, well into her career as a pattern designer, Emily knit colourwork this way: Knit with the MC colour and then drop that strand. Pick up the CC strand, knit with it, and then drop it. Pick up the other strand and knit with it…and so forth. It’s not as slow as you might think (though it’s also not fast 🤣).

Try holding one yarn in each hand

I like to knit stranded colourwork holding one yarn in each hand. When knitting the MC with my right hand, I throw (English style), and when knitting the CC with my left hand, I pick (Continental style).

I’ve taught countless colourwork classes and literally NEVER had a student who couldn’t learn to do colourwork using this method – but they did find it difficult it at first (there’s always a bit of cursing). But after a couple of hours of practice, everybody manages to get the hang of it.

Other techniques for holding yarn when knitting colourwork

There are about as many ways to knit colourwork as there are ways to knit, so feel free to experiment and find the technique that works for you. There’s no wrong way to knit, and there’s no wrong way to knit colourwork. There’s only what you prefer.

And what’s this about floats and tension?

Floats 

The yarn that’s not currently being used is drawn across the back of the work, and those strands are called ‘floats’. It’s important to draw this yarn LOOSELY across the back of the work. Otherwise, the fabric will be tight and compressed horizontally, which is NOT fun as you knit it – and it doesn’t look good when it’s done, either.

The inside of a colourwork yoke with a hand showing the float

Tension 

Because you have floats making a straight line across the back of the work, the fabric formed by stranded colourwork is much less stretchy than that formed with a regular knitted fabric. You’ll want to keep this in mind when choosing the right size if you’re knitting a sweater with a colourwork body (get more info on choosing a colourwork sweater size here). And before embarking on a sweater-sized project, it’s wise to do a swatch first. Check out our tutorial on swatching for colourwork here.

Trapping floats

You may have heard of trapping floats, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Emily and I almost never trap our floats! Some folks will tell you to trap floats every 3, 5, 7, 10+ stitches, but we almost never do (mittens are the exception). If you do want to trap your floats, it’s as simple as twisting your two yarns together. If you hold your yarns in each hand, check out this video for a slightly fancier way of trapping:

That’s it? C’mon! I still have a million more questions… 

How do I join a new yarn?

To join a new yarn, just leave a yarn tail and then get started with the new yarn from the beginning of the next round. You’ll weave in the ends later.

an inside out colourwork hat with yarn tails showing

What about increases and decreases? 

When there’s an increase or a decrease in a colourwork pattern (like in a colourwork round yoke), you’ll simply work it in the colour shown on the chart. You can work any increase or decrease stitch in the colour shown.

Almanac sweater pattern
For the Almanac, a top-down colourwork yoke sweater, the increases are incorporated into the chart.

What is ‘yarn dominance’?

When you knit colourwork, the stitches sit a little differently than in regular stockinette. When you go from knitting one stitch in the MC to one in the CC, they don’t sit as perfectly as they might if they were done in the same colour. For some knitters, the difference is glaring, while others hardly notice it at all.

Is blocking different for colourwork pieces? 

Blocking colourwork isn’t really different from any other kind of blocking, but it is CRITICAL! You’ll definitely want to block your colourwork piece after you complete it, and regular wet blocking works just fine. It’ll make the finished knit look a lot better because it will even out the stitches and help the yarn ‘bloom’.

How do I keep my yarns from getting all tangled up? 

When you begin knitting stranded colourwork, you may find that your yarns get all tangled up around and around each other, which can be annoying, but this is simple to prevent. If you place the CC ball to the left of your body and the MC ball to the right of your body (and always keep them in those positions), they will not tangle. You will always draw the CC yarn (the one on your left) up from underneath the other colour, so it will create slightly longer ‘dominant’ stitches.

What about all the yarn tails? 

Suck it up, buttercup – those yarn tails aren’t gonna weave in themselves! Or, you can be a lazy ass like me… I just tie them to the next colour, trim them fairly short, and then hope that, with plenty of time and wear, they’ll eventually felt themselves together into a nice, solid, woolly mess.

A colourwork yoke sweater inside out with yarn tails showing.

What kind of yarns should I use? 

We’ve got an opinion (or three) on this topic! Check out our posts about: 

Choosing a palette for the Sunshine Sweater or Hat

How do I choose colours for a colourwork project?

You sure you really wanna open that can of worms? Okay, excellent, so do I! 

We’ve got a long list of posts that are all about picking palettes and combining colours. Here they are in order of relative usefulness (just my opinion!): 

  1. Week of Colour: Strategies for Designing a Palette – picking a palette can be easier when you choose a strategy
  2. Applying Colour to Stranded Knitting Motifs – because there are MANY ways you can do it!
  3. Swatching Colourwork – we detail several methods for you.
  4. Collect Your Favourite Colour Combos – beg, borrow, and steal!
  5. Colour Theory for Knitters – key terms like saturation and contrast.
Strange Brew colourwork yoke recipe project directory
Pretty soon you’ll be ready to design your own Strange Brew colourwork yokes, like these ones!

Ready, Set, Go!

While all this can seem like a lot of info, you won’t figure any of it out unless you get going. We recommend starting with a hat and only two colours – just dive in and enjoy the learning process! Once you’ve knit a project or two, you’ll be ready to tackle any colourful knit. Check out the pics below for a little inspiration and click your favourite to get the pattern!

~ Alexa

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Maureen Murley permalink
    October 5, 2021 10:50 pm

    This is a great email, which I just found because it went to spam. 🤔 Thank you for the information – I feel more confident about trying colorwork .

  2. Laura Trickel permalink
    October 4, 2021 8:17 pm

    Hi Ladies
    Your great presenation has take the fear out of at lease trying colorwork.
    Thank you
    Whale woman

  3. Lindy Van Fleet permalink
    September 30, 2021 5:56 am

    I do colorwork using continental knitting, with both strands on my left forefinger. Foreground color nearest the fingertip, background further down. When doing more than 4 stitches in a row, just flip the unwanted color over the correct color. That will trap the float.

    Lovely colorwork in the tutorials.

  4. Julie Paige permalink
    September 29, 2021 7:46 am

    Tension is my struggle-any tips or videos on how to tension properly to avoid floats? This is my biggest hurdle in colourwork-the float tension.

    • September 29, 2021 10:06 am

      Hi Julie – The key to tension in colourwork is keeping those floats nice and loose. You can’t avoid them, but they need to be loose so they aren’t causing your fabric to ‘pinch in’. One tip is to spread out the sts on the right hand needle before carrying your yarn across in a long float.

  5. Neisha Dahlstrom permalink
    September 29, 2021 5:52 am

    Thank you!! This was all very helpful. I’ve done a couple colorwork projects and I appreciate all of this good info in one place!

  6. Marge Sturgill permalink
    September 28, 2021 6:17 pm

    This is perfect timing. I’ve knit for over 50 years and have just stuck my toe into colorwork. Your explanations and videos are so helpful (as always). Thank you for the simple, easy to follow directions. What I’m gathering is that the ease of the floats comes with practice.

  7. Mary permalink
    September 28, 2021 8:53 am

    This is fantastic!
    Just perfect.
    Thank you so much ☺️

  8. Eva permalink
    September 27, 2021 1:35 pm

    Hi ! Thank you for the videos!

    I have a question, how loose should I knit when changing colors ? I was told it is never too loose when knitting multi colors . But I got big Vs in knitting color pattern stitches, then stockinette stitches. It there any way to fix this problem?

    Thank you for your help.

    Eva

    • September 28, 2021 10:49 am

      Hi Eva – This isn’t the most satisfying answer but: if you have big Vs it probably means it’s a little too loose. You want it to be loose, so the floats don’t cause puckering, but not so loose that you get distorted stitches.

  9. Katherine Hill permalink
    September 27, 2021 11:20 am

    This email came at the perfect time. I am a knitting chicken. I often stick with what I know instead of trying new things. You have inspired me to cast on a colourwork hat this week! Thank you for your generosity in sharing your knowledge.

  10. joan permalink
    September 27, 2021 9:47 am

    Thank you for videos!!!!

  11. Anna Buchholtz permalink
    September 27, 2021 8:17 am

    I’ve been embarking on my first colorwork sweater and of course, accidentally chose one where a few times, there are three colors within the same row! I usually do colorwork with the two hand method – any tips for how to add in that third color? (I’ve ended up doing a not-so-sophisticatd continental CC and the “drop and pick up” method with the other two colors on my throwing hand)

    • September 27, 2021 10:53 am

      Hi Anna – For the odd 3 colour round I usually have one yarn in my right and two yarns in my left, but I ‘drop and pick up’ with the two in my left hand.

  12. September 26, 2021 8:59 pm

    Excellent timing as I start a pair of colorwork advent socks.

  13. jane Straut permalink
    September 26, 2021 6:29 am

    Thank you, been nervous about trying this but after watching and reading feel confident to give it a go

  14. September 25, 2021 11:25 pm

    Fantastic information and lots of great resources,,,and 2 free patterns to get started! Thank you so much!

  15. Theresa Hofstetter permalink
    September 24, 2021 9:28 am

    Thank you! It is my goal for this winter to knit my first colorwork sweater. This is all very helpful information.

  16. September 24, 2021 8:01 am

    What a great tutorial! Thank you for the idea of tying ends and letting them felt themselves over time.

  17. September 24, 2021 6:08 am

    The timing of this is hilarious. I’ve always been intimidated to try anything with more than one color. This past week I was thinking, “Maybe if I had someone really break it down for me . . ” and thought I might start poking around to find tutorials for beginning colorwork. Thank you so much!

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