Intermediate Lesson – Stranded Colorwork

Stranded color work is when you hold multiple colors of yarn (most often two at a time) and follow a chart to make designs in your knitting. One of most commonly-cited examples is fair isle knitting. The sample above is stranded color work, as is this sheep hat. This lesson provides the information you need to get started with stranded color work, as well as the pattern for the sample swatch shown above that you can try.

Holding Yarn in Both Hands

I think the easiest way to knit in colorwork is to hold one color of yarn in each hand, as show in the image below:

Example of knitting stranded colorwork while holding one color of yarn in each hand

To learn to hold a color in each hand means first learning to knit both ways – Continental (yarn held in the left hand) and English (yarn held in the right hand.) Most of my Cushion of Joy lessons demonstrate how to knit Continental; this post is a lesson with all the steps to learn how to knit English. Before attempting colorwork, I suggest doing a significant amount of practice with knitting, purling, and then rib stitch, and ideally knitting an entire project with your non-dominant style. Then come back here for the next steps.

Color Theory, Yarn Selection, and Yarn Dominance

There are three things for us to discuss about color: your choice of colors, your choice of yarns, and which color will be dominant based on how you hold your yarn. Paying attention to all three of these before you start will help you achieve a beautiful and even result.

  • Choice of Colors: You want to make sure your colors have an appropriate contrast. One suggest is to hold the skeins together and squint at them – if they blend together, there probably isn’t enough contrast for your colorwork to really stand out well.
  • Choice of Yarns: It’s also important to choose colors in the exact same yarn. If one yarn is even slightly smaller, that color can start to disappear in the piece and it will be hard to make your stitches even.
  • Yarn Dominance: Finally, there will be one color you want to stand out more in your piece (to be dominant) and one that serves more as a background color. In my swatch above, white is the background color and blue is the dominant color. You want to hold the dominant color in your left hand.

Knitting Your Pattern

Colorwork is often knit in the round (a hat, scarf, mittens, etc.) because the back isn’t really good for sharing with the world. For example, you would only see colorwork on a scarf that’s knit in a tube, not one where the back could show. The following is an example of the back side of my colorwork swatch; you can see all the floats.

Back side of colorwork swatch

The good news is that means colorwork is almost all knit stitches (not often purl.) To make the design, you simply follow the chart and knit the number of stitches shown for each color. When reading the chart, start at the bottom right corner. In the following example, row 2 is all white; in row 2 you would knit 1 blue stitch, 2 white, 1 blue, 2 white, 3 blue, etc. The video below gives a good demonstration of how to do this.

Sample colorwork chart

You need to note how many times the pattern repeats; that will be stated in the pattern. I often place a stitch marker in between each repeat so I make sure I’m in the right place in the pattern. For example the pattern above repeats every 8 stitches so I might have placed stitch markers after rows 8, 16, 24, etc. I could check to make sure my work in those sections matched, or I would know right away that I needed to make a correction. You can see a example of this in the colorwork for the Buckbeak Pullover as shown in my video discussing the use of stitch markers.

The Knit Companion app is great for colorwork. As shown below, you can use the blue vertical bar to mark where you are in the repeating pattern, and use the yellow horizontal bar to highlight the row you’re knitting. That way you can avoid losing your place. You can download the swatch pattern PDF then import it into your Knit Companion app. I find it’s a little easier to see on a tablet (like an iPad) than a cell phone.

Screenshot of Knit Companion app

Final Tips and Tricks

The following are a few final tips before you dive in and knit your first practice swatch:

  • Larger Knitting Needles: Your tension is likely to be a little tighter during colorwork than during regular stockinette knitting, so it’s recommended to go up a needle size or two on the first row where the colorwork starts. I recently knit gauge swatches for a sweater that included both plain stockinette and a significant section of colorwork; in order to get the gauge to match between the two, I had to go up two needle sizes for the colorwork section (from US size 4 to 6 for DK yarn.)
  • Stay Loose: Building on the previous point, it’s also important to make sure you’re frequently moving your stitches along the right needle – best practice is every 3 to 5 stitches. If your tension is too tight, the fabric will pucker, sometimes too much to block out. Make sure you’ve left enough slack since the last stitch in a particular color before you knit with it again.
  • Carry Your Floats: The float is the part where the the yarn goes along the back of the work before you need to knit with that color again. Best practice is to not go more than 4 or 5 stitches without anchoring the floating color by twisting that yarn around the other color. The practice swatch is designed to let you practice this technique in row 12. You’ll notice there are 7 white stitches in a row. You would knit 3 or 4, then twist the yarn balls, then continue for the rest of the white stitches. This is demonstrated in the video below.


The following video shows how to knit the colorwork sample swatch and provides several tips for success:

Ready to Give it a Try?

The following are links to the sample swatch pattern for practice and the sheep hat, which is a great first stranded colorwork project:

Feel free to post a question in the comment section or drop me an email. Happy knitting!

Ready for more practice?

In addition to the sheep hat, you might like the matching mittens and cowl or this reindeer hat. Or check out the other available Cushion of Joy knitting lessons.

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