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Stranded colourwork knitting

Stranded colourwork, which uses two or more colours of yarn per row to create patterns, is a vital element of many knitting traditions around the world. We love this technique for the endless design possibilities, ability to create intricate patterns from simple building blocks, and for the compelling rhythm of knitting alternating yarns. Master colourwork with our patterns and tutorials, designed to lead you through every step of your colourwork journey.

Stranded colourwork is most often knit in the round, in stockinette. Because the right side of the work always faces you, it’s easy to see the pattern developing and keep track of where you are in the chart.

Colourwork charts

Colourwork patterns are usually worked from charts, showing which colour each stitch is knit in. Some charts will have boxes shaded in the colours used. For many of our patterns we use a simplified style of colourwork chart showing whether a stitch is worked in the "pattern" or "background" colour. Two columns next to the chart show which colours are used for pattern and background on that row. This makes it easier to substitute colours.

graphic showing two styles of colourwork chart

 

Tensioning the yarn

The yarn can be tensioned by holding both colours in one hand or one colour in each hand. You may find a knitting thimble, which is worn on one finger and holds the two colours of yarn under tension, a helpful aid to tensioning two colours at once. 

photo of colourwork thimble in use

Colour Dominance

When working with two colours one colour will always appear slightly more prominent while the other will recede more into the background, this is called Colour Dominance. The effect is caused by the way that the two colours are stranded over each other on the wrong side: the colour which is stranded underneath the other will be be more prominent.

photo of two swatches for the same pattern with the colour dominance reversed

The dominant colour should always be stranded under the floats of the background colour. When knitting with one colour in each hand hold the dominant colour in the left hand and always bring the yarn up from below the floats in the background colour. If there isn't a clear pattern and background colour in the design the crucial thing is to be consistent.

photo showing one colour of yarn being held in each hand

 

Swatching for colourwork

Colourwork is usually knit in the round, and gauge can vary between knitting in the round and knitting flat. We recommend swatching in the round using the swift swatching in the round method.  

 

photograph of a colourwork swatch showing that the yarn has been cut at the edges

 

Get started with stranded colourwork knitting with these beginner tutorials:

Beginner colourwork patterns

Hats and cowls make great projects for honing your stranded colourwork skills. They can be made on 16” or 24” circulars, and are satisfyingly quick to work up. Using double pointed needles (or magic loop) on your first colourwork project can be a bit tricky to manage, depending on the pattern - the junctions between the needles can be especially prone to laddering and twisting while you’re learning how to manage your two strands and needles.

Look for patterns with smaller pattern repeats, 5 or fewer consecutive stitches worked in the same colour and that only use two colours per round. Many traditional Fair Isle patterns happen to follow these guidelines.

Here are a few suggestions of our favourite colourwork patterns for beginners: 

Learn how to choose colours for your own designs, manage your stranded yarn tension on dpns or magic loop, and practice more advanced techniques with our full series of colourwork tutorials.