desert island Fair Isle? Let's talk about stranded colorwork, which is the last major category I promised to get to.
I'll open by mentioning, as I did in the introductory post for this topic, that all stranded knitting is not Fair Isle, any more than all facial tissues are Kleenex. Technically, Fair Isle-style colorwork is a specific variant of stranded colorwork, as developed on Fair Isle, which is a small island in the North Sea, off the northeast tip of Scotland; it's generally characterized by a strong horizontal motif, usually composed of thin bands of small designs (called "peeries") setting off wider bands of more elaborate designs, and it's usually constructed in the round with unreinforced steeks (if that term doesn't mean anything to you, hang tight -- we'll get to it) in Shetland or similar wool, with sleeves and collars picked up and knit from the steeked openings. You can see some lovely examples of authentic Fair Isle colorwork, actually produced on Fair Isle, here -- note the strong horizontal banding, and the alternating large and small patterns? You can also see a particularly common Fair Isle motif, XO patterning, in several of these sweaters. Scandinavian designs tend to have a slightly different look, with more allover patterning or large sections rather than bands and a slightly different treatment of steeks, if they're employed at all; some variants are worked all in one piece, often with a round yoke. The world will by no means come to an end if you use "Fair Isle" to refer to all stranded methods, and indeed many people do; however, now if someone snaps at you for calling their beautiful and intricate Bohus sweater "pretty FI," you'll have some inkling why.
You may have noticed that all the stranded colorwork methods seem to come from one corner of the world, right around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea -- Fair Isle, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and so on. There's a reason for that, and that reason is that it's really cold up there. Stranded knitting is a great way to produce a double thickness of knitted material, while still only having to knit the stitches to produce one layer. Worked in fairly lofty yarns like Shetland and Lopi, it traps a lot of air, and that means a lot of body heat, without too much weight. The firm gauge produced by stranding, and the way that the strands run crossways to the openings in the fabric, help keep the warmed air trapped instead of letting it be whisked away by wind. In countries where the weather dips below the freezing point, at least at night, for at least six months of the year, that's pretty important. Stranded colorwork is pretty, yes, but it's also intensely practical.
Okay, very interesting, but how do you do it? In very simple terms, stranded colorwork is produced by using two or more colors of yarn, with one color used to produce each stitch, and the unused color or colors drawn behind the stitch in a straight strand, called a float. In practical terms, of course, there's a bit more to it.
Let's look, first, at the floats themselves. As stitches are worked, the unused color is stranded behind the knitted fabric, attached at those points where that color was used to produce a stitch and the other color was stranded instead. Where one color is used for several successive stitches, the float generally extends for the entire length of that stitch group, and the length of the floats is one of the limits upon traditional Fair Isle designs and other stranded patterning; they're designed so that the stretches of a single color are broken up fairly often, usually not more than every 5 to 7 stitches or so. For example, in this sweater design, see how white contouring has been inserted on the black body of the reindeer? That adds character to the design, but it also breaks up the length of the white floats behind the black stitches.
The permissible length of the floats varies. In traditional sweaters, worked in very grippy wools like Shetland, longer floats are a little more tolerable, because very shortly the floats will lightly felt themselves to the backs of the stitches. In designs to be worked in superwash wool or cotton, or to be worn by small children who are more likely to snag their fingers when putting sweaters on, shorter floats are more desirable, and you may wish to make the floats shorter than the patterning allows for. This is done by catching the float strand with the working strand between stitches. There are some disadvantages to doing this -- for instance, the caught strand may show slightly, especially where a dark color is caught behind a lighter one, and knitted fabric where this is done a lot is less elastic, more like a woven fabric -- but it's still a common practice and does have its usefulness as well. With some small items, especially hats and mittens, the float issue is avoided by knitting a lining, often with a finer and softer yarn, from stitches picked up at the brim or cuff; this hides all the floats between the layers, and also adds both warmth and softness against the skin.
Too-short floats are at least as much of an issue as too-long ones. If the floats are too short, the knitted fabric will be unable to stretch properly, and the item may not fit. This can especially be an issue with smaller items knitted on DPNs, where the floats may "cut the corners" and end up considerably tighter than intended. One solution for this problem is to knit the item inside out, using the needles on the far side of the tube instead of those on the near side, so the floats go around the outside instead of the inside, and therefore are easily kept sufficiently long. This problem is less extreme with items knitted on circular needles or knitted flat, but it can still be an issue; care should be taken to stretch out the completed fabric in the right hand, to make sure the floats are staying long enough.
Even when the floats are properly maintained, however, stranded knitted tends to be tighter in gauge than single-color knitting. As you may recall from the discussion of charting, stranded colorwork can pull in to such an extent that the stitches, typically rectangular in single-color work, become much closer to square. Because of this, work that includes bands of colorwork and bands of single-color knitting can have tension issues; the typical response is to go down one needle size for the single-color sections, but it's advisable to check your gauge in both single-color knitting and stranded knitting. Certainly for items with all-over stranded patterning, you will wish to swatch in stranded knitting and not rely on your single-color gauge.
Now, let's get down to the meat: making the actual stitches. There are basically three ways to manage your yarn strands: both in your left hand, both in your right hand, or one in each hand.
The one-in-each-hand method is possibly the most common, and certainly the one you'll find the most information about, so we'll cover it first. With this method, your left hand carries one color (typically, but not always, your contrast color) and stitches are made by picking, in the Continental style, while the right hand carries the other color (again, typically, but not always, your background color) and stitches are made by throwing the yarn, in the English style. I have a couple of great resources for this style to share with you. The first is a wonderful video from Philosopher's Wool; this video demonstrates both the Continental and English style of making a knit stitch, and then shows you how to combine them, and how to weave in floats (which I am going to cover a bit later). If you have the capability to view this video, I would strongly suggest you do so; it's a really great demonstration. The other resource is the Fair Isle 101 series from She Ewe Knits. It's not quite as great as the PW video, but still handy. One thing I do want to note about this source, however, is that she says consistently to wrap the yarn clockwise -- I'll note that that's clockwise if you're viewing it with the tip of the needle pointed away from you, which is the same as counterclockwise with the needle pointed at your nose. One of the trickier parts of this method is to maintain a consistent tension with both strands; often one hand will tend to run at a slightly different tension than the other when the yarn is held the same way in both. Experiment with different methods of wrapping the yarn in each hand until you find ways that match; as an example, when knitting this way, I wrap the yarn around my pinkies and then over my forefinger with both hands, but my right hand gets two pinkie wraps while my left gets only one.
Both strands in the left hand is probably the next most commonly discussed method, and seems to be particularly common in the Scandinavian countries. With this method, both strands are held with some slight separation, and the desired strand is picked in the Continental style. One of the notable things about this method is a little gadget designed specifically for it, to assist with keeping the separation between the strands, called a knitting thimble, or the much more interesting term strickfingerhut -- as you can see from that page, there are a couple of different variations on these. It's not a gadget I personally care for, because I tend to drop and re-wrap my yarn strands very frequently and having them firmly attached to my forefinger interferes with that, but for less fidgety knitters than myself, I understand they're quite handy. My preferred method is to hold both yarns together as I normally would hold a single strand, with the background color closer to the tip of my forefinger, and then place my middle finger between the two strands to keep them slightly separated.
The third method is both strands in the right hand; I'm not sure if this method is in fact less common, or if it just gets less attention, but it is the hardest to find information about. With this method, stitches with both strands are wrapped as in the English method. There are two primary ways of holding the yarn that I've heard of: the first is to hold the contrast color on the index finger and the background color on the middle finger, and move each separately; the other is to place the index finger between the two strands, and use wrist rotation to bring each into play, with the hand being rotated palm up and the pad of the forefinger being used to bring up the contrast strand, and the hand being rotated palm away and the back of the forefinger being used to bring up the background strand. An article which illustrates this, "Working with Two Yarns" by Beth Brown-Reinsel, appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Interweave Knits; for those who subscribe to this magazine, it appears in the subscriber-only section on the website, under "Beyond the Basics".
That's a fair amount of information to digest, and it's enough to let you start playing with traditional patterns where weaving isn't required, so I think I'm going to stop there for this post. In the next one, I'll cover a bunch of other things, including how to deal with more than two strands, weaving long floats in the various methods, two-color (corrugated) ribbing, yarn dominance, and steeks. See you then!