Fair Isle Knitting: An Introduction to Stranded Colorwork Knitting, by Lisa Ellis
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“What is Fair Isle knitting?” It’s a question I’m asked often as a knitting instructor. With fancy names like “Jacquard” and “Fair Isle” and not-so-fancy names like “Stranded knitting,” it’s no wonder the question comes up all the time.

Not all stranded color knitting follows Fair Isle rules or patterns — other stranded color knitting may use more than 2 colors, carry the yarns more than 5 sts, and used different patterning than that unique to Fair Isle. Stranded is a literal name for the strands that Fair Isle knitting produces. Fair Isle is the traditional name, named after a small island off the coast of Scotland where knitters were known for their skill with the technique. There are other color knitting techniques, like intarsia and mosaic knitting; however, Fair Isle is the most common and the best technique to learn first. Fair Isle uses only 2 colors per row and alternates colors frequently to create small patterns of color — usually changing every 5 stitches or fewer. This keeps the floating strands shorter in length and more manageable.

Fair Isle is always worked in stockinette stitch and most commonly worked in rounds, which is actually easier than worked flat in rows. The yarn that is not being worked is carried along the back of the work (see Photo 1), creating floating bars or strands, hence the name Stranded knitting. Since two colors  of yarn are being carried across the row or round, the project is dense and twice as thick. This technique  is ideal for sweaters, hats and mittens; however, the knitted project has less give and elasticity for the very same reason.

Fair Isle Knitting Photo 1

Photo 1: Floats on wrong side

Reading Fair Isle Charts

All Fair Isle color patterns are charted. Charts will lay out the design and colors used. In most cases, the colors will be assigned numbers or letters, color A, B, C and so on. The chart will be condensed to show the repeat pattern. So if the chart is 10 stitches and the hat is 100 stitches, you would work the chart 10 times.

To read a chart in the round, begin in the bottom right-hand corner of the chart and go from right to left. Round 2 and every round after that will begin on the next row up and again, work from right and go left. If the project is worked flat in rows, row 2 will begin on the 2nd row of the chart and will be worked left to right. The easiest way to remember this is that the chart follows your knitting — in the round, always right to left and flat, zigzag from right to left and left to right. Rows or rounds are indicated on column sides and the stitch count is shown on the bottom row, always numbered from right to left.

Knitting in Fair Isle

Beginning with the main color used in the project, work in pattern to the new color on the chart. Then, without dropping the main color, bring the new color into position to knit into the next stitch by simply draping the yarn over the needle (see Photo 2). Continue to work the chart as instructed, dropping each yarn that is no longer needed for that next stitch and picking up the new yarn and knitting with it. Give the yarn enough slack to reach across the last used color.

Adding a new yarn color while Fair Isle knitting

Photo 2: Adding a new yarn color while Fair Isle knitting

Carrying the Yarn in Fair Isle Knitting

When Fair Isle knitting, I always like to carry the main color over the contrasting color and the contrasting color always under the main color. By doing this, the wrong side of the project will have a cleaner appearance, and it also prevents the yarns from twisting around each other and creating a tangled mess. When working flat, since the yarns zigzag back and forth, the new color needs to be twisted around the last color used on that next row to prevent a hole (see Photo 3). When working in rounds, the yarns are always worked in the same direction so this is not an issue.

Carrying over yarn while Fair Isle knitting

Photo 3: New color twisted around last color used

Preventing the Dreaded Pucker in Fair Isle Knitting

Since we are working with 2 colors and carrying the second color over as many as 5 stitches, it is easy to pull the floating strands too tight — thus creating a pucker. Puckers cannot be stretched out during blocking so be sure to be loose when carrying the new color over. By keeping the stitches on the right-hand needle spread apart instead of in a tight bunch, this will help keep the floats loose. This is one case where carrying the yarn loosely is admired!

Avoid puckers by spreading out stitches used

Avoid puckers by spreading out stitches used

When Fair Isle knitting in the round, a trick is to keep the right side of the work on the inside and the wrong side (floating bars) on the outside. This will stretch the work and keep the strands loose.

Correcting Mistakes in Fair Isle Knitting

Should you miss a stitch in the Fair Isle chart, it can easily be fixed by duplicating a stitch over the error with the correct color. It’s a flawless technique that even advanced knitters are known to use!  Once you learn Fair Isle knitting, you’ll be open to the new world that colorwork knitting has to offer.

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