Colorwork leaving you stranded?

Stranded colorwork was one of the first knitting classes I taught, and to this day, it remains one of the most requested at the shop.  I suspect the reason for this popularity is that colorwork intimidates a lot of knitters: getting gauge, maintaining even tension, not dropping (or accidentally creating) stitches — these are complicated enough with one strand of yarn! 

The good news is, there are a ton of resources for knitters looking to dive into the addicting world that is stranded colorwork. Because I am so often recommending these resources by scribbling them on pieces of paper at the shop, or around town, or on an airplane, I thought I would compile some of my favorites here.

my favorite colorwork resources:

1. Color Theory with Jared Flood (part I and part II)
This is a two-part series from Jared Flood of Brooklyn Tweed that I think is essential reading for the colorwork curious. The NUMBER ONE problem I see with colorwork is poor color choice, which is such a shame because it is such an easy fix! 

2. Color Dominance with Ysolda
I am a big fan of this post in part because the visuals are great — Ysolda explains color dominance beautifully and then demonstrates it through two versions of the same striking swatch.

3. Fair Isle/stranded colorwork with Julie Williams
I confess: my first ever colorwork was on a bunny dress in a Julie Williams design — and I never turned back! The first half of this post includes another good explanation of color dominance, but I think the real value is in the second half of the post, where she shows you, step-by-step, how to catch up floats on the back of your work.

some tips for getting started:

1. Place the two balls of yarn on opposite sides of your knitting.

Color dominance (see links above) is critical for achieving clean, even motifs in stranded colorwork. Placing your balls of yarn on the opposite sides of your knitting (usually dominant color on the left, non-dominant on the right) will help you notice more quickly when you accidentally switch your dominant and non-dominant yarns, because you will see the yarns twist around each other. I usually tell students that the twist is not a problem if it happens every so often — just untwist the strands manually by moving the balls of yarn. But if it is happening regularly, it's likely that you are not maintaining consistent color dominance, and it's probably a good idea to revisit the resources listed above (or sign up for class!).

The underlying point here is: when colorwork is done right, the strands coming from the two balls of yarn should NEVER twist.

As a side note: there are some awesome knitting accessories available to help you in the endeavor to keep your yarns separated. I love a good yarn bowl — I would love a matching set even more! And recently I've heard great things about yarn holder lazy susans. For travel, something like the Walker yarn caddies are awesome, although I've had just as much luck by putting my two balls of yarn in separate plastic baggies and drawing the yarn through a tiny hole cut in the corner of each bag.

2. Pretend you are learning to knit for the first time all over again.

I suspect one of the main reasons experienced knitters become frustrated with stranded colorwork is because it makes knitting awkward at first — just like adding any new technique — and experienced knitters probably figured they were done feeling awkward. I usually encourage students to practice techniques that do not include dropping the yarn they are not using, because I think dropping the second yarn is a crutch that allows the experienced knitter to create a colorwork object while continuing to knit in the same manner as they do when using only one yarn. But it is slow — constantly dropping and picking up yarns — and in my experience, it is more likely to result in poor tension, with floats inconsistently tight and loose. It also makes it MUCH more likely that you will twist your yarns.

The better technique is one in which the knitter never drops the second color, although there are a number of different ways to do this. Susan, one of the owners at Magpie Knits, swears by two-handed colorwork (meaning she knits one color continental style, the other English), while Blair, the other owner, prefers the same method as I do, which is holding both colors together in the left hand (continental style for the #win).

The main point is: have patience and experiment! I have more colorwork students return to the shop to report they are now addicted to this style of knitting than in any of the other classes I teach. It's fun, satisfying, and truly no more difficult than single-yarn knitting once you get the hang of it.