Color Play: Getting Stranded

Traditional stranded knitting designs from Fair Isle are composed of basic stockinette-stitch fabric worked with two colors per row, usually in bands of patterned stripes or in tiny allover geometric patterns.

The key word of the previous sentence is “tiny,” because when you work with two colors, the yarn not used to knit a stitch or group of stitches is carried along the wrong side. If the pattern work is too bold, with thick sections of one color, the carried strands—called “floats”—become too long and unwieldy. There’s no industry standard for float length, but I use a personal guideline of one inch (2.5 cm) maximum float length in my stranded designs. I’ve found that if I use floats longer than one inch, buttons, fingers, and even knitting needles (don’t ask!) can catch on them and pull.

stranded knitting

A right side detail of a fair isle sweater, versus its wrong side.

The right side of the above photo demonstrates what the back side of a stranded knitted fabric looks like. Note the horizontal floats created by holding the yarn not in use to the wrong side of the work—to the back while knitting right-side rows and to the front (toward the knitter) while purling wrong-side rows.

Because only two colors are worked per row, stranded knitting is easier than it looks. Knitters have several options for how to hold and manipulate the yarns.

stranded knitting

Hold both yarns in your dominant hand, placing one over the index finger and the other over the middle finger; Continental knitters (left) will simply “pick” the color they need as they work, whereas English/American knitters (right) will “throw” the required color for each stitch.

stranded knitting

Hold both yarns over the index finger of your dominant hand and choose the color you need each time.

stranded knitting

Most efficient is holding one yarn in each hand, knitting Continentally with one color and throwing the other one.


It is important to maintain an even tension in stranded knitting, as well as to keep those floats nice and loose; too-tight floats will pucker the fabric and wreak havoc on your gauge.

That said, using the stranded technique alters the gauge of stockinette fabric. Typically, solid-colored fabric is composed of rectangular stitches that are wider than they are tall. In other words, there are more rows than stitches per inch (2.5 cm). In stranded fabrics, however, stitches are usually square. The floats tend to pull the fabric in widthwise, requiring more stitches per inch (2.5 cm) than normal.

Dig into the current issue of knitscene to get this story and the Night Birds sweater pattern, designed by Melissa Leapman.

Most stranded patterns are easily worked from charts. You’ll read them the same way you read other knitting charts: right-side rows are read from right to left and wrong-side rows are read from left to right. Be mindful of any stitch repeats, which are usually indicated by a bounding box or bold lines.

I hope you’ll try each of the methods described here to find the one that is most comfortable for you. And remember: if stranded knitting is new to you, be patient with yourself as you’re learning, and your stranded projects will turn out great.


Melissa Leapman is a knitwear designer based in New York City. You can find this story and the pattern for her Night Birds sweater in the current issue of knitscene.


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