Fair Isle Knitting: Overcoming Technique Fears

There’s an approach that addresses every Fair Isle knitting fear. We’ve already covered how to get over your color choice fears. Here are some common anxieties related to technique, and ways to overcome them.

Too Many Colors

In traditional Fair Isle knitting, you never have more than two colors in any row, ever. One color is for the pattern motif stitches, and the other is for the background stitches. You have only two yarns to work with at any time.

Twisting Yarns

Simply keep one ball of yarn on each side of your body, well away from each other. Unless there are only one to three rounds before you use a yarn again, break it each time you finish with that color.

Yarn Dominance

As you knit, you may notice that one color—that of either the pattern stitches or the background stitches—will appear to slightly dominate the other. This occurs because one strand of yarn is coming from under the other, resulting in slightly longer stitches. Be consistent in holding your yarn. Designate one position for your pattern color and one position for your background color. Determine which yarn is dominating, then note how you’re holding that particular yarn. This is your personal way of holding the “dominant yarn,” which in future, you’ll assign to the pattern color.

Yarn Control Anxiety

You can hold the yarns several ways. By experimenting, you can decide which method works best for you. Most common is holding one yarn in each hand—two colors, two hands.

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I carry both yarns over my left index finger and use a continental form of “picking” the yarns.

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On Shetland, I’ve seen women knitting with both yarns in held in their right hand.

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Like any new skill, working with two yarns can be frustrating at first. However, just as you learned to knit with one yarn, you can learn to work with two. As with most things, practice makes perfect. Taking a class is a great way to explore new methods; you’ll see several different knitting styles and can choose what works best for you.

Fear of Floats

Fair Isle knitting is more properly called stranded knitting. As you knit with one color, the yarn not in use is carried across the back of the work, creating strands called floats. Traditional Fair Isle patterns rarely have more than seven or eight stitches between color changes, so the floats will never be too long, eliminating the need to weave, or catch the floats as you knit.

Bunchy Fabric

As you happily knit along, stay relaxed and spread out your work along the right-hand needle as you go. This way, when you strand the unused yarn behind the working stitches, it will automatically be the correct length. With practice, smoothing out your just-knitted stitches will become second nature, and you’ll avoid the puckering that occurs when the floats are too short. Floats that are too long are less of an issue, but can make the stitches too tall, making the work uneven, so take care.

Does your work still look bunched? Proper finishing will eliminate the worst of it. Give your item a good wet blocking. Wash it carefully in a mild soap and rinse thoroughly. Gently press out the moisture between towels, and dry flat, pinning it into shape. On Shetland, they have special “wooly boards” or ‘’wooly horses” designed just for drying garments in shape. Washing also brings out the “bloom” of Shetland wool, that lovely halo of fibers that visually soften and blend the colors and patterns.

Alarming Color Charts

Traditional Fair Isle knitting employs geometric patterns that have a logical sequence, making them easy to remember. Fair Isle knitting is knitted in the round. On a chart, each square represents a knitted stitch, either a pattern stitch or a background stitch. Every row of the chart represents a pattern repeat that continues around the piece. Read from right to left, from bottom to top.

It’s a worthwhile habit to learn to “read” your work. Really look at your knitting. Watch the pattern emerge from the background. A nice trick is to place a Post-It note over the rows you’ve worked just under the current row. By reading your work, you’ll see where you’ve been and by consulting the chart, see where you’ll be going.

Loose Ends

Weaving in loose ends is a necessity, but it’s not necessarily evil. One idea is to weave the end of the old yarn in while joining the new yarn. Leave the beginning of the new yarn to weave in later, after you’ve progressed a few inches. I try to weave the ends back into their same row in the direction they’re coming from. I weave them into the purl “bumps” on the back of the work, but you might choose to be more fanatic and follow the course of the stitches.

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Now, I’ll ‘fess up’ with what I do and offer a couple of additional ideas. Usually, I don’t weave in any of my ends till the bitter end. I think of these unruly friends as a project separate unto itself. I lose track of time, and I often feel like I’ve been abducted by aliens. The work becomes pleasantly mesmerizing. You might also consider eliminating ends altogether by spit-splicing old and new colors together. And finally, in Shetland, they sometimes don’t weave the ends in at all, but knot them. Imagine deliberately creating knots—it could be liberating!

Just as Parmigiano-Reggiano comes only from Parma, true Fair Isle knitting comes from only from the knitters of Fair Isle. That said, the possibilities for working with Fair Isle techniques are endless! We’re lucky to have the Fair Isle knitters’ hundreds of years of expertise to guide us in creating our own personal Fair Isle style.


Mary Jane Mucklestone loves to spread Fair Isle love through lively, fun, and informative classes. Keep up with her at www.MaryJaneMucklestone.com.

 This article was originally published, in its entirety, in the 2011 spring edition of Interweave Knits. Read the first half of this piece here.

(Originally posted on April 25, 2019; updated October 2, 2019.)


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