Combining Plain Stockinette with Stranded Colorwork

Compared to knitting stockinette stitch using just one color, knitting stranded colorwork can sometimes feel like a juggling act. Not only do you have to pay attention to the color pattern, you also have to manage working with two (or more) colors at the same time while trying to keep the tension of the fabric smooth to avoid puckering.

Another matter to consider, particularly when a project involves both single-color and stranded colorwork sections (as with the Bergen Peak Pullover by Irina Anikeeva in this Spring 2018 issue of Interweave Knits, is the likely gauge difference between the two. This difference in gauge will cause the fabric to constrict in those areas where the stitch gauge is finer (usually in the colorwork section), as shown in Photo 1. What causes this problematic gauge difference, and how can you avoid it? In this article, I’ll examine the structural differences between plain and stranded stockinette and discuss ways to compensate for those differences when you work projects that incorporate both.

stranded colorwork

Understand the structural differences between plain and stranded stockinette

The best way to see how stranded stockinette stitch differs from single-color stockinette stitch is to look at the wrong side of the work (Photo 2). With stranded knitting, stitches of the same color are connected to each other by strands that are usually about 1″ (2.5 cm) to 2″ (5 cm) long. It takes some practice to knit colorwork without either pulling the strands too tightly or leaving them too long and loose, both of which will affect the gauge (not to mention the appearance of the fabric).

stranded colorwork

Make sure you maintain a consistent tension at the color changes

The standard advice for working stranded colorwork is to spread the stitches apart at the color changes and keep the strands fairly loose (without tension). In Photo 3, the stitches below the needle are relaxed, neither stretched nor bunched, and the stitches sitting on the needles have some space between them.

stranded colorwork

As you work, make sure not to pull the yarn too tightly as you complete the first stitch of each color change; if you do, the working yarn will act as a drawstring and compress the stitches you so dutifully spread, which will result in puckered fabric. But even if the stitches are perfectly smooth, the gauge will probably still differ from plain stockinette because the stitch shape is also affected by the stranding.

Consider the shape of stitches in stranded stockinette

Some knitters describe the stranded gauge as being “tighter,” but that’s not exactly the case. “Tighter” implies an overall tighter gauge (both stitches and rows), but stranded stockinette stitches aren’t so much smaller in size as they are different in shape. This difference in stitch shape isn’t a flaw, it’s inherent to the structure of colorwork fabric. Single-color stockinette stitches are usually wider than they are tall, which is why the pattern gauge over single-color stockinette has more rows than stitches per inch. In contrast, stranded colorwork typically results in stitches that are narrower and taller than plain stockinette stitches, which causes the stitches to become more square than rectangular, resulting in the same number of stitches and rows per inch.

The two puppy charts below show the effect this difference in shape will have on any motifs in the pattern. In the first chart, each rectangle in the chart is horizontal to reflect the shape of a knitted stitch in single-color stockinette. The second chart shows the same motifs on a chart with a square grid. Notice how the motifs in the first chart are flatter than the motifs in the second chart. The second chart is a more accurate representation of what colorwork motifs will look like in the knitted fabric.

stranded colorwork

Determine the stitch gauge of each section

The best way to determine how your stranded colorwork will compare to single-color stockinette is to knit a gauge swatch. Remember that if the project is knitted in the round, the swatch must be, too, or it won’t be accurate. But this doesn’t mean you have to knit an entire sweater: you can simulate knitting in the round by working a flat swatch on a circular needle and sliding the stitches to one end of the needle or the other so that you can work every row as a right-side row. You will need to carry the yarn across the wrong side of the work, leaving long, loose strands, as shown in Photo 4, so that the swatch will lie flat.

stranded colorwork

Cast on enough stitches onto a circular needle for a swatch to measure at least 4″ (10 cm) across, excluding the edges. Work a few rows of garter stitch or seed stitch using one color, then join the second color by knitting both yarns together in the first stitch. Knit across the row in the color pattern and end the row by knitting both yarns together in the final stitch. Do not turn the work. Slide the stitches to the other end of the needle, then strand the two yarns very loosely across the wrong side, even letting the strands drape a bit. If the yarns are taut, the fabric will pull into a tube. (If this happens, you can cut the strands up the center and still end up with a flat swatch.) Wash and block the swatch. Stranded colorwork will flatten and spread a bit after washing and blocking (Photo 5). Make another swatch using one color and compare the gauges of the two swatches.

stranded colorwork

Use a different needle size

Many knitters use a different-size needle for stranded sections of a project than for plain stockinette sections. The swatch shown in Photo 1 was worked using a size 6 (4 mm) needle. The gauge difference is only about one-quarter stitch per inch (2.5 cm), but multiplied over the entire circumference, the difference is significant. For worsted-weight yarn, going up one needle size will change the gauge by about one-quarter stitch per inch (2.5 cm); for fine-yarn weights, one needle size will result in about one-half stitch per inch (2.5 cm) difference. Photo 6 shows a swatch that was knitted with two different needle sizes. The plain stockinette sections were worked on a size 6 (4 mm) needle, whereas the stranded portion was worked on a size 7 (4.5 mm) needle. Note how the fabric maintains a consistent width.

stranded colorwork

Most knitters will need to go up in needle size when they work a colorwork section because the stitch gauge per inch (2.5 cm) will usually be finer (more stitches per inch [2.5 cm]) than the stitch gauge for plain stockinette stitch. However, some knitters may need to go down in needle size because the colorwork gauge is larger (fewer stitches per inch [2.5 cm]). This less-common situation occurs because the knitters overcompensate when they strand the colorwork and leave long, loose strands at the back of the work. (The overcompensation often changes as knitters become more practiced with stranded colorwork.) A few lucky knitters will achieve the same stitch gauge on the same needles for both types of stockinette, although their row gauge will still most likely be different.

Small circumference knitting

Some knitters notice that they can knit large circumferences in the round matching the tension of plain stockinette, but when they work small circumferences (sleeves, for example), tension issues occur at the transition from one needle to another because the stranded yarn cuts across the corners. The problem is especially challenging if you use Magic Loop or the two circulars method, because the needles are parallel to each other. The inside corners are sharp, making it difficult to provide enough slack in the carried yarn.

One solution is to work the piece wrong-side out. The swatch in Photo 3 was worked this way using the Magic Loop method and a needle that was one size larger for the stranded section. The stranded yarns at the needle transition points wrapped smoothly around the transition points. When the work is turned inside out, the working yarn will still be hanging from the right-hand needle and stitches will be worked off the left-hand needle. Note that for the Magic Loop and two circulars methods, you will be working across the back needle rather than the front needle.

Once you understand how and why stranded stockinette behaves differently from plain stockinette, you can combine that knowledge with changes in your tools and techniques to produce exactly the results you want from your stranded colorwork projects.

Note: All the stitch patterns used in the swatches are from AlterKnit Stitch Dictionary: 200 Modern Knitting Motifs by Andrea Rangel.

stranded colorwork


ROXANNE RICHARDSON is a certified master handknitter living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she designs and teaches. You can find her weekly videos on YouTube at www.youtube .com/user/RoxMpls. This piece was originally published in Interweave Knits Spring 2018.


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