Knit Stranded Colorwork: The Basics of Fair Isle Knitting

Interested in knitting classic Fair Isle sweaters? This article from knitscene, Fall 2005 is a great overview of how to work stranded knitting.


Stranded knitting involves working two or more colors on one row of a pattern. It isn’t much more complicated than knitting or purling in one color, but it can produce some really stellar fabrics. Basically, you’ll work a few stitches in one color, then the next few in a second color—both balls of yarn always staying attached to the work. The color that isn’t being worked is carried across the back of the knitting, making a snug loop, a “float,” before being worked again.

If you look at the reverse side of a sweater worked in a stranded pattern, you’ll see the floats; they make a pattern of their own. They also add thickness and warmth to a garment, as they essentially add an inside lining to the sweater. Most stranded patterns only call for two colors in any given row—more than two does make knitting more complicated. To make a practice swatch, gather four colors of yarn (in this case, red, orange, green, and gold). With red, cast on 24 stitches and work a few plain rows. Then with the right side of the knitting facing you, follow the instructions and the stranded chart at right.

On Right-Side (Knit) Rows

Following chart for Row 1, knit the first two stitches with red. Drop red to the back (wrong side) of the work and tie on the second color, orange (Figure 1).

Knit the next stitch (as shown on the chart) with orange, then drop orange to the back of the work (Figure 2).

Pick up red from where it’s hanging at the back of the work, bring it over the strand of orange just dropped, leaving enough slack for the yarn to span the orange stitch (Figure 3). This will be your float. You want to pull it snugly enough that it won’t snag on things but loose enough that it doesn’t pull on the fabric of the knitting. Knit the next stitch with red. This brings you to the end of the pattern repeat on the chart.

Work two more stitches of red (the first two stitches of the second pattern repeat). Pick up orange from the back of the work and bring it under the strand of red just dropped. Make a nice float (with orange) across the back of the last three red stitches and knit the next stitch in orange (Figure 4).

Continue repeating these steps—working the number of stitches shown on the chart for each color—until you get to the end of your first round or row. In this exercise, you’re working back and forth in rows, so turn the work around in preparation for the second row, which will be a wrong-side (purl) row. When you work stranded knitting in the round (as is standard), you’ll continue with right side facing, following the chart and repeating the techniques used on the last right-side row.

On Wrong-Side (Purl) Rows

Work wrong-side rows just like right-side rows, but purl the stitches instead of knitting them, and drop the yarns to the front of the work (facing you) instead of to the back. Your wrong-side rows should correspond with even-numbered rows on the chart. Most stranded patterns are worked in the round, so you won’t have to work wrong-side rows; but for the sake of a small swatch it’s easiest to go back and forth. Continue repeating right-side and wrong-side rows to the end of the chart, 19 rows in all. You will tie on green and gold just as you tied on orange. When you get to areas where a color has not been used for several rows, it’s best to break it off, then tie it on again when you need it. You don’t want floats going up the back of your swatch.

Finish It

When you’ve finished the piece, untie the knots where you joined new colors. Thread the yarn ends on a tapestry needle and weave them into the back of the work, keeping to the same colors as much as you can.

Ready to start your first stranded project? Try the Deep Woods Toque for a simple two-color hat. If you’re ready for a more ambitious project, check out the stunning Venezia Pullover.

stranded knitting


Stranded Knitting in the Pages of knitscene