Fair isle and stranded knitting - learn to knit with multiple colors

Björk icelandic sweater, knit in multiple colors

Have a look here if you are a new knitter and want to learn new techniques. We enjoy challenging ourselves with new techniques, so our Önling Knitting Blog will regularly feature new techniques and tips for how to get started with each knitting technique.

Today we will focus on multi-color knitting, also called stranded knitting, fair isle or jaquard knitting. The most used term is stranded knitting, while fair isle refers to a special color and pattern tradition from the Shetland Islands. We will get back to that later.

Knitting with multiple colors is widely used in Nordic knitwear, and designers like Boyland knitworks have used it with hand-dyed yarns, which adds a completely different dimension to the more traditional techniques.

Sirid Sweater with stranded knitting color pattern

How to knit with multiple colors

Knitting with two colors is a popular method throughout the Nordic region. You can achieve incredibly beautiful results by knitting with two colors, whether you use contrast colors or two closely related shades. You typically knit with two colors when you want to achieve a specific pattern and when knitting with two colors it is quite important how you hold the two yarns. Read more here and learn more about knitting with multiple colors.

Control the fair isle technique

Depending on how and where you hold the two strands, you have the option of highlighting one color more than the other - this method is called dominance knit. The color that you do NOT want to show is placed on the back of the knitwear, behind the stitches in the dominant color.

How to master multible strands of yarn:

When you knit with several colors, there are two things you need to keep track of: The first is how to hold the different threads, so you don't knit too tight, the second is your choice of colors. It makes a difference to the colors of your knitwear, how you hold the threads. You should hold the one you want to stand out most clearly, closest to your heart (ie on your left index finger), and the other over both the index and middle fingers of your left hand.

Bjørk strik

Relevant videos on stranded knitting 

As always we refer to the competent videos from Knit Purl Hunter. This first video demonstrates how the positioning of the yarns in your hand determines which color is dominant in the design. Positioning options are demonstrated for two-handed, one-handed Continental and one-handed Western-style (throwing).

The technique featured in this video has your right hand knitting Western style (throwing the yarn) and the left hand knitting Continental style. If you are used to throwing, this can start our feeling a bit awkward, but in no time you will gain confidence and speed. This method will have you working with colors in no time.

If you really want to challenge yourself, watch this video, that demonstrates how you ensure that the inside of your knitwear looks just as beautiful as the outside - by catching the long floats.

Color selection

When selecting colors for your stranded knitting, it is important to choose colors with a good contrast. You can easily check this with the camera on your mobile phone. Take a picture on your phone in black and white of the colors / pattern and check if you can clearly see the difference in the colors in the picture. If you can, then you have enough contrast and the colors will stand out in your multicolor knitting.

In the examples below, you can see that the white color has a clear contrast in the black and white picture, while the green and gray do not differ much, when you look at it in black and white. Therefore, you might want to choose two colors with more contrast than these.

Color selection for stranded knitting

A tightly-knit and thick result

When you knit with two colors, you get a nice, thick and tightly knit result, as you are knitting with two strands at once. The unused thread is carried on to the back side of the garment until it is used again, and here the strands cover the purl stitches. The threads on the back side can get too long, especially if more than two colors are used. If the threads become too long, they can get stuck in buttons, zippers and fingers when you put on the sweater. If there is a large gap between color changes, the threads can be stitched on the back as you go. Fair isle knitwear is suitable for warm sweaters, hats and the like and it is often used in Shetlandic, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic pattern knits.

Draka swater

Good models to start your stranded knitting career with 

A good place to start with stranded knitting is Ruth Sørensen's multicolored cowl. You knit in the round and there are only 3-5 stitches between the color changes, giving you a good opportunity to practice color changes and see the effect of knitting with different colors. Ruth Sørensen designs according to the fairisle traditions from the Shetland Islands. In traditional fairisle knitting, you use a limited number of colors and work with repetitive pattern reports, which are constantly varied a bit.

Ruth's cowl with fair isle knitting pattern

Nordic sweaters with multi color patterns 

If you feel like knitting a multi-colored sweater, a good tip is to choose one with a round yoke to begin with. At Önling we love Sirid, which is one of our most popular designs in stranded knitting. If you also love sweaters with multicolored yokes, have a look at Gerdur, Draka and Rosir, all of which are inspired by the Icelandic knitting tradition.

Many of these sweaters are knitted according to diagrammes. Diagrammes are read from the bottom right corner, and if are new to diagrammes, you may be wondering about 'the gray stitches', which means 'no stitches'. This basically means that the stitch does not exist yet - you simply have to skip the field until you have more stitches (increases) on the yoke.

See our full selection of Nordic sweaters with multi-color patterns here

Icelandic sweaters with stranded knitting