Have you wanted to try knitting colourwork, but think it’s too hard or you don’t have the right skills? Then this post is for you! Here are my tips for beginner knitters to get started with knitting colourwork patterns and let me assure you – you absolutely can do it!
There are so many beautiful colourwork knitting patterns out there, everything from sweaters to hats to socks! Starting a colourwork knitting pattern for the first time can be intimidating. But I assure you, knitting stranded colourwork is not as hard as it looks and if you can knit the basic knitting stitches you can knit stranded colourwork.
These tips will help beginner level knitters mast the basics of stranded colourwork.
Tips for Stranded Colourwork: Gauge and Swatching
What is gauge?
If you’re not familiar with the term gauge and what it means, here’s a quick rundown.
Gauge is how many stitches and rows of knitting fit within certain measurements, usually measured over 4”. The pattern for your colourwork project should include the gauge and the stitch pattern to measure your gauge over.
Gauge can change depending on many factors, some yarn doesn’t puff up, or bloom, as much as others, certain fibers can knit up tighter or looser. And naturally knitters can have a tighter or a looser gauge as well.
If your gauge is tighter than the designer’s gauge, that means that your stitches are smaller, so it takes you more stitches to knit 4”. If you try to knit the colourwork project at that gauge with the designers instructions, it will come out way too small!!
The opposite is true if your gauge is too big, your project will come out too big as well as it takes you less stitches than the designer to knit 4”.
Measuring gauge when knitting stranded colourwork
To measure your gauge you will need to knit a swatch using the yarn you are going to use.
A swatch is a square of fabric knit in the stitch you need to measure your gauge. Most colorwork knitting patterns will tell you to swatch using the colourwork part of the pattern, the pattern may also include the gauge for other stitches that are used in the design.
For your swatch, you should cast on more stitches than you need for 4” and knit more rows than needed so your square is larger than 4” by 4” as you’ll want to measure in the middle, not near the edges where your stitches can be tighter or looser.
Make sure you block your swatch so you have an accurate measurement of gauge.
Once your swatch is blocked and dry it’s time to measure your gauge. I always start with rows personally!
Lay your measuring tape down at the top of a stitch and count the number of stitches that fit in 4”. That’s how many rows you knit to reach 4” in length.
Then lay your measure tape across your swatch starting from the left side of a stitch and count the number of stitches across to 4”. That’s how many stitches it takes to reach 4” across.
How stranded colourwork can affect gauge
Just like regular knitting, your colourwork can be tighter or looser, and because you are knitting a different technique you may find your colourwork is tighter or looser than your regular knitting. It’s really common for knitters to knit more tightly when knitting colourwork.
If you are new to knitting stranded colourwork you should swatch over the colourwork portion of the knitting pattern, even if the pattern hasn’t said to, as you’re not used to what your gauge is over stranded colourwork.
What to do if your gauge is too small
If you are getting more stitches or rows in 4” than the pattern states than your stitches are tighter. To remedy this go up a needle size (or two if you’re really small) and swatch again to get looser, bigger stitches.
What to do if your gauge is too big
If you are getting less stitches or rows in 4” than the patterns states than your stitches are looser. To remedy this go down a needle size (or two if you’re really loose) and swatch again to get tighter, smaller stitches.
Tips for Stranded Colourwork Knitting: Reading Colourwork Knitting Patterns
Colourwork knitting patterns can have written or charted instructions. Most colourwork knitting patterns will be charted and may or may not have written instructions.
Here’s an example with a quick colourwork pattern I’ve just made up on the spot. We will be discussing colourwork knit in the round from now on, as stranded colourwork is most commonly knit in the round.
Written instructions will give the pattern instructions for the colourwork pattern like this (normally the written instructions would use abbreviation, but I have written them in full so it’s easy to understand):
Round 1: * Knit 7 stitches with colour A, knit 1 stitch with colour B, repeat from * to beginning of round
Round 2: * knit 1 stitch with colour A, knit 5 stitches with colour B, repeat from * to beginning of round
Round 3 & 4: * knit 1 stitch with colour A, knit 1 stitch with colour B, knit 3 stitches with colour A, knit 1 stitch with colour B, knit 1 stitch with colour B, knit 1 stitch with colour A, repeat from * to beginning of round
Round 5: * knit 1 stitch with colour A, knit 5 stitches with colour B, repeat from * to beginning of round
Round 6: * Knit 7 stitches with colour A, knit 1 stitch with colour B, repeat from * to beginning of round
The chart for these same instructions looks like this:
As you can probably tell it’s a lot quicker to read – and to create – the chart. it also makes it easier to avoid mistakes! This is why most stranded colourwork knitting patterns provide charted instructions only.
How to read a colourwork knitting pattern chart?
The first thing you should note when looking at the colourwork chart is the legend which will tell you which colour is which. The pattern will note how the different colours are labeled, some common ones are:
MC for Main colour and CC for contrast colour
CA, CB, CC for Colour A, B, C etc.
C1, C2, C3 Colour 1, 2, 3 etc.
The example I’m going to show is just two colours, but stranded colourwork patterns can have 2 or more colours.
In this legend the colours are marked Colour A and Colour B
You need to keep in mind which colours you are using for each, so you may be using black for Colour A and red for Colour B so where the chart is purple you will use black and where it is pink you will use red.
The chart is read from the bottom right, it’s the opposite of how you’d read something normally, but it is also the direction in which you knit from right to left and starting at the bottom of a piece.
The numbers along the bottom label the stitches and the numbers on the side are the rows/rounds. It is also common for charts to show more than one repeat, in this pattern a repeat is 8 stitches, but three repeats are shown to give a better idea of the pattern.
So you will start with round 1 but knitting 7 stitches in colour A, then 1 stitch in colour B and repeat that all the way around.
Then you’ll move up to round 2 and knit 1 stitch in colour B, 5 stitches in colour A, 1 stitch in B, 1 stitch in A and repeat those 8 stitches all the way around.
Then you’ll move up to round 3 and continue until you have knit the whole chart.
Stranded Colourwork Knitting: What are floats?
So now you know how to read the chart, but how do you actually knit with two colours? It’s a lot simpler than it seems. You will be creating strands, called floats, along the back of your knitting.
Floats are the strands of yarn that will be on the inside of your project. You create a float when you knit the next stitch in a different colour and bring that yarn strand across a section of stitches.
Using stitches 2 to 6 in round 3 of our sample chart here’s an example:
Stitch 2 is knit in colour B followed but three stitches in colour A. When we switch back to knit the 6th stitch in colour B a float is created behind the 3 stitches knit in colour A.
If you have to bring your yarn across a lot of stitches it is common to use a technique called catching, or trapping floats. This makes it so you can avoid having such a long loose float. This helps with the overall tension so a long float doesn’t pull too tight or be left too loose.
You won’t need to catch your floats every time, only when you have a lot of stitches to cross. It’s recommended to catch floats when the float is going across 7 or more stitches, or longer than an inch.
So in rounds 1 and 6 of our example, you’d probably want to catch your floats. You’ll catch your floats by trapping the non-working yarn behind your working yarn when you knit a stitch.
Using round 6 as an example:
Knit 3 stitches with colour A (the working yarn). Then before working the fourth stitch, take the non-working yarn (colour B) and put it over the working yarn before knitting your next stitch.
Now when you knit the next stitch with colour A the non-working yarn (colour B) is trapped by your working yarn, creating a shorter float.
Managing the tension of your floats
When knitting stranded colourwork it’s important to manage the tension of your floats. If your floats are too tight then your knitting will be pulled in by the floats and pucker, it won’t lie flat. If your floats are too loose your stitches will be loose as well and won’t lie evenly in your knitting.
To avoid tight floats stretch out your stitches along the right hand needle when you are creating your float so the float is going across the stitches at their full width and not bunched up.
In the picture above I’m stretching out the three stitches in colour A so that when I knit the next stitch with colour B the float is not too tight.
To avoid loose floats make sure the float is lying taunt, but not tight, against the back of your work and the stitches on either end are even and not loose.
How to hold your yarn when knitting stranded colourwork
How you hold your yarn to knit colourwork will depend if you’re an english or continental style knitter. I knit english style and I will hold my yarn in one of two ways depending on how I’m feeling that day (LOL) and depending on how often I have to switch colours.
If I don’t have to switch colours too often, I will just drop the working yarn and pick up the next colour with my right hand and keep going. So this means I just keep knitting normally in english style pausing every now and then to drop the working yarn and pick up the next colour. I only use my right hand to hold the working yarn.
If I have to switch colours frequently I will hold a strand of yarn in each hand and knit a combination of english and continental style.
How you hold the yarn will depend on what you’re comfortable with! Experiment with different techniques as you learn. You can also use tools like a Norwegian knitting thimble to help manage your yarn strands.
Don’t cross the streams!
Except for when you are catching floats, avoid crossing your yarns strands if you can as it will cause them to tangle and it will eventually be difficult for you to pull from your yarn.
To avoid crossing the strands always take your second colour from underneath the first so you’re not crossing it over the yarn coming from the ball (except of course when catching floats and you want to cross the non-working yarn over the working yarn).
There you have it! Those are the basics of knitting stranded colourwork, not so bad right? Now you’re ready to go out and tackle your first stranded colourwork knitting pattern. If you need a suggestion I’ve recently released a beginner friendly colourwork hat pattern called Brigand – you can find it on Ravelry! It’s worsted weight and is has instructions for three sizes: baby/toddler, child, and adult.