When it comes to knitting colorwork, it’s really easy to look at something like this:
and say “This is gonna be awesome!” as we attempt to start our own version. Y’all may remember that phrase as the beginning to all of my MOST irritating and difficult projects (in fact, that very project started with that phrase). But once you get into it, you find ends everywhere and wrapped stitches that shouldn’t be and colors out of order. So the big question:
How in the world do you change colors in knitting without making a huge mess!?
We got the chance in a previous post to go over how to knit colored stripes. Wrapping the yarn up the side of the work as you go helps to keep things neat and tidy without trouble.
Now it’s time to figure out how to knit with colors switching in the middle of the row. Probably the EASIEST way to do that is called stranded or “fair isle” knitting in which you carry one strand of yarn behind the work making sort of a woven pattern behind the work. It looks something like this:
The front of that work is pretty fun looking though:
To get this to work, you have to worry about two things really. First, always make sure you’re using the right color to stitch with. That’s pretty easy for most patterns because you’re only working with two colors at a time and it is fairly obvious if you mess up. You have to really watch it if you’re using more than two colors.
Second, you have to keep an eye on your “floater” (yeah, kind of a weird name). The floater is the line that you’re carrying behind the work:
The floater needs to keep a smooth tension and keep tucked in (so you don’t have any long, loose strands on the back). Keeping smooth tension isn’t terribly hard if you are comfortable with your working tension already. The floating strand should be held behind with the same tension as your working tension. Resist the urge to pull it really tight. Pulling the float tight will not change that the back is woven together and will make the front of your work look or feel stretched too tight.
To help keep the floater tucked and looking neat, the working strand will always lay down and have the next color pulled around it when changing colors. What does that mean? Well, take a look:
If you are fairly dexterous, you can hold both strands in one hand and switch back and forth. Hold the active color between your thumb and forefinger (mostly like normal) and the second color between your middle and ring finger. As you work the stitching, have the two strands trade places as you change colors.
If you’re not able to do that, don’t worry too much. It will come with practice and in the meantime there is nothing wrong with dropping one color to pick up the next color. I have to do that when I purl still.
The tick with stranded colorwork is that you can only go so far with it. Carrying the yarn two to four stitches works fine, but anymore than that and you have to start worry about loose strands and potentially backing the work (which doesn’t really work well for things like mittens or socks). Most patterns you’ll find that call for fair isle work only use two colors or work in stripes where colors can be completely cut before beginning the next section.
If you DO choose to work with three or more colors, watch out for where and how you carry the third strand. Assuming that you’re not able to change colors every stitch for what you’re working on, you’ll need to lay the third color under the floater as well for the ENTIRE work. If you don’t carry the third color all the way with you, you’ll end up with a changing thickness across the work and it will feel a little weird. To do that, just hold the third color with the second color as shown above and when you change colors, lay the new color over the working yarn AND the third color.
One final thing before I go for now: just like all colorwork, take a break from time to time and untwist your yarn. Something like this:
will happen fairly often and I don’t think you want to deal with the big mess that results from leaving that hanging around.