“Stranding” and “Weaving” are Fair Isle Knitting’s Best Friends

Prince of Wales 1903 – Fair Isle Jumper

Modern Fair Isle – Dublin Pullover from Interweave Knits Winter 2017

The August 2017 issue of In Style magazine includes Fair Isle sweaters as one of the Fall 2017 trends. What is Fair Isle? Off the northerly coast of Scotland in a group of islands known as Shetland, Fair Isle is the most southerly member, 3 miles long by 2 miles wide. This tiny island is the origin of Fair Isle Knitting, a circular, stranded form of color knitting. Since the 1920s, when the Prince of Wales sported a Fair Isle jumper, Fair Isle knitting has enjoyed commercial success.

If you’ve never tried this method of knitting with colored yarns, I’m showing you two important techniques, “stranding” and “weaving”, for successful Fair Isle knitting. For more information on the Fair Isle tradition, Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting is a great resource.

Fair Isle knitting involves changing colors every few stitches in one row. Traditionally, Fair Isle was worked on circular needles so all the pattern rounds are knit, making the yarn easier and faster to manipulate (you can use straight needles to knit Fair Isle patterns). When 2 colors are interchanged often in the same row, it is practical to carry each color not in use across the back of the work. One method for doing this is stranding. The colored yarns are picked up alternately over and under one another as you work across the row. Stranding is suitable for color changes over 1 to 5 stitches, and the result is “strands” or “floats” across the back or wrong side of the knitting. For color changes more than 5 stitch repeats, weaving is the preferable method, otherwise the floats are too long.

It is essential to keep an even tension when stranding. If the yarns are stranded too tight, the work will pucker, and alternatively if the yarns are stranded too loose, the fabric will gape. Note: Carrying yarn creates a thick fabric.

To neaten the work, the joining yarns should be woven in as you knit, or there will be many yarn ends to weave in when finished knitting. Both stranding and weaving are often used together in a project. Note: The gauge for Fair Isle knitting will be different than just working a stockinette stitch sample without color changes. Remember to always check your gauge.

Stranding can be accomplished with one or two hands. With two hands you must know how to knit in the Continental style. (See bonus how-to below).

One Handed Method

  • When working a knit row, yarns are carried across the back of the work or the wrong side. Knit a few stitches with the old color (working yarn) and then drop it in the back. Pick up the new color under the dropped yarn and knit next few stitches. Continue alternating colors this way, carrying unused yarn loosely across the back. It takes practice to get the tension even.
  • On a purl row, work in a similar fashion, but pick up the new color over top the dropped yarn, keeping the “floats” in front of the work.

Stranding yarn on knit and purl rows

What stranding should look like on back side

Weaving in Joined Yarn Ends or Large Color Repeats (more than 5 stitches)

  • Hold the working yarn in the right hand and the yarn to be woven in the left hand. *To weave yarn above a knit stitch, bring it over the right needle. Knit next stitch with the working yarn, bringing it under woven yarn. When you knit the next stitch the woven yarn is already under the stitch. Repeat from * across the row. When weaving in yarn ends, work as above across 7-10 stitches. This alleviates weaving in many yarn ends with a tapestry needle when the knitting is completed.
  • To weave yarn above a purl stitch bring the yarn over the right needle and purl the next stitch with the working yarn, bringing it under the woven yarn. Purl the next stitch with the working yarn by bringing it over the woven yarn. Repeat these steps across the row.

Weaving yarn ends on a knit row

Weaving yarn ends on a purl row

Fair Isle knitting is challenging at first, but after practicing and getting the tension even, it’s a rewarding experience. Non-knitters will wonder how you ever worked something so “complicated”.

Bonus How-To:

Stranding yarn – Continental style of knitting


A Quick Way To Finish Knit Projects – Reverse Or Corded Single Crochet

Swatch with reverse single crochet edge in contrast color

My favorite crochet edging is reverse single crochet (rev sc), a decorative and quick option for finishing edges of a knit garment. It consists of working single crochet (sc) stitches in the “wrong direction”, working from left to right rather than right to left.

For those not familiar with single crochet, below are the steps for making an sc edge, followed by rev sc. As with knitting, space the crochet stitches evenly along an edge. Too many stitches will cause the piece to flare and too few will cause it to pull in. When going around corners, work more than one crochet stitch into the corner stitch, so the piece lies flat.

Steps for Single Crochet and Reverse Single Crochet Edging on a Knit Fabric:

Single and reverse crochet edging – Vogue Knitting Handbook

I hope you’ll try reverse single crochet. You’ll find it adds stability, flattens curling edges, and adds a simple, decorative edge to finish your project.

An Attractive Cast On Method – The Tubular Cast On

I’m not terribly adventurous when trying different cast on methods. I use the double or long tail cast on most often, and the cable cast on when I need to add stitches within the body of a piece. 

Tubular cast ons are common in machine knitting, and not used often in hand knitting. A tubular cast on produces an attractive, elastic, and stable edge for a knit one, purl one rib (k1, p1). The cast on edge is rounded like a tube (hence “tubular”), and has the appearance of a double fabric. I like using the tubular cast on for a dress or skirt made with a fine or light weight yarn. The tubular cast on method is not recommended for bulky yarns, as the edge may flare.

There are several versions of a tubular cast on. The following two versions are the most basic of the tubular methods for k1, p1 rib, and both look similar.

Version 1:

  1. With a contrasting waste yarn, cast on half the required number of stitches (plus one extra stitch) using a single cast on. The single cast on is simple but not the neatest method. However, it’s perfect to use with the tubular method. How to make a single cast on: 1. place a slip knot on right needle, leaving a short tail; 2. wrap yarn from ball around left thumb or index finger from front to back and secure it in your palm with your other fingers; 3. insert needle through this strand on your thumb, slipping the loop onto the needle, and pulling the yarn to tighten it; repeat steps 2 and 3 until all stitches are cast on.
  2. Cut contrast yarn. With the main color yarn at the back of work, k1, *with yarn in front, k1; repeat from * to end of row.
  3. *k1, yarn front, slip next stitch purlwise, yarn back, repeat from *; end k1.
  4. yarn front, *slip 1, yarn back, k1, yarn front, repeat from * to last stitch, slip last stitch.
  5. Work last 2 rows once more. Begin working in k1, p1 rib. Work a few rows in rib, then remove waste yarn.

Version 2: (folded method)

This version produces a similar look to Version 1. However, I find the edge to look more even and not as loose as Version 1.

Completed Version 2 Tubular Cast On (for k1, p1 rib)

  1. With contrasting yarn, cast on one half the number of stitches required using the single cast on described above. Cut yarn.
  2. With main color, purl 1 row, knit 1 row. Repeat these 2 rows once more.
  3. *p 1, insert the tip of the left needle into the first main color loop – the loop sitting between the first 2 contrasting loops. Slip this loop onto left needle and with yarn back, knit it through back loop. Repeat from * to last stitch.
  4. Purl last stitch, pick up the 1/2 loop of the main color at the very edge, and knit it through the back loop.
  5. Remove the waste yarn.

Version 2 – Tubular cast on how-to

Give the tubular cast on a try, and I think you will like the end result.

A Simple Edging Instead of the Usual Rib Border

My favorite mercerized cotton summer top with simple armhole edging.

Close up of edging along armhole edge.

I don’t know of a simpler applied edging than the one I’m sharing with you in this post. This edging is a great alternative to a ribbed border. It neatly finishes off an armhole or neckline edge. I like adding this edging to a vest or tank armhole.

Steps to making this edging:

  • Seam both shoulders.
  • Choose a smaller needle, 1/2 to 1mm smaller than the one used for the body of the garment.
  • Pick up stitches evenly along the front and back armhole edge. For an armhole edge you want to pick up the same number of stitches for both sides of the armhole, the front and back. The shoulder seam is the dividing line. For a neckline edge, the shaped sides of front neck should each have the same number of stitches. Tip: Picking up stitches is simply using a knitting needle to add yarn by “knitting on” new stitches to the knit fabric, forming the foundation row for a collar, button band, or edging. With the right side of the knitting facing you, insert needle into the space between two stitches of a row, one stitch in from the edge for a straight side edge or selvedge. Wrap the yarn knitwise around the needle and draw the yarn loop through as if to knit, forming a new stitch on the needle. For curved edges of knitting, insert needle inside the shaped edge, through the stitch below the shaping to avoid large gaps and to hide the jagged selvedge. Pull the yarn loop to form new stitch.

Picking up stitches – selvedge and shaped edge – Vogue Knitting

  • Simply bind off all stitches loosely for first row.

What could be simpler; pick up stitches, then bind them off. The edge rolls in on itself – you have neatly finished an edge.

How much yarn do I need for my project?

Calculating Yarn Requirements (tank used in example)

From my experience, this is one of the most common knitting questions. The amount required depends on the weight of the yarn, needle size, and the stitch pattern(s). As you gain experience, answering this question becomes easier.

At the beginning, we rely on the quantities provided in pattern instructions. But instructions give quantities for the brand used by the designer of the project. Being able to purchase the brand used in the instructions is simple and makes life easy. Sometimes it’s not possible to find the yarn asked for in a pattern, so a substitute is necessary. Substituting yarn is not simply a matter of replacing one ball for another (refer to my e-book “It’s All About The Yarn” for further steps in purchasing a substitute yarn).

Calculating Yarn Requirements For A Substitute

The amount of yarn in meters/yards, not grams/ounces is key to choosing the substitute. Vintage patterns from the 1930s to the 1960s noted how many grams/ounces of yarn were needed to complete a project. This is not an accurate way to determine the amount to purchase. In those days, this made sense since there wasn’t the variety in yarn that we have today. To calculate the substitute amount, say a size small sweater requires 15, 50 gram balls (100 meters each) of double knitting (DK) yarn. DK is a common weight of yarn; there are lots of DK brands available. It’s a simple math calculation: multiply 15 balls by 100 meters (the amount in one ball) which equals 1500 meters, the total amount required. The DK you are interested in has 110 meters per ball; divide 1500 by 110 which equals 13.6. Round up to 14; purchase 14 balls of the substitute. You may want to purchase an extra ball or two so you don’t run out.

Calculating Yarn Requirements If Designing Your Project

Fear of running out of yarn is a big deal when designing your own projects. Estimating generously is a designer’s best friend. Deciding on the amount of yarn is still a best guess, but can be an educated guess.

There are a few ways of calculating yarn requirements. I’ve seen charts that provide quantity estimates for garments at different sizes and gauges, but most are based on classic garment shapes and basic stitch patterns, like stockinette stitch. These amounts do not apply to complex stitch patterns that require more yarn or the different garment shapes.

Another approach is to use the amount specified for a similar pattern that is structured of the same type of yarn and stitch pattern. This may prove difficult trying to find a similar design, and is not precise.

If you can’t find the same type of pattern, although very generous, the following calculation is a better estimate. As a basis for comparison, I have done the calculation for a tank top for which I know the amount used. The calculations below are more accurate for garments without much shaping; you will be buying more yarn than is necessary. My tank has a deep V-neck in the front and back, so the tank from the armhole to the shoulder requires little yarn. I used 5 balls for the tank pictured above.


  • Note the number of yards(meters) that are in the full ball of the yarn you want to use. There are professional yarn counters to help if this information is not available. Knit your test swatch from the full ball, then count number of yards (I’m calculating using imperial measurements) remaining, using a tape measure or yarn counter. Subtract the number of yards remaining from the total ball amount to obtain the amount used for the swatch. Full ball for tank equals 104 yds. For my swatch the amount remaining was 50 yds, so 104 – 50 = 54 yds to make the test swatch. The swatch was in stockinette stitch and 5mm needles; not much yarn needed to knit swatch.
  • Calculate the area of the swatch. The test swatch measures 6.75 inches wide by 4.25 inches long. Area is 6.75 x 4.25 = 28.7 square inches.
  • Calculate the area of the project. Use the schematic as a reference; multiply the widest part of each piece by the total length, equaling the number of square inches per  piece. Err on the side of caution; pretend each piece is a rectangle defined by its largest width and length dimensions. Area of tank is 16.5in (widest part) x 21in (length) = 346.5 sqin per piece(x 2) = 693 sqin (total area of tank). The front and back are about the same size. If you have many pieces, like in a sweater, repeat the above process for each piece, then add together the area of each piece for the total area.
  • Now you need the number swatches required for the project. Tank’s area 693 sqin (area of project) divided by 28.7 (area of swatch) = 24.1 swatches.
  • The number of yards for total number of swatches; 24.1 (number of swatches required) x 54 yards (amount used for test swatch = 1301.4 or 1301 yards.
  • Calculate the number of balls needed for the project. 1301 (yardage required for the tank) divided by 104 (the amount in a full ball) = 12.5 rounded to 13. You can purchase 13 balls, or do a further calculation by adjusting for any shaping. Deduct 10% from the total yardage taking into account the V-neck shaping in the tank; 1301 – 10% = 1171 yds. 1171 divided by 104 = 11 balls. This amount is still overly generous at 11, since I actually used 5 balls for the tank. This is the best estimate to calculate the amount of yarn required, without the fear of running out.

After knitting many garments, you will be better able to figure out yarn requirements. This is the best guideline for calculating amounts, and is on the generous side. Better safe than sorry!

Winding Yarn Into Balls By Hand

Because of the popularity of hand dyeing, much yarn is produced in a hank format. A hank is a loosely wound coil of yarn tied in at least one place to keep it from tangling. Before using a hank it must be wound into a ball. A ball winder and swift make this a fast process. If you don’t have these tools, yarn can be wound into a center-pull ball by hand or by using a simple hand-tool called a nostepinne. The following shows you how to make a center-pull ball by hand.

Untie the hank and drape the coil over the back of a chair, a person can stretch the hank between their hands, or you can use a swift, like I did.

Find one of the ends of the hank, and pull some of the yarn carefully so it doesn’t tangle. Yarn can simply be wound into a ball by continually wrapping the yarn over and around, however these will roll around on you. 

Better yet is making a center-pull ball by hand. To make a center-pull ball, open your hand so it faces you. Lay the yarn across your palm, leaving a long tail hanging free.

Lay yarn across palm of hand.

Wind yarn in a figure 8 around your thumb and index finger about 15 times. Remove the figure 8 from your hand and fold in half, holding the long tail that now hangs from the center.

Wind all the yarn into a ball while holding your thumb over the center tail.

Wrapping yarn to form ball

Now you have a center-pull ball which is easy to work with.

It’s Okay To Be Neurotic About Caring For Your Hand Knits

Call me weird, but I’m neurotic about taking care of my wardrobe, especially my hand knits. Why not when you spend many hours making something beautiful. One of my favorite business sites is The Laundress, a company based in New York City who have taken fabric care to a whole new level. The Laundress specializes in eco-friendly detergent, fabric care, and home cleaning products. I’m particularly fond of their “Wool and Cashmere Shampoo”.

The Laundress Blog has compiled a great chart “Can I Be Washed” on how to care for the many different fabrics consumers typically encounter. If you’re a laundry freak this site’s for you.

Under the Knitting Unplugged “Articles” page, I’ve updated “Taking Care of Your Hand Knits“. Please read how to hand and machine wash knits. You’ll not only save money on dry cleaning bills, but your clothes and the environment will thank you.