We're thrilled to introduce a new series of articles on knitting from our own knit doctor, Nancy Simet! Our first post is about Fair Isle knitting and what you can do to make your Fair Isle knitting shine.
Keep your eyes on the blog for more articles from this amazing knitter and writer!
Fair Isle is a knitting technique named for the island of Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands, 200 miles to the north of Scotland. It is colorwork knitting in which the unused color is carried along the back of the work (or “stranded”). There may be many colors used in a project, but traditionally you only work with two colors in any given row. 100% wool is normally used, since it blocks well and allows slight puckers to relax (which is not true of synthetic fibers like acrylic). Fair Isle projects are usually knit in the round, since stranding on purl rows is more difficult to do with even tension. The challenges of this technique are holding and working with two yarns simultaneously, and achieving even tension so that all stitches are the same size and the resulting fabric doesn’t pucker.
Holding both yarns at the same time is much more efficient than constantly dropping one yarn and picking up the other. The most common way is to hold one yarn in your right hand knitting English style (throwing), and the other yarn in your left hand knitting continental (picking). This requires you to learn the other style of knitting, and to do each well enough so that your tension is the same with both hands. It takes practice, but it will make Fair Isle knitting go much faster and more smoothly. An alternative is to hold both yarns in one hand, tensioning one yarn around the index finger and one around the middle finger. There is no right or wrong way to hold two yarns; spend some time experimenting to find what works best for you, and practice until comfortable. (Tip: Always keep a spare pair of needles and leftover yarn handy for trying new techniques.) How you hold each color yarn in relation to the other will matter in how dominant that color is; while beyond the scope of this short article, “yarn dominance” is something you should learn about.
The yarn that is stranded behind the stitches of the other color (called a “float”) must not be pulled too tightly or you’ll end up with puckers, nor too loosely or you’ll end up with large, floppy stitches. A good trick to achieve even tension is to spread the stitches of the other color on the right needle as far apart as possible, then strand the other yarn behind it and resume knitting. It is also important to not strand your yarn over too large a distance without securing it, or the resulting large floats can catch things (like your fingers!), and can work themselves into stitches, enlarging them unattractively. Larger floats can be secured by twisting the yarn you’re carrying around the working yarn every so often. A good rule of thumb is to catch any floats that span more than about an inch.
There will be many ends to weave in where colors were dropped and others added. Realize from the start that this is part of the process, and plan to spend an extra day or two at the end to tidy up all those loose ends, or else weave them in as you go.
Fair Isle knitting requires a bit of practice to do well, but the resulting projects are beautiful and well worth the extra effort.
For more information and for inspiration, I recommend Alice Starmore’s book Fair Isle Knitting and Anne Feitelson’s The Art of Fair Isle Knitting.