Hands placed on stranded colourwork knitting project sweater with unspun wool yarn on circular needles

5 Essential Tips for Perfecting Your Stranded Colourwork Knitting

While it may be mid-summer, when it comes to knitting, I am sure it is not only me who is already turning their thoughts back from summer fibres to woolly yarns and cosy knitting, including stranded colourwork projects. (If that's not you just yet, you may want to head over to my 'Spring and Summer Survival Guide for Knitters' for a deep dive into summer fibres and yarns).

Recently, I started working on a fresh sample of my Heritage Sweater—an older design that, as of this moment, is due for a long overdue pattern and grading update. It was this all-over colourwork sweater that gave me the idea to share what my experience in knitting and designing stranded colourwork garments has taught me. Here are some essential tips to help you improve your technique and tension, ensuring your stranded colourwork projects look beautiful and polished. These are tips and tricks I wish I had known when I first started colourwork knitting as a new knitter, and techniques I still use to this day as a knitwear designer.

So let's dive in! If you're a visual learner, you might want to check out the corresponding video tutorial: '5 Essential Tips for Working Stranded Colourwork'  either before or after reading the blog post.


Tip Nr. 1: Adjust Your Needle Size

The biggest issue when it comes to colourwork knitting is maintaining consistent tension. Most knitters tend to knit tighter when working on colourwork sections compared to plain stockinette sections. This difference in tension becomes increasingly pronounced the more colours you introduce simultaneously in the same row or round, as well as the more intricate the colourwork pattern.

Here are some examples: you might manage to get away with using the same needle size or only half a size bigger if your project involves only two colours in total—a main colour and a contrast colour—with short repeats and no long floats. A good example of a simple colourwork sweater is my Bjørk Raglan, where, whenever you work with only two colours simultaneously, it is a one-stitch repeat. When working this design, I used the same needle size throughout without any issues.

Another example of minimalist colourwork is my Barren Land Sweater, which features a simple, beginner-friendly stranded colourwork pattern using only two colours in total with 3-5 stitch repeats. To work the yoke section of the sweater, I switched to a needle size only half a size larger (5mm) after the ribbing and reverted to a smaller size (4.5mm) for the plain stockinette sections.

If your pattern uses more than two colours at the same time, you should consider going a full size larger. For example, in my Stormur Sweater, which includes parts with three colours, I use a full needle size larger (5.5mm) for the colourwork to maintain tension, and switch back down to a 4.5mm for the plain stockinette.

It gets especially tricky and difficult to maintain tension when working with three or more colours at the same time. In this case, you want to use a needle size probably two sizes larger or more—don't be shy to increase your needle size as much as necessary. A good example is my High Peak Sweater that used mostly three colours at the same time—and while it adds a great effect and depth to the colourwork pattern—it is not easy to maintain even tension during the colourwork section.
How high you need to go with your needle size will always depend on your individual project and your individual tension as a knitter, but as a general rule to sum it up: Two colours and simple, short stitch pattern repeats—same needle or 0.5-1 size larger; two to three colours, more complex pattern, longer floats—1-2 sizes larger; three or more colours—2+ sizes larger.

Bonus tip:

Additionally, remember that tighter tension among knitters is common not only when working colourwork but also when working small circumference items like sleeves. So, I'd highly recommend sizing up your needle for these sections to ensure consistent tension throughout the project. I always go a full size larger for the sleeves—this, of course, will also be individual but I'd use a full size as a general guideline. Make sure to check your gauge after you've worked a section of the sleeve to make sure you're on point.

Row gauge:

An image of a stranded colourwork sweater hanging on a black hanger on a white wall. An arrow points down in the middle to indicate the front depth of the sweater, with a text bubble saying 'yoke depth' nearby.

Row gauge, as we all may know, is tricky—it is difficult enough to match the row gauge of the designer as is, even if you match the gauge spot on. Row gauge may always differ and is not only influenced by your tension but also by external factors such as yarn characteristics, needle size, and stitch pattern. So, as you can imagine, altering needle size is potentially going to influence your row gauge, likely causing it to grow, and the larger the needle size, the higher the difference. It's important to keep an eye on your row gauge when you alter your needle size and be ready to make adjustments to accommodate the expanding row gauge.

When it comes to increasing the needle size for sleeve knitting, it is as simple as altering the frequency of the increases or decreases. When it comes to colourwork sweaters, it depends.

Especially in classic round yoke sweaters, the altered row gauge is going to increase yoke depth, and this is not necessarily a good thing, so you may need to find creative solutions such as skipping a portion of the colourwork towards the bottom.

Tip Nr. 2 :Understand Colour Dominance

Is colour dominance a myth?

In the knitting community, the reality and importance of colour dominance have been debated for a long time. Rest assured—it is not a myth and it matters. However, the impact of colour dominance can vary due to several factors.

Different knitters report varying degrees of prominence between dominant and non-dominant colours, influenced by individual tension and technique. The method used to hold and carry yarn affects tension and can alter the appearance of colour dominance. For instance, knitters using two-handed techniques might see more pronounced effects compared to those who use a single hand or drop-and-pick methods. Additionally, the type of yarn used can impact the visibility of colour dominance. 

Furthermore, in intricate designs with frequent colour changes or complex patterns, the effect of colour dominance may be less noticeable. The visual complexity can overshadow the subtle differences that colour dominance might create, leading some knitters to disregard it as a significant factor in their work.

So, what causes one colour to be more dominant?

In stranded colourwork, one colour will appear more prominent on the right side of the work, while the other will recede into the background. This effect is caused by how the yarns are carried on the wrong side of the fabric. The yarn held lower or closer to your work creates slightly larger stitches, making it appear more prominent.

How to ensure proper colour dominance:

The way I recommend to go about it, and what I find is the easiest way, is holding the dominant colour on the left side and knitting it the continental way, and the non-dominant colour on the right and throwing it from the right—English style. Remember to be consistent about it even if you are predominantly a continental knitter and when it feels counterintuitive to work, for example, five stitches by throwing the non-dominant colour from the right side and knitting only one stitch with the contrast colour from the left. Consistency is key for even and good results, and is especially important if working with low-contrast colours.

Tip Nr. 3: Catch Your Floats

Not catching the floats or not catching the floats frequently enough is often a mistake new colourwork knitters make, resulting in that scrunched-up look in parts or throughout the colourwork, often accompanied by the question, 'Will blocking solve this?' Blocking can only do so much, and it is always important to be proactive for the best results.

Catching your floats is crucial for maintaining even tension and preventing the fabric from bunching up. When floats are left too long, they can disrupt the evenness of your fabric, leading to, most commonly, puckering or, less commonly, slack areas. I always recommend catching your floats roughly every three to five stitches, although I prefer not to go above three as I find it provides the best and most even results. If you consistently catch your floats and keep them nice and short, this keeps the fabric flat and even, and helps it retain its natural stretch and elasticity, which increases the comfort and fit of the finished garment.

However, it's important to remember that if you need to do so on subsequent rounds or rows, do not twist the yarn in the same spot on two subsequent rounds or else it will show through to the front of your work. Always alternate the spot if they fall on the following round, e.g., Round 1: knit three, twist, knit two. Round 2: knit two, twist, knit three.

Tip Nr. 4: Turn Your Work Inside Out

This little tip is perhaps one of the most valuable that I learned when I started knitting, as it is so brilliant in its simplicity—you get maximum reward from minimum effort, so what's not to love? This alone, if you already don't do this, will make a huge difference if you struggle with tight tension.

The simple act of turning your work inside out and knitting on the side furthest away from you is a straightforward yet effective tip for achieving consistent tension in stranded colourwork. This technique helps ensure that your floats are naturally longer, which can make a significant difference in maintaining even tension. By turning your sweater inside out and working on the side furthest from you, the travel distance for the yarn is longer, helping to prevent tight floats and resulting in a smoother fabric. I know that unless you have your knitting in front of you, this may be a bit difficult to grasp (it may be helpful to review this tip in the video).

Don't worry, you are still working your colourwork on the right side of the fabric as the wrong side with the floats is facing the outside.

This method worked wonders for me when I first tried it, especially when it came to working with multiple colours at the same time, as it allows the floats to have more give, preventing them from pulling too tightly across the back of the work. It might feel a bit awkward at first, but it’s worth trying, and it may just end up being your preferred way and more comfortable—I know it is for me, and I can't imagine working colourwork in any other way—it's pure magic!

Tip Nr. 5:. Eliminate the Jog

As you may know, when knitting in the round, we are not literally creating a perfect circle but forming a spiral, which can create a visible misalignment at the beginning or end of the round known as a jog. This is caused by the next stitch of the next round being positioned higher. This is particularly problematic in visible areas like the yoke of a sweater or when working a striped project. There are multiple ways to deal with the jog, but one simple and effective technique to minimize this, and one that I most commonly use, is to lift the stitch below the first stitch of the new round onto your left needle and knit the lifted stitch together with the first stitch as you normally would. Repeat this on every subsequent round to help ensure a more continuous and visually appealing pattern. Make sure that on the subsequent rounds you do not lift the already elongated stitch again but the stitch directly below—it may recede into the elongated stitch and may be harder to pick up.

Hands placed on stranded colourwork knitting project sweater with unspun wool yarn on circular needles.

This technique isn't entirely invisible even though it will align the pattern correctly. There is going to still be a slight seam that may still be visible due to the bulk of the yarn and elongated stitches; however, it significantly reduces the jog’s impact and looks much neater than the jog itself. The seam may be imperceptible to the eye—or not, and this will depend on your yarn and the pattern.

For large blocks of colours, you only need to do this on colour change rounds and not every single round. E.g. for the Heritage Sweater—do this every round. For the Stormur Sweater—only on colour change rounds.

And that's it for the 5 essential stranded colourwork tips! Simply by adjusting your needle size, understanding colour dominance, catching your floats, turning your work inside out, and minimizing the jog, you’ll be well on your way to creating beautiful, even-looking, and well-fitting colourwork projects. Happy knitting!

Looking for more knitting tips? Check out my 'Unspun Yarn Guide'

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