I’m making a pair of socks with a Fair Isle band just below the cuff. The pattern, “Solidago,” designed by Mary Jane Mucklestone, is available on Knitty for free.
Fair Isle knitting involves stranding an unused color along the wrong side of the fabric while knitting with another. This technique, often referred to as “color stranding,” is used throughout the world to create a vast array of colorful designs.
Regardless of the color pattern, whether it be Fair Isle, Latvian, or Andean, one does not carry an unused color behind more than five stitches. Some say the unused yarn should not float across the back of more than one inch of fabric. These rules are not set in stone. Longer strands can be twisted with the working color in the middle of a long float. However, if Chuck Norris finds out that you used longer strands than traditionally acceptable he will fire a rocket launcher at your house and karate chop you.
That last sentence above was a joke, by the way.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve used this colorful technique. When I knit the first of the “Solidago” socks I remembered how this method can force the knitter to view tension in a new way. Usually, I suspect, we tend to view tension as something we must keep consistent. Working with more than one color at the same time requires us to control tension in two ways: maintain the stitch gauge and keep the floats loose enough so as not to crimp up the fabric. Stranding yarn too tightly leaves the knitted piece practically unusable and ugly.
There are also several options for holding the yarn. I think the best method is to use both the continental and the English styles. I hold one yarn in my right hand and another in my left hand and I can knit much more quickly. It is really worth the effort to learn how to knit this way. The continental style has always been my preference and I use it for color stranding, an instance in which I use two styles.
Testimonial: A few years ago I forced myself to knit some swatches to practice the English style in preparation for knitting a Fair Isle hat. Totally worth it!
Aside from figuring out how to hold the yarn and control its tension, working with strands of color also leaves us with lots of ends. When I add a new color I prefer to tie it loosely (not in a knot) with the color I was just working with. I leave a generous tail (about 3.5 to 4 inches). When I work in the round I tuck the fastidious things out of the way, pushing them down the inside of the tube, like this: