Fair Isle Or Stranded Knitting: Making The Case For Upping Your Skills As A Knitter

Be brave and be bold knitter. Yes, the unfamiliar can be frightening.  It may make you instinctively circle the wagons and push all thought of trying a new technique out of your mind.  You knit, you purl.  You've had some success with lace and you can cable.  And stripes, you'll take on stripes.  But fair isle (also known variously as stranded knitting or colorwork) is beyond the pale.  You look admiringly at the photos but tell yourself the knitters who do such projects are octogenarian British ladies who've been honing their skills on Rowan patterns since childhood.


According to Wikipedia: "Fair Isle is a traditional knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colours. It is named after Fair Isle , a tiny island in the north of Scotland , that forms part of the Shetland islands. Fair Isle knitting gained a considerable popularity when the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VIII ) wore Fair Isle tank tops  in public in 1921. Traditional Fair Isle patterns have a limited palette of five or so colours, use only two colours per row, are worked in the round, and limit the length of a run of any particular colour."  Although the term fair isle is often used generically for any sort of knitted colorwork, it is more accurately reserved for the traditional motifs and the limit of two colors per row that is characteristic of this style of knitting, motivated by the need for speed and simplicity, as the finished products were a primary form of income for the residents of the island at the height of fair isle's popularity.  Stranded knitting or even the term colorwork are more generic terms for any type of knitting where more than one color is used in a row, with the unused color stranding across the back of the work when not in use.  I am rather reckless and tend to use the terms interchangeably. I first fell in love with fair isle knitting as a college student in Maine, and saved my money for months to purchase an Icelandic Wool sweater knit in a stranded style, a "Lopi." 


But I found the technique elusive as a knitter.  For one thing, it scared me.  I never felt like I was good enough to try stranded knitting.  And when I finally screwed up my courage and tried this simple hat, decades later, the results were disastrous.  The hat, despite its charming model, was a fail for two reasons:

  • Stranded knitting requires you to run the unused yarn for each stitch or set of stitches loosely behind the yarn you are knitting with.  If you pull it tight, you will end up as I did, with an adult sized hat fit only for a toddler.  If you periodically stretch your stitches across the needles and make sure the float behind is neither too long nor too short, your knitting will turn out just fine.  And, for longer runs where a color goes unused, try this method for catching the float in back.
  • Give how you're going to manage the colors some thought.  I knit fair isle with the different colors held in two different hands, essentially knitting continental with one strand and British with the other.  I've extolled the virtues of this approach before and found it surprisingly easy to learn, but a friend who knits fair isle more beautifully than anyone else I know simply hold both strands in one hand knitting with the proper yarn for each stitch.  There is a lot of information on the internet, and some very good videos.  Give yourself the luxury of a few hours and a good cup of tea to explore them.  Play with some swatches.  The gift of time to learn a new knitting technique is something we don't always give ourselves.  You should do that here.

Why should you take the time and risk of learning to knit fair isle?  Quite simply, because of the results.



A good place to start, particularly if you're impatient and want to dive right in without much preparation, is my failure of a hat. It's Grace Akhrem's Boy Meets Girl Hat, and knit in a super bulky weight with simple blocks of color to practice out your new skills in, you'll be done in a day or two.  That initial experience will be enough to show you where you may need to pick up a few skills and give you the basic hang of things.  And even if, like me, your hat has a different than intended recipient, I bet you'll love it.  In fact, this post was motivated by my discovery of that tiny orange and brown hat, carefully folded at the bottom of my now 13-year old's "treasure drawer" in his dresser.  My hat was knit in the pattern yarn, Spud and Chloe's Outer, but there are lots of super bulky choices out there and you probably have some leftovers on hand you can play around with.

image from images4-e.ravelrycache.com

Although I remained in love with fair isle after my early college exposure to Lopi's and on into a beautiful variety of Norwegian Snowflake Sweaters and Talbot's Fair Isle Yokes in bright preppy colors, I managed to convince myself it was beyond my skill set.  That was until I saw Kate Davies' Peerie Flooers Hat and fell hard and fast in love in a way that would not be denied.  See its pretty corrugated ribbing?  It was a struggle at first, but it became easier.  I couldn't but it down!  Those pretty little rows of colored ribbing are amazing.


Ultimately, it was the hats that sucked me in.  I seem to knit five times as fast as normal knitting them, because; can't.stop.watching.the.colors.change.

And that was what convinced me I was ready to try a sweater.  It remains to be seen what happens, but so far, so good.


This isn't my first post extolling the virtues of taking up stranded knitting, and yes, I do have an agenda.  I have this vision of happily sitting around some long, cozy weekend, knitting fair isle projects with all of my favorite knitting friends.  You should definitely be brave if you haven't taken the plunge yet, or keep expanding your skills here, anticipating all the fun we could have!

Lopi collage

On a trip to Iceland a couple of years ago, our guide had the most beautiful Lopi, knit for him by a friend's mother.  He wore it everywhere, in place of a jacket. Although Lopis get a bad reputation for being scratchy, I learned that what they really need is some wear and washing before they soften up.  I love this sweater and purchased some yarn for it while there, subsequently tracking down the stitch pattern.  It's my dream project to work on during that weekend of knitting with friends.  It will be my third Lopi, in addition to the two below.



During our  trip to Iceland, the newer Lopi, pictured on top, joined my vintage 1983 version from LL Bean (on bottom).  My college Lopi is older than my marriage, older than any of my children.  It's dependable and one of the first things I reach for in colder weather.  Still, there will be something incredibly special about knitting a Lopi of my own.  It will bring me full circle with the place where my love of stranded knitting started.





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