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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.

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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." 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Fairisle & Janine, The Feral Knitter

One of the (many) high points of my Glamping with Plucky experience was my class with Janine Bajus, who goes by the Ravelry name feral knitter.  Her website is here.  Janine is an amazing advocate for an evolved but still traditional type of fairisle knitting and she is a superb teacher as well as practitioner.  I first met her as I was walking out of the market.  She was nice enough to autograph my copy of her brand new book.

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Even though I wasn't sure what to expect from the class, I wanted to take it to help with my Sjølingstadkofta, which is coming along slowly but nicely.

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The class was great.  It touched on the history and nature of fairisle as well as color theory and selection.  And Janine's patterns are beautiful.  I knew this when I met a knitter wearing one of her hats before class.

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The sample knitting she brought to share with us was amazing and inspiring (and maybe a little bit intimidating, but she made it feel very much like something you could accomplish).

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She designed a hat pattern, just for us, and showed off swatches in a number of different color variations.

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I can't seem to stop working on mine.  (Ignore the nasty blue stuff on the bottom, that's provisional cast on cotton, so I can go back and do the ribbing later).

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No mention of how much I'm enjoying knitting this hat (despite having to rip back three rows for failure to change color while flying home yesterday, and then an additional row because, when you knit on a plane after a full day of flying, you're just going to make a careless mistake in reading the pattern)  would be complete without mentioning the lovely little project bag my Ravelry friend Eleanor made for me.  It's incredibly sweet with it's little Liberty fabric lining and the perfect size for a fairisle hat, with interior pockets to handle the different little balls of wool.

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I don't have enough superlatives for this class and this fairisle hat project, so I'll simply say I loved it all and am looking forward to working on the hat later this week!

 

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Glamping With Plucky

What kind of person flies cross-country to spend a long weekend with a group of people she has never met at a remote island retreat? Me!

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The entire trip was magical, from the first glimpse of Bainbridge Island, Washington, while on the ferry.  The Plucky Knitter knows how to throw a knitting retreat like no one else. 

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By mid-morning Thursday, knitters began to show up at Churchmouse Yarns in "downtown" Bainbridge, before heading out to the retreat.  There was a flurry of seeing old friends and making new ones, and perhaps a bit of shopping, although I mostly stuck to adding a few patterns to my collection and buying some new blocking boards — the puzzle piece foam mat type, that interlock.  Then we all headed on out to Islandwood, the site of our retreat and the most beautiful setting imaginable for a weekend of knitting.

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I lucked into the most wonderful group of roommates, one of whom made us these incredible project bags with our Ravelry names on them.

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One of the highlights of the weekend was the Market, with ALL the Plucky.  Being knitters, we waited patiently in line for it to open. 

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Once inside, it was an exuberant madness of yarn, samples, swag and happy knitters.

Samples

I fell in love with Jill Zielinski's Two Track Sweater (modeled by Jill!), which I had yarn for at home in stash.  And I also fell in love with other patterns and was forced to buy yarn for them.  That would be me, on the left, with the full shopping bag.

Shopping

Vini, Vidi, Vici, which, loosely translated, means, I came, I saw, I bought Plucky.  Lots of Plucky.

Yarn

All of my purchases were carefully wrapped up by Drew from Plucky Headquarters, who kindly suggested packaging them in cellophane to get better compression, so I could fit all of the yarn in my suitcase.  Drew also played trivia on my team Friday night.  We lost, but he was lots of fun. 

Drew

I focused on knitting a bit on my Grannie Annie and Sjølingstadkofta.

Projects

I was so sad when Sunday morning rolled around and it was time to say good bye.  One last view of Bainbridge Island through the window of the ferry as we departed.

Goodby

Still to come: I want to share pictures with you of some of the beautiful knitted items I saw and details from Janine/FeralKnitters wonderful fairisle class.  And of course, pictures of my new yarn and what I plan on knitting with it!

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Linen & Lace

One of the Ravelry knitters who is testing knitting my yarn is currently working on a lace sweater using Elliebelly Chemise, the sport weight linen and silk blend.  I used this yarn to knit my Mithril Sweater earlier this year.

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But Gail is using the yarn in a very different pattern than the one I chose, defined by columns of lace, called The Secret Life of Trees.  It's exciting to see the yarn used successfully for such a different purpose.

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This fragment gives you some idea of how the lace patterning looks.  

And here's a full sleeve.  Even unblocked, you can see the lace pattern and tell that the linen yarn is perfect here.

Laceprogress© GGailG

Gail is one of those fabulously experienced knitters who seems to be able to pull off complicated patterns with the same ease with which I would knit a garter stitch scarf.  You should take a look at her projects on Ravelry (in the link to her name).  In particular, her lace shawls are incredibly beautiful.  

I often buy yarn because it looks beautiful in the skein.  Thanks to knitters like Gail, I'm getting a much better sense of how those beautiful skeins knit up and what they most want to become.  There is definitely a lacey project in Chemise coming in my future!

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Knitting Families

Poppy knits

I'm enormously grateful for my maternal grandmother who, among many other things, taught me to knit.  I'm grateful to my Mom, who has nurtured my love for knitting and other crafts at various stages along the way.  And, I'm enormously amused and proud to be part of a family of knitters.  All of my cousins knit (belated shout out to my cousin Ann who knit me the most gorgeous cabled aran when I was in college in Maine), but undoubtedly my favorite family knitting photo is this one of my Uncle, happily knitting himself an afghan.  He learned to knit as a public school child in Britain during WWII.

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Vacation Knitting — A Wrap Up

Knitting on vacation is a joy.  And an agony, when you don't have the right tools.  Midway into our trek through Glacier National Park, with nary a yarn store in sight, I realized that the 6" DPNs I have brought along to knit Vitsippa, my fairisle hat, on, were going to be too short to accommodate all the stitches once I finished up the ribbing and added additional stitches called for in the pattern to begin the stranded portion of the hat.

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So here I am, rather unattractively sweating and knitting away, trying to recover from the hike up the Highline Trail, whilst coming to the sad realization I'm going to have to put Vitsippa away until our return to civilization.  The view was compensation (and if you've read my earlier post, the knitting really liked the view too).

Next, I pulled out my Oak Park, renamed Glacier Park in honor of the trip.  Oak Park is a triangular shawl, knit in a devious pattern that is constantly shifting.  I had been looking for a pattern for my three skeins of The Plucky Knitter's Cachet (aran weight cashmere) in Slumber, my most prized yarn, for a really long time and was so happy when a friend suggested this pattern.  I was one repeat in when we emerged from hiking the Swift Current Trail in Many Glacier and made our way on up to the Prince of Wales Lodge on the Canadian side of the park, only to discover that they served a very nice tea.

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I knit away on Oak Park/Glacier Park for the rest of our hiking time, and ended up just shy of three repeats in at the end.  It's an absolutely lovely pattern and precisely what this yarn wanted to become.  I'm going to be so happy with it as soon as it isn't 90` that feels like 100` degrees with the humidity in Alabama.  (Let me digress and say it was 40` when we flew out of Kalispell, Montana, and I really wish I was still there!)

Amazingly, there was a yarn store when we made it to Whitefish, Montana, our last stop.  And, a day of rain that was perfect for exploring town, eating some delicious crepes, watching the huge logging trucks roll in filled with freshly cut timber, and stoping by the local yarn store, Knit 'n Needle where the lovely proprietress encouraged me to pick out a circular rather than longer DPNs. I fell in love with the store yarn, Polka Dot Sheep, and engaged in a little stash addition.  And we discovered that the fabulous Huckleberries we had been picking and eating along the trails were used for all sort of pastries in town.  What a wonderful place to end our trip!

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Armed with my new 16" circular needle, I returned to Vitsippa on the flight home.  After picking up a few stitches that had dropped off the overloaded DPNs, I was back in business. Sorry about the bad airplane lighting on the picture, but I'm so excited about the colorwork on this one that I can't wait to share it.  That's The Plucky Knitter's Oxford in Waxing Poetic (the gold) and Bedrock (the gray).  I love knitting fairisle and am really enjoying this one!

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Truth be told, I love my day job and our life in Birmingham, but there is a little part of me that would love to remain under Montana's Big Sky, knitting and hiking.  It was a wonderful vacation and it reminded me of decades ago trips with my grandparents, which not too surprisingly, featured hiking and knitting, along with some fishing.  It's fun to come full circle like that.

I can't end this post without a few trip pictures.  First off, this lousy camera phone picture of a BEAR who was swimming casually across a LAKE about 40 feet away from us as we drove to the trailhead to hike Bertha Lake in Canada.  It was a moment — we could see him skimming through the water, magnificent and large.

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Hiking in the alpine meadows was spectacularly beautiful.

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And being able to see the waterfalls and lakes, as well as the animals and flowers, made it worth several of the more challenging, steep portions of the trails.  I would do it again in a heartbeat, knitting and all!

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Adventures in Knitting

The arrogance of a sedentary desk-worker, hiking seven miles, a good bit of it straight up hill and at 7000 feet is sort of astonishing. The fact that I hurt all over and I'm exhausted? Not so astonishing. And it's only day 2 of summer vacation.

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But knitting at the top of Montana's Highline Trail was really worth it. Really, really worth it.

Not a lot of progress on Vitsippa, but I'm liking Waxing Poetic and Bedrock, both on fingering weight Oxford 2.0 from The Plucky Knitter, together.