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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.

Llbean

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.

Hats

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.

Sjol

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.

Newlopi

Oldlopi

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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Finished, But Not Blocked

I finished my fairisle hat from Janine Bajus's class at The Plucky Knitter's Glamping Retreat this afternoon.  Kudos to my youngest kid for needing to visit the pediatrician today, which gave me all the time I needed to cast off, while having a nice talk with him.

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It is not blocked yet, nor have I committed to the Alpaca pom pom from Toft, which is lightly tacked in at the moment.  But really, I'm so excited that I couldn't wait another minute to share it with you.  I knitted this!  It's fairisle!

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The truth is, if you're on the fence about trying a fairisle project, it's just not as hard as it looks.  If you want to be all fancy about it, you can visit this video from the Philosopher's Stone and you'll be capable of knitting fairisle with yarn in both hands before you can say "stranded knitting."  And you do need to know to keep the strand of yarn you are not using while you knit with the other color loose — if you pull it tight in back your resulting project will be very small and you will be sad.  But once you know this is in issue, you can do some quick googling and your strands in back will be just right.

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The inside is almost as pretty as the outside.

This hat is a pretty good fit for me as is, so I'm going to give it a gently steam blocking to even out the stitches and weave in all of those ends when I get a moment.  I'll be back with better photos later this week when it's all done.

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Finished, But Not Blocked

I finished my fairisle hat from Janine Bajus’s class at The Plucky Knitter’s Glamping Retreat this afternoon.  Kudos to my youngest kid for needing to visit the pediatrician today, which gave me all the time I needed to cast off, while having a nice talk with him.

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It is not blocked yet, nor have I committed to the Alpaca pom pom from Toft, which is lightly tacked in at the moment.  But really, I’m so excited that I couldn’t wait another minute to share it with you.  I knitted this!  It’s fairisle!

IMG_4054

The truth is, if you’re on the fence about trying a fairisle project, it’s just not as hard as it looks.  If you want to be all fancy about it, you can visit this video from the Philosopher’s Stone and you’ll be capable of knitting fairisle with yarn in both hands before you can say “stranded knitting.”  And you do need to know to keep the strand of yarn you are not using while you knit with the other color loose — if you pull it tight in back your resulting project will be very small and you will be sad.  But once you know this is in issue, you can do some quick googling and your strands in back will be just right.

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The inside is almost as pretty as the outside.

This hat is a pretty good fit for me as is, so I’m going to give it a gently steam blocking to even out the stitches and weave in all of those ends when I get a moment.  I’ll be back with better photos later this week when it’s all done.

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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.

Janine

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.

Sjo

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).

Vests

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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The Best Knitting Retreat

I'm on the way home from The Plucky Knitter's "Glamping with Plucky" retreat. It was great fun and I've got lots to share with you.

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On the way home I'll be working on this complicated looking, but simple to knit hat from Feralknitter on Ravelry. It was a great class!

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Postscript: Shortly after taking the picture, above, I realized I had been knitting for three rounds with the wrong background colors (so much for knitting fairisle while chitchatting on the ferry with everyone leaving the retreat).  After lots of wasted time tinking back, I've reknit to where I was before, introducing the correct change in background color.  It's rather hard to see in the photo at the moment, but this is a traditional fairisle piece, knit in only two colors per row, with the background color changing to create a three dimensional effect.

PicMonkey Collage

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