Fair Isle Knitting Tutorial and Sample Project

  • 01 of 06

    Fair Isle Knitting or Stranded Knitting

    Beginning Rows of the Sample Swatch
    Foundation rows for the stranded knitting swatch. Sarah E. White

    Fair Isle knitting, also known more accurately as stranded knitting, is a technique for working two (or more) colors of yarn in the same row. It is fun to knit and easy once you get the hang of it.

    The color changes in Fair Isle are close together. This allows you to simply carry the yarn you aren't knitting with across the back of the work as you go. You will pick up each strand as you need it and this leaves a strand or float of yarn on the back side of the work.

    Fair Isle knitting is pretty easy to do and makes a nice warm fabric because all those floats add extra bulk and warmth. You will usually want to hide the back side of the work, but it's a great technique to use for small colorwork patterns on bags, sweaters, socks, and other projects where the back side will be hidden.

    Stranded knitting is often worked in the round, and it's even easier to do that way than flat. For the purposes of this tutorial, we'll work with a flat swatch and a really basic pattern.

    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    Creating a Swatch to Learn How to Knit Fair Isle

    Starting the Fair Isle Knitting Technique with Two Colors
    Working stitches in two colors on the knit side. Sarah E. White

    To begin, simply cast on as you normally would and knit any plain rows called for in the pattern. In this case, it's 22 stitches and 4 rows of Stockinette Stitch, which will give your swatch a nice foundation and make it easier to learn Fair Isle.

    Working Fair Isle or stranded knitting on the right (or knit) side of a Stockinette Stitch fabric is really easy and doesn't look or feel much different from working the knit stitch normally.

    Following the pattern, you will knit two stitches in your background color and two stitches in the new contrast color for the first row of the pattern. 

    Adding in the new color is similar to joining a new ball of yarn at the edge of your knitting. Leave a tail for weaving in and simply begin knitting.

    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Finishing the Knit Row

    Two Colors Knitted Together in the First Row of Fair Isle Knitting
    The first row of the color pattern is complete. Sarah E. White

    To continue knitting, follow your chart from right to left (on the knit side), changing colors as necessary.

    Two Very Important Stranding Tips

    One good rule of thumb is to pick up the new color you're about to start working with from underneath the yarn you just finished knitting with. This will keep your yarns well organized.

    You also want to make sure that you do not pull too tightly when you change colors. If your stranding in the back is too tight, you will create puckers on the front of the work.

    • Consciously knit a little looser when you change colors.
    • Try to ensure that the previously worked stitches are stretched out nicely on the needle before you work the first stitch in the next color.

    At the same time, you do not want the stranding to be too loose. If it is, it's very easy to snag a finger on a strand when putting on a sweater and hooking your toe in a sock is even worse.

    You want a little bit of flexibility in the float, but not too much. That's why practice pieces like this swatch are helpful.

    Knit in Two Styles at Once?

    Both of these problems are much less of a problem if you are able to knit with both hands. That is, holding one yarn in your right hand and knitting English style and one yarn in your left hand and knitting continental style.

    This isn't as hard as it sounds and it really does help to make the stitches come out more even without a lot of thought (it's faster, too). You also can work with both yarns in either your right or left hand, depending on your preference, but it's trickier to learn how to do that than to hold one in each hand.

    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    Purling in Stranded Knitting

    Purl Stitching
    Forming a purl stitch in the contrasting color of a stranded knitting pattern. Sarah E. White

    The purl stitch is pretty much the same as always when working in stranded knitting or Fair Isle. When you're on the wrong side of the work you can really see what is happening with the strands or floats.

    As was done on the knit side, change colors as required by your chart (remember that you're working from left to right on this row). Again, pick up the new yarn from underneath the old yarn.

    You can see in the picture how the green yarn is sort of wrapped around the pink yarn before the stitch is formed. That's the way it should be.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Finishing a Purl Row

    The Back View of Fair Isle Knitting
    The wrong side of stranded knitting looks a little strange, but these loose floats are just what you need. Sarah E. White

    As on the knit side, continue to follow your chart and change colors when needed to keep the stranded knitting pattern going on the purl side.

    You can't really see how the pattern is forming because of all the strands on this side. If you're working a complicated pattern or just want to check up on how you're progressing, flip the work over periodically so you can see the knit side to make sure everything looks good.

    At the end of the row, it will look like you have a big mess on your hands, but that's the way it's supposed to look. You will have a bunch of floats that are neither too loose nor too tight.

    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    Finishing a Fair Isle Project

    A Finished Fair Isle Swatch
    The finished stranded knitting swatch. Sarah E. White

    Now that you know the basics of knitting and purling in the stranded knitting style, simply continue to follow the chart, changing colors as needed and as described earlier.

    The most important thing to remember is to keep those floats loose—blocking will not solve a problem caused by really tight floats.

    When you're done working the Fair Isle or colorwork section of a project, there might be more knitting in the background color to be done. If that's the case, simply cut the contrasting color yarn, leaving a tail to be woven in later, and continue knitting as normal.