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Tips & Tricks for Stranded Knitting

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Stranded knitting is not knitting that has been left at a bus stop without fare; it is a method of working with two or more strands of yarn at the same time to create graphic patterning on the work. Stranded knitting refers to any knitting that uses more than one strand of yarn. This includes intarsia as well as Fair Isle, Scandinavian and Bohus. In the Fair Isle method, one of the yarns is used to create the stitches, while you carry the other yarn(s) along the back of the work until needed.

Carrying the Yarn

How these yarns are carried along the back has a visual impact on the final front of the work. It is important to always keep one yarn below the other with no twisting. Whichever yarn is held below will have a greater visual emphasis in the front patterning and will advance out of the work. The yarn held above will have a lesser visual impact and will recede into the work. This is a useful thing to remember when planning the patterning on a knitted piece. If the contrast color is always held below the main color it will emphasize the patterning that is being worked.

Below you can see on the wrong side of the work that the white yarn is being stranded below the red yarn, and the strands are not twisted.

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Holding the Yarn

How each of these yarns is held by the knitter is a totally personal preference. If the knitter is most comfortable with English style knitting (in which the yarn is kept in the right hand and thrown around the needle tip), the stranded patterning can be worked this way with each strand of yarn held separately. Drop the unused yarn behind the work and pick up the next needed active yarn, making sure to keep the strands untwisted with the emphasized color on the bottom.

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If the knitter usually works in the Continental style (in which the yarn is kept in the left hand and picked through the stitch with the right needle), the stranded pattern can be worked with both strands held over the left finger. Make sure that the strand closest to the needle is the color that is being emphasized and the strands are not being twisted.

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It is also possible to work a hybrid of these two styles by holding one strand in each hand. For this method the knitter should hold the emphasized yarn on the left finger and work it Continental style, and the other yarn in the right hand, working it English style.

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Stranding these yarns along the back of the work requires a looser tension. A successful knitter gets a feeling for exactly how much slack to provide those floats. To give you an idea of the perfect amount of slack for my knitting, you can see that in the left picture the slack is too much, but in the right picture it's just perfect. As with all knitting, the key to success is practice and consistency. So practice keeping the same tension as many times as possible, and soon, it will become second nature.

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TIP: Regardless of how slack your floats are, stranded knitting pulls in horizontally and pushes up vertically in a knitted piece. For this reason, many patterns indicate to increase one needle size when changing from stockinette with a single color to a stranded pattern with multiple colors.

Working in the Round

To create a mitten or sock with stranded patterning, a knitter will have to either work with a very small circumference circular needle or use double-pointed needles. Using double-pointed needles can be challenging because the patterning will inevitably have to continue over a needle change -- when the end of one needle has been reached and another needle will need to be worked across. This intersection of needle change and stranding can cause tension issues on the back of the work.

One method to try is to always place a needle change within a section of a color. This may involve setting the empty needle down and knitting a few stitches from the left needle onto the right needle to reach the center of a color section. Changing needles in the center of a single color means you only have to tension one yarn and is the same as working in the round on double-pointed needles with a single color.

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When the patterning calls for the contrast color to be worked again, try holding the needles parallel to aid in the correct amount of slack for the float. Below you can see that the needle change happened in the center of the red section; two stitches later it is time to work a white stitch. Since the white yarn is traveling across seven stitches, it would be an easy place to create too much tension in the float. By holding the right two needles parallel, it acts as one needle; then spread the stitches out and carry the float loosely across the back.

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Looking at the wrong side of the work, the needles are parallel and the white float has the same tension as the white floats from previous rows.

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Additionally, if you have more frequent color changes, it also works well to change needles when working the first stitch of a new color; the single stitch that the yarn has to travel around is a small space to tension.

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