Monday, March 12, 2007

Advice on Shopping for Supplies

I hope to pass along a few pearls of wisdom gained from experience in the hopes that this will help knitters who are new to 2 color knitting learn some of the unique peculiarities of this craft.

What Yarn Do I Use?
This may seem incredibly obvious, just use the yarn called for in a pattern, right! Well, chances are, if your pattern is a few years old, the yarn called for might not be available any longer or the shade colors have changed a little or even a lot. You might also mistakenly assume that as long as your gauge is the same, any yarn can be substituted. Even if the gauge of the yarn is correct, the fiber you choose is also key. If you are knitting in the round and your pattern calls for cutting stitches (steeks) the safe choice when first getting started is to use a yarn that is traditional to 2 color stranded knitting. These yarns will perform better in 2 color knitting for a variety of reasons:
  • Yarns commonly used in 2 color knitting patterns are chosen for their wide range of colors which allow you to shade your colors in a graduated fashion for a traditional Fair Isle look.
  • If your pattern calls for steeks, 'sticky' wool (such as Shetland, Norwegian or Finnish wool) will perform better with steeks, as opposed to slippery yarn (ie. Alpaca, silk etc.) which might unravel after cutting even with a secured stitching line. (If in doubt, test first!)
  • I believe yarn with a firmer rather than a looser twist performs better in two color knitting. The stitches lay together nicely, helping you to achieve an 'even' fabric.
Here is a list of sheep wool/yarn brands that have been commonly used in traditional folk knitting based on knitting in the round techniques with stranded color work:

Shetland Wool
  • Jamieson and Smith
  • Jamieson's of Shetland
Norwegian Wool
  • Dale of Norway
  • Rauma Garn (Finnul, Tumi, Gammelserie)
  • Hifa 2
  • Drops Yarn
  • Jarbo Garn
  • Hillesvag (Solji)
  • SandnesGarn
  • Selbu Spinneri
Finnish Wool
  • Satakieli Wool
  • Tokuwool (fingering)
Danish Wool
  • Holst Garn

Icelandic Wool
  • Lettlopi
Newer brands include:
  • Alice Starmore's Hebrides 2 and 3 ply (
  • Brooklyn Tweed (Loft and Peerie)
  • Harrisville Yarns (New England Shetland/fingering weight, New England Highland/worsted weight)
  • Rowan Felted Tweed
  • Kauni Yarn

If you enjoy knitting with soft"er" yarns that are not 100% wool, you can still create beautiful Fair Isle garments, by knitting in flat rows and using traditional seams rather than steeks, or by creating garments that don't require steeks such as mittens, hats and scarves. Colorwork knitting in flat rows as compared to knitting on circular needles in the round requires you to learn how to pearl in two colors. It might sound intimidating but there a few video tutorials that provides a great demonstration and once you catch the hang of it, it does start to feel natural. Here is a video tutorial that demonstrates how to purl in two colors holding both yarns in the right hand. The way it was explained to me by a fan of this technique, "I enjoy it and see it as another challenge and opportunity to grow as a knitter."

Finding a Fiber you Love
All of these brands of yarn offer tremendous pattern support, and if I may be so bold as to say, rather than fall in love with a pattern and then go with the recommended yarn, you might want to consider falling in love with the yarn first and then finding a pattern suitable for that yarn. I mistakenly did the former and realized, it was like making a long term committment on the first date before I really knew what I was getting into. Every fiber offers unique qualities, and I came to learn that its important to 'sample' and try out a variety of fibers before settling on The One that you will be knitting with for a very long time.

That being said, when you are exploring various yarns, its also a good time to think about the shape of the sweater that fits your body type best when you are planning your first sweater. Norwegian and Fair Isle sweaters offer a few simple shapes, generally either a pullover or a cardigan or sleeveless sweater/vest, but arm and neck treatments differ, ie. yoke vs. raglan etc. Also keep in mind that pattern makers don't always design sweater dimensions according to a standard size chart, so carefully look at the 'finished' dimensions of the sweater when you select your size. Also, I can't mention enough how important gauge is here in getting your finished sweater to come out the right size. Being off by just one needle size can change your finished sweater by at least one size.

Invest in Shade Cards
After you've researched all the available yarns out there, I highly recommend buying a shade card for all of the brands you think you might want to test. Or conversely, if you see a pattern and it is love at first site, still take the time to invest in a shade card first before you place your order for specific yarn shades/colors. The reason being that photos of finished sweater designs can only ever be a "color guide" for Fair Isle knitters in particular for the following reasons:
  • 1) The shades you see online are different from the shades you see on the shade cards, which are different from the shades you see in a photograph of a finished sweater.
  • 2.) Shades not only change slightly between dye lots, they can also shift in hue and value over time, and if your pattern was published 5 or more years ago, chances are, the colors could have shifted quite a bit and you may not be able to create the same design if you blindly follow the colors listed on the pattern by name or number.
  • A current shade card can provide you with a 'reality check' to make sure the colors of your finished sweater feel right to you, especially if you are using an older pattern.
  • Its a safe rule of thumb to always view the photo of a finished sweater and the recommended colors in the pattern as a 'guide' only.
  • I find it safest to develop a list of colors from the shade card that match the design as close as possible based on the photo, order one of each, create a test swatch in pattern, and if all goes well, place a full order, or keep experimenting with colors until I feel confident the colors feel right to me.
  • Unfortunately, most yarn stores don't carry all the colors you'll probably need so alot of us have to order blindly online, and sometimes it can be a trial and error experience.
  • Before you order any yarn, make sure it is 'returnable' if unused and in original condition because there will be times when the colors are just not right. Some of the major yarn retailers in this category don't have return policies on their website, so if in doubt, call to check.
To summarize, Fair Isle sweater designs from pattern books in particular are unique one of a kind garments which can never be made twice exactly in the same colors because yarn colors are never a constant. They don't "disclose" this in books or on yarn sites but a yarn store owner familiar with Fair Isle knitting can be your friend for life if they help you understand this extremely important point and support you in helping you to find shades that might be a close match. Its so important to swatch first to make sure things are working together and here is one great example of how cool this process can be:

Order a Few Sample Skeins to Test Color AND Performance of Yarns
I have also found through trial and error that each brand of yarn has different qualities that you cannot detect from just looking at a 2" sample from a shade card. Because the qualities of each yarn are different, your experience knitting with them in stranded knitting will also be slightly different. Since you will be spending a long time knitting with the yarn you invest in, you might want to order a few sample skeins, not only to test the color, but to actually test how they perform in two color knitting, to see if you are happy with the results.

I don't want to make any recommendations or describe the qualities of each yarn because I think each knitter has their own unique preferences and budget and the yarn you choose that feels right for you will probably be different for the next person. The important thing is to explore those unique qualities and in comparing them you will discover what your personal favorite is and which one will give you the most enjoyment as you spend alot of time knitting with it. Here are just a few characteristics to think about: weight/gauge, depth of color, tonal range, loft, softness, drape, ply, spin, elasticity, and textural consistency.

(Note: I have found that some of the traditional wool used in color knitting, especially fingering weight wool, can be texturally inconsistent, going from thick to thin. In my case, I felt it did have an impact on the final look of my knitting, so to compensate for this, I either cut out the sections of the yarn that have thinned out or I will knit using the thinning areas with two strands held together. When seeking out advice, I was told that this thinning out problem was a non issue since it would all "bloom" in the wash but I never felt that it did. Sometimes with one brand of yarn, only particular colors seem to be affected, or particular dye lots so its good to check with the manufacturer or your retailer to make sure a "defective" skein can be returned before you order your yarn online.

Two Yarn Weights to Choose From
I'll wrap up this secton on yarn weight since I think its important for anyone struggling with pain in their hands and wrists when knitting. When I first started knitting, I had aches and pains from muscles I had never used before. I was stiff for weeks in different parts of my arms, neck, and back. I eventually figured out what pillows to put where, what chairs were best to sit on etc. And the muscles began to get stronger and finally the soreness went away. Part of this process included learning about what weights of yarn I felt I could be the most successful with since I am prone to wrist soreness. 2 color knitting designs tend to call for either a fine gauge yarn (US size 2, 3 needles), mostly the case with Fair Isle knitting, and heavier weight yarns (size 4 - 6 needles), mostly found in Norwegian patterns (although there are many Norwegian patterns written for fine gauge yarns as well). I found that the heavier weight yarn was more challenging for me. Others might find it easier than the finer guage yarn. Everyone has a unique physiology, in terms of hand size, length of fingers, history of arthritis or repetitive motion injury, etc., so its important to discover what combination of needle and yarn works best for you.

How to Choose a Charted Design for a Beginner?
Once you have decided on a brand of yarn you love, how do you select a pattern with a charted design that is just right for a beginner? When I asked this question I was given replies from experienced knitters that complained about boredom from choosing a design that was too easy. The repetition became monotonous for them. On the other hand, I have heard experienced knitters complaining of being overwhelmed from designs that were complex. From my point of view, all charted designs can be very simple to follow if you take three steps to simplify the process:
  • 1.) use a fine tip felt pen with black ink and use a ruler to darken the grid line on your chart after every 10 stitches. Some patterns already do this for you. It makes it enormously easy for the eye to look at groups of 10. Even if your pattern repeat is 30 or more stitches, you are only dealing with 10 at a time.
  • 2.) place markers (small little circular rings or even waist yarn) after each repeat. This is enormously helpful in giving you a 'reality check' to see if you are starting and stopping on the right color, if the design is building in the right sequence as it grows, one repeat after the other.
  • 3.) enlarge your charted design with a copier machine, large enough for you to see from a distance, so you can relax in your favorite chair and easily see the design. This saves on eye strain and makes it very easy to glance up and see with the eye and knit from, without having to write down the color sequence (ie. 2 reds, 3 yellows....). Don't be intimidated by more complex designs, choose something that is aesthetically pleasing to you, more than anything else, color wise and design wise.
Good, Better, Great Designs!
There is one thing that I wish those experienced knitters mentioned to me when looking for my first pattern. That is, how to check for quality of design, based on what I might call structural integrity. Brocade knitting has become very popular in contemporary 2 color knitting designs, ie. recreating those designs from a jaquard loom that you see in those lovely silk brocade prints found in luxury textiles with ornamental design motifs. These patterns sometimes violate the simple rule of changing color within 5 stitches that is traditional in 2 color knitting (See: Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting, and Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting Workshop DVD). In that case, you end up stranding the second color in the back of your knitting for long stretches at a time (10 or more stitches).

Two little problems can occur in this case. If your design has alot of one color sections, they have a tendency to become wavy and ripple, because your one color knitting sections will be of a different gauge than your two color knitting areas. In Fair Isle knitting, this usually isn't a problem because 'peerie' patterns (small in-between designs) are included to fill in those gaps. (If you see the need for a peerie, you can add them to the design you are working on.)

The other thing you need to watch out for is where you catch the second yarn in the back when you are stranding across large sections of one color. If you keep trapping the unused color in the back at the same spot over multiple rows, a funny little tension line will begin to show in the front. (See Sally Mellville's book, Knitting: Color, Book 3). The way to avoid this is to trap the second color in the back at different spots on each row.

Another option to consider would be to knit the pattern using the "intarsia" knitting technique.

Look for 'Errata' Corrections First or Join a KAL (Knit Along) for Support
The last bit of advice I'd like to offer on choosing a pattern is to make sure that you read through the entire pattern before you commit to buying all the yarn, to make sure you understand the instructions and have acquired all the knowledge you need to complete it. You might also want to check for corrections on an 'errata' page from the publisher and or stick to known designers that have a good reputation for error free patterns. (Interweave Knits offers a very large errata page and you would be surprised at the large number of errors for many color work patterns. I was told that I should be thankful that they publish these as most publishers do not!) Finally, you might be able to find a KAL (Knit Along) or create one to join other knitters following the same pattern to network with others that might be having the same problems if you come across one in your pattern.

The Two Great Knitting Camps:
If you are looking through patterns written by Americans in the US, as you read through various patterns you'll soon begin to realize that some are very structured (Eunny Jang, Ann Fetelstein) and others are very unstructured (Meg Swansen/Elizabeth Zimmerman) and each comes with their own advantages. The unstructured approach assumes that you have the foundation knowledge to proceed without a lot of detailed information (ie. the pattern might say, proceed to add a mitered border but not mention how this should be done). The structured approach, on the other hand, will provide a high level of detail (ie. add a mitered border as follows:.....with step by step details, stitch counts etc.). The unstructured approach offers the advantage of putting you in control of all major decisions and how to carry them out, however, on the other hand, you may find yourself needing to buy other books or spend time with a teacher figuring out how to get through the steps if you don't have the foundation knowledge to do it on your own. Because of this, beginners might feel more at ease using a pattern with a structured approach.

Find a Pattern Maker/Designer that Fits Your Style
You might want to spend some time reading through several patterns that you like before deciding on your first color work sweater to knit, to study technique and to analyze the different approaches that various patterns/designers take. You'll soon begin to develop a fluency in the language of these patterns and begin to see in your mind with the help of some photos and diagrams how the sweater develops in the round with these techniques. After investing in this research phase, I settled on patterns from books written by Alice Starmore. For me, they offered just the right amount of structure that I needed, and it was easy to follow her patterns after reading her technique book on Fair Isle Knitting (I am also finding this to be the same with her Aran knitting book and patterns).

Whatever pattern you select, keep in mind that you'll begin with confidence if you've studied through the techniques you'll need to complete the sweater. You could also take a big leap into the unknown and stop in the middle when you get to a section that is unclear, however, if you are in the wilderness, without access to alot of resources like classes or knowledgeable friends or instructors, a safer choice might be to stick with a design that isn't overly complicated for your first project, which will boost your confidence and allow you to complete it with success. Being armored with all the technique knowledge you need first will give you peace of mind that you can finish on your own without the fear of getting stuck, or worse yet, abandoning your sweater in disappointment.

Should I Buy a Yarn Kit?
Yarn kits seem like a great way to save money, all that yarn bundled up in just the right amount, and it seems like a great way to go. Just a few words of advice on yarn kits. Ask about return policies before you make your purchase, if you are ordering online. You'll want to make sure it is returnable before you commit because it is very difficult to make a choice about something you haven't had the opportunity to see in real life. Its always a good idea to ask the seller what shades come in the kit, and then check the shade colors from your shade card first, to make sure you will be happy with it. You might even want to take the added step of ordering a few sample skeins of the colors used in the greatest quantities for the sweater, and knit up a sample swatch to make sure it is what you wanted first. Even though you are spending $10-20 for this, and it does take more time, think about working on a sweater for months if not years only to find out, you don't like what you are seeing. When you buy a yarn kit online, you don't have the benefit of being able to see the finished sweater or the yarn firsthand, chances are you will only see a photograph of it. So your results with your test skeins will give you 100% confidence that you are making the choice that is best for you. But as an added measure, also make sure a kit is returnable if unused, if the colors arrive and it doesn't look like the colors you were seeing in a magazine photo or a photo online.

Caveat Emptor: Internet Mail Order
I also thought I would mention a few words of advice on ordering through internet mail order since alot of your supplies will have to probably be purchased in this way (I was never a big customer of online mail order with the exception of until I became a knitter and discovered there was "alot" to learn here as well!):

1.) Check with the seller to see if the inventory on the site is 'real time' before you purchase an item. They may be out of stock and still charge your credit card, forcing you to wait for weeks or months for delivery.

2.) Make sure the seller ships your items with a tracking number so you can track a package that might get lost through no fault of your own. Otherwise, it becomes "your word vs. theirs," and this can turn into an unpleasant situation.

3.) Don't ever give away your private information on a website unless the URL address begins with "https" - the "s" after the usual "http" means that the information you send is encrypted through secure socket layer (SSL), which is currently the safest way to send private information over the internet.

Practice Design and Construction With A Miniature Sweater
You might also want to try practicing construction technique such as designing a pattern, knitting in 2 colors, knitting in the round, centering a pattern, picking up stitches, knitting and cutting a steek etc. on a small scale sweater, or other item. The wonderful thing about this starter project is that you get to practice and discover how knitted fabric behaves when using these techniques. There is always theory, and then there is practice, and this small little project will help you make the transition from one to the other. A pattern maybe written 'assuming' you have the knowledge to make a decision about which type of cast on to use and may only say cast on x number of by working through all the steps on a small scale sweater, you'll be able to develop your own body of knowledge and know how to make good choices when assumed knowledge is left out of the instructions.  There is a pattern for a miniature Fair Isle Teddy Bear size sweater aka "tea cozy" in Nicky Epstein's book, Knitting on Top of the World, and here is a blog post with many photos from someone who has made this for reference (she made this as her first time "steeking" project.) There is also a Norwegian sweater pattern for an 18" doll sold by Nicky in her Ravelry store called Winter Wonderland.

One last little note here on getting started. Many colorwork patterns do not offer guidance and instruction for knitters that are new to this technique. Most of the books I have seen have "technique sections" and then "patterns" and when you are doing your first sweater, it is sometimes difficult to make the connection between the two. Eunny Jang's Venezia sweater offers alot of 'way finding' techniques inside the written instructions for the pattern to help keep you on the right track.


Nanette said...

I love all your links. I agree on the Starmore book - I think it is the best out there (unfortunately also the most expensive probably!).

Here is another related KAL although not so busy -

and two Flickr knitted colorwork photo galleries updated daily with lots of lovely eye candy and inspiration:

Nanette said...

Oops - my links didn't show up in their entirety. Sorry about that!

If you go to Flickr and type in stranded colorwork and knitting colorwork you'll find both photo galleries.

a blogger said...

Thanks Nanette, I'll put the links to the galleries on the link list for others to find. Just wanted to let everyone know, please do not buy the Alice Starmore book through used book sellers who are charging astronomical prices for this book. You can find a copy through a library fairly easily at If there isn't one near you, try asking about inter-library loan.

Queen of the froggers. said...

Thank you so much for getting all this on your blog for us. I will be starting some colour work soon and this has been so helpful.

Kathy said...

Hey guys, the Starmore book has been republished and is now available in paperback. You can also find an older copy through inter-library loan. This is a very good resource and I highly recommend it.

Angie said...

OMG, thank you sooo much!!

I just happened upon your blog and I think I'm in heaven. Having recently become enamored of colorwork after completing my first pair of Norwegian mittens I want to do more and more (a sweater with steeks-scary!) and I know I can find all the resources to help me here. I really, really, appreciate this information and the time you put into this lovely site.
Happy New Year-
Angie in WA