Colourwork: circular and flat knitting, my experience with it

A few days ago Martha of After Hours and I were commenting on our experiences with colourwork and she suggested to write about it – which I think it’s a good way to structure (and record) my thoughts about the subject. Thus, today’s post is about the different ways to knit stranded colourwork, that is like you would typically see in Fair Isle garments. I’ll be discussing the subject based on my self-taught experience, so excuse any inaccuracies you may come across.

Stranded colourwork for an argyle pattern An example of colourwork, here done with DPNs

There are three main types of needles that can be used: DPNs (double-pointed needles), SPNs (single-pointed needles) and circular needles (either fix or interchangeable). The following is my account of the experience with each type.

Generally, there are two main approaches to knitting stranded items:

  • colourwork knitted in the round (with DPNs or circular needles);
  • colourwork knitted in the flat (with SPNs).

Also, commonly in each row two colours are used; you could have more, although that would make things a bit more complicate. In any case, don’t feel discouraged, as my very first go at trying colourwork was with three colours – beginner’s mind or Shoshin. Going on a brief tangent, this is an interesting page on one of the secrets of learning anything: Empty Your Cup.

Needle types: circular (left), DPNs (centre), SPNs (right) Needle types: circular (left), DPNs (centre), SPNs (right)

Flat knitting with SPNs: from what I’ve been reading in books, I understand that this may have been more commonly used in the past than it is nowadays. Advantages: it saves you from having to reinforce/steek and gives you freedom in the size of the item, unlike with circular needles where you need to find a suitable circumference. Disadvantages: it may be considered, possibly with some reason, more fiddly and confusing: this because it’s not easy to change colours while purling and it also requires to swap sides when reading the chart (right and wrong side). Workarounds: to ease following the work I made an electronic pattern and, for each row, marked where it should begin to avoid mixing things up (and consequent frogging!); the same can be done on a paper chart. It gets slightly less fiddly if you can at least arrange to have the row with the simplest pattern running on the wrong side.

Knitting in the round with DPNs: it gives you freedom in the size of the garment, but it requires extra attention to avoid different marks and tension in the points of transition from one to the next needle (there are some workarounds but haven’t tried yet, apart from keeping a relatively tight tension when changing between needles); avoiding tension problems should be feasible with certain size yarns (sock weight and upwards) but not sure it would be easy with finer yarns (i.e. 2-ply like I’m using at the moment).

Knitting in the round with circular needles: they are perfect in that it’s all right side knitting, no headaches in reading the pattern and hardly any issues in tension/transitions; the only down sides are that you have to find a matching cable circumference, the steeking when making flat garments, and you have to fiddle with the top end, where there is a little bump due to the spiral knitting (workarounds exist for the latter one); I read that some people had issues with the join between needle and cable, that it didn’t allow for a smooth transition (the yarn got “stuck” at the join point) – though this may depend on the wool type and needle brand used, as they vary in their characteristics.

I don’t think I have an overall preference among those presented. Generally, I prefer to assess each time on a case by case basis, for example depending on the item size, yarn type and size, etc. For finer yarns, like I’ve been trying recently, I’d avoid the DPNs because they may result in variable tension and holes in the join points. If it’s a very small piece that I’m working on, circular needles may not be available in a suitable circumference size, so I’d switch to DPNs. In general, I am striving to try and use all of them in different projects, so that I can practise/experiment and also have alternative options.

There are many books, online tutorials, videos and blog posts. A good online introduction and tutorial is that by Theresa Vinson Stenersen: Color Stranding. If you’re unsure, I suggest starting with some reading or watching and at some point, just dive in.. results may not be optimal at first, but that’s only normal. The more we try and the easier each time it will be! As with each technique, a keen interest in the resulting items will help you get through the inevitable highs and lows of the learning process. I found it definitely worthwhile learning it.

Give-away: a chance to win                    Give-away coming up very soon!

A sneaky hint at the upcoming posts: first there will be some give-away, and then more on books for a crafts reference library… stay tuned!

Weldon's Encyclopedia of Needlework, 1940s                     New books in the crafts reference library

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9 thoughts on “Colourwork: circular and flat knitting, my experience with it

  1. Curls & Q says:

    Q – Love this post. Very informative. The only color work I’ve done is on circular needles.

  2. Martha says:

    lovely post on the colourwork. clear, informative and it’s a good recap.
    well done. good job 🙂
    i think you;ve fostered my interest in circular and flat colourwork knitting even more now. thanks for the links.
    trial and error – it works in so many cases 🙂 it’s how we all master our skills.

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