Colorwork patterns for first-timers

Colorwork knitting patterns for first-timers

OK! Picking back up with the Beginning to Knit series, let’s talk about colorwork — specifically, stranded or “fair isle” knitting. (I’m not going into intarsia in this post.) Just like cables, stranded knitting is a great thing to try when you’re still fairly new to knitting. But even or especially if you’ve been knitting a long time and have never done it, it’s time! Both seem really difficult and amazing and impressive but are actually insanely simple. In the case of stranded knitting, it’s just stockinette and it’s almost always done in the round, so you’re only ever working from the right side of the fabric. You can handle knitting in the round, right? There are only two tricks to knitting multi- rather than single-color stockinette:

1) Holding the yarn.
If a pattern row has you knit two white stitches, then two black stitches and repeat that to the end of the row, you could literally knit the two white stitches, drop the yarn, pick up the black yarn and knit two stitches, drop it, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but it would slow you down a bit. Depending on how ambidextrous you are and which hand your normally hold your working yarn in, you could hold both yarns in your left hand, both in your right, or one in each hand. (That’s my preference.) There are copious videos on the web demonstrating all the options.

2) Minding your floats.
Imagine what I described above: putting one yarn down and picking up the next one. On the wrong side of the work, that new yarn has to reach across the two (or however many) stitches you just worked in the other color, and that little bit of yarn carried behind the work is called a float. (You’ve seen floats on the back side of fair isle knitting before, no doubt, but here’s a pic for you.) The reason most people’s stranded work winds up being tighter than single-color work is that their floats are too short and it pulls on the back of the work. So for one thing, you have to be careful to keep your floats even — the same width as the stitches they float behind. And for another, when the floats get very long — longer than a inch or so — you need to “trap” them by simply twisting the two yarns in back.

Sample colorwork chart from Pine Bough Cowl by Dianna Potter WallaThe other key difference is that when you’re working stockinette in the round, the last thing in the world you need is a chart — you’re just knitting every stitch! But for colorwork, you pretty much always need a chart showing you which stitches are worked in which colors. As long as you’re knitting in the round, you read the chart exactly like you knit: from right to left, starting at the bottom and working your way up. If a chart seems daunting, keep in mind that you only knit one row at a time. Block out all but the first (bottom) row on this sample chart and you’ll see that all you need to do is knit 1 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 7 blue, then repeat that 10-stitch sequence to the end of the round. You can do that, right? Then take the next row as it comes. I borrowed this sample chart from Dianna Walla’s free Pine Bough Cowl pattern, which was a huge hit with you all in the big cowls roundup a few months ago — it would be a great introduction to both colorwork and charts for the moderately ambitious among you. (Note that in some cases on a colorwork chart you’ll see black dots in some of the squares. Those dots are just there to emphasize the motif that’s being created — chevrons or triangles or whatever it may be. It’s just a visual aid; you still just knit every stitch.) [See UPDATE below about Dianna and charts.]

So, in my mind, the ideal projects for first-timers are those that A) are knitted in the round, B) never use more than two colors within a single row and C) don’t involve any long floats. Some suggestions, pictured above:

left: Dessau Cowl by Carrie Bostick Hoge — super-simple triangles pattern, maybe slightly long floats (See also: Flying Geese Cowl, Tolt Hat and Mitts)
center: Netty Cowl by Ien Sie — polka dots worked in a tube and grafted into a loop (See also: Herrington and Empire State)
right: Amira pullover by Andrea Rangel — just a little colorwork around the circular yoke (See also: Willard, Stasis, slightly more intricate Skydottir, or the Altair hat)

left: Harpa scarf by Cirilia Rose — tube scarf with long ribbed ends
center: Muckle Mitts by Mary Jane Mucklestone — my first colorwork project, includes both 2- and 3- color versions (either way just two colors per round) (See also: the more ambitious Seasons hat)
right: Vega hat by Alexis Winslow

left: Gloaming Mittens by Leila Raabe — there’s a slight chance there may be some 3-color rounds in here but I don’t think so
center: Selbu Modern hat by Kate Gagnon Osborn — like delicate Art Nouveau wallpaper for your head (free pattern)
right: Funchal Moebius by Kate Davies — clever play with lights and darks in a tube that’s grafted into a moebius (or a loop if you like)


I personally put off trying colorwork for two years, and then decided to take Mary Jane Mucklestone’s beginner class to get me off my duff and so I’d be sure to learn good habits right from the start. If you’re at all nervous about trying stranded knitting, then by all means sign up for a class. As I always say, you never know what else you might learn.


UPDATE: Dianna Walla left a comment below about her chart. She just did a post on her blog about working from colorwork charts, which you should definitely take a look at. See also her recent post about color dominance.

52 thoughts on “Colorwork patterns for first-timers

  1. I just finished a fair isle hat from Purl Soho, my first attempt. So much fun!! Only problem is I’m a thrower and just can’t seem to figure out continental knitting…my hands just won’t do it. Thanks for this post, I’m planning on doing many more fair isle projects soon! ~Barb

    • I hadn’t seen Amira until a few days ago but now I’m picturing color combos and thinking about knitting it. It’s sufficiently non-Nordic looking for my climate.

      Now now do I not have that EZ book …

  2. I jumped into colorwork years ago when a friend showed me how. I recently wanted to take it to the next level and found myself struggling with the whole yarn/color dominance issue. Do you know of a good online tutorial or at least an explanation for what to do? (I hold both colors in my right hand.)

      • Thanks for the link! She explains it really well. I’ve experimented a bit already but the difference can be pretty subtle.

    • A little long with the floats, though. I watched a tutorial of Hannah’s recently in which the demo knitter was working really long floats without trapping them at all, though, so who knows! It’s definitely one of those “everybody’s different” scenarios.

      • Yes, I wondered about that too. I think there are 5 st between — oh well. Will put that one off for a while I think.

  3. This post came at the perfect time! I am a fairly new knitter but I have been dying to try some colorwork. Will definitely try some of these!

    • I’m a sucker for the triangle patterns. (And I laugh every time I see one of those Pickles photos that appear to have been shot in a bathroom! Beautiful bathroom, but still!) And I do love Thea’s mitts — posted about them awhile back. I have the pattern but haven’t done it yet.

  4. My first stranded project was Dianna Walla’s Fjordland hat from the newest PomPom, and after the first ten minutes or so, the rhythm was really fun to get in to. So much more colorwork is in my future.

  5. Such a great round up! I never finished my first venture into colourwork, but I’ve knitted several pieces since, and love it.

  6. Perfect timing, I just wound up two balls for a fair isle cowl. I’m so excited to try some color work!

  7. Boy, you really tapped into all my fears with this one. It seems so fiddly and the back looks so messy and I can see myself screaming with frustration as I try to untangle masses of yarn. I think I’ll master a few other skills first, and then take a class.

    • That’s funny — I think the back is BEAUTIFUL! One of my favorite sweaters has the floats on the outside.

      As far as untangling yarn, it really doesn’t get tangled. Try working with just two colors and have one sitting on each side of you, if you’re worried about it. Once you see that they don’t interfere with each other, you’ll feel comfortable putting them in the same bag or whatever.

      But yeah, it does leave a lot of ends to weave in.

  8. Your post on muckle mitts a couple mitts back are what finally got me off my butt with color work. I’m currently working on Flambeau ( and have found that I love it! Once I actually tried it and got through a chart repeat I paraded around long enough boasting that I was a champion, that I actually got my boyfriend excited about it too. More so than any other knitting benchmark I’ve gotten to, this one feels good.

  9. I think the universe is trying to tell me to give colorwork a go – this is the second “colorwork for beginners” thing I’ve seen since yesterday! And that polka dot cowl looks perfect… yaay!

  10. So funny to see my chart there as I just put it in a blog post of my own – I’ve found that a lot of knitters are tackling Pine Bough Cowl as their first colorwork project (which I love!) and have questions about how to actually use the charts, which are repeat-based, so I put up a post about that here:

  11. Mmmm, that polka dot cowl might be just the thing for some Shibui alpaca I have in my sale stash. Twould be so fun and not too taxing….

  12. Ooh I’ve never tried colorwork before but this makes it look much less daunting! I also LOVE the cowl in the middle of the top row! If that doesn’t get me knitting, I don’t know what will!

  13. This is great. For as many years as I have been knitting, I haven’t really done any colorwork.
    Thank you!

  14. Good advice! I’m not sure if anyone else will encounter this, but when I first started knitting colorwork projects, I had to go up a few needle sizes because I knit everything so tightly! Up until that point, I didn’t know exactly how tight of a knitter I was, actually – it had just never come up with my other projects (or maybe I just hadn’t noticed). I couldn’t figure out why my projects were so much smaller than they should be, even though I’d taken care to choose simple ones with just two colors and not a lot of floats as you recommend. Anyway, if anyone else is still having issues with too-tight colorwork, I’d recommend trying a needle that is 1-2 sizes larger than recommended!

  15. :) that’s my daughter modeling for carrie, and i sample knit the cowl :) gives me such a thrill seeing her little face pop up lately!

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  17. I’m not a first time colorwork knitter but lately I’ve been obsessed with stranded knitting. 90% of my project are multi-color stranded knitting. It’s just so satisfying to see your pattern emerge as you finish rows.

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