A step-by-step tutorial on how to knit Fair Isle patterns, how to catch floats, and many tips for neater results with this colorwork technique
Do you want to knit stunning projects in two colors? Have you seen beautiful sweaters, hats, and socks with intricate colorwork, and now you want to knit one too? Well, then you came to the right place because in this tutorial I will show you everything you need to know about Fair Isle knitting so you can successfully finish your first project – even if you are a beginner!
What is fair isle knitting?
Originally, Fair Isle was a traditional knitting technique practiced on the Shetland Islands using multiple colors at the same time to create stunning colorwork jumpers. Unused colors were carried in the back of the work. It was always knit in the round, no more than two colors per round were used, yarn was never carried across more than 3-4 stitches, and it was only knitted in stockinette stitch. The limited color palette of locally dyed yarn gave it a particularly pleasant and somewhat moody look.
These days, the term is loosely used for all types of stranded colorwork using two or more colors at the same time (you might also hear the terms nordic stranded colorwork or jacquard). By catching so-called floats every 3-5 stitches, a color can be carried across a theoretically unlimited number of stitches. Fair Isle knitting is typically not regarded as particularly difficult and can be done by any intermediate beginner. You can knit it in the round or flat (but be aware that it might curl on the edges without special selvage stitches).
Reading tip: Intarsia vs fair isle – what’s the difference between the two colorwork techniques.
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- Cast on any number of stitches with a moderately stretchy cast-on of your choice using color A. A standard longtail cast-on will be a good start.
- Join your knitting in the round (or turn your project around) and join in color B any way you like. As a beginner, tying a simple knot around the working yarn, and sliding it all the way to the base of the last stitch in color A will work out quite well.
- Pick up both strands and wrap them around the pinky finger of your left hand once.
- Bring the two strands across the back of your hand, pick up your knitting needle, and let the two strands rest on top of of your index finger.
Note: If you prefer a different way to tension your yarn (like weaving the working yarn above and below your ring finger), feel free to use the method you feel most comfortable with. Do note, however, that Fair Isle knitting works best with a looser tension.
- Now pick up the right color from your index finger and flip it around so the strand comes in from below. This will keep the two colors separate and will facilitate knitting tremendously.
- Start by knitting one stitch using only color B. So, enter the first stitch as normal, stay above color A, come in from the right, and then wrap color B around your needle counter-clockwise the way you would normally knit a knit stitch, and pull through. Color A remains unused and on the left.
- Knit 1-3 more stitches in color B. Make sure that you always stay above yarn A and come in from the right. This will ensure that you can carry the unused yarn along neatly on the wrong side and create a so-called 'float'.
- When you are ready to switch colors, simply knit the next stitch in color A by crossing color B, wrapping the first strand around your needle counter-clockwise, and pulling through. Color B remains untouched in the back/to the right.
- Once you finished knitting that stitch, stretch out the previously knitted stitches on the right needle. This will ensure that the float you created on the backside in color A will be long enough and your fabric doesn't pucker.
- From here, continue knitting up to 3 stitches in color A. You only have to actively stretch out the fabric after every first stitch in a new color. Still, pay attention that you never bunch up the previous stitches on the right needle.
- If you want to knit more than 4-5 stitches in a single color, you will have to catch floats. This means you have to anchor the unused yarn by trapping it in between the needle and the working yarn on the backside so you don't end up with super long loops on the backside that my mess up your knitting. The picture shows the point where I typically catch a float.
- To catch a float of the dominant color (color A in this case), simply knit the next (typically the 3rd or 4th) stitch by coming in from the left (instead of the usual right). Think of it as pushing color A away to the right side so you get room to access color B from the left.
- Then wrap color B around your needle counter-clockwise as usual and pull the stitch through.
- For the next stitch, the two colors will be twisted. To balance things out again, grab color B coming from the right again. This will finish the process of catching a float.
Then, stretch out the stitches on the right needle and make sure to give both strands a gentle tug to eliminate excess slack. If you repeat this after every 3-5 stitches, you could, theoretically, carry along an unused color for an unlimited number of stitches.
- To catch a float of the background color (color B in this case), you have to go all the way around color B coming in from the right/behind.
- From here, you have two choices. You can either wrap the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise (as normal; rather difficult) and pull the yarn through.
Or, if that is too difficult, you can also wrap the yarn around the needle clockwise (so going in from above). This will be easier but will result in a twisted stitch. You will have to untwist this stitch in the next round by knitting it through the back loop (or ptbl if you are knitting flat).
- Knit the next stitch by crossing color B again to untwist the yarns, and then carry on as required by your pattern.
You will quickly notice that catching a float of the dominant color is much easier. If you are designing your own Fair Isle pattern, try to structure it in a way that you don't have too many sections where you have to knit more than 5 stitches in a row in the dominant color.
Knitting Fair Isle flat
In the introduction, I said Fair Isle is typically knit in the round. There are multiple reasons for that.
- Flat Fair Isle will curl like madness, so you will only be able to use it for seamed projects (like a sweater) – except you are adding a very wide selvage/border.
- It’s very difficult to see the design on the wrong side as the floats obstruct the pattern and this can be a source of mistakes.
- A lot of people have problems with their purl tension. As a result, there may always be one tight row followed by a looser row.
But if you do want to knit flat, here are a couple of things to consider once you finished that first row as detailed above.
First of all, consider knitting the last and/or the first stitch of every row with both strands held together. Instead of just grabbing one strand, you wrap both of them around your needle counter-clockwise. This will anchor the two strands in the edges. If you don’t do this, the unused yarn will be pulled upwards when you knit the first stitch in the color and this will potentially create a little hole in the middle of the row below.
As an alternative, you can also twist the two yarns around each other (the easiest way to do this is by turning your work around clockwise). This will create a somewhat bumpier but less bulky edge.
From here, you can proceed to knitting the return row in a very similar way. The only difference is that you have to purl all stitches using only one yarn.
Step 1: To purl a stitch in color B, simply enter the next stitch from right to left and only wrap color B around the needle counter-clockwise – ignoring yarn A and keeping it in front/to the left.
Step 2: To purl a stitch in color A, enter the next stitch from right to left, go above color B, wrap the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise as usual, and then pull through. Color B stays in the back of your working needle but in front of your work.
Step 3: To catch a float in the dominant color, you can simply purl the next stitch in color B by coming in from above/the left and sort of pushing color A to the right/side.
Step 4: With the next stitch, you can continue purling as normal (so from the right) to untwist the strands.
Step 5: To catch a float in the background color, you have to go all the way around coming in from behind color B. Next, wrap the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise, and pull through. It will be a bit awkward and you might have to separate the strands with your middle finger.
Then untwist the strands by purling the next stitch as in step 2.
Using a knitting thimble to knit Fair Isle
A lot of experienced continental fair isle knitters use a so-called knitting thimble (here’s a link to the one I am using) to tension the yarn. It’s actually remarkably easy to use and helps to keep the two colors separate but also let’s the yarn glide through your hands a bit easier. Here’s how to use a knitting thimble to knit fair isle:
Step 1: Put the knitting thimble on like you would a ring so it rests firmly on the first knuckle of your index finger.
Step 2: Thread the first color (your dominant color) through the left eyelet by wedging it through the cleft and pulling the tail down.
Step 3: Pick up the second color (the background color) and thread it through the second eyelet by coming in from behind and bringing the end around counter-clockwise tracing a half-circle.
Step 4: Tension your yarn by wrapping the two ends around your pinky finger once (or any other way you like).
Step 5: Pull on the tails to tighten things up and start knitting the way I showed you above.
What I personally like about using knitting thimbles for stranded knitting the most is the fact that it’s a lot more gentle on your fingers. Typically you want to use a slightly fuzzy yarn (see below). These often tend to bury themselves into your index finger quite quickly and the knitting thimble prevents that.
Understanding color dominance
In Fair Isle knitting, it’s very important to understand that you have to decide which color you want to carry on the left and which on the right. This has to do with color dominance. But what is color dominance? Well, simply put, depending on the position of your yarn, the floats you create on the backside will end up looking a tiny bit different.
And this has important implications for the right side. Typically speaking, the stitches in the color you hold on the right, will recede a bit back into the fabric. They will thus be less prominent. If you are interested in the theory behind this, do consider becoming a patron. There’s (sadly) a lot of misinformation floating around the internet and I share the real reason behind yarn dominance on my Patreon account.
But for you, as a beginner, the most important takeaway is that there is a difference. This means two things for you:
1. Always carry the same color on the left side throughout a knitting project. Never switch things up in the middle. And if you are knitting socks (or the sleeves of a sweater) remember to use the same configuration for the second part.
2. Plan out your project before you start. In most Fair Isle knitting projects, there is one color that defines the motif. Think of it like this: If you were to draw the design using one color only on a blank sheet of paper, which color would you use? This color typically should be your dominant color.
The thinner the lines are and the lighter the yarn, the more your project will benefit from using that color as the dominant color (so the one you hold on the left).
But this brings us directly to the next issue…
What’s the best yarn for knitting fair isle patterns?
Fair Isle is a very versatile and lovely technique suitable for beginners BUT you really have to be careful when it comes to picking yarns. That’s because you don’t want any floats peeking through on the right side and you probably want to achieve a neat stitch definition on top of that. And as a rule of thumb, this is easiest with a slightly fuzzy yarn.
Why? Well, if your yarn is too slippery and smooth, two things will happen. First of all, the slipperier your yarn, the easier it is for individual stitches to steal yarn from any float. If there’s not enough friction to hold the stitches in place, you may end up with many wonky/elongated stitches after the first wash or wear.
And here’s the second thing that will happen: Knitting does not create a more or less opaque fabric (unlike weaving). It is more like a mesh. So, if you stretch things or you are knitting with a loose enough gauge, you will always be able to see the floats peeking through the tiny little “holes” created by each stitch. If you are using a fuzzy yarn, on the other hand, one that blooms a bit after the first wash, all these tiny little hairs will hide what’s underneath.
As a result: Slightly fuzzy 100% sheep wool yarns are typically best for Fair Isle knitting. If you think about it, that’s hardly a big surprise because the knitters of old on the Shetland Islands didn’t exactly have modern synthetic superwash yarns at their disposal. Here are some suggestions:
- Jamieson’s of Shetland Heather & Spindrift
- Rauma Finullgarn
- Almost any yarn by Navia
- Knitpicks Palette
- Regia 4-ply (not 100% sheep wool but I really like it for durable socks)
Personally, I would say, the most important factor that you should pay attention to is that it’s a yarn readily available in a looot of colors. Because that’s what stranded knitting is all about, eh? I have a full tutorial on how to choose colors for knitting, so kindly check that out if you need some pointers.
Reading a fair isle knitting chart
Most colorwork patterns will feature a chart. It’s the most convenient and easiest way to keep track of a pattern, one that will allow you to spot a mistake very quickly.
Now, reading knitting charts may seem like a daunting thing but it’s actually EXTREMELY easy when it comes to Fair Isle knitting. You only need two key insights:
- A knitting chart is NO MATHEMATICAL chart; instead, it’s just a line-by-line representation of your knitting pattern where each box represents one stitch.
- You read a chart from right to left, the same way you knit (and from left to right on the wrong side).
As a result following a fair isle knitting chart is as simple as placing your finger on the right-most little box. Then you check which color it has, and knit the first stitch in that color. Then you move your finger to the next box, check the color, and knit the stitch accordingly. Once you finished one round, you move up one line and repeat. Use post-its so you don’t lose track.
In the end, your knitting and the picture of the chart should look identical. Here’s my full tutorial on reading knitting charts
Fair Isle tips:
Now, I know that knitting with two colors can be a bit overwhelming for a beginner. The technique itself is somewhat simple but achieving neat results may be less easy. Here are a couple of tips and tricks for you:
- As a beginner, try to stick to patterns where you only have to bridge a maximum of 5 stitches and never have to catch floats. Fair Isle is a beautiful technique for geometric designs. If you want to paint pictures, consider learning intarsia knitting instead. Catching floats may seem simple but that’s where most problems occur. Only one messed-up float can ruin your whole project.
- If you have to catch floats, avoid catching them in the same place on consecutive rows. This prevents banding on the right side. As an alternative you can learn how to knit ladderback jacquard.
- Fair Isle knitting and plain stockinette stitch do NOT have the same gauge. So when you transition from colorwork to plain knitting or vice versa, do remember to switch needle size (typically you go up for the colorwork). Otherwise, your fabric will not have the same kind of ease throughout.
- Try to stay away from mixing two different yarn qualities. While possible, yarn substitution can be very tricky. Knitting with yarn from two different brands may affect the overall neatness of your finished project.
- If you are knitting a project with more than just two colors (like 10 rows with color A and B, then 10 rows with color A and C), always make sure to catch the unworked colors at the beginning of every odd round by twisting the yarns to avoid overly long vertical floats.
- Even though it may seem tempting, try to stay away from 3-colored Fair Isle. It will create a whole different kind of fabric and it takes a lot of experience to incorporate that into a design.