Friday, April 27, 2007

How to knit with 2 or more colors-part 2: one color in each hand

I grew up in New York City--Manhattan, uptown, near Columbia University. Sometimes into our urban space, aliens would arrive. Their main distinction to me and the other little kids on my block was twofold: 1) they drove big cars; 2) they provided excellent street theater when parallel parking.

These aliens (or "college parents") were harmless. They smiled at people, held doors, we sort of liked them. They'd say "New York is a nice place to visit, but we wouldn't want to live here."

Our native drivers did it different--they could and did cram their cars into very small spaces with one hand on the wheel, a casual backwards glance, while maybe eating a sandwich, or having a shouting match with the guy they'd just jumped to claim the space. The aliens lost in comparison. Our attitude was "New York is OK to live in, but we wouldn't want to have to be visitors--"

Visiting the land of two-color knitting is like that. Dabbling at two color knitting is like trying to parallel park if you don't have a system--lurch forward, scootch backwards, drop one color to knit a few stitches with the next color, then drop again. Do you cut the wheel this way or that? Should the yarns should be twisted together? Do you line up with the bumper or the steering wheel? Should the new yarn be taken over or under the old yarn? Without a system, the whole thing can turn into a nightmare.

So--what's the difference between a driver carefully maneuvering into a space with assistance of a spouse at curbside and the driver blithely cruising backwards with one hand on the wheel and one eye on the mirror? It is nothing but practice, practice, and more practice until it turns into a system. It's no secret how to parallel park--it's laid out right there on page 43 of the Driver's License Handbook. But, until you do it a bunch of times, until you reduce it to a step-by-step procedure, you won't get it. Two-color knitting (heck--all knitting), like parallel parking, well, you have to practice if you want to slide into the spot on first try.

Ahem--just a minute while I climb down off this soapbox here.

OK, back to...


A classic method of two-color knitting is the "two-fisted" approach popularized by Elizabeth Zimmerman. The idea is to knit one color off the left hand (continental knitting) and the other color off the right hand (English knitting). Keeping the yarns on separate hands means the yarns are kept apart, and so have less tendency to tangle.
click picture
This is incredibly awkward at first-- the needles won't cooperate, and you'll tear your hair. But, if you persevere, you will succeed.
click picture
Some tricks to make it easier:

*BEFORE YOU START your two color project--train your other hand in the unfamiliar technique. There are instructions for English and continental knitting here and here. Practice on something small, flat and gaugeless--a potholder?--where tension is immaterial.  As per the next point, there is no need to purl. Make this object in garter stitch--knit every row.

*WORK the two-color project WITH CIRCULAR NEEDLES around and around on the face of a large-ish TUBE--IMHO, a hat (about 20") would a good size for a first project.
  • If you try color knitting back-and-forth, you're going to have to purl in two colors on every other row. This is not impossible, but it is more difficult that knitting in 2 colors--so leave 2-color purling until you've mastered the tension thing.
  • If you try 2-color knitting on a small tube with dpn's, you'll not only have to watch the tension issue between your own two hands, you'll also have the additional issue of carrying floats across a right angle bend where the dpn's meet. A float will want to cut the shortest line--straight across this corner, making it much shorter than a float stretched out flat. A too-short float = puckers. Bottom line: leave the two-color socks until you have mastered float tension on a flattish piece of knitting.
*DON'T CHANGE HANDS--keep the same colors in the same hands. Your hands are going to tension the yarn differently, so being consistent about which hand holds which color will make the finished product nicer. Consistency also makes it possible to analyze your work--if one color is always looser, you'll know which hand ought to be knitting tighter. If you switch colors randomly, you'll really have no idea how to improve.

*USE WHICHEVER METHOD YOU'RE BETTER AT (continental or English) for whichever color there is the most of--this will give you the best overall tension. Use the unfamiliar hand to work the contrasting yarn. It is for this reason that the first post in this series recommended choosing a beginning pattern with one clearly dominant main color, and only a relatively small amount of the contrasting color.

To explain further: if most of the pattern is made of the main color, and that color is laid down the way you usually knit, you'll have a better chance of getting a good two-color result right away. If you've chosen your color pattern to keep the number of contrasting color stitches to a minimum, then even if your unfamiliar hand lays down the contrasting color with poor tension control, there won't be that much contrasting color to plague you. As stated previously, if you have to err, err on the side of TOO LOOSE. Then, if you have to, you can always go back and tighten those relatively few contrast color stitches, float by float and still obtain a wearable garment.

*DON'T WORRY ABOUT TWISTING THE YARNS TOGETHER--they will twist themselves all that is necessary if you are consistent about which yarn you hold in which hand. Further, it is only when you are trying to float a yarn across more than 5-6 stitches that you have to worry about pinning down that float somewhere along its too-long run. If you use a short float, there's no reason to ever actually twist anything at all... (but if anyone out there is just burning to make bunnies, or chickies, or some other pattern with a wildly long float, go to this post.)
* * *
This is part 2 of a five-part series on color knitting.

--Good knitting, TK You have been reading TECHknitting on: Two-color knitting, with one color in each hand. (Stranded knitting).


Clair St. Michel said...

The "nightmare" picture is GREAT!!! And very funny...

Micki said...

Awesome. I'm inspired to practice--both my knitting and my parallel parking.

Charles said...

I'm going to start on another vest, and I want to add a second color in a pattern. Great ideas and explanations.

kmkat said...

Oh, great. Now you tell me about the difficulties of doing fair isle on a small tube, just as I'm about to start the band of f.i. on the lower sleeve of my current Dulaan sweater. Hmmph. Maybe I'll just try it, and if it doesn't work I'll omit that band of colorwork. The wildly-patterned yoke I have in mind -- wildly patterned, as in, I'm afraid I might run out of the MC so I need to use lots and lots of CCs in the yoke to stretch that MC as far as possible.

willi said...

Once again, thank you for your efforts in sharing your knowledge. I have tried this before and withered in the face of frustration and questions. I am, therefore, thrilled to see this series.

Anonymous said...

YOU ROCK!!! your tutorials are so helpful and detailed. THANK YOU!!!

Anonymous said...

Bravo et MERCI !!!
Especially for the pics and designs (i'm french and my english is not perfect ;-) )

Almeda said...

When dealing with chickies, bunnies, and other such 'big patches of one color' patterns, float-related two-color knitting isn't really appropriate. At that point I get out my bobbins and do some intarsia, letting the same piece of colored yarn go back and forth to be knitted across only its section.

--TECHknitter said...

Hi Almeda--Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the non-appropriateness of relatively large color repeat patterns in 2 color knitting. However, there are LOTS of stranded knitting patterns out there for bunnies, chickies etc, featuring floats of 10, 12 or more stitches. It is these patterns which I am attempting to warn beginning color knitters away from...

Bobbin knitting is a whole 'nother thing--stay tuned for more about that (but not for a while...)

Thanks again, TECHknitter

Anonymous said...

hello im a beginner but i dont understand how to start the two color stick casting on can some one explain plz thank you

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about using the better hand for the colour there is more of. Your pattern colour needs to be dominant: that is, present the most wool. The colour coming from under is going to present a slightly different amount of wool: if memory serves, this is the dominant colour, presenting more wool on each stitch than the colour coming from 'over', which recedes slightly. Generally, the pattern colour should go in the left hand, if you are knitting with one colour in each. Here's the best example I could find:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful site!!! I have had so much trouble trying to learn to knit with two (or more) colours. Other knitting styles hardly ever cause me any trouble, but this... Now I have the courage to try again and practise like you suggest!!!

Anonymous said...

Just thought I would mention "yarn dominance" as another reason why its so important to hold the same color consistently in the same hand throughout your project. It will help keep your two color stranded knitting nice and flat.

--TECHknitter said...

Hello All--It has been my own experience that yarn dominance comes from pulling one yarn tighter than the other. The looser yarn will "dominate" because it is fluffier, and the tighter yarn will recede. In my experience, this is going to happen regardless of whether the yarn is coming from "over" or "under" or "left" or "right." In other words, I have found that a looser yarn knit from any direction is going to dominate over a tighter yarn.

It has also been my experience that trying to create cloth with the inexperienced hand is going to lead to uneven tension over the bulk of the fabric, which is why I advocate starting color knitting by using a pattern of much backround color (knit evenly with the experienced hand) and a little contrast color (knit, preferably loosely) with the inexperienced hand).

Now, it may be that for knitters who have lovely, even tension of both hands, the direction of yarn supply will be a determining factor in yarn dominenace, However, this I cannot judge, as I myself have evidently not yet reached those rarified heights. (Something to aim for, I guess!)

For knitters who have reached this plateau of knitting perfection, let me sincerely thank Sarah for the links about handed dominance--THANK YOU for finding those links and putting them ino the comments. For those who have not yet scaled this height f perfection, let me echo anonymous of the 1:40 AM comment and caution that switching hands will create a big mess.


Kaz said...

I can parallel park! This is so clear. I realise that I will need a lot of practice but at least I can practice doing the right thing rather than the wrong technique!
I am really grateful