Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How to knit with two or more colors-part 1: background information

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So far on this blog, we started with the idea there are only two stitches in all of knittingdom --knitting and purling. Next, we alternated these two stitches to create different textured fabrics: stockinette fabric, reverse stockinette fabric and garter stitch.

Now, we're going in a different direction. Using only plain, smooth stockinette, we're going after two (or more) color knitting.

Color knitting makes possible the children holding hands, the contrasting bands on hats, the beautiful Scandinavian designs, the spirals, the squares, the diamonds. All of these designs could be made in texture patterns yes, but color adds an undeniable dimension.

Series layout
This post, the first in a series about color knitting, lays out background. The second post covers the classic "one color in each hand" method popularized by Elizabeth ZimmermanPart three shows the trick of two color knitting with two-colors-in-one-hand, then three-color knitting (two colors in one hand, one in the other). Parts four and five show two different tricks for working only one color at a time, yet still getting multi-color effects. A 2016 addition to this series shows how to strand super-long floats via the STUART method.

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First project--For beginning color knitters, a swell first project would involve no purling because two-color knitting is far easier than two-color purling. Also good to avoid would be a lot of shaping. Good garments to start on might be a circular-knit muffler scarf or a Norwegian- style steeked sweater. Another good choice would be a raglan-sleeve sweater made with the yoke all-in-one-piece, either top-down, or bottom-up. Raglans with all-in-one-piece yokes are shown in the illustrations of color placement, below. If you use these garment shapes, you'll be learning to color-knit, around and around on a tube, which is the easiest way.

Needles--Best would be a pair of circular needles with a proportionate cable--not too long (sticks out of the fabric in a loop), not too short (stitches all scrunched up). Going around and around on the face of a tube means you can create stockinette fabric without ever purling, and creating such a fabric on circular needles is going to be easiest for intro color knitting. (If it puzzles you as to why all-knit can make stockinette fabric on circular needles, follow this link.)

Pattern placement--"all-over" OR on the chest and shoulders--Color knitting is heavier than most kinds of one-color knitting. The yarn not on the face of the fabric is generally carried behind, resulting in a thicker, doubled fabric. A garment with all-over color-knit patterns is going to feel balanced to wear--there will be the same weight of fabric throughout the sweater. A sweater pattern which has the color pattern only on the chest and shoulders will be OK to wear too--the sweater won't be balanced, but the heavier fabric will be centered on the body parts best able to benefit--the chest and shoulders will be kept warmer by the doubled fabric. In addition, the idealized image of body type for men and women emphasizes a heavier bust or chest, and a thinner waist and hips, so doubled fabric over the chest or bust and the shoulders help with appearances, also.
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Harder to justify are designs which feature color knitting over the hips and wrists, and nowhere else. These sweaters tend to feel unbalanced. The wrist design, a "bracelet" of doubled fabric, can get annoying as the day goes on. The lower design concentrates bulk where many people would prefer to avoid it--few body types are flattered by a thick roll of doubled fabric around the hips.

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A short note about hats--hats with color bands and single color tops have a satisfying thickness around the ears, which need to stay warm, but are thinner in the single color fabric over the crown. If these are knit in thin yarn, the crown will be thin enough to let excess body heat rise and escape. Bottom line: a color-band hat with a single color crown knit in thin yarn works especially well for activewear like ski hats.

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Floats--at least when learning, choose a color pattern which features short "floats." Carrying a yarn behind the fabric face for more than about 5 stitches is courting tension trouble. Color-knitting traditions (Scandinavian, Latvian, Turkish, Shetland Islands) rarely feature any float longer than 5-6 stitches, most floats are shorter, while some traditions call for constructing multi-colored knitting with no floats at all (Scottish argyle).

Color knitting originated with goatherds knitting socks on rocky hillsides, fishwives waiting for the boats to come in, young girls watching the geese, sailors at sea, mothers keeping children from the open fire. If all these industrious, clever knitters from different traditions have established that floats should be kept short, there's probably a good reason. Consider avoiding that pattern with the bunnies and L-O-N-G floats (but if you just have to have long floats, I have a trick for those, too, called STUART).

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A very good sort of geometric for a first pattern would have:

* one dominant color, called the main color (mc), and one contrast color (cc). Starting off color knitting with more than two colors is biting off more than you can maybe chew.

*the proportion of mc to cc is best when the main color unquestionably predominates.  Despite the predominance of the main color, however, the pattern should avoid isolated single cc stitches: isolated single cc stitches on the fabric surface don't have a lot of "oomph"--they lack the grabbing power necessary to stabilize all that yarn floating behind.

*a short float--for the reasons above

*A row or a couple of rows of plain knitting either in or between in each pattern repeat. This allows the fabric an area where the tension is less likely to be off-kilter--a "rest break." It also makes the fabric less dense (easier to knit) than having every single row in two-color pattern--you will see that the floats sag into the plain rows, so these aren't really noticeably thinner than the rest of the garment.

Type of yarn--For your first project, choose wool--old fashioned sheep's wool, preferably as rustic as you can stand to work with. Sheep's wool magnified is disgustingly organic--all scales and hooks and wooly hairs. But in color knitting, these organic properties are to your advantage--the projections entangle the floats and help control the fabric. Non-sheep wools, like alpaca and cashmere have some scales, but not nearly as many (which is why they're so soft...) and "slippery" yarns (acrylics, cottons, silks, bamboo, superwash wools, linen) lack the scales, hooks and hairs to hold the different colored yarns together--the result for a beginning project will be disappointment.

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Float tension: Getting the tension correct in color work is one of the toughest tricks in all of knitting, no joke. You are going to start off making messes, so resolve to err in the direction of too loose, rather than too tight.

A new knitter at my LYS was making a red-and-white baby cap destined to never to fit any human born--it would have been too tight for a baby monkey. The floats puckered the fabric so the pattern could hardly be seen. A too-loose cap could always have been tightened up (there will be more about this when we get to long floats) but that too-tight tragedy on the needles was destined to break everyone's heart--all that misspent hopeful energy, so sad.

The trick is, the floats should be long enough so that the fabric does not pucker when stretched. Therefore, spread your stitches out along the needle BEFORE you draw the float yarn over them to knit the next colored stitch. In other words, don't keep your stitches all scrunched up.  If you do, your float will be shorter than the width of the fabric. Then, once the scrunched-up stitches spread out naturally or stretch when wearing, any floats originally created over scrunched-up stitches will be too short to stretch along, and the fabric will pucker.

If you find that stretching the stitches along the needle still isn't creating a long-enough float, the next trick is to put a finger or two in the way, and draw the float yarn over the stretch AND the finger(s). However, floats so loose that they never come under tension even when the garment is worn are floats which have a hard time glomming on to the back of the fabric, even if you are knitting in the hairiest sheeps-wool going. Too-loose floats will catch in buttons and fingers and toes.

Somewhere around about the tail end of the second project, you'll find the float tension you are aiming for.

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The entire series on color knitting:
Part 1: How to knit with two or more colors: background information
2016 addition: how to strand super-long floats via the STUART method

Good knitting, --TK
You have been reading TECHknitting on: the basics of color knitting--how to knit with two or more colors.