How to Knit with Color Patterns: Step by Step to a Fair Isle Sweater

Trefoil Design Sweater

Trefoil design on Norwegian sweater
Trefoil design on Norwegian sweater | Source

Yes, You Can Knit an Amazingly Colorful Sweater

Many knitters are content to knit in one color or to knit simple striped patterns. Such knitting is relaxing and produces beautiful, useful items that last for years. Other knitters are always looking for the next challenge to tacklw with needles and yarn. For them, Fair Isle knitting is something to try.

Perhaps you have seen a beautiful Fair Isle sweater in a knitting magazine or department store, but have never entertained the thought of making one yourself. I am here to encourage you to give multicolor knitting a try. In most cases, you are still just using simple knit and purl stitches, so you need only learn to switch colors and carry the colors properly at the back of the work.

Rather than plunging into the most challenging pattern you can find, I propose a series of baby steps that improve your knitting skills and move you gradually toward your masterpiece Fair Isle sweater. These steps worked for me in my own knitting education; I hope you enjoy this learning process as much as I did!

First, accumulate some knitting books that will inspire you to learn new techniques and show good examples of artful color combinations. Two of the most amazingly colorful sweater books I've seen are: Glorious Knits by Kaffe Fasset and The Sasha Kagan Sweater Book. Check your public library for books by Alice Starmore and Meg Swanson as well. Once you see what is possible using only yarn and pointy sticks, you will be eager to increase your knitting skills and create a colorful hat, socks, or sweater.

Sasha Kagan Designs

Knitted Christmas Stockings

Adaptation of a design from Love of Knitting magazine, winter 2011
Adaptation of a design from Love of Knitting magazine, winter 2011 | Source
Close-up of Tree Pattern Knit Norwegian Style
Close-up of Tree Pattern Knit Norwegian Style | Source

Yes, You Can Hold Two Yarns at One Time

The key to efficiently using two colors or more in one row is to become ambidextrous. When you learned to knit, you probably learned either Continental style, in which a right-handed knitter holds the yarn in the left hand, or English style, in which the right-handed knitter throws the yarn with the right hand. This brings us to:

Step One: Learn to knit in the style you do not currenly use.

Once you can knit in both styles, try holding one color of yarn in each hand. Knit two stitches in one color, then two stitches in the other. Carry the yarn not in use very loosely across the back of the work. Make a swatch in this fashion and see how you quickly become comfortable switching between the two methods of knitting.

The books of the late Elizabeth Zimmerman are the best resources for learning all sorts of knitting techniques. Her instructions are clear, her writing witty, and her projects engineering marvels in their clever, yet simple construction. Follow her directions as you make practice swatches and develop skill.

Step Two: Your first two-color project

Find a pattern for a hat knitted in the round using only two colors. Such a project knits up quickly and is sure to fit somebody even if your gauge is off! Make several small projects as you refine your skills at carrying the yarn behind the work. Beginners commonly carry the yarn too tightly, creating a tight garment without enough stretch. With practice, you will relax and your knitting will have the requisite stretch.

A Christmas stocking is a great first project, since it will be a success even if it turns out a little too big or small. The stockings pictured were made using a Doreen Marquart design (Love of Knitting, winter 2011, page 11). I rendered the pattern in only two colors instead of three, then reversed the colors and made another stocking with the leftover yarn.

Step Three: The basic, two-color Norwegian sweater

You may approach your first sweater with trepidation. Take heart! My first two-color sweater was made from a trefoil pattern I found in a Cadette Girl Scout Handbook from 1963. Yes, this sweater pattern was deemed an appropriate project for girls in junior high school. I knew I was capable of anything a young teen Girl Scout could do, and so are you. Make a swatch, check your gauge, and swatch with different needles until you are getting the same gauge as the pattern requires. Once your gauge is correct, the rest is easy.

How do you knit?

How do you prefer to hold your yarn?

  • Continental (aka German)
  • English
  • other
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Yes, You Can Boldly Knit With as Many Colors as You Please

Once two-color knitting has become almost as relaxing and comfortable as knitting a garter stitch scarf, you may proceed to your first project in three or more colors. Again start with a hat; Elizabeth Zimmerman referred to these practice hats as "swatch caps." Move on to the sweater, feeling free to substitute your own colors for those suggested in the pattern. Use graph paper and colored pencils to copy the pattern chart and determine your unique color scheme.

After making several sweaters, you may even use graph paper to design your own color patterns. Just think, you were once afraid to try multicolored knitting! Aren't you glad that's in the past?

Why Knit in the Round?

Fair Isle knitting is best done in the round because the knitter is then always looking at the right side of the work. It can be done flat, but then you must purl every other row while holding the yarns in front rather than at the back. Trust me, purling in pattern is not as easy as knitting in pattern. Keep in mind also that most of us don't have the exact same tension in knit as we do in purl. For solid-colored knitting this rarely makes a difference, but for color patterns the purl stitches might be just a bit larger or smaller than the knit stitches and the floats of yarn at the back (a float is where you carried the yarn you were not using while you knit with another color) might be tighter or looser on purl rows.

Knitting in the round is faster and easier, and cutting those steeks for the armholes of a sweater is only terrifying the first time you do it.

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Comments 12 comments

Christa Dovel profile image

Christa Dovel 5 years ago from The Rocky Mountains, North America

While I usually knit continental style, I find it so much easier to maintain the proper tension with two (or more) colors knitting English style.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 5 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

Christa, do you hold both colors at the same time and throw whichever you need for the stitch? Or do you drop one color and pick up the other as colors change?

I used to knit continental and purl English before I got comfortable purling continental style. I love knitting because my skills are always evolving.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

I'm almost done with a two-color Christmas stocking--winter white background with green pine trees. Then I will knit another with the colors in reverse to use up the rest of the yarn.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

New, improved photographs of two-color sweater


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

I love the colors and the pattern. For years I've had a pattern for Fair Isle mitts, but have been afraid to make them because I'm a basically competent knitter, at best. I find Fair Isle patterns patterns intimidating.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

The best way to overcome fear is to go for it! Maybe just do one repeat of the fair isle pattern around the mittens as a stripe to try out the technique?


SilkThimble profile image

SilkThimble 4 years ago from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I've experimented with a couple ways of managing the yarn with two-color knitting and definitely find the two-handed method easiest to control. It's a little slow getting the hang of English style, but I'm making progress :-)

I'm making a pair of Lativan style mittens for my first colorwork project. It's a nice challenge.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

SilkThimble, I'd love to see a picture of your mittens when they're done! Latvian mittens are a great project to try before a sweater.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

Upated with more examples and pictures.


DLCookie 4 years ago

I'm an experienced knitter, and was looking around the web for a knit pattern Guide sweater to make for my daughter for Christmas. I love the look of the Fair Isle sweater, but can't find a pattern online. I understand from Googling, that it's something with the US Girl Scout Programme. I'm a Guider in Canada. Is it possible to get a copy of this pattern? It's for private use, not marketing.


kschimmel profile image

kschimmel 4 years ago from North Carolina, USA Author

DL, try contacting the Girl Scouts of the USA national headquarters. Let them know you'd like a copy of the trefoil sweater pattern from the 1963 Caddette Handbook. I would think they have a library of old handbooks. Otherwise, if you get written permission from them you could private message me and I could send you a photocopy in exchange for the permission letter.


jennabee25 profile image

jennabee25 2 years ago from PA

Fair Isle is by far one of my favorite ways to use color in knitting.

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