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Two-pass Knitting for Multi-color Stranded Colorwork [Tutorial]

Now that is a mouthful of a title! What does it even mean? Let's start breaking it down from the end to the beginning.

Stranded Colorwork vs. Fair Isle Knitting

The terms stranded colorwork and Fair Isle knitting are often used interchangeably, especially by beginners, although technically speaking they're not the same thing. Stranded colorwork knitting is a technique in which you use two or more colors of yarn on the same row. Some of the stitches are worked in one color, others with the second, and so on. This leaves strands (also known as floats) of the unused yarn(s) on the back of work — hence the name stranded knitting.

Stranded colorwork sweaters in the Fair Isle (left), Icelandic (middle), and Norwegian (right) styles.
Stranded colorwork sweaters in the Fair Isle (left), Icelandic (middle), and Norwegian (right) styles.

Fair Isle knitting is a subset of stranded colorwork knitting. Whereas stranded colorwork is a technique, Fair Isle is a unique style of colorwork with its own specific rules regarding color handling, color placement, and motifs. While all Fair Isle is stranded knitting, not all stranded knitting is Fair Isle. One of the core rules of Fair Isle knitting is that only two colors are used on each row. Fair Isle motifs can — and often are — quite colorful, but they're designed in a way that you're only required to handle two colors at a time. This makes them relatively easy to knit. Clever people, those Fair Islanders.

Multi-color Colorwork

That isn't to say that using more than two colors is impossible, though. There are ways for managing additional colors but the more colors you have, the trickier it gets. If you're a spinner, liken it to plying. Two-ply yarns are easy, three plies are still manageable, four plies... you feel like running out of fingers.

One of the ways to manage additional colors in colorwork knitting is to divide the yarns to the left and right hands. The above video demonstrates three-color colorwork with the left hand working two colors in Continental style and the right doing English style with the third. Play around with yarn placement to find a technique that works for you. Which hand holds one yarn and which one two depends on your dominant hand and favored knitting style.

Quite a new thing on the market are colorwork yarn guides. Also known as Norwegian knitting thimbles, these little knickknacks come in varying designs and shapes but the principle is the same: holding multiple strands of yarn in one hand. Some are coil-shaped ring-like contraptions like in the video above; others a plastic cap with slots for yarns. I like to use a little fork-shaped yarn guide called Lankapiika, developed by the silversmith Sanni Lehtinen. For an affordable alternative, you can even make one yourself using a spiral-bound notebook.

In addition to making it easier to manage multiple yarns, colorwork yarn guides also have the added benefit of helping you maintain color dominance.

Two-pass Knitting

Finally, we get to the beef of this tutorial. Two-pass knitting is a way to knit multi-color stranded colorwork so that you're only working with two yarns at a time. In order to do this, you need to work the same round in two passes.

Chart for the colorwork motif used in this tutorial

Here is an example of a small colorwork motif that uses three colors. (It's actually an extract of the Emerald Chain yoke motif.) Some of the rounds are worked in two colors but a few of them require you to handle three colors on the same round. I've highlighted the three-color rounds with yellow numbers on the chart; in the video below I'm working on round 6.

First pass: On the first go, use the two colors that dominate the most on that round. Generally these are the contrasting (or accent) colors while the main (or background) color is left for the second pass. (This doesn't necessarily apply to all cases, though. Decide what makes sense for the pattern you're working on.) Work the round with those two colors only. When you get to a stitch that should be worked with the third (or fourth) color, slip it. Just move it to the working needle without doing anything to it!

Second pass: Now work the same round again with the remaining color(s). On the video I'm working the second pass with the main color only. The stitches that were slipped on the first pass are now knitted; the stitches that were worked previously are now slipped.

Completed colorwork motif. Can you tell which rounds were worked using two-pass knitting?
Completed colorwork motif. Can you tell which rounds were worked using two-pass knitting?

Two-pass knitting makes it easier to handle yarns and floats since you're only working with two colors at the same time. However, it does mean working each multi-color round twice which can slow down your progress. If you're already adept with handling three or four colors in colorwork, two-pass knitting might not be beneficial to you. But if you're struggling with tight floats in multi-color stranded colorwork, give two-pass knitting a try. You can even combine it with other float-managing techniques such as using yarnovers to keep your floats loose and catching floats on the next round.

What about Multiple-pass Knitting?

What if you have more than four colors per round and two passes is not enough? While it's technically possible to divide the colors in pairs and work the same round again and again and again, I would start to question the design at this point. Are all the colors really necessary? Can you simplify and take out some colors without compromising the look? Could you perhaps duplicate stitch some of the colors afterwards? Simpler is often better.

Coming soon: talvi knits Advent Calendar 2021

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This year's advent calendar features 24 days of pattern sales, my favorite knitting tricks, tips, and hacks, a couple of new patterns, and a little Christmas present on the 25th. Tick the box Sales & giveaways when you join and the advent calendar will be automatically delivered to your email inbox.


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Do you struggle with tight floats in 3-color colorwork? Two-pass knitting is an easy way to knit multi-color stranded colorwork so that you're only working with two yarns at a time. In order to do this, you need to work the same round in two passes, alternating which stitches are knit and which ones are slipped. In this tutorial I demonstrate how to use this clever trick that makes knitting three-color colorwork a breeze! #knitting #knit #knittingtutorial #knittingtips #stranded #colorwork

2 kommenttia

This is very interesting! It reminded me of an alternate double knitting technique where instead purling the stitches that would be knits on the reverse, you slip them and then knit them in the second pass. More time consuming but saves you wrangling two yarns.

I’ve only done two color stranded knitting so far and am very efficient with picking and throwing with each hand (I’m a thrower). I do have a Bohus hat kit on which I could try this. Thank you.


Cécile Fagot
Cécile Fagot
26. marrask. 2021

Thanks for tat intreting really helpfull tutorial. I really like your articles, which really help me to improve my knitting.

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Susanna Winter is a knitwear designer, creating timeless and elegant pieces with clean lines. She has been knitting for over 20 years, knit blogging since 2007, and designing knitting patterns professionally since 2016.

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