First Trip to Fair Isle (or Trying, Unsuccessfully, To Swim the English Channel)

Yesterday was a loooong day. I was, effectively, "on call" in three classes and in class for about nine consecutive hours. Each turn on call got progressively better: at 11 AM I was talking some mad gibberish in First Amendment, but by 8 PM in Criminal Procedure I was on fire (or as my friend Emily would say, in a faux Rhode Island accent, on fy-ah). By the time I got home at 10:30, I treated myself to some Tilapia Tacos from Miracle Grill, a glass of wine, and a first crack at the Norwegian Stockings from Folk Socks.

Norwegian Stockings 1

The cuff - no problemo! It's neato the way the pattern calls for a knit row as the first row in a color switch - it really creates a coherent stripe in the fabric instead of submerging the purl stitches of the stripe inside the ribs.

But, Dear Readers, you have no knitting Einstein or Wittgenstein or Gertrude Stein or Stein of any kind before you. Post cuff, it struck me that maybe I ought to actually learn fair isle before trying it on a finished product, and on DPNs to boot. So I watched the fair isle vid over at and skimmed the Fair Isle 101 tutorial at She Ewe Knits. Conceptually, it's clear. The execution needs work.

You see, I am a die-hard Continental knitter, and a fast one. Not only that, but I am, in life, a committed rightie. Ambidexterity has never been a possibility in these parts. Remember when you and all your little kid pals would try to write your names in your disfavored hand, just for shits and giggles, and there would be some poor child who couldn't really even hold the pencil? Yup, right here. I'm so right-handed it hurts. (That probably says something about my brain, too, but I'd rather not think of it lest I come to understand how rigid and un-artistic my personality) The great thing about Continental knitting is that your left hand just sits there, supporting the yarn, while your right hand and needle do all the work.

English knitting, on the other hand, appears to require something of one's left hand - the holding of the needles, namely. Problem #1.

Problem #2: In addition, I cannot seem to get my right hand to maintain tension effectively in English knitting. I suspect it's something in how I'm holding my needles that makes my pinky unable to regulate the yarn.

This is all complicated by the fact that I've taught myself everything I know about knitting, and have developed two years of bad habits upon which my knitting depends. This can complicate the process of trying to learn something new and different.

But I really want to learn fair isle right, and if at all possible, learn two-handed fair isle. Though English knitting is, ahem, clearly a primitive way of proceeding with yarn and needles (English knitting - boo!), I want to learn how to do it. This will require practice. If anyone has any advice for regulating tension in the English style, I'd love to hear it.

In any case, here's the swatch:

Fair Isle Swatch

The checked part doesn't look too bad, but it was the product of a very slooooow process. The part with the long skips (if you can even see it) shows I knitted way too tightly with the green, which will be corrected henceforth.

As for fair isle itself, it seems like a good reason to take my first knitting class. Trouble is, after some preliminary searching, none of my regular yarn shops seem to offer any fair isle classes. Do you know of any classes in the area?

Posted by jess at November 10, 2005 10:42 AM

My first fair isle project was the cross-country chullo, from knitty. The hat looks hillarious - the first section is knit sooo tight, and the second is sooooo loose. It was knit on DPNs, too - some people say the trick to better tension on DPNs is to knit inside-out (so that the floats are a little looser when you turn it right-side out).

What yarn are you using for the stockings? They're next on my list, once the book gets here.

Posted by: Jenna at November 10, 2005 11:11 AM

Sorry; don't know of any in the area, but I will say a class is a really good idea. Try different ways of tensioning the yarn, too - the pinky thing never worked for me with two hands.

Also - try it one-handed, tensioning both colors over your left pinkie and holding the background over your index finger/accent over middle. Once you get over the initial awkwardness, it's dead fast.


Posted by: eunny at November 10, 2005 11:12 AM

Well, I've never tried fair isle, really, but I do knit English style. (Ironically, I desperately want to learn how to manage the tension when I try to knit Continental--if I were good at it, my simpler projects would go sooo much faster. But alas, I seem to produce something more akin to felt than soft knitted fabric when I knit Continental.) Anyway, I regulate yarn tension with the yarn in my right hand this way: I wrap the yarn one full turn around my pinky, then run it up sort of loosely through my hand, pinching it between my thumb and middle finger for the actual "throw." However, there are as many ways of holding yarn as there are knitters, and I don't know that my way would be especially compatible with two-handed fair isle. There it is, though, for what it's worth. I'll let you know if I find out about any classes.

(p.s. the first time I tried to submit this comment, I had used a different word other than soft, part of which also spell a word that your auto-censor function objects to--very funny!)

Posted by: Sneaksleep at November 10, 2005 11:56 AM

I knit English style. I tension the yarn by wrapping it once around my index finger, through my palm and up between my ring finger and pinky (no wrap around the pinky). I tried wrapping around my pinky at first, but I knit far too tightly that way. Also, when I throw I don't "hold" the working yarn, like Sneaksleep does. I just move my index finger in a counterclockwise circle around the right needle to get the yarn where it needs to be. I hope that makes sense.

So many knitters, so many styles of knitting! :)

Posted by: julia at November 10, 2005 12:21 PM

Hello, I'm also a diehard continental knitter... the whole two-handed fair isle thing feels like a party trick to me.

They make these little whatsits just for knitting fair isle continentally, they sit on your left index finger, like a standing up comb with 4 slots, and you feed your yarn through a couple of the slots and snap this little lid over top, and it holds your two colors separate so you can knit normally, just picking which color you want for each stitch.

Posted by: Natalia at November 10, 2005 12:40 PM

As Natalie suggested there is a gadget for knitting fair island with one hand. Keyboard Biologist has just done a hat with one. Maybe you can skip over and see if she has some advice.

Posted by: Karin at November 10, 2005 1:05 PM

Hi, I am knitting continental as well and I can't hold the yarn on my right hand, there is no way, I really tried. I found a way to get my tension right by knitting with one yarn over my left index finger and one over my left middle finger. Those little 'things' you put on your finger Nathalie wrote about didn't work for me at all. Just keep trying, there's a way for you, most certainly one that isn't described in any book or on any website.

Posted by: Julia at November 10, 2005 1:05 PM

i've never knit fair isle so i didn't even know that the trick is to hold one strand in each hand. i just watched the video at knittinghelp and you can hold them both in your left. have you given that a shot yet? i think that's the method i would try, though, i have seen the doohickey that natalia is talking about at

Posted by: gleek at November 10, 2005 1:09 PM

If you haven't tried it, try holding both colors in your left hand. This is how I do it (I have never been able to knit English no matter what I do). I loop the contrast color over my middle finger and the background/base color over my ring finger. My tension stays mostly even and I keep the colors positioned properly so that they don't get twisted. It's also just as fast as my regular continental knitting.

Love the colors! they look fantastic!

Posted by: jess at November 10, 2005 1:16 PM

Would it be rude to say that I am glad that you are having these problems ;-) because I am also in the same boat. There are some very good tips here in the comments that I can now try out myself!
I took a class, and it was sort of helpful, but the teacher couldn't understand my problem, because she already knitted "English" style.
Good luck!
I am using Folk Socks to knit the Kilt socks at the moment too.

Posted by: Kira at November 10, 2005 1:53 PM

eeek. Years and years ago, I knitted about three fair-isle pullovers, and last winter some fair-isle mittens, and I'm really glad nobody told me it was harder to do holding the yarn in your left hand, because I'm a die-hard combination knitter!

Mind you, this was with very fat, fuzzy yarn. Perhaps using sock yarn would show up my flaws. Must find out. :-0

Anyway - you've inspired me, and I look forward to seeing the sock grow!

Posted by: Sophie at November 10, 2005 2:18 PM

I knit English Style as well and I think that comes from learning how to crochet before knitting, so holding yarn in my left hand was just more comfy. Have you thought about crocheting? Nothing fancy, just to get the feel of the yarn in your left hand.

Posted by: Caren at November 10, 2005 2:57 PM

I think all you need is a little more practice just knitting English for a little while. I remember when I first started learning Continental I couldn't get the tention right and it bothered me. But after a while, you'll figure it out and find what way feels right to you.

Posted by: Angela at November 10, 2005 3:21 PM

I haven't done anything as fancy as these gorgeous socks, but I knit just fine with both colors in one hand. It's a little funny looking, but I get good results. I took a class to learn knitting with my left hand, but I was so much happier with how it felt and looked with right-handed knitting. After seeing a film of Eleanor Roosevelt knitting, I decided that if knitting with her right hand was good enough for her, it's good enough for me.

On the other hand, the advice I've heard is knit a felted project with your left hand.

Posted by: Lisa at November 10, 2005 4:28 PM

Well, now I'm scared. I have a mitten project to start at some point and I thought this 2-handed thing would be easy. But, I'll admit, I've never tried knitting with my right hand, so... Maybe I'm naive. And why is that law school professors all call on you in the same day/week? They must get together and decide who to torture - just for fun.

Posted by: Stephanie at November 10, 2005 5:14 PM

There's no right way. Do what is comfortable for you. So what if it's "slower" - slower than what? I carry two colors in the right hand, and I'm proud of it! (Just make sure you always keep the same color on top, though, that does matter.)

Posted by: Mary Beth at November 10, 2005 7:35 PM

Hi there. I stumbled upon your blog when I googled "Bolero pattern" and saw that you were looking for a bolero pattern that resembled the one in a photo you posted. Well I just found one that also really resembles the one in your picture and thought you might be interested:
Anyway, nice blog, and cute Halloween photos!

Posted by: Val at November 11, 2005 12:03 AM

I understand that you can't knit with the yarn in your right hand, mostly because I cannot knit with the yarn in my left. I think Caren is right about the crocheting first. Once I figured out putting the yarn on the right hand, knitting clicked for me.

I am interested to see what solution you finally end up using.

Posted by: baast at November 11, 2005 12:21 AM

I'm another continental Clover yarn guide user. I still have some problems with tension (but then that goes for about everything I knit!), but I don't have the patience to learn English style just yet.

Posted by: Manda at November 11, 2005 5:03 AM

Well I'm Norwegian and I knit Continental (which is what we Norwegians do). You don't have to learn English knitting to do Fair Isle (after all, we've been doing that continentally for hundreds of years). I just carry both colours on my left index finger, next to each other, no devices involved. It can get a little tricky but with time and patience it gets easier. Good luck!

Posted by: Anja at November 11, 2005 9:11 AM

I knit American (English style) and have never ueed my pinky. I don't see how anyone can get tension that way, but as there are all kinds of people, there are all kinds of knitting. I use my index finger, yarn wrapped twice. I do the same thing when knitting fairisle, either left or right hand carrying the yarn, index finger for tension. You can also carry both yarns in the same hand. It is really not that hard. Just practice on a swatch for a little while and you will eventually find a way that works for you.

The crochet hook ideas are good.

Posted by: Mfardel at November 11, 2005 12:28 PM

It occurred to me to learn to knit Continental for the second color, as I knit English. So we kinda sorta have the same problem. It's either practice or learning to carry the 2 colors in the same hand, I figured.

Your first efforts look good, though. Are you doing a jogless jog for the color changes?

Posted by: MJ at November 11, 2005 4:25 PM

I'm also a continental knitter. I just did my first Fair Isle and tried holding both strands with my left and one in each hand. I finally found holding one in each hand to work for me. For tension on the right hand, I wrap the yarn around my pinkie twice, put it under the ring and middle finger, and over the pointer. I'm still getting used to it, but I never actually let go of the needles to "throw" the yarn. I just sort of flick it over the needle with my pointer finger. It does take a bit of practice, so don't give up!

Posted by: Alison at November 12, 2005 8:22 AM

I have the exact same (opposite) problem. I'm profoundly left-handed and right hand retarded. My hands are actually more comfortable knitting Continental, but I can't hold the yarn when purling. Just can't do it. At all. And forget about tension during either. I'm a terribly slow knitter to begin with, but English seems to be the only way my brain cooperates. I knit on the tight side generally, but the looseness that occurs when I try to go continental is pathetic.

Posted by: Samantha at November 12, 2005 6:33 PM

I tension the yarn by wrapping it once around my index finger, through my palm and up between my ring finger and pinky (no wrap around the pinky). I tried wrapping around my pinky at first, but I knit far too tightly that way. Also, when I throw I don't "hold" the working yarn, like Sneaksleep does.

Posted by: Megan at August 18, 2009 9:55 PM
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