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Changing Colors and Fair Isle Knitting

by Laura Bain

Some knitters seem to be intimidated about changing colors in the middle of a row or round, but the development of this simple skill will allow you to really experiment with different designs for your work, everything from knitting a blanket with an integrated border to a really fantastic Fair Isle sweater.

More Fair Isle patterns are at the end of the page, under the instructions.

Fair Isle Poncho & Arm Warmers
Knit in With Love Poncho
Fair Isle Knit Cowl
Knit in Super Saver Fair Isle Knit Cowl Free Knitting Pattern LW4808
Fair Isle Scarf
Knit in Super Saver Fair Isle Scarf Free Knitting Pattern LW4084

Knitting with 2 colors on the same row or round dates to at least the 1500's. The Museum of London collection boasts a lovely child's mitten that dates to the Tudor era. This simple mitten has but 3 rounds of decoration around the cuff, one of which alternates a lighter and darker brown every stitch. The name for the Fair Isle technique of stranded knitting comes from a tiny island in the North of Scotland where the technique was popularized (and some would say perfected).

Changing Color

To change color in the middle of a row or at any point when knitting in the round you will simply drop the old color and pick up the new. This may sound like an over simplification, but I assure you it really is that simple. You can use this technique to create stripes when working in the round, or to create an integrated border on a blanket or sweater. There is one caveat to that simplicity, if you are changing color at the same vertical point repeatedly you will need to make sure you grab the new yarn by going under the old yarn (so as not to create a hole).

Begin by casting on the number of stitches caller for in with any weight yarn and a comfortable size needle for that yarn. In my example I’ve chosen Red Heart Soft in Turquoise and Light Grey and size 8 needles.

When you come to the point in your knitting that you need to change colors simply drop the first color and pick up the second.


When you are ready to change back to your main color, grab it from below and continue knitting:


Fair Isle Knitting

Fair Isle knitting is as simple as using 2 colors repeatedly within the same row or round. Both of the colors will be used across the round or row and therefore you will carry both colors across your work. Due to the nature of Fair Isle knitting, it is easier to work in the round, which allows one to knit all rounds to achieve stockinette stitch (rather than needing to knit one row and purl the next, as when working stockinette stitch flat).

NOTE: It is good practice, when changing colors, to grab your "new" color from below. This will ensure that there are no holes in your work.

Work as directed above, picking up your color from below, but carrying both strands of yarn across/around work:


Carrying yarn across the back of your work will result in "floats". Try not to pull your stitches too tight or you will bunch up the knitting. This is how the floats will appear on the inside(back/wrong side) of your work:


As you build the project, round by round, the design will appear:


NOTE: When the colors change frequently, the floats will naturally be short but long floats can get caught on things, which can disrupt the fabric of your finished object.

If your float is longer that 3-5 stitches, it is good practice to loop your floating yarn around your working yarn by dropping the  working yarn and picking up the floating color from underneath. Now you will drop the floating color, and pick up the working yarn and continue knitting the pattern. Twisting the yarns around each other shortens the float.

Reading a Chart

Most Fair Isle knitting patterns are accompanied by a chart (see below for examples of simple two-color charts). The chart is a visual representation of a written pattern. Some patterns do not include the written out instructions for Fair Isle designs.


On the chart, each square is one knit stitch. Each knit stitch will be color coded to show which color you should work with. You may find it helpful to write in the numbers for any rows that are not labeled (and the columns in the repeat, for that matter).

As mentioned above, Fair Isle is usually worked in the round, so you would read the chart from right to left and bottom to top, just like you knit.

NOTE: If you have found a Fair Isle pattern that is worked, flat you will read the chart as if it shows the right side of the work facing you, therefore on the first row you would read as you knit, from right to left. When working flat, the second row would be worked in purl from left to right.

Hint: You may find it helpful to use a sticky note to cover up the rows you’ve already worked.


Now that you know the basics for changing colors, here are a few more patterns which use color changes to create stripes and use the Fair Isle knitting technique:

LW4401 Holiday Stars and Balls Ornaments

Northern Lights Easy Fair Isle Pullover

Changing Colors and Fair Isle Knitting