Collection Feature

Stranded: Colorwork vs. Fair Isle Knitting

One of the techniques I love researching is colorwork knitting, and in doing so have discovered a wealth of different styles and methods. Many of you will notice I described the June Mittens as “colorwork”, not Fair Isle, and will have wondered why. Knitters commonly use “Fair Isle” knitting to describe any knitting with two or more colors per row/round, but this is not actually the correct terminology. So just what is Fair Isle knitting? And how do the different colorwork techniques differ?

L / Isadora: Lopapeysa inspired colorwork. R / November Mittens: Norwegian colorwork. 

Colorwork knitting

Colorwork knitting is the umbrella term that covers all types of knitting with multiple colors in a single row or round to create a pattern. It varies greatly, and you may see large motifs, longer floats or repeats, small geometric patterning, elaborate shape with long repeats, or multiple colors per round.

Five related types of colowork knitting are:
• Fair Isle (Shetland Island)
• Bohus (Bohuslän, Sweden)
• Setesdal (Norway)
• Selbu (Norway)
Lopapeysa (Iceland)

Stranded knitting is a type of knitting where multiple (usually two) colors are used in a single row or round to create a pattern. Of those outlined above, you will see all are considered colorwork knitting, but only one is actual “Fair Isle”. You will also notice on many occasions stranded knitting is referred to as “stranded colorwork”, and the terms may be used interchangeably. Two knitting techniques that may be considered colorwork but not stranded knitting are Intarsia and Roositud, both of which I won’t get into too heavily here, but which we have discussed intermittently throughout the blog and in our designs.

Many people use the term Fair Isle when they mean stranded knitting, and this is inaccurate. Fair Isle is a very specific type of stranded knitting from Fair Isle, a tiny island in the north of Scotland and part of the Shetland Islands. In Fair Isle knitting, only 2 colors are used per round and yarn is carried for a limited number of stitches across the back of the work. Common motifs are “OXO” shapes, “peeries” or simplified geometric shapes inspired by nature. Although only two colors are worked together on any given round, designs often incorporate more colors, up to as many as 10 or more for some very complex Fair Isle designs.

Iconic Portrait of the Prince of Wales by Sir John Lander, and Ridley Creek by Courtney Kelley.

Both are examples of Fair Isle knitting, with the portrait worked in traditional colors in yarns. Ridley Creek is worked in a modern yarn, Camper, in a traditionally-inspired palette.

As mentioned in Courtney’s May Mitten post on the subject, the Swedish workshop founded by Emma Jacobsson, Bohus designs utilized a fine weight angora and merino blend to create a gorgeous halo and tonal gradations of color. The addition of purl stitches and the sometimes 3rd – or 4th or 5th – color per row opened up limitless design possibilities for the knitter.

A Chinese American woman in a modern plant store wearing Ballard, a hand knit color work beanie in Kelbourne Woolens Scout in natural and navy heather.
Selbu Modern 2.0: Selbu colorwork and Ballard: Setesdal colorwork.

Selbu and Setesdal are types of stranded colorwork from Norway, and are two of my absolute favorites. One of my first designs, Selbu Modern, was inspired by the graphic motifs found in Selbu knitting. The iconic Norwegian snowflake or star pattern is traditional of Selbu patterning. Setesdal is a similar technique that usually employs two colors – traditionally black and white, or red and white, but I’ve enjoyed using non traditional ones as well – and most patterning is in bands of small geometric repeating patterns, with an all over lice stitch body pattern.

Clawthorpe and St. Brendan 

Lopapeysa knitting is native to Iceland, and made popular by the classic (yet relatively new in historical terms) Lopi colorwork yoke sweaters. Lopi sweaters lend themselves beautifully to the use of multiple colors in a garment, more than two colors per round, and bold, graphic patterns. Lopapeysa designs pull from many different colorwork styles and may feature motifs, graphic patterning, snowflakes, or geometric designs.

Hopefully this small introduction opens your eyes to some of the many amazing stranded colorwork techniques we love to use as inspiration for our designs, and sheds some light on the differences and similarities amongst them! If you’re interested in learning more, below are a a few books* I highly recommend for your reading and knitting pleasure:

Selbuvotter by Terri Shea (Selbu)
Poems of Color by Wendy Keele (Bohus)
Latvian Mittens by Lizbeth Upitis
Nordic Knitting by Susanne Pagoldh

Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting by Alice Starmore

*Some are Amazon links, but as always, be sure to ask for them at your local yarn shop or bookstore first!

ETA: Thanks so much to Meredith for also adding the coast Salish peopled and their use of colorwork for sweaters to this (by no means complete) list! For those of you interested in more information, a wonderful book on the subject is Working with Wool by Sylvia Olsen.

5 thoughts on “Stranded: Colorwork vs. Fair Isle Knitting

  1. Meredith MC says:

    Don’t forget about the Cowichan tradition of colorwork, which is a traditional Native American style. If I’m remembering correctly, it originated in Canada with the Coast Salish people. Please correct me if I’ve gotten this wrong, as my memory isn’t what it used to be.
    Your Modern Selbu was my first stranded project, and I loved it for a long time until the superwash yarn stretched irreparably out of shape. My next one will be in a heartier wool, made to last.

    1. Yes! The Cowichan Sweaters are such a beautiful example of stranded colorwork. Have you read Working With Wool by Sylvia Olsen? (I purchased my copy from Tolt, but I’m not seeing it on their site at the moment.) I haven’t yet made it through the whole book, but I have enjoyed it so far. If only I had unlimited times – it would be so fun to write a post about every colorwork technique out there – there are so many amazing ones!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the Selbu Modern and are looking forward to making it again! – Kate

  2. Tom says:

    Great read Kate! I am working on the St. Brendan now. I tell people it is my first "colorwork" because I knew there were different names for different styles so now I can safely say that my first colorwork is Setesdal. I am really enjoying the colorwork project and look forward to doing more in the future after completing this one and the Cumbria sweater next in the queue. HAHA ~

  3. Kate says:

    I am so glad you published these definitions! Now I have a bookmark to send people to when trying to explain the different color knitwork traditions.

  4. Nancy Splan says:

    I am fairly new to knitting having started with the Covid shut down. I so enjoyed reading this article. It was quite informative. I read and hear so many terms bantered around it’s confusing. Everything I have knitted thus far has been single strand but I oogle at the color work I see in books and online knitting groups. Will try to make the plunge soon. After all, everyone who can do color work had to have a first time. Thanks again!!

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