Fair Isle Knitting – What It Is, History, & Stranded Knitting Tutorial

By Jodie Morgan

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Fair Isle knitting isn’t as complicated as it looks! It just takes practice. This knitting technique is beautiful when completed! The designs are stunning and there are so many garments and accessories that lend themselves to using this color work style.

Fair Isle Knitting

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I reviewed, fact checked and updated this post on May 22, 2023.

Table Of Contents

What Is Fair Isle Knitting?

Fair Isle, (aka true fair isle knitting or stranded colorwork) is a technique for creating multicolored knitting using more than one color. Use two strands of yarn, or more. Changing colors is an important part of this knitting technique.

It became a popular crafts design when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) wore a fair isle jumper in public in 1921.

Why Is It Called Fair Isle?

It’s named a Shetland Island in Northern Scotland. The strands of yarn are kept at the back of the work when creating motif designs in Fair Isle Knitting.

What Is A Fair Isle Pattern?

It’s created using two yarns, usually contrasting colors in a complicated or simple pattern. This balances the background and foreground colors. There is usually a dominant color. It makes a detailed picture with one light color and one dark color – color dominance is an important aspect of well balanced motif designs.

Traditional Fair Isle patterns are composed of five colors. Also, traditional fair isle knitting has more detail than other knitting techniques because it doesn’t obscure stitches. The pattern is viewed from all angles.

I have a goal to create a stunning design by Marie Wallin called Yell that is part of her “Shetland” collection of patterns.

How To Do This Knitting Technique

To knit Fair Isle, follow the steps provided, using the appropriate needle size.

How Do You Hold The Yarn In Fair Isle?

Here is how to hold yarn for Fair Isle. If you’re a beginner, pick up the yarn when you need it; you don’t have to hold it right the first time! After you gain more practice, try holding both yarns in the same hand, separating them with one finger. Before I explain, here’s a quick tip.

If you started with the darker color on the right and the lighter one on the left, keep them that way. If you swap them, it’ll get twisted and messed up.

When knitting with two colors in the same hand, tension the yarn as normal, without twisting them to the right or left. When you’re knitting, only pick up one yarn at a time with the right hand needle.

Another way is using two styles of knitting at the same time. Don’t worry. It’s not too hard, but coordinating your hands at the start could be difficult.

  • In your left hand, have the dominant yarn
  • Make stitches by picking
  • In your right hand, have the other yarn
  • Make stitches by throwing

How Do You Knit A Swatch For This Colorwork Knitting?

Knitting fair isle swatches is necessary to ensure you have the right knitting needle and gauge. To make a beautiful swatch, follow these steps. (Note: For the speed swatch, you’ll need to cut it open, so you can’t reuse the yarn.)

  • Use your knitting needles or circular needles to cast on the required amount of stitches
  • The cast on at least six more stitches than the gauge for 4″ to get an accurate gauge
  • Slide the stitches back to the start of the needle
  • Hold the main yarn behind the needle
  • Look at the first row on your pattern, and simply knit the first stitch.
  • Continue knitting, but stop before you reach the final stitch.
  • Use the knit stitch with the colors used in the same row
  • Slide the stitches back to the beginning of the needle
  • Stop creating the current row. Look at the next row in the pattern, pick up any needed yarns and drop any unused yarn.
  • Knit the first few stitches, and the rest of the row
  • Stop before you reach the last stitch, and knit it with all the colors used in the row
  • Continue until your swatch is five inches long
  • Cast off using one color you used in the final row
  • When you’ve finished knitting, block your swatch
  • Once it’s dry, cut the slack yarn on the wrong side of the fabric, straight down the middle
  • Measure your gauge down the center
  • If it’s too big, use a smaller needle to see if that’s the right size. Or, if it’s too small, use a bigger needle to see if that’s the right size.
  • If it’s right, start making your fair isle knitting project! If you don’t have the right size, it might be time to shop for new supplies.

Here’s a tutorial on how to swatch in the round.

How Do You Knit A Fair Isle Sweater?

A great knit-along with Marly Bird.

Part 1

Part 2

A technique often used when knitting sweaters or other garments is called “steeking.” (A Scottish word.) It’s cutting into your knitting without destroying it to create openings. Like for sleeves.

How Do You Knit A Yoke In This Method?

A yoke (misspelled as yolk) is the part of a garment underneath the collar and coming towards the shoulders. These sweaters are known for their colorful patterned yokes. Here’s how to knit a shirt with a colorful yoke design.

How Do You Knit A Project With Three Colors?

Keep the dominant yarn in your left hand, but alternate yarns in your right hand, working with multiple strands. The phenomenon “yarn dominance” is where one yarn appears more pronounced than the other. This strand travels a shorter distance than others. Don’t let the contrast color get too dominant or understated.

You need to maintain an even tension throughout your project.

Here’s a great video tutorial.

Fair Isle Knitting Charts

A Fair Isle chart is like a normal chart. Each box in the chart represents one stitch unless the pattern says otherwise. The chart has symbols in the boxes, but there’s a key to tell you what symbol means which stitch.

  • One box = One stitch
  • Different symbols mean different stitches
  • Check the key if you’re unsure what a symbol means

Use a system to mark where you’re up to so you don’t lose track of your progress.

Most digital fair isle patterns have free downloads you can print out.

Pin Now to Save for Later

Fair Isle Knitting Pin

FAQS About Fair Isle Knits

How To Catch Floats In Fair Isle Knitting

When using 2 or more colors, sometimes one color doesn’t get worked for several stitches. For example, work 4 stitches in yellow and the next stitch is white.

At the back of the work, the white stitch has to “float” over the back of those 4 yellow stitches to be worked again. Tight strands of floats bunch up your texture.

To carry floats so they aren’t tight, stretch the 4 yellow stitches (the old yarn) you worked, so the white yarn (the new yarn) has further to travel. Work the stitch with the white yarn. This means the float strands are nice and loose at the back.

Here’s a tutorial on how to catch floats when making fabric.

How To Keep Your Balls Of Yarn Tidy When Working With Two Colors

If you’re using two colors, keep one ball to the right and the other to the left. Don’t move them, otherwise your whole project could quickly go downhill.

What Is The Difference Between Fair Isle And Intarsia Knitting?

Use Intarsia for adding big blocks of color to a plain knitted fabric. Fair Isle uses strands of over one color in almost every row.

How Do I Stop My Fair Isle From Tangling When Knitting?

Tips to stop your yarn from tangling: put them in separate zip-lock bags, close them except for a small hole for the yarn, or put them in yarn bowls!

Here are top suggestions from Arne & Carlos.

Is Fair Isle Knitting Difficult?

It seems difficult, like knitting colorwork. Hard at first, but with practice, you’ll get there!

How Do You Knit With Two Balls Of Yarn At The Same Time?

By using a colorwork technique like a Norwegian knitting project or Stranded knitting.

How Do You Knit A Fair Isle Flat?


The stunning designs and motifs are widely available, and the finished projects often have a lovely halo. Let me know if you try a fair isle project or have questions.

Want a list of the essential knitting reads to further your knowledge of this topic? You’ll find it in my list. Or, if you’d like to learn something else, see my guide to the double knitting method, and the finger knitting technique.

About The Author

Jodie Morgan From Knit Like Granny

Jodie Morgan (Author & Founder)

jodie@knitlikegranny.com | Lives In: Regional Australia

Author: Jodie Morgan is a passionate knitter and blogger with 40+ years of experience currently living in regional Australia. Taught by her mother and wonderful grandmother “Mama”, she fell in love with crafting from a young age. When she’s not knitting, you’ll find her enjoying a cup of coffee with cream, or sharing helpful resources and tips with the online knitting community. Get to know Jodie and the team on our meet the team page.

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  1. Hello,
    Can I just say a YOKE refers to a wooden bar that attaches two cos together at the neck and the yoke of a sweater refers to the neck shaping in knitting. A YOLK is the yellow part of the contents of an egg and has nothing to do with knitting. (Perhaps yolk/yoke is acceptable using American English?)

    • Hi Marilyn, thanks so much for letting me know! I really appreciate you picking up that mistake, whoops! I’ve updated it in the post with the correct spelling, and have added a note about how it’s spelled so others don’t make the same mistake as me. Thanks again!


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