Holding the Yarn in Stranded Knitting

Holding the Yarn in Stranded Knitting
May 09, 2020

There are many different strategies for holding the yarn in stranded colorwork. Every knitter is different, so I encourage you to play around with the various techniques and see what works best for you! I’ll go through the three main approaches here: knitting with one strand in each hand, knitting both yarns Continental, and knitting both yarns English.

Knitting with one strand in each hand

If you already know to knit in both the English and Continental styles, this style may be the one for you. This is how I personally do stranded colorwork.

Watch the gif closely and you’ll see that I’m knitting completely normally with each hand — although it may feel unnatural at first, there’s no special technique to learn here!

This technique has some major advantages:

  • Because one strand of yarn is held in each hand, it is almost impossible to get the strands tangled — so you save yourself one of the major headaches of stranded knitting :)
  • It is easy to handle yarn dominance: simply hold your preferred dominant color Continental
  • Because there are no tangling issues, many knitters can learn to knit colorwork very quickly in this style
  • If you already know how to knit English & Continental, there’s no big new skill to learn — and if you don’t, this is an excellent opportunity to learn the other style
  • It is unquestionably cool looking :D

The only real disadvantage? Many knitters knit exclusively in either English or Continental. It may feel like a daunting task to pick up the other style, but I do strongly encourage everyone to give it a shot. Since most stranded pieces are knit in stockinette and in the round, you only need to learn the knit stitch — no pesky purls! Review my knit stitch tutorial for both styles.

For Continental knitters struggling to pick up English:
Some Continental-only knitters may have trouble knitting the English yarn without dropping the work. One good way to handle this is by flicking rather than throwing. In throwing, the knitter lets go of the right needle and uses their hand to loop the yarn around the needle. With flicking, the yarn is tensioned over the index finger, and the knitter loops just this finger around the needle while still holding on. I am flicking in the gif above.

Knitting with both strands continental

Some knitters may prefer to hold both yarns in their left hand and knit Continental. For example, I have difficulty with English purling without dropping the work — so I knit in this style when I’m doing stranded colorwork on a flat piece, or when I’m double knitting.

In this technique, both strands are tensioned over the left index finger as normal, and the knitter picks the desired color with each stitch. It’s best to try to leave a bit of a gap between the two strands on your finger, to make it easier to pick the right strand. The dominant color is held "on top" (closer to your fingertip).

Hand position for knitting with multiple strands Continental

There is a bit of a trick to "picking" the correct strand without tangling the yarn:

Picking the dominant color

Bring the tip of the right needle up underneath the background color and over the dominant color.

Picking the background color

Bring the tip of the right needle over the background color; it should pass in between the two strands.

Some advantages of this technique:

  • For many experienced Continental knitters, this is the fastest way of knitting colorwork
  • It is extensible to more than two colors — you can knit with as many strands as can fit on your finger!

And some drawbacks:

  • Maintaining even tension with multiple Continental strands can be very tricky, even for folks who are very comfortable with single-stranded tension
  • It’s much easier to get the yarn tangled, which can cause tension issues with your floats and even accidental changes to yarn dominance.

Knitting with both yarns English

Others may prefer holding both strands in their right hand and knitting both English. Because I am a predominately Continental knitter I rarely use this technique, but many English fans — especially experienced flickers — can knit quite fast this way!

In order to prevent the yarn from tangling — and to ensure consistent yarn dominance — it's very important to make sure that you always cross the strands in the same way each time. In the gif, you can see that the orange color is the dominant one. When I pick up the green strand, I always cross it over the top.

Like the others, this technique has a few key advantages:

  • For many English-only knitters, this can be a speedy way of knitting stranded colorwork
  • Maintaining even tension is relatively easy with this approach

And some drawbacks:

  • It’s very easy to get the yarn tangled, which can cause accidental changes in yarn dominance
  • Especially if the knitter needs to drop the work with their right hand in order to throw the yarn/change colors between each stitch, this approach can be slower than the others.
Which approach is right for me?
Only you can say! I recommend trying out all the options and keeping an open mind. Now is a great time to try to learn a style you aren’t already comfortable with.
Remember that speed isn’t everything, and stranded knitting is always going to be slower than working with a single color. Pay attention to your tension, your comfort (is one style more difficult on your hands?), and most importantly your enjoyment of the process.