Managing Tension in Stranded Knitting

Managing Tension in Stranded Knitting
May 10, 2020

It is more important than ever to maintain consistent tension when working stranded knitting, especially when dealing with floats. If your floats are too tight, the finished fabric will pucker inward and not stretch correctly. But if they are too loose, they can snag on the inside of the garment — for instance, a ring catching on a loose float when putting on a stranded sweater, or a toe catching in the loose floats of a sock.

The wrong side of a stranded knitting piece, characterized by floats. Well tensioned floats are neither loose nor pulled taught when the garment is laid flat.

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to tensioning a stranded project — like everything in knitting, you’ll improve with experience as you get more familiar with the technique. But you can greatly improve your tension by watching out for these key pitfalls:

Crowding stitches on the needle

It’s very common when knitting to ‘crowd’ the needles, by pulling the stitches close to the needle tips very close together:

Hands holding a pair of knitting needles. You can see that the stitches are being held very close together on the tips of the needles, but much more spread out the further they get away.

This isn’t normally a problem — we do it intentionally to speed up our knitting by reducing the number of times we have to shuffle stitches forward to be worked. But it means that we’re generally holding the stitches close together as we knit them, then letting them spread out naturally when we lay the project flat.

So what happens if you’re stranding yarn behind stitches that are being held close together? The float ends up being too short, and prevent the stitches from spreading back out.

To avoid tight floats, make sure to spread the stitches out on your right needle as you knit them.

Long runs of a single color

In many stranded patterns, you may encounter a row with a long run of a single color. In this hat, for example, you can see that there is a large gap in between the orange octopi where all of the stitches are blue:

Stranded colorwork hat depicting orange octopi on a blue background. There are large gaps of blue between the octopi.

If you were to simply carry the orange yarn behind the blue for the entire run, you would end up with a very long float. Even if you tension it perfectly, so that the float lies flat when the hat is stretched out, the float would still not be secure and could snag on things when the hat is picked up.

A long float of orange yarn which has not been secured.

Fortunately there’s a solution — a technique known as “catching”, “locking”, or “securing” the float. This refers to a process of twisting the unused yarn with the working yarn, such that it is ‘caught’ or held in place at regular intervals behind the work.

In this picture, I have floated the same length of orange yarn behind ten stitches of green yarn. This time, I caught the float every three stitches by twisting the orange and green yarn together:

A long float of orange yarn that has been caught at three intervals, which are circled in white in the picture.
You can learn some quick tricks for catching floats when knitting with one strand in each hand in this tutorial on catching floats.