Maintaining Tension in Stranded Knitting

Tension example in stranded knitting

I have been working on the Dot Dash Cowl, a stranded knitting piece, and as you can see, it is coming along.  In fact, I am close to completing the project.  I expect the bumps and wiggles of the fabric will smooth out and become more uniform after blocking.  Overall, I am pretty satisfied with the tension.  If you are interested in trying a stranded yarn project, a smaller project like a cowl or hat is a good way to learn how to manage two strands of yarn at once while maintaining tension.  I recommend that you begin with a project that sticks to two colors and a regular color pattern.  It is easier to maintain your tension because the yarn is not carried more than three stitches.  This pattern only requires three colors where the pattern transitions from one dominant color to the next.

There is more than one way to hold yarn when you employ color stranding.  I am a right-handed continental knitter and hold both colors in my left hand.  There are probably more English-style knitters (who throw the yarn over the needle in your right hand) in the U.S.  Whatever your preferred style of knitting, using two or more colors at a time while maintaining tension can be a challenge.  One key factor is knowing which is your dominant color.  You might assume (as I did) that the dominant color is the color that is used more than the others.  For example, the Dot and Dash Cowl has gray in every row.  In essence, it is the background color and appears more than any other color. 

Holding 2 yarns in stranded knitting

The dominant color, however, is the contrasting color.  In my cowl, the dominant color is the orange, aqua, white and blues.  I found a great explanation in an Interweave article, Understanding Yarn Dominance.  In stranded knitting, one yarn will appear slightly more dominant than the other. Yarn dominance occurs because one yarn’s strand travels slightly farther than the other, making it slightly tighter, causing it to recede, and be less dominant. The yarn traveling the shortest distance is the dominant yarn. Another way of putting it is that the yarn that comes from below will dominate, while the yarn from above makes a slightly smaller stitch.  According to the article,

Usually, the pattern yarn is held to the left of the background yarn, making the pattern color dominant, but there are slight differences in individual technique.

As the knitter, you can decide which color to make dominant. There is a slight difference in the appearance of the finished design.  To see how that will make a difference in the final product, check out the video below, Yarn Dominance, Holding Yarn, and Managing Floats in Fair Isle Knitting, by Andrea Lum of knitpicks.

 Once you have determined which color to make dominant, you need to decide how to carry your yarn to maintain consistent tension.  As I noted earlier, I carry both colors in one hand.  There are, however, other methods.  Below is a video, Tips for Tensioning Your Colorwork, by Andrea Mowry, that demonstrates both continental and English style techniques for carrying yarn that will help you maintain tension. 

One of the best tips is to periodically pull the last several stitches knitted out evenly along your needle.  I like to mark the repeat of my pattern with stitch markers (that is every four stitches on the Dot and Dash cowl).   When I get to a stitch marker, I stretch out my stitches.  The stitch markers are a great reminder to stop and spread out those stitches.  Whatever your chosen technique, decide which color will be dominant, practice carrying yarn (I must do this if it has been a while since my last stranded knitting project), relax and enjoy.