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Hi Patty,

I find myself intimidated by alternating skeins, particularly since I’m using yarns I’ve purchased at yarn festivals or directly from indie dyers.

Do you have any tips regarding best practices for alternating and carrying yarn up your work. I’m particularly curious about techniques when you have three skeins of the same colorway or when you are doing two-color brioche with multiple skeins.

Any help would be appreciated!


Dear Pam,

We NEVER want a word like “intimidated” to come anywhere near such wonderful words as “yarn festivals” or “indie dyers.” These words should fill you with nothing but joy!

Alternating skeins of hand-dyed yarns can be a wonderful way to bring out their best. My favorite way is alternating three skeins. You might be thinking “THREE skeins! It’s annoying enough to use two.” Ah, but no, there are huge advantages.

You didn’t mention if you were asking about knitting flat or in the round—so let’s look at both.

Three IS Company

You know how there are times when the dynamics of a friendship are just a bit unbalanced? When a third friend enters the group, it makes everything perfect.

When you alternate two skeins you will always work two rows of one color and two rows of the other. Regardless of whether you join the second color on the first RS or WS row, you will always be making the yarn switch on one side of your work only.

Here I cast on with color A and worked a WS and RS (color A is now waiting for a WS row). I join color B and work a WS and RS.

Now it’s time to return to color A and repeat. This means I am always switching and carrying yarn on the same side of the work. In this case it’s on the left side (switching on the WS row), if I switched on a RS row it would be on the right side of the work. This can cause a shawl or scarf to have two edges that don’t match.

To improve this unbalanced friendship, add yarn ball number three.

Here I’ve worked a RS row with color A, then joined color B to work the next WS row, finally I join color C to work the next RS row.

Every time I finish a row, there’s another ball of yarn-friend waiting for me. This means I’m carrying yarn on BOTH sides of the work. Now the sides of my work have the identical elasticity.

(WS) Color A brought in front of color C.

(RS) Color B brought behind color A.

(WS) Color C brought in front of color B.

As for how you switch colors, the key to a lovely edge is consistency. If it’s a reversible piece, I always put the new yarn I’m about to work behind the old yarn. But if the piece has a clear front and back, the way I keep the public side consistent is:

(RS) bring the working yarn behind the other color

(WS) bring the working yarn in front of the other color

Flat knitting is lovely—but working in the round is where that third ball of yarn really shines.

Round and Round We Go

A few years ago, I wrote about helix knitting for single row stripes. In this article, I showed the set up where you divide the number of stitches by the number of stripes (e.g., 30 stitches and three stripes = work 10 st of each color to set up).

But there’s another set up that is particularly delightful for alternating 3 skeins of yarn.

This time, instead of dividing the number of stitches by the number of stripes, you divide the number of stitches by the number of stripes minus 1.

If you have 80 stitches and three stripes, it’s 80 ÷ (3 – 1) = 40 stitches.

Here I have cast on 80 stitches, worked 40 with color A, then joined color B and worked 40 to the end of the round marker.

At start of round two, join Color C and work across stitches to color A.

Drop color C. DO NOT CROSS YARNS. Pick up color A and work 40 sts to color B. Continue.

That’s it. You are working helix knitting for alternating three skeins. But how do you keep those three balls of yarn from twisting around each other? Line ’em up!

The best tip for yarn management is to line up all your balls on a table. The ball of yarn you are working with is in the number one position. Here I’m about to knit with ball A, and next will be color B, followed by color C.

When you finish one color, move it to the “end of the line” by moving it over and to the right of the other colors.

So I say, when it comes to alternating skeins, three’s not a crowd!

But what about Brioche? I have to save something for next month—so stay tuned!

About The Author

Patty Lyons is a nationally recognized knitting teacher and technique expert. In her pursuit of training the mindful knitter, Patty is known for teaching the “why” in addition to the “how.” She specializes in sweater design and sharing her love of the much-maligned subjects of gauge and blocking.

You can find Patty at her website and on Ravelry.

Do you have a problem you’d like Patty to tackle? Write to her at



  • So clever Patty, thank you for this neat tip.

    • Brilliant!! Thanks for a very clear and concise explanation to this rather confusing technique.

  • Thank you for the question and the answer! I’ve stayed away from anything needing more than one skein due to the having to alternate skeins conundrum.

  • Patty,
    You have now given me the impetus to try two color stripes in the round again. I ripped out 6 or 7 inches of the Shakerag Top because I didn’t like how it looked on the sides where I was changing colors.

    It was great meeting you at Nina Chicago this past weekend. Your tricks were so tricky. Who knew the symbols in the boxes of a knitting chart actually mean something? Not me! Thanks again. Looking forward to seeing you on Zoom soon.

    • Thank you for the tip! I’m knitting a sweater in pieces with very variegated hand spun, and the color was way too blocky/stripey alternating two skeins. Alternating 3 has smoothed out the color shifts beautifully.

  • Patty – love your tips and have your ‘Tricks’ book. I must be missing something in the above though with 3 colors ITR. You specifically say ‘don’t cross the yarns’ when changing to next ball, but won’t that leave a gap in the knitting?


    • It’s Helix knitting, make sure to click the link to the post about Helix knitting and watch the video. If you cross the yarns it won’t work. It’s a barber pole.

  • I’m bookmarking THIS post, that’s for sure1

    • Ha, that comment was supposed to end with an exclamation mark! I was too excited to proof-read. 😉

  • Hmmm, there’s something I’m missing here. THE FOLLOWING IS REGARDING CIRCULAR KNITTING: When I first learned helical knitting (and it’s been a while since I’ve used that method, so I might be forgetting something), and alternating TWO skeins of hand dyed, you stopped knitting with skein A 3 st before your starting point, slipped those 3 st, then began skein B. The switching point kept “moving back” every round.

    But in what you’re saying in your article, the switching point doesn’t move (although it’s skein C , then A, then B etc). I know you know what you’re talking about! So, I’ll have to try this on a little circular swatch.

    • That is only one way to work, but not necessarily the best for all options. There are two different set ups for Helix and two different ways to work it. The stationary join or the slip stitch. If you are working a sweater or hat that has shaping, you might like the stationary join better. I also WILDLY prefer the stationary join and this set up (different than the first set up I taught in the video and article I link to) with an object like a sweater that has a front and back. The color changes always take place at the side. This is also really great for a three row stripe with a front and back. The front and back looks perfect and your original jog at start and end is hidden at the side. I used this set up and this method for the Luminary Cowl that has a three stripe Helix section so the jog at the start and end is hidden. –

      I teach a helix class that shows both set ups and both methods AND how to use them for garter and multi row stripes.

  • So good, so good. Thank you for the clear explanation and the pictures. This post is a keeper. Your book of tips has a permanent place in my knitting basket. I’m looking forward to trying this.

  • Excellent! Thank you, Patty and MDK.

  • Genius, as always, Patty!

    My gripe about alternating skeins has always been the tiny stripe effect that happens from swapping the two yarns in the same spot each time. I can see how adding a third yarn would help break that up. 😀

  • Very interesting, thank you!

  • I so appreciate the effort that went into this, but it’s still completely incomprehensible!

  • Hi, Can this formula be used for knitting in the round with more than 3 skeins? Sometimes I have 4 or 5 skeins of hand dyed yarn that I want to alternate for the body of a sweater in the round

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