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In discussions of stranded colorwork, the topic of color dominance always comes up. There were lots of questions about it in the comments on my last article.

It’s all about different sizes of stitches.

It’s common—heck, pretty darn likely!—that when you’re working with two colors, the stitches in each color will be different sizes. This happens because the two yarns travel slightly different paths.

For most two-handed colorwork knitters, the left-hand yarn will travel a slightly longer path than the right-hand yarn, since it has to wrap under the purl bump on the back of the fabric. Or if you’re working both yarns with your right hand, the “lower” yarn is usually travelling a slightly longer path than the “upper” yarn.

Why does this matter? If the yarn used to make a stitch travels a longer path, there’s more yarn in that stitch, so the stitch will be a little bigger.

Imagine you have a pattern with equal numbers of red and yellow stitches—as in this chart. 

Now look at this swatch! I reversed the yarn positions halfway through working it.

The same stitch pattern is worked throughout, but it doesn’t look the same. In the bottom half, the red stitches are bigger than the yellow, so that the pattern appears to have more red. The red stands out more—it is more dominant. And the opposite is true in the upper half. 

When the stitches of one color stand out more than another—in an otherwise equally balanced two-color pattern—that’s color dominance.

Will the dominant color please stand out?

Not everyone knits the same way. Although I’m not willing to place bets on which yarn (left/right, upper/lower) travels that longer path (and makes those larger stitches) for a given knitter, it is true that for most knitters there will be a difference between the two, even if only slight.

So let consistency be your rule. Decide which color you want to be the dominant one, based on how you want your colors to look, and then be consistent about how you’re holding the yarns. If you’re working two-handed, and you start with red in your left hand, keep it there. If you’re working one-handed, and you’re keeping yellow as the upper yarn, keep it there.

Dominance or prominence?

If you’re working a pattern stitch that has a lot more stitches of one color than the other, that’s another situation entirely.

In this second stitch pattern, there are more grey stitches than white.

Here it is knit up:

In the top half, the white traveled a longer path, so the white stitches are bigger, while in the bottom half the grey was held so that it traveled a longer path. In the top half of the swatch, the white is slightly more prominent than it is in the bottom half.

It’s up to you.

If you want that little diagonal line (or whichever motif you’re working) to be more visible, then make sure you’re handling the two colors so that the motif stitches are larger. We often want the motif to pop more, but not always … if the motif color is highly contrasting, you might want it to be more subtle.

Ultimately, it’s your choice. Decide which color you want to be the dominant one, based on how you want your colors to look, and then be consistent about how you’re holding the yarns.

That is, choose the yarn color you wish to stand out more, and then hold it so that it does. The key thing, really, is to be consistent. 

Know thyself. And swatch.

If you’re not sure how you knit, whether one yarn takes a longer path, and if so, which one, experiment by swatching.

Just as I did with the red and yellow, cast on 42 sts, join to work in the round and knit three or four repeats of chart with the yarns held one way, then swap how you’re holding the yarns and work another few repeats. Block the swatch and observe the differences in dominance and prominence based on how you held the yarns. That will tell you how this all works for you, and you can make the choice that is right for you!

This Could Come in Handy

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About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • When I started knitting in the seventies we were making Lopi sweaters – and we were told to always bring the next color over (so as not to make a hole). It does require you to untwist the yarn – but that has just become another repetitive process that I don’t mind doing – and I like the even look of the stitches. This would be impossible, however, if you use both hands to carry the yarns.

    • Terri – this is an interesting thing! I, too, was offered the same advice when I started out with this type of knitting. There is actually another way of working with two colours, that looks very similar to stranded colourwork – called twining – and it does call for twisting the yarns. It’s to make a dense and woven fabric. But that’s a rather particular situation, and you’re right, requires both yarns in the same hand. The “no holes” thing is actually a bit of a red herring, and I find that advice for colourwork knitting sometimes gets confusing and confused. Sometimes you’re offered a rule for one situation without explaining that it doesn’t apply in another. You do absolutely need twist in intarsia, to avoid making holes, but in stranded colourwork, unless you’re specifically working a “twined” fabric, twisting isn’t necessary – there aren’t holes, I promise. Working without twisting permits different ways of holding the yarns, plus it’s easier: as you say yourself, there’s untwisting to be done. And, twisting really tightens up the fabric, taking out the stretch and flexibility, and messing with your tension. I hope that helps!

  • Thank you SO MUCH for this post! I was just boring my husband to tears talking about this yesterday, but it’s REALLY interesting to me and you’ve made it so clear! And, as you say, if I’m not sure where my dominance lies, make a swatch and see what happens. I love that idea. Many smiles and thanks!!!

  • As always Kate, you do SUCH a good job explaining things like this. Prior to reading this, I’d never felt that color dominance was an issue that I had to consider as that wasn’t ‘me’. But after reading this, I’m now going to have to pay more attention to my swatch stitches. Thank you!

  • As always, Kay’s guidance is superb. Her comments are easily understood, and illustrations helpful and clear. She’s True asset to our knitting community.

    • No love for knitters who hold both strands in the left hand?

      • Hi Lindy! Thanks for your comment. You’re right… we didn’t mention that. I’m writing to a very tight wordcount, and although the mention was in an early draft it looks like we removed it – along with a lot of my extra words (I always get far more detailed that space allows). I’m sorry about that. The good news is that the same comments hold hold true.

  • My reminder for myself is “left leads, right recedes”

  • This was fascinating! Always new things to learn. Thank you Kate!

  • I changed the way I move my yarn after watching a video on YouTube from Arne and Carlos about color dominance. Now I’m much happier with my finished projects.

  • I totally agree that the left hand’s yarn makes slightly bigger stitches on the stockinette side and will be a little more prominent. But I don’t understand the explanation. On the reverse side the yarn travels a slightly longer distance but what does that have to do with the size of the stitch on the front side? If you tie one rope around a 2×4 and another one around a 2×6, edge on they will look the same even though the one on the 2×6 has to travel a longer distance around the back. Why is this different?

    • Hi Tess! Good question, and I like the analogy you use… the issue is that the yarn is travelling a slightly longer path when you work it, but when you wash it, and stitches settle, the extra yarn gets taken into the stitch. Effectively, in washing/blocking, the 2×4 and the 2×6 have been removed. Does that help?

    • When I knit with multiple colors and carry one of them over the left hand and the other travels over the right, I also use two different yarn movement techniques. Using the right hand needle, I pick (continental technique) the yarn from the left hand and, using my right hand finger, throw (American throw technique) that hand’s yarn over the needle tip. I could be that I then get different size stitches from slightly different tensions between each technique.

      • Mary-Anne – Yup, that’s exactly what’s happening!

  • Does knitting using rotating floats instead of parallel floats reduce colour dominance?

    • I’ve never heard the terms rotating floats and parallel floats, would like to hear more on that.
      Thanks Kate for emphasizing consistency rather than right way/wrong way.
      I learned I needed to WRITE DOWN which hand while knitting 5 color stranded slippers where the background color changes – KDD Pouzles.

      • I have gone with the memory aid “Light in Right,” to keep me sorted as to which colour is in which hand. If the colours are both of relatively equal value I then have to make a decision and stick to it… probably then I’d write it down, too!

  • Tried again today to save an article and no such luck. Page not found. This an important tool on this wonderful website.

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