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I have a confession to make: I don’t do it the way they tell you you’re supposed to.

This is true for lots of things, but today I’m talking about knitting with two colors for stranded colorwork. The traditional method is to have one yarn in each hand. This is the common method in Europe and Shetland, the one you see most often in tutorials and demonstrations. 

That way of working has its advantages, no question: it’s pretty quick, helps prevent tangling yarn, and it makes you look very coordinated and clever. I’ve tried it. Heck, I am happy to teach that method.

But—are you sitting down?—I don’t do it that way!

The challenge for me is that I’m just not as good at Continental knitting. (When we say Continental, by the way, we mean carrying the yarn in your left hand. Everything else is the same, it’s just about where your yarn is.) My tension is very different when I work with yarn in right hand versus yarn in left hand, and working with one yarn in each results, for me, in an untidy and uneven mess.

So I don’t! I just keep the two yarns in my right hand. 

If you’ve been struggling with working two-handed colorwork, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to do it that way. Here are my two preferred methods.


If you’re just starting out with colorwork, I recommend drop-and-pick-up. It goes like this: Leave both yarns hanging. When you need to work a stitch, grab the yarn you need, and drop it when you’re finished with it.

Well, OK, it’s not quite that simple. You do want to make sure that you avoid twisting the yarns. To do this, designate an “Over” color and an “Under” color. I assign them alphabetically: in this sample in Atlas Barn Red and Pear, red is Over, yellow is Under.

When grabbing the Over yarn, make sure it’s coming Over the other color.

And when you’re working with the Under yarn, make sure you’re pulling it Under the other. 

Consistently working your Overs and Unders keeps the yarns from tangling and keeps your stitches even so that the fabric stays smooth and the colors evenly tensioned.

Join the KAL!
If you’re curious about dipping into colorwork, this is a fantastic first project. The motifs are simple, the color changes easy, and the chart is clear. Before you know it, zing: you’ve made a wildly cheerful Setesdal Hat.


Once you feel a bit more confident, you can carry both. Just grab both yarns in your right hand, catching them around your hand as if they are one. When it’s time to work a stitch, just use your fingers or thumbs to wrap the one you need around the needle.

Red Over
Yellow Under

Keep your Over and Under consistent, throughout. As you can see in the video, I use my thumb to wrap the Over and my index finger to wrap the Under. There’s no specific right or wrong answer here about how you wrap the yarns—do what feels natural and right for you. (And if the yarns do twist once in a while, it’s not the end of the world.)

Take a Look

No matter how neat and tidy you are in working, stranded colorwork will always be a bit lumpy on the needles. (In my experience, if it looks smooth on the needles, it’s probably a bit off—too loose or too tight.) Just like lace, you can’t really assess the fabric until it’s been blocked

Once you’ve worked a bit, slip the stitches to scrap yarn and let it soak for 15 minutes, then give it a good squeeze in a towel and let it dry overnight. You’ll find it looks just like you want it to!

Continental Shift

You can also carry both yarns in your left hand, if that’s your preferred way of working. For that, a yarn stranding guide can be helpful. This is a tool that helps separate the two yarns wrapped around your hand.

Just remember, you’re the boss of your knitting. Do what makes you happy and comfortable.

This Could Come in Handy

Here’s how to save this article in your MDK account with one click.

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.


  • Thank you Kate!! I too struggle with carrying yarn in my left hand and I feel like Kate Atherley has given me permission to not beat myself up about it!! Thank you!!!!

  • Thanks, Kate! I’ve tried the two-handed method and just cannot get consistent with my left-hand. I do the drop and pick-up method, even after knitting for many, many years. I like your alphabetical reminder.

  • Funny as it sounds, I’m happy to know the drop and pickup method is just fine! The over under trick is an easy one to keep in mind! I always save the articles you write! Thank you!

  • I’ve happily knit many many colorwork pieces using the drop and pick-up method — that’s the method that gives me the best tension.

  • I am just finishing the first sleeve on my first colorwork sweater. I am thrilled to know I am in the company of Kate Atherley and not the only person using the drop and pick up technique. Now I won’t beat myself up if I use it on my next sweater. Thank you.

  • I have always wanted to try color work but felt intimated. This article has given me the permission to try it after 50 plus years of knitting. Thank you

    • Yup…me too: 50 plus years, always wanted to try, have felt intimidated, now ready to go for it.
      Thank you, Kate

  • Thank you, Kate, for validating that color work can be done with using my right hand exclusively. My left hand is just not coordinated enough for Continental knitting and it’s happier just holding the left needle. I’ve tried and I just couldn’t embrace it. After learning Bohus, I realized that all color work, for me, can work well using over and under as you instructed.

  • I too am a drop and pick uper – 60 years later. I do knit continental (actually eastern europe – a variant). I put the color which will be worked the most – i never got the whole dominant thing in my left hand and the other in the right. This means it can differ row by row. It goes fast and the tension seems fine.

    • Thanks Kate! I’m a continental Knitter and so my color work holding all the yarns in my left hands. Our all goes super as long as I knit. If the pattern calls for a wrong side purling.. then that’s a challenge. Do you have any advice, please? Regards

      • I’m doing my first color work project and I found this video on how to catch floats on the purl side

        Fair Isle Knitting and how to trap floats on the purl side by Nancy Wynn

  • I used to think I couldn’t do colorwork because I can’t knit with both hands (I’ve tried and it’s just not for me). I drop and pick up and that is what works for me. I don’t find it slow at all. I’m so happy there are other Drop and Pick Up-ers out there!

  • Thank you so much for this post!! I have never been able to knit Continental either, and now, you have helped me use my English way to get perfect results. Your explanation is so clear and helpful, and I will no longer feel as if I am doing it “wrong.” Hooray, Kate!!

  • I love this so much! I’m a Continental knitter, and I’m really trying to hold the yarn in both hands. It’s so much slower, but I think I’m getting better at it. But I will try this way too!!! Thank you so much!

  • I’m also in the drop and pick up club. Glad to have such famous company! I find a good arrangement for where my two yarn cakes can rest to minimize twisting and keep it flowing!

  • Kate Atherley does the drop and pick? You’ve no idea how delighted I am! That’s the only way I seem to be able to make it look good, but I’ve always thought I should teach myself how to do it “right”. Kate, I’ve admired your work for tears….thanks for this!

    • Same!

  • Color dominance is worth mentioning, as long as you’re choosing which color to have over and which one to have under. The “under” color stitches will pop a little more in the end because they are slightly longer than the “over” colors. Maybe less so with a drop-and-pick method? But that’s what made my colorwork work.

    • Colour dominance is whole other topic, and it’s got everything to do with how your colourwork looks, but not really much to do with how you work it, it that makes sense… I didn’t want it give it short shrift here, which is why I focussed on handling the yarns… it’s *usually* true that the under colours pop more than the over, but not always. There are other factors! Perhaps I can write about this in a future column…

      • Please do! Your explanations are a model of clarity.

  • Love this. My stranded colowork is always a work in progress! I just got a strand guide because my current piece has 3 colors in some rows. We will see how it goes!

  • Thank. You. Kate. I have always been embarrassed to do color work in front of other knitters because I drop and pickup right handed only. I’m also taking to heart your comment that if it looks good on the needle as you knit it, it’s probably too loose.

  • Thank you so much for this post! I also hold both colors in my right hand and, depending on the pattern, drop and pick. I have always felt I was not doing color work knitting correctly. You have made me feel so much better! I could never get the tension even when knitting color work holding one color in each hand. As always, I appreciate and enjoy all of your wonderful posts!

  • I learned to do Portuguese knitting (all the knit stitches are worked through the front, and the yarn is carried in the front) when I was having a lot of hand pain. I found doing stranded color work was pretty easy using this method.

  • Thank you! Like many comments here I am a drop and pick person and kind of beat myself up about it, so this has lifted my spirits! I have tried the two handed method (even Arne & Carlos’ version) and it just doesn’t feel right. I think the over under tip will be a game changer for me!! Thanks also to the MDK community who commented today. I feel your support too!!!

  • I think you absolutely should use whatever method works for you and reaps the best results. I’d argue organizing your yarns alphabetically may not give you the results you want because it doesn’t take color dominance into account. If you don’t organize your yarns correctly, your contrast yarn may not pop as you intend against the background yarn. Of course, consistency is the most important thing but if you want your contrast to pop against the background, you need to ensure that this is the yarn that goes “under” throughout. If you prefer your contrast color to look a little more faded and less distinct, then it should go “over” throughout.

    • Colour dominance is a somewhat separate topic. It’s not really about how you work, but about how things look. What “arrange your colours correctly” means changes with every project, and every knitter, and every colour choice. There are no hard and fast rules (despite what some books and traditions tell us!)… you don’t necessarily want the contrast to pop against the background, for example. This column is all about the mechanics, which I’m happy to teach; your colour strategy is your own choice!

  • I had given up totally on stranded/fair isle as No method worked for me, I am a continental knitter and had tried right-handed, left-handed, both-handed and everything I could think of in-between. I even paid good money for one-one-one lessons to no avail. Then one day looking at a video for another stitch style which involved a bit of stranded knitting, I noticed that the demonstrator’s fingers were holding the yarn left-handed at such an angle that I had never noticed before. I tried it and it worked for me! (At least for that short bit of time that was needed.) We are all different even at finger angles, apparently.

    • That angle is what I’d like to see.

  • I’m glad I’m doing it the way you do! I’m a thrower; so I just leave one skein on either side and ‘one hand’ it.
    Makes me feel better!

  • I am not currently working on any color work but I was interested in trying your method to get over my reluctance for this type of knitting. I was wondering how managing floats is affected by this method?

  • I’m a proud dropper and make no excuses!

  • Thanks for this! I was struggling trying to learn the two handed stranding after having done the drop and knit method for years! Just so much quicker and even for me. I do lots of stretching out the stitches to make sure the stranding is even and not too tight.

  • Add me to the amen chorus. This is a technique I will certainly use.

  • This may be my favorite post yet. I’ve been doing drop-and-pick-up for years but never in front of other people because I thought it was kind of crazy. Doing it made me feel like Agador Spartacus trying to walk in shoes in the move The Birdcage. In theory, I can knit with the yarn in my right hand but in reality, if you see me doing that, call the cops because it is a sign that there is something terribly wrong.

    I find that putting one ball on either side of me helps me see really clearly if I’ve twisted my yarns and when I have to put the project down, I put it over a big empty wine jug with the balls on either side. You can use a full wine jug but it makes it harder to pour the wine.

    • I carry both yarns in my right hand. I put one over my index finger and one over my middle finger. I’m a thrower and I just move whichever finger is needed.

  • I would like guidance on how to carry colors when purling, I got the knit side, but purling, it is challenging, I am able to do multi colour when knitting in the round

  • This is great. I do 2 colors with 2 hands, but nobody should worry about how they knit. I carry the yarn in my right hand when knitting one color and once when I was knitting on a ferry a women stopped, looked at me and said, “Oh, you throw”, as if it was the most disappointing thing she’d seen all week. What on earth was she thinking!!?? Everyone, do what works!

  • Luv it! Luv it! Been afraid to try but after seen how you are teaching, I’ll need to go ahead and DO! Thank you!

  • I want to add my thanks Kate. I have been struggling with a scarf using the 2-handed method and not having much luck. I am so happy to start the scarf again using the drop and pick-up method. This time I know it will work for me. Hurrah.

  • Thanks Kate! I’m going to use this method for my colour work!

  • Thanks Kate. Wonderful instruction on a definitely less encouraged method. I hold the Over yarn where I would normally hold yarn to knit – my index finger. I am getting pretty good at holding the Under yarn on my middle finger and throwing from there. That took some practice!

  • Rita, that video is the one on Latvian braid done by Paper Tiger in which she works on a gorgeous aqua and black (or similar) hat pattern. She holds her fingers much farther out than I had been doing which provides much better and easier leverage. If that is the standard technique that I should have been doing all along, then why didn’t the paid-for yarn shop tutor point this out to me? Or did I just finally luck out and stumble on the one position that worked for me that nobody else (except perhaps one’s dedicated mother) could have anticipated. And also, it worked for the time I needed to execute that braid, but could I sustain that motion throughout a big section of a Fair Isle sweater? Yet to be determined.:) Chloe

  • I also carry both yarns in my right hand but use a yarn guide on my index finger to keep the yarn separated and in the correct position (under/over). It’s super quick but the downside is catching floats. If I have to catch floats, I move that yarn to my left hand, catch it as a float and
    Put it back on the yarn guide. I purchased my yarn guide on etsy – they’re hand made in sterling silver.

  • Even though I’m left-handed, I still can’t do two-handed color work. This was a really great visual demonstration. I can’t quite agree about the alphabetical designation, though, since that ignores the color domination effect.

  • Thanks for the top. I also hold my yarn in my right hand and most of the instructions are for those who hold yarn in their left hand. I will try that on my next project where I am using different colors on the same row.

  • Absolutely concur — my continental knitting is just not up to scratch to mix the 2 methods for colorwork so I shall continue to knit the way I prefer. If I finish something beautiful no one will know I did it contrary to most guidance. What they will see is a beautiful finished object. Thanks!

  • I’m with you Kate. I did my best colour work just before Christmas on a hat that was to be a gift. And holding both yarns in my right hand made all the difference. I wonder if those who do two handed stranding are normally Continental knitters. Do Shetland Island knitters knit two handed?

  • So happy to hear that you handle color stranding this way. I have never had any luck using both hands but I never had a teacher recommend any other way. I just developed a method similar to yours. Now that you explained how to avoid tangling, I am sure I will enjoy color work even more.

  • I think the drop method messes up the tension for both strands. I did that as a beginner and was unhappy with the result. The Shetland method works well for me because I experimented until I could have satisfactory tension on each hand. When knitting in the round I use the Philosopherś Wool method which automatically catches the yarn so there are no long floats. (Im not sure thats its name – I saw it first on the Philosphers Wool website.)

    • It’s hard to make a generalization that applies to all knitters, when it comes to things like tension. What’s true for you will absolutely not be true for others, and vice versa. For me, my tension gets seriously messed up if I do two-handed. It’s all about having options to figure out what works best for you! I’m happy when someone figures out their own best method – and it sounds like you’ve got one!

  • A game changer for me! I hold “ball 2” in my left hand to go under (letter t in “2” close to letter u in “under”) and “ball 1” in my right hand (“one” and “over” both with letter o). Yay!!! No more untwisting! Thank you so much for the enlightenment.

  • Do you know of a good place to donate unknit yarn that is of good quality?

    • Pam— my friend told me Project Linus will take yarn so they can make into blankets. You’ll have to find a local chapter.

  • I drop and pick up. It takes a little longer, but I end up with something I can give or wear! – Otherwise my tension is off and I don’t like the results. Great topic! …….I might try holding both yarns.

  • Thank you for this! I have been doing the drop method for over 40 years now and am very comfortable with it. Whenever I have tried the two-handed method, because it is the ‘right’ way, I am not happy with how I feel during knitting or with the results. So this is one thing I won’t worry about anymore. Now….can I just forgive myself for not liking sock knitting?

  • The joke’s on me! When I saw the title to this I was excited to read about knitting stranded ONLY continental! As I’m a content sl knitter who struggles with English/American-style knitting. As of now, I still seem faster at 2-handed than all lefty, to my great dismay.

  • Thank you for reaffirming that I’m the boss of my knitting! I’ve done both of the right-handed ways but felt like a failure for never mastering the two-handed method. I’ll just keep doing the way that makes me happy.

  • Hello Kate,
    I think Marie Wallin is the queen of colorwork. She uses the same method you use. I think is easy and the tension is the same in both strands.

  • Thank you for this great tutorial. I can’t wait to try your method!

  • People might think this is weird, and I haven’t finished the project yet so I don’t know how it turns out. I saw a blog post about stranded knitting where you knit the row with the main color and slip all the stitches for the other color. Then go back and do the same with the second color and slip the stitches you already did. Knitting every row twice seems like it would be annoying but I found it to be pretty fast because I wasn’t struggling with how to hold the yarn and all that. But I don’t know how it is for stuff like floats and not twisting etc. Curious if anyone has heard of this method?

  • This makes so much more sense to me now. When I do colorwork, I just take my time. The ranking of the yarns alphabetical by color is now my new way of knitting. I have another question though…what about when you have long swatches of just one color and you want to catch floats. Would that rule apply here as well?

  • I don’t have a strand guide but do continental. So I put my middle finger between the two colours to keep them separated.

  • thank you!!! I could never hold the yarn with both hands and kinda felt like a failure and of course it was always twisted

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