Stranded Colorwork: Consider the Float
In stranded colorwork, the term “float” refers to the unused strand of yarn that sits at the back, when you’re knitting with one color.
Stranded glory on the reverse side of the Cottage Throw
They’re actually what makes a stranded colorwork knit so warm, they form a lining!
The “problem” with floats is that if they are too long, they can be annoying, in both the knitting and the wearing.
In the knitting, a too-long float can create puckers in your work. That is, if you are working a long stretch with one color, when it comes time to change back to the resting color by grabbing it from a few stitches away, it can be challenging to keep the stitches from snugging up together. (Read about the just-right tensioned float here.)
that yellow yarn is a long way away . . .
In the wearing, a too-long float can catch on a finger or a toe or an earring, which can pull and stretch out the stitches, pucker up the fabric, and even cause the yarn to break. Aieeee!
Most patterns will specify how often to “catch” or “trap” floats at the back of the work. There are two key factors designers and technical editors use to determine how many stitches a float should be, and both of them are about the yarn: how thick it is, and how sticky it is.
Here’s the simple rule: if you’re going to be working more than about an inch (2.5 cm) or so in one color before changing, it’s a good idea to catch your float at about the middle of that length.
Consult the pattern for the gauge number. If your pattern gauge is 22 stitches in 4 inches (10 cm), your gauge per inch (2.5 cm) is about 6 stitches. So if the unused yarn in a row has to travel more than 6 stitches at the back before it’s used again, trap it about halfway. Are there 8 stitches between color changes? Trap the yarn on the third, fourth or fifth stitch of the single-color run—you get the idea.
If you’re working with a wool yarn that’s not superwash, and is very textured and sticky and grabby (like the lovely Atlas, and other woolen-spun yarns) you can go longer without catching—that is, more than an inch/2.5 cm. Why? Because this type of yarn naturally clings to itself so that floats stick together, and over time the fabric will all felt a bit. The risk of catching and pulling out of floats is significantly reduced!
On the other hand if you’re working with a smooth superwash wool (I do stranded colorwork with this type of yarn all the time, I love how easy it is to block and wash!), then the strands on the back of the fabric are always going to remain separate. In this case, stick fast to
the no-more-than-an-inch- of-stitches-without-catching rule.
Whatever yarn floats (ha!) your boat, get into stranded colorwork and you’ll never look back (except at the back of your work to check the floats now and then).