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Keep it loose! That’s the ticket when it comes to stranded colorwork. This quick set of hints and hacks will help you relax your work and avoid the pinchy, uptight stuff that can sometimes happen.

When you’re working with two colors, your fabric is going to be somewhat tighter than when you work with only one color. You’re not doing anything wrong; changing colors always pulls stitches in a bit.

What is up with that?

You may have noticed that the gauge of plain stockinette stitch worked in a single color usually conforms to a standard ratio: about 3 stitches for every 4 rows, no matter the weight of yarn. In other words, a knit stitch is wider than it is tall in plain, single-color stockinette. If you measure the width of 3 stitches, you’ll find that measurement is pretty close to the height of 4 rows/rounds.

But in stranded colorwork, the stitches are always narrower. This isn’t a mistake, it’s just the nature of the fabric. Those strands across the back snug the stitches up. A typical stranded colorwork fabric leaves the row/round gauge about the same, but has more stitches in 4 inches/10 cm than the same yarn and needle combo worked in single-color stockinette.

This is why, in a pattern that has plain stockinette and colorwork sections, you sometimes see a change in stitch count or needle size, to balance things out: more stitches and/or larger needles for the colorwork section.

Tension tips

A too-tight fabric can cause a couple of issues. It can make your finished piece too small, and it can reduce stretch in the knitted fabric. No worries! Here a few simple tricks to help you keep things relaxed.

Try a larger needle. If checking gauge is your thing, you’ll get a sense of it that way.

Be consistent. Notice how you’re holding the yarns—which color in which hand. And pay attention to which yarn goes over, which one goes under as you work.

Spread the stitches out. If you usually bunch stitches up on the needles to work faster, make a point of spacing the stitches apart.

Spacing out your stitches will keep your knitting nice and relaxed!

These stitches are too close together. The fabric will be tight.

Catch those floats

One last tip: If there’s a long stretch of one color—more than about 6 or 7 stitches—it’s a good idea to catch the color not in use along the back of your work.

Look at Round 17 of my moose and tree pattern above. See that stretch of 9 stitches in the background color before I need to change to the foreground? When I carry the unused yarn along, it will be easier to keep it relaxed. Carrying is known variously as “wrapping” or “trapping” or “catching” the “floats.” And there are a variety of ways to do it.

How you do it depends on how you hold your yarns.

Both yarns in the right hand: Twist the active yarn around the resting yarn.

Twisting introduces a twist in the yarns, and if you find that makes the yarn hard to handle, you can get clever: twist twice in one float. For example, before the middle stitch of my long stretch of color, I take the working yarn over the resting yarn as you see above, then I knit the next stitch, and then I bring the working yarn back the way it came, in the opposite direction: twist, knit, untwist.

One yarn held in each hand: Have a look at Arne and Carlos’s tutorial here for one method, and Tin Can Knits’s for another method here.

Both yarns held in your left hand: Make a twist by picking the yarn from the wrong place. For example, if you would normally go under to get the active yarn, go over; if you would normally go under to get the active yarn, go over.

Practice and see what works for you. If you do find that you’ve introduced a couple of twists in your yarn, that’s fine. Check at the end of the round. I untwist my work by just “dangling it” and letting it spin.

More colorwork wisdom from Kate

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.


  • Can’t wait to try these tips! Thank-you!

  • I am having trouble saving this article. When I click the link on How To Save it says that it can’t be found. Have the directions for saving changed?

    • We’re working on fixing all the bugs; as you can imagine, the list is a bit…list-y. Thanks for hanging in there while we get it all taken care of.

      • not that I want to add to your list-y list – but I had some issues on my phone this am with the site – tried to hit this link from FB – once I landed there it would not scroll. Tried to hit the site directly from a browser on my phone – same issue on the landing page. using Safari on an apple device. it was fine when I used my laptop (with Safari).

        • JPATRASH – that’s a known issue as well, and as you note, it does seem to be specific to Safari and iPhones/iPads. We’re working on it!

      • Thanks, DG! I’ll just knit a few more rounds while I wait….

  • Me, too. I’m signed in, but I can’t find the old red ribbon button that used to save the article. And I’m getting the error message on the “how to” link too.

    I’m in awe at the work involved by you all to get this new (improved!) web site up and running, while still running MDK as always. I hope you don’t mind us mentioning bugs.

  • Kate, as usual, your article is very timely and extremely helpful! Thank you! I love the ‘untwisting’ tips!

  • To save now it is possible to go to the “How To” tab at the top. Kate’s post will show up there. It will save by clicking on the bookmark in the small screenshot of the article.
    DG, I have never seen a tech response at 5:34 a.m.! Somebody at headquarters owes you a donut and a coffee!

    • I was able to save the article by going to How To, but the banner now turns grey instead of red.

      • It is gray, but still saved it when I checked in my account.

  • Good Morning. I have noticed that your new website now requires two loadings of the “Read on” link to permit full access. That is, the first loading offers the opening of the site title page, but it is a frozen image that will not allow scrolling. When I go back to the Gmail post and again load the “Read on” link, the second opening is as intended, and scrolling is permitted.

    This has happened every day since the launch of the new site.

    • Same issue for me. Assuming you all are working hard on the “list-y” list of tiny not-working-quite-right things. Thank you all so very much!!!!

  • Love all these tips— really great advice. My favorite stranded-gauge loosener, in case it helps someone else, is to turn the work inside out while knitting. You then knit on it same as before, you are just looking at the right side of the knitting on the far side of your lap.

    • This sounds like such a good idea – thank you so much! I would never have thought of this but it makes perfect sense.

  • Thank you so much, Kate! I’ve been determined to finally get a handle on colorwork this year and my mittens are ending up so tight that I can’t get them over my knuckles. I’m going to try your tips – today! I love knitting and crochet – so many things to learn and so many friendly teachers!

  • Excellent article. I saved it but now I can’t figure out how to access saved articles. I have yet to fine the ‘little person’ at the top header. I can barely sign in anymore. It would have been helpful to find a way to keep folks signed in with this major overhaul. I have same problem with first glance and page won’t scroll and have to step out and back in to get article to scroll. Thanks.

    • The “little person” has been replaced by MY ACCOUNT. After clicking there (assuming you are logged in) the Account page has a menu on the left in red; “Saved Articles” is now called “Favorites”, and they seem to show up in reverse order – the most recent is at the end. I think!

  • As always, this is a very informative article. However, I believe there is an error in the explanation for “Both yarns held in your left hand”. The sentence beginning “For example” repeats the instructions for “if you would normally go under”. Shouldn’t the second one be for the opposite (normally going over)? Thanks!

  • It would be so helpful to see photos of the WRONG side of stranded colorwork – showing examples of too tight, too loose and just right floats!! I don’t know why no one does this with these articles. Same with videos!

  • I hold both colors in my right hand. “twist, knit, untwist” – this is going to change my life! Thank you!

  • Add me to the list of those having issues saving this article. I did log in, it’s just the save button never turns orange. Thanks for working so hard to fix the issues.

  • I do my stranded knitting inside out so the floats are at their widest. That way the floats are at their widest. It solved all my tension issues and doesn’t require that I go up a needle size for stranded areas.

  • When I knit stranded color work, I usually hold one yarn in one hand and the other yarn in the other hand. That and making sure my stitches aren’t squished work well for me to not have pinched work. I’d love to see how people work a project inside out – my brain just can’t picture how to make that work! I do appreciate learning other ways to help keep stranded color work at a good tension. Thank you for sharing!

  • Thanks for the tips. They will be very helpful on my next two color journey.

  • Great article, thanks for the tips.

  • I like Kate’s articles because she’s practical and not preachy. In fact, I think that approach is pretty typical of all the writers on MDK, including the commenters. I appreciate being shown options instead of being told that if I don’t do things exactly as prescribed, I’m an immoral person and—worse!—a bad knitter. Thank you for showing us different ways to accomplish our goals.

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