Real Knitting Talk: Flotation Devices

By Kay Gardiner
February 13, 2020

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106 Comments
  • As a knitter of a stranded colorwork sock that wouldn’t pass my heel due to tightness of the floats, I will say that (maybe) next time I will stick to Mum’s advice: every two or three stitches, so as to give yarn that extra tiny mile to help with the stretching. Of course, heavy on the “maybe” part.

    • OK, I am not making this up, it had never occurred to me to match the stranding technique to both the qualities of the yarn and the needs of the garment! Why oh why oh why haven’t I made this connection before? Please thank your Mom for me.

      Cheers!

  • I’m a relative newbie to color work. I leave the floats alone. I think when completed, a project like yours with beautifully neat floats of many colors is then equally lovely on both sides. The only time I have found them annoying is within a mitten where I often catch a ring. PS That blanket is spectacular!

    • I always turn my ring setting towards my palm before putting on any type of hand wear. It’s worked so far!

  • …”5/7 validated…” 😀 😀

    • Ditto for me.

      • Love how you think, Kay.

    • I looked at J.F.-C.’s post and I think she said she’d go 8 stitches! So you are 8/7ths / 114% validated by this rule!

  • I twist my yarn when knitting fairisle even though an expert said I shouldn’t, but for socks gloves or baby clothes it stops threads on the back being pulled or toes or fingers getting stuck in garments. Sometimes it is worth lining the article to prevent this.

    • I do the same.

  • If the stretch is longer than 7 stitches, I will usually trap my floats, but sometimes I don’t.If the yarn is a sticky hairy one, like Shetland wool, I don’t see the need because, as you say, the floats will obediently stick to the knitted fabric. You gotta love obedient yarn!

    • I think you have hit the key question: Are you working with “obedient” yarn(s)? Where you have fuzzy hairs that tend to hold yarn in place and maybe even eventually semi-felt it over time, catching the floats might actually be counter-productive, eg, because the WS won’t be as pretty. However, if I am working in a slicker yarn, EVERYTHING gets nearly nailed down or it pops out, catches stuff and generally makes me crazy eventually.

      It strikes me that this is yet another aspect that could be best settled when swatching.

  • I’ve been trapping floats on my coin cowl on those 7 stitch rows but I’m not going to any longer. It’s a pain, even with an easy-ish technique AND it slows the rhythm of the project AND if you’re not doing it then, damn it, neither am I! I feel free of floats!

    • Ooooh, I’m a Bad Influence, I love it!

  • For this project I’m letting most of them go. Even some as long as 10 stitches. I decided based on how my tension is and what the fabric looks like. Now I do plan to line mine. My husband can put a whole in sneakers with a toe. And a blanket loving Irish setter is in the mix

  • I generally trap my floats for anything over four stitches, but your article makes one think. Your coins look really good untrapped and I too do not like the little nubbins that show through when trapping long floats- especially in high-contrast colorwork. Of course, greater attention needs to be paid to avoid scrunching up the fabric, which you have done brilliantly!:)

    • or rather brilliants avoided!! Yikes!

    • Basically, it comes down to the yarn. Superwash no more than 4-5 stitches. Sticky yarn, not at all. Same rules as for knots.

      • Agree

        • Also agree.

    • Same here- but your floats are beautiful & even. I might be tempted to line such an awesome blanket in sari silk or an African textile: both are colourful & wildly patterned. perfect flip side to a Kaffe- inspired object( nope, haven’t started on a blanket- too busy enjoying the colours to think about a project)

  • I don’t trap my floats, not even the very long ones in the Sheep Heid and Baaable hats. I generally use “sticky” yarn (Jamiesons Spindrift, Lett Lopi, Shepherd’s Wool, BT Shelter and Loft) and afternoon a few wearings the strands just stick together.

    • I do the same. When you trap the yarn it shows on the front and makes a pucker and I just don’t like the appearance.

      • Thank you! I thought it was just my knitting, but I started trapping floats on a hat (6 stitches) and I noticed the puckering. And I thought I was watching my tension. I finally stopped trapping them and it looks much better. It’s merino wool, which I will not use again for a hat. (It was a kit).

  • If I’m doing colourwork that would result in longer floats, I knit the Coast Salish way.

    • What is the Coast Salish way referred to by Danielle?

      • You can find a good video tutorial on this technique on the Philosophers Wool website. I use this technique and love it.

        • Thanks for the video suggestion. I’ve always caught my floats this way but have never heard it named before. I always forget the “fourth stitch” method, though, so now I’ve bookmarked that page!

          I love it when the back of stranded knitting looks the same as the front, but have always been afraid of the floats snagging. Now I’ll be braver, because I almost always knit in wooly yarn for stranded.

        • I learned how to knit stranded that way. Bought their VHS tape (!) 20-ish years ago! That’s how I strand, too. I prefer that tightly woven look to the floats, although I admit that sometimes there’s some bleed on high-contrast colors.

        • Thank you so much for the video recommendation – will make my stranded knitting so much easier!!

        • PS – I have been making hats with Felted Tweed and Field Guide #13, and I’ve been only trapping the 4th stitch when there are 7 in one color – so not very often with most color patterns. As a result I’ve fallen in love with the Felted Tweed, and I am hooked on trying more stranded patterns. Even my husband said he loves all the colors and I should make him all the hats I can (he’s not a sweater guy so hats are an easy way to please, and they keep his head warm). Thank you for introducing me to these wonderful yarns, colors, and techniques!!

  • I’m 3 garments into my colorwork experience. I learned to catch floats from Suzanne Bryan’s wonderful video and I actually like the process of catching. However, the part I don’t like is staggering the floats. I always screw that up and several end up stacked. I’ve fallen in love with crunchy, sticky wool and for my next project, a vest by Ysolda, I’m not going to catch at all. Like you, I love the idea of those floats becoming felted and Velcro-y over time.

  • If 7 or more, I will catch (so break between 3 and 4). The most annoying part of trapping floats for me is that it causes my skeins to twist together and I have to stop and untangle so often. Not sure if this is just how I carry my yarns.

    • Look at Suzanne Bryan’s video (linked article in the related content) for a method that doesn’t twist the skeins.

  • If the distance between colors are 5 stitches for worsted weight yarn, or 7 stitches for fingering/sock, there is nothing wrong with floats. If the distances are much wider, I’d do Intarsia, and save some yarn. BTW The projects posted on this site are beautiful!

    • It blows my mind that you would do intarsia! So many separate lengths of yarn!

  • Right now, I can’t let a float go longer than 4 stitches. After reading your essay, and the comments, I will make a decision about float length based on stickiness of yarn and intended use of the FO.

  • I’m trying to master Susan Rainey’s technique (“It’s not about the hat” pattern and video on Ravelry). Also there is a similar woven stranded technique that looks so tidy like loom weaving. Whatever floats your boat, but I’m not a large float fan and the thought of it always gives me pause before beginning any color work.

  • Nobody here talks about man made yarns – oh sorry was that a swear word on this website? Felted yarn doesn’t need catching and I agree with everything in the article about them. But acrylic yarn needs catching every 4-5 stitches- thinking of fingers.

    • Yes, I think my nonchalance is mostly due to the stickiness of the Felted Tweed blend of fibers. It does include viscose, which is both plant-based and man-made!

  • I generally catch floats if they’re going to be longer than 3/4″, so it changes based on gauge!

    • I agree – I generally don’t go further than 5 st without catching the float but, secretly, I love catching floats!

  • I’ve been working on some Ibex Valley mittens that have some 10-stitch floats, and after some diligent experimentation and failure, I decided to let them be. The mittens are lined, for one thing, so after the initial blocking and trying-on, my fingers won’t be anywhere near them. And the ground fabric is natural white, with black patterning. The caught floats show. It’s really annoying. So—no more of that. I’m struggling enough just to let them be the tension they need to be. They’re made of Jamieson’s; they’ll be all right.

  • While the 7 stitch floats are free, I did trap the 14 stitch transition, midway, on the Kaffe KAL boxes – that I’m still deciding how to finish…

  • As a young girl, comments my mother made stuck in my head even though I had no idea why they were significant enough to utter. Our childhood babysitter “woke up” looking as pretty as she was during the day. My mother’s sister’s needlepoint was “as pretty on the backside as the front.” To these statements, I would add, Kay’s knitting is so even and gorgeous, it, too looks “as pretty on the backside as the front.” Also, totally agree with allowing “sticky” yarn to float and felt up.

  • The longest I’ll go without a catch is 4 stitches, unless the back of the work is completely hidden (a tube scarf or something lined). Lately, I find that my fingers do it automatically!

    • Agree! Now could we talk a moment about all those ENDS???

      • I am blessed with a love of weaving in ends so they bother me not. Perfect project while hunkered down in front of the TeeVee, and it always means I’m almost finished with a project.

        • Wow! An unteachable talent! That’s amazing. I can’t understand why I hate weaving in ends as much as I do. It makes no sense to me.

      • Jan, I just moved the ends to the inside of the pillow cover, but didn’t weave them more than 4 or 5 stitches. I just wanted to get them out of the way of the edges, because I’ll be doing a 3-needle bindoff OR an applied i-cord all the way around, and I wanted the edges to be accessible. About to block now so the edges are uncurled — might have to use blocking wires.

  • I limit my floats to 4 stitches. There’s no rule, but those seem short enough that little fingers and toes won’t easily catch on the inside of a sweater when putting it on. Yours are beautiful, though! I think if I were doing a blanket with sticky wool, I wouldn’t trap them, either.

  • Trapping floats on any color carried for 4 stitches is second nature for me. But what I have to watch is not catching them in the same place on each row.

    • I’m curious. Why can they not be in the same place?

      • If you stack the places where you catch the floats, it makes a little groove/indentation that shows on the RS.

        • Will you still get that intention if you use the same place every other row?

  • Way to go no trapping! Trapping leaves an ugly blip where it shows through onto the public face of the knitting.
    Those of us who have been knitting since the earth was cooling have nice even stitches and our floats are even, too. Plus you are knitting with wool and the first time you block your blankie the floats will work their way into the main fabric, sticking themselves to the stitches and will adhere even more every time you wash it.

    • LOL since the earth was cooling. And now it’s warming so I guess I’ve been knitting a long time.!

    • I so agree.

  • I never trap floats – too much extra work for me. I’ll avoid a pattern with floats longer than about 5-7 stitches.
    I’m also more likely to use a sticky yarn when doing colorwork so the floats meld with the knitted part.

  • I would do 3.

  • I have done a lot of stranded color work in the 70 years I have been knitting. I tack the floats in sweaters or when using acrylic yarn. But since I am a spinner and raise my own wool there are some things that just look cool and does grab itself such as in this coins blanket. I like the wrong side better then the right side. Besides over time it will felt down and just adds an extra level of warmth and durability. It is beautifully done.

  • I used to trap every 3-4 sts, but have been experimenting with longer floats usually no more than an inch or so. It has been going well; I like that the lack of bleed through to the front of the work. I think if I were knitting a baby item in superwash, I’d still keep with trapping every few sts, One of these days I’ll try that funky ladder technique for long floats.

    When I get to knitting the coins (it will happen one day!), I expect to leave the floats alone.

  • The back side of your blanket looks gorgeous! It would be a shame to have marred the uniformity with floats!

    I don’t even consider catching floats for less than 6 stitches, no matter the fiber. Although now that I think about it, gauge might be more of a factor than stitch count.

    If I’m dealing with more than 7, I consider using a variation of what the Rainey Sisters call invisible stranding and others call laddering, where you loop the floats over each other in the back and then knit the last loop together with a live stitch to hold the whole thing in place.

  • Don’t particularly like stranded colorwork, so don’t do it often, but when I do, anything roughly 7 stitches/1″ & under does not get trapped. Tried the Philosopher’s Wool method once (which is not, btw, the same as Coast Salish) & hated the stiff, un-stretchy fabric it produces. Knits are supposed to have give. Not to mention how fiddly it is. Especially if you knit Continental & normally strand both yarns in your left hand.

    • Correct. Salish knitters have their own style. Donna Druchunas wrote a great article on it a few years back and included short videos (http://knitty.com/ISSUEdf17/FEATdf17OKR/FEATdf17OKR.php)

      I’ve been lucky to have learned both techniques from Ann and Donna, knit English with both strands on my right hand, and don’t trap anything on smaller gauges. On larger gauges, I just break up the pattern motif because long strands and trapping is just annoying.

  • I love colorwork and I’m currently working on a Lopi coat that has a wide colorwork border at the bottom. I didn’t want to trap everything, since that changes the texture of the piece, but I had some longish floats that I wanted to manage. When I had finished the bottom border, I steam blocked it, and while I was doing that I did a bit of judicious carding on the backside with my handcards. It has worked a charm! All the longish floats are “glued” to the fabric and I don’t have to worry about them getting caught.

    • This is where it helps to be skilled in more than one of the fiber arts! I wouldn’t ever have thought of carding, not in a million years, but I can just imagine the fluffy perfection of those floats.

  • I am making a pair of Skystone Arm Warmers and am thinking the floats will get caught on fingers and rings, so I am contemplating making a simple lining for them. We’ll see how I feel about that when they’re done.

  • I love both sides of this blanket, and after reading this article would follow suit. The floats are divine. My personal rule of thumb: ratio of possible snagging to extra work. And because I’m lazy, I let the floats go pretty long, catching after 6 or seven stitches on a yoke, but definitely less than five if fingers or toes can get caught in the garment.

  • I catch my float on the 4th stitch. It’s a long time habit, so I don’t think that it takes up much more time. It looks neat and consistent.

  • Hi

  • I usually trap every 4-5 stitches, but I’m with you on that blanket. I wouldn’t do it on that,either. It’s gorgeous, by the way!

  • I enjoy using the philosopher’s wool technique on catching floats in small projects. I’ve never done a sweater much less a blanket so when i do, I’ll look vack to these comments. I learn so much on this site and i love the comments. What a great way to start my morning, and wow, that blanket is fabulous-front and back!

  • Since making a fair isle baby sweater a very long time ago, I’ve been trapping on the fourth stitch. I make sure to give the stitches on the needle a little stretch to set in the trapped yarn at a comfortable tension and try to move the trap stitch around to avoid ridges. It works for me!

  • I always trap floats. (Thanks, Mama, for teaching me that!)

    I have been knitting over 60 years, and I catch my floats every three stitches, sometimes two, but never four. I just don’t trust any yarn to do it for me, but that’s just me. Working with bobbins makes it a breeze, and I have a rhythm where I just flick my finger and send the bobbin over the yarn and it’s done.

    I have a huge extended family that doesn’t even know the concept of “hand wash, dry flat” exists. To keep my work for them, especially babies and kids, alive and well to be passed down, I work mostly in acrylic for them. I will never cry inconsolably again when a sweater for a person turns into a doll sweater after machine washing and drying. I find babies/kids can catch a 2-stitch float just as easily as a 7 stitch float. That said, with trapping floats I have NEVER had a float catch on anything, and practice makes the floats invisible on the right side with no puckering.

  • As time goes by, and I sail past or trap floats, I have come to not think tooooo much about them. I don’t stress if I let 7 stitches go by without a float. I haven’t trapped a finger yet in wearing, for instance, gloves. I just enjoy the knitting.

    • What an adorable Cavalier! (The dog, folks, not the comment.)

  • I tried using floats with my coin cowl on the 7 st round but found it just didn’t look all that great. So I pulled it out and left well enough alone. Blocked beautifully and as you noted, the floats stick a bit and just sit quietly behaving themselves.

  • I’m compulsive about trapping my floats; it’s just part of my colorwork knitting rhythm and I don’t even think about it. 3 stitches is my maximum without trapping; sometimes mixed up in smaller increments so I’m not always trapping on the same spot.

  • I use the method described in the book by Ann Bourgeois “Fair Isle Sweaters Simplified: Philosophers Wool”. It creates a completely flat back that looks woven. No snags.

  • I don’t trap floats under 9 to 11 stitches, and even then I decide based on the particular project. For longer floats, I use the Invisible Stranding method as explained and taught by Susan Rainey.

  • I’ve trapped floats my whole life doing fair isle in the philosophers wool method. I love doing it. It’s part of the rhythm for me, every four or five stitches. Seven stitches, arrrgh!

    However, reading your column I’ve decided to go ahead with the Rowan Felted Tweed I purchased from you for my Kaffe scarf to LET IT GO.

    I feel you are my kind of knitter.

    If I don’t like it you will hear from me.

    (Just kidding.) (Sort of.)

    ❤️

  • Five stitches but you have sold me on the seven stitches float.

  • How often I trap floats depends entirely on the weight of the yarn. I go more by ‘distance’ than by # of stitches. So, up to every 5th st with fingering weight, but, no more than every 3rd st with worsted. I’ll try this, though, next time I do stranded work with sticky yarn. Thanks!

  • It depends! It depends on the yarn, the weight and how sticky it is. I made a fulled bag and I went to the trouble of catching floats every 2-3 stitches over the whole things so that the floats wouldn’t pull in too much during the fulling. I might go 7 stitches for Shetland jumperweight, but stick to 4-5 for smooth worsted weight.

    Have you seen that ladderback jacquard stuff? I’d say it’s for the birds, but I did knit a pair of Expecto Draconum socks that way to tame the floats and I lived through the experience.

  • I’m ‘relatively’ new to stranded colorwork (doesn’t having 7-8 colorwork projects under my belt still make me a newbie?) I have decided for me that it depends more on the yarn. Sticky hairy yarns like Rowan felted tweed can go long distances without any trapping. I love the woven look of the underside, less fiddling while knitting, and strands stick together nicely with time. I’m currently doing a stranded pattern sweater with cotton, and I think I need to trap strands every 4-5 stitches.
    I learned how to double knit and made a great scarf – no floats at all! Still, double knitting = double the time to finish anything, so I’m not sure I will ever double knit again.

  • I just learned how to trap a float and quite frankly, it’s taking the pleasure out of knitting in color work; so when I read your comments today, I, too, felt validated and unafraid to tackle my epic project of the year, the Kate Stranded Stripe Throw! Thank you for sharing!

  • Most of my stranded colorwork is with sticky wool that behaves pretty nicely as long as the floats are nice and tidy. No trapping of floats under 1.5 or 2 inches here. But I make sure *most* floats are about an inch or less.

  • Love love love the blanket!

  • No trapping for me! I prefer how the floats both look and feel when they’re left alone. And I haven’t yet had trouble with free floats.

  • I trap floats pretty closely in mitts and gloves (and sleeves if I ever knit a sweater) because of fingers and rings. I like to keep floats down to less than half an inch on a hat. But on your blanket, I LOVE the way they look. Nice and orderly and arty. Because you know yarn so well, the reasons you give for clinging and melding make it practical as well as pretty.

    • Well … I’ve been OCD since childhood (VERY TIGHT anal-retentive knitter, so I gave up for 45 years) but I didn’t think I was being too obsessive with my traps until I read everyone else’s answers. I just finished a Fair Isle hat putting in an occasional third color (snow) using Hunter Hammersen’s genius Speckles technique. I guess I will see if I over-trapped after I block it.

  • I’ve also seen designs where floats Are front of sweater. Knitty hadonea while back and Ellen Page wore a great one in Tallulah, a great 2016 movie co-starring Allison Janney. Even though Page’s character could never have afforded to buy that sweater. I still dream about that sweater…..

  • I’m also quite new to stranded knitting and am currently knitting The Shieling by Kate Davies. As it is a blanket I feel there is potential for fingers and toes to get caught so have settled on a maximum of 4 stitches between trapping floats. So if I have a five stitch run in one colour I will trap the other yarn on stitch three. The longest run between colour changes is 11 ( if I recall correctly) and I trap on stitch 4 and 8. I’d like some tips on how to prevent the yarns tangling because every so often I have to stop and unravel the unholy mess I’ve made.

  • Is there any merit to using the needle felty stabby thing a couple of pokes on each coin to encourage the floats to be even more sticky and obedient? Lots of coins, I know.

  • I love the woven look of the untraped floats. I tried catching them and I didn’t care for it. I adore the mindless knitting of the coins.

  • I trap about every 3 stitches. I’m a loose knitter, and if I go farther than that, I have “issues.”

  • I trap floats after every few stitches, not so much because of the risk of catching long floats, but to help keeping the tension even. I use the techniques in your linked video but still get dots of contrast colour showing through. I’m planning to use ladder back jacquard in my next long float project (Papa by Junko) to see if that gives a clean flower outline. Thank heavens for generous knitters sharing their skills online!

  • I think this is my favorite article so far. No float stress, no float hassle I love it and makes me want to knit it !

  • I trap most 6+ stitch floats somewhere in their middle.

    • I trap every float and love the way it looks on the back! Being fairly new to stranded knitting I wasn’t aware (blissfully) of the pitfalls of catching all the floats. My sweater (Orkney by Marie Wallin )is almost done and I’m thrilled with it . Someone at my knitting group told me it was Coast Salish knitting, which I wasn’t aware of. A little knowledge…….

  • Floats schmoats. Vindication is mighty knowing others with Higher Knitting Powers just let sleeping floats lie.

  • Every 3 and since I do color work two/handed, it’s as quick and easy as…well, not. And looks fab.

  • I’d rather work stranded stuff as double knitting and not worry about the floats. 🙂 But I’m a super tight knitter, too.

  • Just checked J.F.-C’s Instagram and on 13/2 she even posted a picture of a sweater with 11-stitches floats untrapped! You ladies opened a whole new lot of worryless knitting for me (until now I wouldn’t go any further than 4 st without trapping)

  • Kay, i knew there was a reason why I liked you so much. Life is too short to sweat the floats. But would you do this UN-hairy yarn like cotton.???