I’ve made four pairs of stranded mittens in the last year or so:
1. North Star mittens from Robin Hansen’s Knit Mittens! in Patons SWS, since given to my mother, who think they’re lovely and wants to hang them on the wall, having no use for them in California
2. Top-down mittens 5/16 from Anna Zilboorg’s Magnificent Mittens in Rowan Yorkshire Tweed DK and Brown Sheep Lamb’s Pride Worsted, same pattern as Hello Yarn’s, if you can believe it (hers look so much nicer!)
3. NHM #7 mittens from Terri Shea’s Selbuvotter in Knit Picks Telemark
4. and my Bird in Hand mittens from Kate Gilbert’s site, in Knit Picks Wool of the Andes and Classic Elite Tapestry (Ravelry link). These are still blocking, so this post is still not the big reveal.
I’ve learned some things from each project, and from the fascinating hive mind of the internet, along the way, so I just wanted to post about the tips and techniques I’ve been using, and the lessons I’ve learned. I am still far from an expert on colorwork and I look forward to learning more from each project I try.
Things I’ve learned the hard way:
- Yarn choice matters. (Duh! But I always seem to learn this the hard way.) I realized after my first two pairs of mittens, particularly after seeing the contrast between HelloYarn’s Magnificent Mittens in Cascade 220 and mine, in two different weights of leftover yarn, one woolly and tweedy, the other a fuzzy, hairy singles, that using a smooth, plied yarn (and using the same weight for both colors) can make all the difference in getting your colorwork to stand out and look good. The mohair haze and sheen muddled up my colorwork, and the tension suffered from the different yarns, so your eye is drawn more to the contrast between the textures in the two yarns than the contrast between the colors. So I went with Telemark for the next pair, and the difference is plain to see.
- Color choice matters a lot. For best results, pick two colors that contrast as much as possible in both color warmth and color saturation/value. One warm, light color and one cool, dark color, or vice versa. The Patons SWS in my first pair was pretty, but because the two colorways I picked (Natural Plum and Natural Navy) were too similar in tone, the pattern got lost and you have to search a little to pick it out. Swatch as much as possible before deciding on your colors; something that looks like it should make a good combination when you’re holding the skeins next to each other might not look so great once it’s been knit up. I swatched with a couple of other colors before deciding on brown and green for my Bird in Hand mittens; the front runner going into the swatch-off was a combination of brown and periwinkle that looked very pretty in the skein, but once I swatched it, I realized the periwinkle was too close in value to the brown and wouldn’t stand out… I needed something lighter and brighter. So lime green pulled a surprise upset victory.
- Knitting at a tight gauge makes for warm hands and pretty colorwork. Knitting at a looser gauge makes for soft, comfy mittens. Three of the four mittens above are knit at a bulletproof gauge–worsted weight on size 0, 1.5, and 3 needles and sport weight on size 1.5 needles. The Magnificent Mittens were knit on size 6 needles. They’re soft and pliable, but the wind gets into them on cold days, and I can’t make snowballs with them without the snow getting into them in about 2 seconds. I wore the Patons SWS mittens through a whole day of snowman-building and snowball fights and it was hours before the snow seeped through.
- Size matters. A lot. Check your row gauge against the number of rows before and after the thumb, and make sure you’ll wind up with some correspondence to your actual hand size. Unlike plain-colored or cabled pieces, many colorwork mittens are not really properly structured for easily lengthening or shortening without destroying the pattern. (Patterns with small repeats of geometric patterns are an exception–Elli’s Herringbone Mittens or Squirrelly Swedish Mittens come to mind.)
You’ll note the strange and non-anatomical thumb placement in my North Star mittens. Contrary to what you might believe from careful study of those mittens, my thumb does not emerge from my second finger joint and shoot up from there to the length of my fingertips. (I blithely assumed that all hands were roughly the same shape and that by following the directions, I’d be fine.) They were slightly better once on, but all the blocking in the world couldn’t save the fingers from being uncomfortably short. When I rode my bike while wearing those mittens, I’d have trouble squeezing the hand brakes because my fingers wouldn’t comfortably reach that far if my thumbs were still on the handlebars.
The Magnificent Mittens and Bird in Hand mittens fit the best. The Selbuvotter, as it turns out after blocking, are tragically about half an inch or an inch too long and quite a bit too wide in the hand. However, I might use the extra space to add an angora mitten liner.
- As techniques for working a small circumference in the round, Two circs, Magic Loop, and double-pointed needles (DPNs) all have their pluses and minuses. Two circs and Magic Loop are easy to transport and easy to work with–with DPNs, I tend to get all tangled up every now and then with the yarns getting caught on stray needle tips, and sometimes the needles fall out of my work. Also, you can divide the stitches into halves, a natural way to divide them up when you’re working on a mitten. Two circs has an advantage over Magic Loop in that you can use this technique with stiff-cabled or short circular needles. Magic Loop has the fewest needle tips to wrangle with, so it’s the easiest and tidiest in many circumstances, but you do need a flexible-cabled needle like Addi Turbos or Knit Picks Options to use with it. I think that generally, for colorwork, DPNs work the best for me. The reason for this is that you can always flatten the two needles you’re working on and keep the join between needles as flat as possible, minimizing the tendency to pull too tight on the yarn or strand the floats too tightly at corners. They also have a built-in stitch marker system without annoying dangly things–you can tell by the end of each needle if you’ve muffed up the pattern somewhere because your stitch count will be wrong by that point.
If you’re doing colorwork for the first time, making a hat, like the Inga Hat, the Red Light Special, or We Call Them Pirates, would be an easier way to start than mittens, because for most of the hat, you can just work on a 16″ circular needle instead of having the double frustration of keeping your colorwork even on DPNs, magic loop, or two circs.
Things I’ve learned the easy way (aka reading up in books and on the internet, and doing what I was told):
- Knitting two-handed makes colorwork much easier for me. I couldn’t work out holding two yarns in my left hand, so I re-learned how to knit English style, and now I hold the contrast color in my left hand and the main color in my right hand.
- Be consistent with the way you carry your yarns, and carry the contrast color ahead. Nonaknits has a good post on this. Since I knit colorwork two-handed, her notes about establishing color dominance couldn’t be applied to my knitting wholesale and I had to figure out that I first need to pick up the contrast color in my left hand, and then pick up the main color in my right hand so that it travels over the left-hand strand of yarn when I wrap it around the needle.
- Catch your floats as you go. (The float being the strand of yarn carried across the back of the work while not in use.) If a float travels over a significant number of stitches in a row–”significant” may vary from two stitches to five or six stitches–you should weave it in using the other color to keep it from snagging on your fingers when wearing the mitten. I also usually catch floats in the corners of my mittens, on the last stitch of a needle or the first stitch of the next one, so that the yarn doesn’t take the shortest path possible across the corner and make the work pucker on the right side. There are a lot of tutorials out there for how to do this. Sockpr0n has an extensive tutorial. I found this Knit Picks tutorial (warning, PDF) the most helpful, personally.
If I’m weaving in a float from my left hand (CC), I keep my left hand where it is, and instead of moving my right hand over the CC yarn to wrap the MC around the needle, I move my right hand under the CC yarn and wrap the MC around the needle. I resume knitting the normal way on the next stitch.
If I’m weaving in a float from my right hand (MC)–this isn’t a concern in most patterns, but the Bird in Hand mittens feature long runs of both MC and CC–I use the method shown in the Knit Picks PDF: wrap the MC as if to knit, wrap the CC as if to knit, unwrap the MC while leaving the CC on the needle, then complete the stitch. Unfortunately, it’s not as fluid of a motion for me as weaving in CC yarn and I find it much slower.
Either way, I have to give the stranded yarn a little tug after it’s caught in order to to pull it back, away from the front of the fabric.
- On a related note, strand your yarn as loosely as possible. I’m not very good at this yet, but in theory, your work will look best if you leave big sloppy floats hanging off the back of it. I have an unfortunate tendency to pull my floats pretty tight.
- Blocking is essential to colorwork, and covers a multitude of sins, so choose a blockable yarn and preferably one that can be ironed (i.e. no acrylic). Your colorwork will almost certainly look like crap once it comes off the needles, but it will undergo a magical transformation into a flat, even, well-behaved piece of knitting once it’s been blocked. I love blocking colorwork so much, I block twice. I soak the piece in Eucalan for a while (free samples at that link), squeeze the water out with a towel, and let the piece dry, either flat or stretched out on a bottle. After it’s dry, or mostly dry, I iron it with a hot iron, and it becomes ever so flat and lovely.
- Floats give you a nice way to weave in ends so nobody can see them from the outside. My end-weaving technique is not very beautiful or elegant, but it works. I thread a tapestry needle and weave the tail in and out over the floats like I’m darning a sock. I usually weave in ends by following the path of the yarn through the backs of stitches, but I can’t usually see the actual stitches due to all the floats, and my gauge is usually so tight with colorwork that weaving into the stitches is a royal pain. So I use my hybrid weaving technique and it works just fine for me.
As a general rule, I try to let the ends of yarn do double duty wherever possible so as to minimize the number of ends to weave in. So, for example, in the Bird in Hand mittens, which call for sewing down a picot hem on the inside of the work, I left a very long tail from the cast-on and used it to sew up the hem at the end. I also left long tails from where I attached the yarn again to knit the thumb, carried them up the inside of the thumb along the inside of the floats as I worked, and used them to embroider the details (eye, wing, beak, legs) on the bird on the tip of the thumb.
I hope this is helpful and I hope I haven’t left anything out! If you have any colorwork tips, techniques, or lessons learned the hard way, please share.