My Stranded Year – or, a Sanquhar vs Fair Isle Mash-Up

It slowly dawned upon me that I shall be knitting heaps of stranded colourwork this year.


Sanquhar vs Fair Isle mash-up swatch in Foula wool

Let me start off by saying that I’m very excited that I have been invited by Shetland Wool Week this year to work on a project together with my friend and purveyor of finest quotidian sound artefacts, Dr Felicity Ford. We will be joined by talented knitwear designed Di Gilpin., who was awarded The Balvenie Master of Craft award for the Textiles Category for 2012. I, for one, cannot wait to go to the Isles that have such rich knitting traditions and see them firsthand.

Shetland Wool Week Image

Shetland Wool Week, image © Dave Wheeler and used with kind permission

Secondly, those of you who are familiar with Susan Crawford’s work probably know she is working on a Vintage Shetland book. I’m pleased to say she has asked me again to knit a sample garment for her. It will be a very special Fair Isle jumper, and that’s all I’m allowed to say for now.

Lastly, my obsession with Sanquhar gloves knows no bounds, and I will be doing some research on them over the summer. A good excuse to 1) knit some more Sanquhar gloves; and 2) plan a visit to the Knitting Reference Library.

In preparation for all these stranded colourwork projects, I thought I’d investigate something that’s intrigued me for a while now. It’s colour dominance in stranded colourwork.


The top and bottom bands shows the Midge and Fly pattern from Sanquhar. The middle bands show typical Fair Isle patterns: a classic OXO border pattern and a peerie pattern to separate the two.

Although Sanquhar knitting typically only uses two colours, and Fair Isle usually a greater number of colours, for both you will only ever knit with two colours in one given row of knitting. This can be achieved in a number of ways. In all cases, you will strand the colour not in use along the back of the fabric, hence the name “stranded colourwork.”


The back of my swatch, showing the strands of the yarn not in use

For a long time, I used to knit with one colour in each hand: the one in my left hand to be knitted continental style, and the one in my right hand to be knitted English style. But I was never quite happy with my tension as the stitches made continental style were much looser than the one made English style. This was exacerbated by the nature of stranded colourwork: one yarn will always appear more dominant than the other. If you peer over the needles whilst you’re doing stranded colourwork, you will see that one yarn will always come from underneath the other. Usually, this is the dominant yarn.

In order to even out my tension problems between left and right hand, I first tried holding both yarns in my right hand. That didn’t work for me at all and not soon after I started knitting with both yarns in my left hand. My tension between dominant and non-dominant yarn is much more even now. I was curious to find out how big the difference is, in order to make an informed decision for my next stranded colourwork project. I decided to use both Sanquhar and Fair Isle patterns, as the effect might be different. The bottom half was knitted such that for each row, the light colour was on the right of my index finger, and the dark colour on the left. The peerie pattern (the small band separating the two bands of OXO patterns,) is where I switched over and the top half was knitted with the light colour always on the left and the dark on the right.


Bottom half: lighter yarn always on the right on my index finger, and darker yarn always on the left

Looking at the Sanquhar Midge and Fly pattern in the bottom half,the white stitches appear to be larger than the black ones, and the flies appear almost more like vertical stripes rather than small crosses, especially in close-up. As you can see from the picture of the back of the swatch, the floats of white yarn almost hide the black yarn floats.


Top half: lighter yarn always on the left of my index finger, darker yarn always on the right

Now for the top half: again, looking at the Midge and Fly pattern, I think that the black and white stitches are much more even in size, yet somehow the flies seem to be a bit less pronounced in the top half. In addition, I find the results of switching dominant yarns less obvious in the OXO border patterns.

Before knitting this swatch, I was convinced I would be able to clearly show which way looks better, and make up my mind about which side (left or right,) I ought to use as the dominant yarn. However, now I’m not so sure. For each of the Sanqhuhar and the Fair Isle, which one do you think looks better, top or bottom half of the swatch?

14 Replies to “My Stranded Year – or, a Sanquhar vs Fair Isle Mash-Up”

  1. what an interesting investigation! thanks for sharing it. I wouldn’t have expected such a difference.
    It’s a topic that is captivating my attention at the moment and hope to do some work on both Fair Isle and the Sanquhar.
    looking forward to your next posts on the subject!

  2. this has been worked with circular DPNs, hans’t it?
    when you switched to holding both strands with your left hand, this seemed to produce the best result for you. How did you hold the yarn? one for each finger? didn’t that again create an uneven tension between the stitches done with one finger and those done with the other finger throwing the yarn? Did you attempt to use the Knitting Thimble (like that shown here
    Sorry for the flood of questions!!
    PS beautiful wool that Foula 🙂

    1. Both yarns go over my index finger, just like when using a knitting thimble, although I don’t like them personally and manage perfectly well without one. This is easier than it sounds as you knit continental style, which means you’re just picking the yarn rather than throwing it.
      And yes, I knitted it on DPNs, but would use the same technique on circulars (with or without magic loop.)

  3. OK, love that you ‘care’ 🙂 but I honestly think it comes down to what you are used to and I have knitted ‘tons’ with one in the right hand and one in the left (continental) and am very even if I do say so myself! And to keep one colour always on the bottom and the other on top. Maybe I’ll try ‘messing’ with your trials myself . thanks.
    NOW, you are going to meet Di Gilpin???? sigh I would ‘kill’ for the pattern of that cropped grey sweater that she submitted to a shop/festival in London some time ago and YES she deserved that Balvenie Master award.

  4. In the Fair Isle, I like the upper one better. The upper one has crisper, better defined tan lines in the O, and the improvement of the Xs in the lower sample isn’t enough to offset the fuzzy Os for me. I suppose you could get really fiddly and make the upper Os and the lower Xs by switching which yarn is dominant based on what the pattern is doing…

  5. Interesting … a bit subtle for my level of knitting, but I think the top Fair Isle looks a bit better than the bottom one. In close up, the bottom Sanquar is marginally better, but I wouldn’t have picked out that distinction from the first photo.

  6. I use a yarn in each hand when knitting colourwork – I have found no appreciable difference, even when I’ve done swatches like this. I think there ought to be one, but am glad there’s not – it means I can carry the yarn I use less of in the left hand which works for me.

    Interesting post – thank you.

  7. My practice is to always be consistent with what yarns I’m holding where throughout a piece of knitting, and otherwise not to worry about it. We all have different knitting styles, and we all have different ways of thinking about which yarn is which, and we all have different ideas about what pleases us in the end result. (I tend to hold background in my right hand, foreground in my left–which is not the same distinction as your lighter/darker sorting, so, as you see, we already think about the process differently!) So I think both your swatches look good. But I wouldn’t switch between the techniques, because there are very subtle differences, although the only one that strikes me as evident from this far away is the visual dominance (or reticence) of the dark stitches in the single line through the center of the Fair Isle motif.

    1. Thanks for that Deb. I think I’ve come to a very similar conclusion: as long as I’m consistent throughout it doesn’t matter too much. I enjoyed doing the swatch and see that there are changes, but I’m not obviously drawn to one way or another. I think I’ll stick to pattern colour on the left, background on the right, which is mostly the top half, apart from the centre line in the OXO pattern (as there I stuck to the light on the left.) I like the top half marginally better.

  8. I’ve messed with a bunch of Fair Isle options, and while I did discover (to my dismay) that keeping track of which yarn was where was a good idea, that was the only conclusion I ultimately drew. Your “I like the top half marginally better” gives you a baseline for your general practice, and from here on it’s just time to be knitting {grin}.

  9. Certainly the top one looks more defined and clear. I stick with the background colour on my right hand as a rule the same as Deborah says above.
    It is interesting seeing how the colours do turn out as you have shown well from the sampler shown here.
    I am interested to know why you have titled your wool Foula wool but I expect I will find out if I read more of your blogs!

      1. Thanks, yes I saw that and looked at the link. I never knew the Foula folk were doing that – being a Shetlander – I was curious to find out! There are now a few outlets here for Shetland wool. The organic Shetland wool is another new one I heard about last year.

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