A few days ago I got an email from a knitter who said something like "My colourwork is crappy, yours isn’t, please tell me how to stop knitting crappy colourwork." We emailed back and forth, and it turned out that what was happening was that she was working a colourwork mitten (these ones, if you want to know) and that she’d ripped out her work about sixteen times before finishing even a single mitten, all because she was really unhappy with how it looked. We went back and forth, and it turned out that she was doing a bunch of stuff that made the whole thing really hard. I offered her a few tips, and I’m going to pass them along to you.
1. Are your floats floating? Floats are the stretches of the unused yarn that travel across the back of your work.
You knit four stitches (or however many) of one colour, then six of the other, and the unused yarn spans the distance between the last time it was used, and the next. The leading cause of crappy looking colourwork is puckering – and that’s caused by tight floats. The stretches of yarn aren’t long enough, and they pull the fabric together. If you spread the stitches out nicely while you make the float and make it even a little longer than you think you need, you’ll probably be a lot happier. The longer the float is, the harder it is to get this right. If you’re new, think about choosing a pattern with small floats. (Few stitches between changes.) Further to that, a pattern like the one I’m working makes nice floats harder- sort of, because the starting and stopping places for the floats are stacking on top of each other. If you’re learning, trying picking something where the floats are staggered, in both length and location. It will help disguise your learning curve.
2. Are your needles working against you? If the goal is to spread the work out nicely to make that float the right length, then slick metal needles can make that harder. Sometimes changing to wooden needles with a little grip can help you spread them out, and keep them there.
3. Have you blocked it? Before you decide your colourwork is crap– are you sure? While there are a few knitters who don’t find it to be the case, and I am envious of them, for most of us, colourwork looks a lot better after a bath and a patdown. (Remember that blocking isn’t defined by stretching. Just putting things in place.) I’ve blocked colourwork when it’s half done on the needles just to see how it’s going. It can be a miracle. While this sample isn’t really dramatic, I think you can see the difference between my blocked and unblocked mittens below. (I cheated and didn’t even really block the one on the right. I just steamed it with my kettle a little, and gave it a nudge.)
4. Is the yarn you’re using adding challenges? Wool is lovely, forgiving and remarkably plastic. It can be blocked to rethink it’s position more easily than other, less malleable fibres, and responds way more to subtle suggestions. I’m not slagging on other yarns, like cotton, silk or acrylic, but when it comes to colourwork, especially for beginners, the elasticity of wool (and how it can be convinced to change it’s mind about things) can be a really big help.
5. Have you woven in your ends? I know it seems obvious, but it is the tension on the yarn that prevents holes. The stitch where you start a new colour is going to be loose and crappy looking until you weave in the end to tidy things up. Those holes that make the work look crappy and unfinished aren’t the result of crappy knitting. It’s the result of it being unfinished. Weave your ends in before you decide it doesn’t look good. It can change a lot. While this picture is a little crappy, you can see how much better things look on the right, than they do on the left, and that’s just weaving in ends – and a light steaming.
This next one is a big deal.
6. Are you bad at this (right now)? This comes up in classes I teach all the time. Knitters being really, really hard on themselves. They’re learning a brand new thing… something they’ve never done before, and they suck at it. They’ll angrily exclaim "Why can’t I get this!" and I always answer the same way.
I say "Yeah. That’s weird. I mean, you’ve been trying this new skill for 10 minutes. You should have it absolutely mastered by now. Bizarre that you’re not perfect at it yet."
The truth is, that if you’re brand new to a skill, you probably suck. You’ll likely suck less tomorrow. Don’t throw in the towel because your first (or tenth) try at something isn’t successful. Sure.. you suck. You’re new. Keep trying and you’ll suck less. Later. It doesn’t mean you’re bad at colourwork. It means you don’t know how.