Thursday, June 05, 2008

Let's Talk Fair Isle

Last week I showed you a photo of some Fair Isle swatching I was doing in planning for an upcoming sock project. In the photo, I used some leftover red, green and white yarns, but the plan was to custom-dye some colors for the sock.

Here I am a week later and not only did the custom-dyed yarn dry, but I also completed the design work and finished the first sock!

I used four semi-solid colors for the Fair Isle leg section and then used a handpainted yarn that combined the four colors for the ribbed cuff and foot, including the heel and toe. I know this sock might be a bit busy for the taste of some, but I really love it. That's one of the joys of socks; you can go a bit wild on the design without worrying about being too garish as you might if it were a sweater or other garment.

When I initially posted about this project last week, Lynne inquired about how to deal with the lack of elasticity of Fair Isle knitting. I thought I'd chat about that a bit here, since I've heard this same comment a number of times in different knitting forums. While it's true that Fair Isle by its very nature is less elastic than plain knitting (with the "floats" of yarn on the reverse side constraining the fabric's usual ability to stretch), it's still quite possible to make a sock with enough stretch to fit nicely.

First let me step back and show you the sock on my foot. It is a bit snugger than a usual sock when pulling it on over the broadest portion of the foot over the heel, but it's not a struggle and actually fits quite nicely.

I got to thinking about what folks find challenging about working in Fair Isle for socks and thought I'd share those thoughts here. Let me start by saying that I do not hold myself out as some sort of Fair Isle expert. Like most of my knitting, I'm almost entirely self-taught and most of what I know I've learned through trial and error and a good bit of stubborn persistence as opposed to any vast research. With that caveat to ensure you know that I'm no grand authority, I'll move on to my tips for whatever they may be worth.

The problem with Fair Isle and socks is that socks need to stretch to fit over the foot. The nature of the strands or floats on the inside of the sock can inhibit that elasticity. Obviously, the key is to leave enough wiggle room or slack in the floats to allow the fabric to stretch, but not to create loose loops of yarn that will snag or cause the stitches themselves to loosen up and look too sloppy.

Here's a photo of the sock inside out so that you can see the floats:

The first tip to get the floats right is simply to be conscious of them and to practice. Knit a swatch in the round with several rows of Fair Isle followed by stockinet. The gauge may be a bit tighter in the Fair Isle section, but it is should be very close. Tug on the swatch horizontally to see if your Fair Isle has enough give. If not, try again and loosen your floats.

The next thing to consider is the yarn itself. If you use a yarn that does not have enough stretch to it, then your floats will be written in stone. By that I mean that the floats themselves won't stretch. If the yarn is springy, the floats themselves will have a bit of elasticity. You don't want to rely too much on the elasticity of the floats though, as you could be setting yourself up to stretch them so taut that you end up with the yarn eventually breaking which would be tragic indeed. It is, however, worth thinking about your yarn choice. My Superwash Merino Wool Sock Yarn that I used for these socks has lots of nice spring to it. On the other hand, the Merino/Tencel blend sock yarn that I carry would not be a good choice. The Tencel has very little give at all and so that yarn would be very constricting. Some sock yarns with a healthy dose of nylon might have this problem as well.

Another tip is to spread the stitches out on your needles more than you normally would. Most of us tend to crowd the stitches, bunching them together fairly closely so that we can zip along quickly without much readjustment. This, of course, creates a shorter distance for the floats to travel. By spreading out the stitches a bit more on your needles, you may find it easier to keep your floats looser and longer.

There's also a problem area that I think some people overlook when knitting Fair Isle socks on DPNs. As you move from one needle to another, your work turns a corner. Picture the two needle points where they form an X, with half of that X forming a V shape on the interior of the sock. As you round that corner and move on to knitting from a new needle, the yarn that is carried behind to create a float will follow the shortest path and will make a line that basically forms a triangle from that V shape. The true length of the float you want at that point would actually follow the line of the V. You need to consciously give that float a little extra length so that there is enough float to follow the line of the fabric rather than taking the shortcut. Although that may seem like a miniscule difference, it really does have an impact, particularly with 3 or 4 corners in a sock (depending on whether you knit with 4 or 5 DPNs).

If you still find it difficult to get the tension right, another trick you can use is to knit the sock inside out. This doesn't mean purling on every row. Rather, you knit along the needle at the back of the work, so that the interior (right side in this case) of the sock you are working on is facing you. By doing this, you gain two benefits. One is simply that you can see your floats as you go and keep yourself constantly in check. The other is that the circumference around the sock on the outside is greater than the circumference on the inside. By its very nature, you'll have slightly longer floats knitting this way. You'll also eliminate the "corner" problem described above, because your floats will be wrapping around the outside of the work rather than taking the shortcut around corners inside.

There are other things you can do with increases and decreases to circumvent the problems, but I think of these as band-aid solutions and more of a last resort than a plan. To use this sock that I knit as an example, I might have chosen to knit the ribbed section and then on the first round of the Fair Isle pattern (which is a solid color round), I could have increased evenly by 8 stitches around. Then, on the final row of Fair Isle (also a solid color round), I could have decreased evenly by 8 stitches.

In the example of this sock, the increase/decrease solution is not problematic since each section of this Fair Isle pattern has an 8 stitch repeat. It's not so easy, however, if your pattern combines Fair Isle elements with various stitch numbers. One solution to that might be to add a vertical band of a few stitches in one color to the inner and outer sides of the sock. Positioned properly this could look fine and appear to be a design element. This would give you some real estate to increase and decrease with ease without having to do any complicated fidgeting with the pattern detail.

Well, I've certainly said a mouthful here, although I have no idea if any of this will be helpful to anyone. If you're considering trying your hand at Fair Isle or have perhaps struggled with Fair Isle socks in the past, I do think it's worth the effort to find your way to a solution that works for you. The patterns are limitless and so much fun to knit!

Now that I've been bitten again by the Fair Isle bug, you can expect to see more before long I'm sure.

Now go knit!


Dana L said...

I like your Fair Isle sock. Will you be selling the pattern and the yarn as a kit?
Dana L (craftydana32 @yahoo. com)

Lynne E. said...

Thanks for the tips, in particular the ones about the V's at the "corners", and knitting with the floats on the outside!

Dana Jensen said...

Thank you sooooo much! The only other thing I could find about fair isle and stretchiness of socks said it isn't possible! I made the Lizard socks for my grandson, and no one could get them on! They look perfect but absolutely no stretch . . . 75% superwash merino and 25% nylon which I see above that you say won't stretch. I'm also a tight knitter, so I think spreading out the stitches will really help . . . Bless you!!

Dana J (Dana seems to be a popular name right now . . . bet I'm a generation older though - 62 :)

Kim PT said...

Hi there! Thanks for this blog. I'm onto my fifth attempt at a fair isle sock that I'm making for my sister and I hope that this time, with eight extra stitches and needles 3 sizes bigger than the wool asks for, knitted inside out I may FINALLY get the thing to fit over my heel.

The failures are so pretty that I keep on trying.