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Color knitting with charts

Filed Under: Crafts, knitting and crochet

Becky Stern's O RLY? owl scarf; free pattern available.


Over at CRAFT a little while ago, Becky Stern posted this cool pattern for a scarf featuring the iconic O RLY? owl. I have no arguments with the pattern itself: I'd wear that scarf! It's awesome and hilarious. However, in terms of the execution, there are some technical issues worth discussing, particularly since Becky said that she wasn't completely happy with how the scarf came out.

If you want a scarf that has two good sides and the correct tension, it must have reversible stitches. The most common reversible stitch in scarf knitting is garter stitch, but there are myriad other possibilities.

It is not possible for a flat, single-layer scarf done in stranded or fair-isle knitting to have both a clear image and two good sides (you can see that the O RLY? scarf, as made, does not have a completely clear image). By definition, "stranded" means that strands of the yarn not in use on particular stitches are carried across the back of the work.

There are two "correct" ways to make the O RLY? scarf in which it will be reversible and not have visible yarn floats. A third technique is available, but would probably require redesigning the pattern significantly. All of these techniques take much more work than a flat, single-layer scarf.

Read more about it after the break, where we'll discuss various ways to use color charts in small accessories like scarves, bags, and pillow covers, and whether or not you should really worry much about doing things the "right" way.

Color knitting techniques(click thumbnails to view gallery)

Fair Isle scarvesFairly Easy Fair Isle exteriorFairly Easy Fair Isle interiorFair Isle coast - ScotlandClose up of stranded knitting from the front


Crafts are supposed to be fun. While I believe in helping people learn the ways to do something that are generally accepted as "the best," it's perfectly all right to "do it wrong" or make mistakes, as long as you're willing to live with the results. Sometimes the result will be a learning experience that you wind up scrapping, sometimes it will be an innovation, and sometimes it will be a final result that you're happy with even though it doesn't look like everyone else's.

(What I mean by that is: if you like the way the O RLY? scarf looks and feels with the yarn floats woven in on both sides, that's the way you should make it. The Knitting Police will not come in the middle of the night to take it -- or you -- away. Last I heard, they don't exist. As you can see, the visible yarn floats aren't even all that visible from a small distance, and I suspect they're only as visible as they are because of the ribbed stitch pattern that was used.)

The following instructions will help you turn any chart into a scarf, bag, or pillow cover, with all the "guts" of the work hidden from view.

First things first: when you use a chart design to knit a scarf, remember that the design at the end you knit as you're finishing must be knit from the top down. Otherwise, when you wear the scarf, with both ends hanging down, one end will be upside-down! This is not a problem with the O RLY? scarf: the pattern was already designed with the correct orientation.

In the round: stranded color-work

You can knit a double-sided scarf in the round: essentially, it's a tube that you'll block to be flat when you're finished with it. Stranded knitting is easier in the round than it is going back-and-forth on a flat piece, as long as you remember to make the yarn floats long enough that the scarf is still stretchy. The reason it's easier is that you never have to change the position of either of the yarns you're working with to purl a stitch.

Using the background color and circular needles of the appropriate length (a little less than twice the width of the scarf, so that your stitches fit on the needles without having to be stretched out), cast on twice the number of stitches that you need to knit the owl chart. You can add a few more stitches on each side, if you want, to border the chart with the background color. Join the yarn in a circle, and start knitting.

(It may be Knitting 101, but I should probably say at this point that when you knit in the round, using only the knit stitch on every row will give you stockinette stitch, which is what you want, here.)

Technically, stranded knitting is best with no more than two colors per row, because carrying three or more colors across the back of the work can become bulky. The owl chart appears to have three colors on some rows. My suggestion is to treat the gray shade in the chart as if it were white, then embroider the appropriate stitches in gray (or the color of your choice) using the duplicate stitch technique.

You may consider placing stitch markers at the "end" of each side, to help you keep your place (this would be before the first stitch and halfway through a round). You can purl one stitch on each side of the scarf tube, where you want the "edges", to help it lay flat more easily, but it's not necessary to do so. Cast off and seam up or graft the ends when you're done, and add fringe, if you want.

To see another scarf knit in this style, check out Binary.

Flat: consider intarsia

If you dislike knitting in the round, you can knit a second single-sided scarf of identical size and shape, and stitch it to the first along the edges, with the "wrong sides" together. Fringe away. I would add a garter stitch border to this style of scarf: an inch or two of garter stitch at each end, and an inch or so on each row.

You might try doing the flat version in black and white intarsia, then adding the gray stitches in duplicate stitch embroidery (as in the stranded color-work version).

Does this mean I have to knit the chart pattern twice?

In either case, you can choose to knit the chart pattern in on both sides, or just on the "front"; the back can be plain.

If you're knitting in the round, you might as well knit the pattern on both sides: you have to carry the yarn across the stitches of the back panel anyway. If you don't carry the yarn, it will negatively affect the tension of the stitches in the chart pattern. The carried stitches should be woven into the visible stitches every inch or so. You can stop carrying when you've finished knitting the color pattern, fastening off the color you use for your design. You may wish to pause in your knitting to add the duplicate stitches then, too.

Whatever you choose to do, knitting this scarf in ribbing (K1 P1) is probably not a good idea; stockinette stitch is pretty standard for relatively complicated color-work in any technique. Enough is going on in the color and pattern arena that you don't need to add texture to it in the same small piece, and purling shows bars between stitches that aren't really friendly to color-work. Flat scarves in stockinette stitch may have a problem with rolling side edges, but double-sided scarves usually don't. Blocking will help them a lot.

If you do not want a scarf with two layers, but do want to do color-work that looks good on both sides, there's one other option, but you probably can't use Becky's O RLY? chart for it. That option is double knitting. Technically, it's still two layers; the layers interlock with each other to make one really thick layer with two different sides. This technique tends to be used mostly for patterns with a lot of repeated motifs, like the punk rock kitty scarf I posted about a while back.

The mathy stuff: how to place a chart to make a pillow or bag

If you don't feel like knitting a full-length scarf, you can also just knit the chart portions in the round, maybe one on each side with a border of your choosing, and make a small cushion or bag out of them. Decide on the borders around the chart design by checking your gauge with the yarn you're using (knit a small sample at least 4" by 4", and find the average number of stitches per inch), which should give you a rough idea of how many stitches you'll need to get the size you want.

Please note that the following numbers are not necessarily applicable to the O RLY? chart; I pulled them out of thin air while writing this article, to demonstrate some basic principles. You can use them with any chart, but your numbers will probably be different. Also, you will not necessarily use the same instructions to determine chart placement on a sweater, which can vary based on a few factors.

If you're using a yarn that gives you four stitches per inch, and you want an 18" by 18" pillow because plenty of pillow forms come in that size, the number of stitches you'd cast on is 18x4x2: 18 inches, four stitches per inch, two sides of the pillow. That's 144 stitches (72 stitches per side), which may lead you to decide that if you're going to be doing that much knitting anyway, you'd rather have a scarf.

To figure out the placement of the chart in a pillow or bag, you need to know the row gauge as well. Let's say you had an average of 6 rows per inch in your gauge swatch. To get 18 inches of knitting, you'll need to multiply that number by the rows per inch, giving you a total of 108 rows.

Your gauge will be slightly different in the round than it is flat, but since you aren't knitting a garment that needs to fit over a part of the body, it's probably not a big deal.

To center a chart, count the number of columns in the chart. To make it easy, let's say that we're working with a chart that is 36 stitches wide and 72 rows tall.

With 72 stitches per side, you'd subtract 36 from 72 and learn that you have 36 stitches available to border the chart. Divide that in half, because you want to have stitches bordering the chart on both sides, and you find that you have 18 stitches on each side of the chart. That means that while knitting in the round on chart rows, you'd knit 18 border stitches, 36 chart stitches, 36 border stitches (wrapping around to the back side of the item), 36 chart stitches, and 18 border stitches.

To figure out where you should start the chart, you'd do the same kind of math: you start with 108 rows, then subtract 72 rows of chart, to give you 36 available rows for borders. You want a border on the top and the bottom, so you divide the 36 by 2, giving you 18. So, you'd knit 18 rows of the background color, start the chart and knit its 72 rows of color-work, then knit another 18 rows of background color.

Another way of putting this is that the chart, which is nine inches wide and twelve inches tall, has four and a half inches to either side of it, and three inches both above and below it. The finished piece is 18" square.

Obviously, any of this is applicable to knitting a pillow cover or bag flat with intarsia, except that you won't cast on twice the number of stitches that you need to create the width of the finished item, because you'll be knitting it in two separate pieces (in other words, when you doubled the number of stitches that you figured out with your gauge calculations, because you'll be knitting in the round? Don't do that doubling if you aren't.) When placing the chart, you won't wrap stitches around to the back, so your panel would be 18 border stitches, 36 chart stitches, and 18 more border stitches. (Row count will not be affected, because the piece will be the same height regardless of whether you knit it in the round or not!)

And needless to say, your actual numbers won't be as proportional to each other as the ones I chose here, nor do you necessarily have to choose to center the chart. But knowing what your gauge is, and how many stitches and rows you'll need to get the finished size you want, will help you figure out where you want to put it.

(If knitting in the round, it might be really interesting to put the motifs on the "seams" of a bag, but you don't really have to do anything unusual with placements to get them there: knit normally, then change the location of the side folds before you seam the bottom! Magically, the stuff from the front and back is now on the side.)

If you make a bag, you will need to make or buy some handles for it, and you will probably need to line it.

I hope this has helped you straighten out any confusion about how to knit accessories with nifty pictures on them. I've mentioned a lot of techniques in this article; below, you'll find links showing you how to do all the things we've discussed. YA, RLY!

Helpful links

  • KnittingHelp's "Advanced Knitting Techniques" videos: Videos showing stranded color-work, intarsia, and double knitting begin about 2/3 of the way down the page.
  • Fair Isle 101 at She Ewe Knits: A quick run-down of all the basic techniques of stranded color-work knitting.
  • Virtual Yarns: E-commerce site of famed Scottish knitwear designers Alice and Jade Starmore. Splendid examples of Fair Isle patterns knit in the round to make cushions, bags, and scarves (as well as the more usual sweaters and vests). You can order kits here, too!
  • Learn Intarsia Knitting at Sweaterscapes: Another quick run-down, this one for intarsia basics.
  • Intarsia at Vicki Designs: A basic technical page showing how to twist the two colors of yarn together when knitting intarsia patterns, and also shows what patterns look like from the front (good!) and back (not so good!).
  • Lucy Neatby's Intarsia Hints: A few tips from a popular teacher and designer.
  • Duplicate Stitch at Sweaterscapes: Photo demonstration that shows you how to embroider a "knitted" stitch on top of a real one. Also called "Swiss Darning".
  • Duplicate Stitch at The Knitting Fiend: A slightly longer color photo tutorial showing a block of duplicate stitches.
  • Double Knitting Tutorials at Stitch Diva: Comprehensive, well-photographed instruction in the double knitting technique.
  • Lining a Knitted Bag at Needle Book: Lining instructions, but really for a bag with a bottom gusset (square bottom panel). For the style of bag we're discussing here, just sew two correctly-sized pieces of fabric together on three sides (not the top!) with their right (front) sides facing each other, then follow the remaining instructions.
  • Color Knitting Charts at Knitting-And: A plethora of charts, many on pop-culture themes (Star Wars, Star Trek, Pokemon, etc), but also medieval, celtic, and other cultural designs. Some of these charts are for intarsia, and others, noted as "Fair Isle," are specifically for stranded knitting.
  • DIY Toolkit: Knitting and Crochet: If, as far as you are concerned, this post might as well have been in a foreign language, our Knitting and Crochet Toolkit should help you pick up basics that you've missed.


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