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Stranded Knitting: Part 6 - Holding Yarn and Tensioning (Video Episode 7)

Holding Yarns

I wish I could do a series of videos showing you the various methods of holding yarns for stranded work, but the truth of the matter is that I really only am good at one….two handed. This means I knit western with my right hand and continental with my left as I work the round.

The down side of this way of yarn management is you have to learn either western or continental, if you don’t already know both methods of knitting.

In spite of this obstacle, this is the method I teach…at least introduce…when I teach stranded knitting. As you know, there is no absolute right or wrong way to knit. This is just the way I do it.

For equity sake, I do discuss the other methods in class….knitting with both yarns in your right hand, knitting with both yarns in your left hand, and the seemingly easiest, pick up and drop method.

This last method is the one most of my students opt for when the idea of using both hands overwhelms them. They soon discover, however, one of the major upsides of the two handed method…if you keep the yarns separated on either side of your lap, the strands do not get twisted while you work. Trying to manage a new technique which includes working with two yarns as well as reading a chart while your yarns are doing a combination of a tango and the twist can be daunting at best and infuriating at worst. IMHO.


If you think about it, there are two different types of tensioning when it comes to stranded work. One is the way you tension the yarns in your hands and the other is the tension of the fabric you are creating.

Since we were just talking about holding the yarns, let’s start with the first one…tensioning your yarn.

Again, I can only show you the way I wrap the yarn around my fingers…and continental knitters, gasp or laugh at will. I know my left index finger is WAY up in the air…but I can’t seem to help it. Chalk it up to everyone knitting a bit differently.

As an expository aside…I learned to knit when I was eight. Taught by a wonderful woman named Anne, who was a friend of my mom’s. She immediately started me off on a top down pullover of royal blue Red Heart yarn. She very patiently showed me how to wrap the working yarn around the little finger of my right hand. This seems like a mysterious ritual to me, but I eventually realized without the little finger wrapping, the yarn was too loose to work with.

As the years went by, and my knitting skills got to what I optimistically like to refer to as “reasonably passing”, I needed more tension in the working yarn…so I wrapped the yarn around my…wait, let me check…my middle finger. We all do that, right? Sit down to knit, wrap the yarn around whatever fingers it takes to make the tension “feel” right. We do it without even thinking…which is why I had to check just then. I seriously could not remember how it went…I just do it.

Anyway, when I started two handed stranded knitting, I was taking a class in the Outer Hebrides…with Alice Starmore no less. The class was on selecting colors and designing motifs….no instruction on how to hold needles or anything. Ok, I know I could have asked…but who wants to be the whiney American who can’t do something everyone else I muddled through. Anne had taught me to wrap the yarn around my little finger on my right hand…so that’s what I did on the left. It seemed to work.

BTW...I have no idea why the left index finger stands at attention…it just does…or maybe the purpose is comic relief for the lifelong continental knitters. Sorry.

Moving on to tensioning the fabric. The predominant trouble here is too tight tension caused by the stranded yarn on the back being too tight causing the stitches on the needle to buckle.

Here’s a mental image for you from one of my beginning stranded classes. If the class is large enough, I make them all stand in a loose-ish row, shoulder to shoulder, facing me...telling them they each represent a knitted stitch. Then I hand the ends of two heavy ropes of different colors…one green, one the person at the end of the row to my right, telling her to hold the ropes in her left hand at waist level.

My helper takes the green rope behind the group and holds it loosely across their backs. I take the purple rope and pull it loosely across the front…telling each person to grab on to it also at waist level. Holding the rope symbolizes knitting the stitch.

I then ask the group what would happen if I tell my helper to pull tightly on the green rope at their backs. The result is everyone moving closer together and/or bowing out towards me in a knitting example of the Battle of the Bulge.

In addition to making you just die to be in one of my beginning stranded classes ;), I am hoping you will see my point…keeping the back strand relatively loose will help give you a final product with even tension.

But how is this accomplished? Through the years, many knitters have developed several methods of solving the problem. Consciously making the strand carried across the back looser, inserting a finger between the back strand and the back of the knitting creating a longer float, stretching out the knitting on the right needle which pulls out the floats and evens out the tension, and knitting the garment inside out which makes the stranded yarns take a slightly longer route around the work…these are some of the methods employed to make stranded tension more even.

What do I do? I actually had to think about…because once you master (or at least, incorporate) one of these techniques, you will do it without thinking about it. I work a few inches of stitches…leaving them kinda all scrunched up on the needle….but not on the tip…and then spread them out down the needle every so often. It seems to work well for me.

Bottom line, though…as with any new technique, the more you knit stranded, the better your knitting and your tension will be…but you all knew that…right? It’s that old “practice makes perfect” thing.

How do you tension your yarns...or your stranded knitting? Leave a comment.

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