I, as you may have noticed, do a lot of ordinary things slightly caterwampus. In some cases this is obvious, and in some cases it isn't; sometimes my way makes so much sense to me that it never occurs to me that anyone might do it any other way and I am horribly startled when I find out otherwise.

One of these things is knitting. My mother taught me to knit, some years ago -- it's one of the very few useful things she ever taught me intentionally, most of the others having been inadvertent life lessons by counterexample, such as the one about Why We Are Not Supposed To Float Checks Even If We Are Out Of Groceries Right Now. I took some scrap yarn and some of the straight needles she was trying to get rid of off to college with me after that Christmas and had a go at a scarf. A few inches up I decided that the standard method was inefficient and occasionally stupid, and was also killing my wrists, so I picked it apart, squinted at the interlocking for a while, to see if I could re-figure it from basic principles such that it didn't injure my precious typing appendages.

The basic construction of a knit fabric is that of rows of loops with other loops looped through them. It differs from crochet in that no one loop is stable by itself -- it must remain hooked through loops both above and below, or it the fabric will begin to unravel in a ladder-like fashion that will be quite familiar to you if you happen to have experience wearing pantyhose. (There are  some patterns that depend on dropping loops so that this happens, but that's beyond the scope of this explanation.) For flat pieces like scarves and blankets, which do not incorporate increases, decreases, or holes in their pattern (i.e, things that aren't made of lace), the only stitch-related variable that matters is whether the loop from the previous row slips to the front of the work (a purl stitch) or to the back of the work (a knit stitch).

The faster and much more motion-efficient method I worked out is apparently natively weird to me, and differs in at least one important respect from both English and Continental techniques. It's largely equivalent to combined knitting, except that I tension the yarn in the English fashion, with my right hand, and always throw it clockwise around the stitch, from the bottom around to the top. I also think the "proper" way to form a knit stitch is phenomenally awkward, and unless there is a specific and vital pattern-related reason to do it that way, I always knit in back instead -- that way I can just jam the needle straight through from the right and not worry about catching other loops by mistake. As with combined knitting, this twists every stitch slightly, but the k and the p twist in opposite directions. You can tell them apart by feel, which I think does not occur to most knitters. I've gotten some very startled looks from people for clicking away entire bedspreads in moss stitch (which in my translation goes kib, p, kib, p... alternate rows, ad infinitum) while watching movies in the dark. It goes very quickly and the resulting fabric is of a conveniently even tension.

Mog has recently fallen in love with a knit hat, but not so in love that she'd cough up ninety quid for it, so I had a look at it and found that it was a modified Fair Isle pattern. (True Fair Isle knitting uses traditional Shetland patterns, although there are similar motifs in some Scandinavian sweaters; the main point of commonality is that for practical reasons, such patterns are restricted to two colors per row, although there is nothing stopping you from changing the palette between rows wherever you like.) There are two main ways to do color work like this: Stranded, which requires you to run whichever color you're not using loose across the back of the work, and intarsia, in which you snip the yarn whenever you change colors and start the new.

These are both enormous pains in the ass. Stranded colorwork suffers from problems with drape, as the knit portion stretches differently from the unknit yarns behind it, and the long exposed yarns in the back are in constant danger of getting snagged. Intarsia suffers from having ninety bajillion yarn ends dangling down the back, which need to be painstakingly woven into the fabric when the piece is finished. Do it wrong, and stitches where the colors come together may work themselves loose while the garment is worn, which makes the entire jigsaw fall apart.

I happen to know that I am a lazy sod and I will never ever bother to do either of these things, no matter how pretty the end result might be. So I sat down and worked out a way to do colorblock without giving up out of frustration or driving myself insane.

The secret is a combination of modified 1 x 1 ribbing, sometimes called "magic knit", and double-knitting, a method by which show-offs will occasionally produce both socks in a pair at the same time on one set of needles. Magic knit or magic stretch is what's used to produce those one-size-fits-all winter gloves and mittens, that look like they're intended for toddlers when they're in the package but will expand to fit Sasquatch in a pinch. It's exactly like my variant of moss stitch given above, except instead of alternating in a checkerboard pattern, the kibs and ps line up to form vertical ribbing. Double-knitting uses two strands of yarn cast individually but interwoven onto the same needles, and knit using one yarn at a time. Non-interlocked double-knit produces two distinct fabrics which can be completely separated at the end; interlocked double-knit produces one fabric twice as thick whose front and back surfaces can be completely different. There is no wrong side, as both visible surfaces will show what appears to be stockinette stitch, but what is really just the alternate knit stitches (which pop forward) with the in-between purls (which pop backwards) hidden from view.

For a piece with color figures on a solid field, cast on the full number of stitches with the background color. Work however many rows of 1 x 1 magic knit (remember, that's kib, p, kib, p, kib, etc., kib into every kib and p into every p on the previous row, regardless of which way the work is facing) you want at the bottom. When you come to the first two color row, get out your second yarn, and lay it alongside your background color. Do not knot it -- it looks messy and is not necessary. Magic knit requires you to pull the yarn to the front before each purl and swing it to the back again before each kib. When you do this, make sure that your second color does not twist around the background yarn, and that it always lays behind a kib and in front of a p. The effect is that the color which is not being used is strung invisibly between the two visible surfaces of the ribbing. When you need to change colors for the figure, simply swap the yarns -- while you are working the magic knit with the second color, make sure the background runs behind kib and in front of p.

There are a number of advantages to this technique. Firstly, there are a minimum of ends to weave in. Because flat knitting is worked boustrophedonically, when you turn the piece and begin working your way back from the end you just finished, swinging the unused color from front to back will actually pull out any length of the unused yarn from in between the edge and either the last stitch where it was used in the previous row or the first stitch in which it is used in the current row, whichever you hit first. The unused color does not need to be snipped to prevent it from showing at the margins, because it runs through the work only within the area in which it is visible in the finished piece. This also means that you only need one ball of each color, eliminating the need to constantly juggle a dozen little butterflies from row to row.

Secondly, it's possible to produce a fabric which has a colorblock design only on one side, or one which has different designs on either surface. Only the kib stitches will show when the fabric is finished. If side A is facing you, each kib will show on the finished side A, and each p will show on the finished side B. (And if side B is facing you, each kib you work will show on side B and each p will show on side A -- it's obvious if you're looking at it, I assure you.) If you want a design to show only on the side currently facing you, just work it only on the kib stitches. Colorblock patterns which are intended to be worked stranded or intarsia are easily adapted to this, simply by remembering that each column of color in the pattern will be both a kib and a p in magic knit. That is, if you have a pattern that goes 1 1 2 2 1 2 1 2, to get it to come out on both sides you need to kib1, p1, kib1, p1, kib2, p2, kib2, p2, kib1, p1, kib2, p2, kib1, p1, kib2, p2; and to get it to come out only on the surface currently facing you with a solid field of color1 on the other side, you need to kib1, p1, kib1, p1, kib2, p1, kib2, p1, kib1, p1, kib2, p1, kib1, p1, kib2, p1.

Thirdly, it's possible to work with more than two colors per row, if you are both ambitious and very careful. "Double-knit" can be expanded to "treble-knit" or "quadruple-knit" or even "n-tuple-knit", if you are willing to keep track of each strand of yarn meticulously and make sure they don't tangle while you're working. The thickness of the fabric will increase slightly for each extra color you use; it seems to me that the practical limit for n would be about four, for yarns that are all approximately the same diameter, but it probably depends on the needle size and pattern. While you can change colors mid-stream, it's easiest to stick with the Fair Isle technique and alter palettes at the ends of rows whenever convenient.

The main disadvantages are that this takes twice as much yarn as any other method, and that it's unsuitable for textured patterns which depend on the interplay of k and p stitches -- both sides have to be at the same tension and free of random holes for the fabric to look correct. Beaded stitches, slipped or not, work fine, and it's probably possible to cable and bobble if you're sufficiently clever, although I haven't tried it, on account of I was too busy knitting Space Invaders to bother.

Comments

  1. I am not completely following this without diagrams/photos, but it sounds like you've just invented the equivalent of brocaded damask for knitting. Wow.

    Tutorial on your method of knitting, please? (Just the how you form stitches and move along the needle -- I am a weird knitter myself, but not in your way.)

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    1. kib: Hold yarn in tension in the right hand, with the yarn on the back side of the work. Stick the right-hand needle through the loop from the right, so that it crosses behind the left-hand needle. Throw the yarn with your right hand over the tip of the right-hand needle, clockwise from the bottom of the stitch to the top, such that the working yarn sticks out the top of the work. Use the tip of the right-hand needle to pull the loop under the left-hand needle and out through the front of the work. The loop will slip behind the working yarn, giving a knit stitch.

      p: Hold the yarn in tension in your right hand, with the yarn on the front side of the work. Stick the tip of the right-hand needle through the loop from the right, so that it crosses in front of the left-hand needle. Throw the yarn around the tip of the right needle with your right hand, clockwise from the bottom of the stitch to the top, such that the working yarn sticks out from the top of the work. Use the tip of the right-hand needle to pull the stitch under the left-hand needle and out the back of the work. The loop will fall to the front of the working yarn, giving you a purl stitch.

      It's very rare that I bother to k properly, but: Hold the yarn in tension in the right hand, with the yarn to the back of the work. Stick the right-hand needle through the loop from the left, so that it crosses in back of the left-hand needle. Throw the yarn around the tip of the right-hand needle clockwise from the bottom to the top, such that the working yarn sticks out the top of the work. Use the tip of the right-hand needle to pull the loop through to the front of the work. The previous loop will slip to the back and give a knit stitch. This is a PITA and I kib whenever possible.

      The working yarn is always in my right hand, and the left controls the loops still to be worked on the left-hand needle. I usually hold them with my left thumb, and use my left pointer finger to help guide the tip of the right-hand needle when pulling the new loop through the old (with this method, the right-hand needle tip always ends up sort of ducking under the left-hand needle when pulling the yarn through), hence my comments about cheap acrylic wearing my fingerprints off. I've got some interesting calluses on my left index and thumb now, but at least this method of knitting doesn't kill my wrists.

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    2. According to a knitting geek friend of mine, this is a known color block technique, but reinventing it is just as clever anyway.

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    3. Schreier's Reversible Knits and Baber's Double Knitting apparently cover the topic. It sounds far harder than ordinary stranded knitting to me, but maybe once I got used to it? (Though that's what I thought about teaching myself to knit European-style, and I never could manage that -- I mean, I could form the stitches, but I could never do it quickly or get the tension right.) May give it a try sometime.

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    4. Not surprised -- there's really nothing new under the sun. I'm under the impression that it's not a common colorblock technique, however. I had to work it out myself because I found no reference to it whatsoever, anywhere.

      I never like doing stranded knitting. I invariably bollix up the tension somewhere or catch a yarn ball on something, and it strikes me as untidy for things like scarves and blankets, where the wrong side is likely to be visible at some point during normal use. I refuse to even try intarsia again. I am notoriously lazy about weaving in ends, and there is no way in hell I would intentionally produce a thing that has multiple ends per row.

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