Sunday, September 04, 2011

Why don't I spell it out.

Since apparently, some folks aren't getting it.

This is aimed (mostly) at knitting professionals. You know, the people you expect to KNOW STUFF. Say, producers of international magazines and publishers of lots of knitting books. The rest of you, well, I hope you find it interesting and educational, but since it's your hobby and not your JOB to know this stuff, well, it's your hobby, so enjoy.


There are a bunch of different types of color knitting, but for now we're going to cover the two major types so I'm not here all freaking day (and neither are you). The two main types (not counting stripes or using types of variegated yarns, or slipped stitches, or...) are intarsia and stranded.

INTARSIA means "to insert" as in puzzle pieces, in Arabic. (I think Arabic.) The knitting term is swiped from a woodworking technique of the same name, in which pictures are made with little bits of different colored woods put together. That's basically what it is in knitting, but with fiber instead of wood. You knit little blobs of knitting, and twist the yarns together where the colors meet, to hold the little bits together. Generally, if a blob of color is more than an inch across, it's done with intarsia, because that's what it's best suited for. It gives you big blocks of color, like this:
Kaffe Fassett is probably the most well known/notorious/insane(?) of designers who regularly use this technique, and this is his "Long Leaf Coat". For technique how-to, you can cruise over to Knitting Help to learn or jog your memory.

Then, there is STRANDED COLOR. It is just like it sounds like. You use two (or more) colors, and carry them along in strands across the back of the knitting, using whichever color you want to or feel like or the pattern says to do it. This is, historically, a popular method, because with all those strands running behind the main fabric, the thickness of the fabric doubles, at least. Which makes it much warmer. Because of all the strands running along behind, most folks don't knit with one color for more than an inch at a time, and usually try to stick with only two colors, for the sake of sanity. You wind up with smaller patterns, that often look like this:
This happens to be Dale of Norway's Hafjell, knit by Yours Truly. (I'd have put up an example of my intarsia knitting, but I hate intarsia.)

So, get it? The two-color technique is called STRANDED COLOR. Anything knit with the other color running along the back, ANYTHING done with that TECHNIQUE, is called "stranded color".

FAIR ISLE IS A HISTORIC GROUP OF PATTERNS BASED IN THE NORTH SEA. They are knit WITH the stranded color technique, and are FAIR ISLE PATTERNED. The hallmark of the Fair Isle is an XOXOXO horizontal striping effect:
See? Wait, why don't I help.
Horizontal striping, XOXO within the stripe. More modern versions sometimes disguise the XO quite a bit with flowers and other pretties,
and in this case, the X is the negative space, but if you look, it's there. (Also, look at the ribbing. That's called "corrugated ribbing" and is another design point for this traditional type of sweater.) Some folks get into arguments over whether some types of sweaters are really Fair Isle or not, because the islands in question have been influenced by many many other cultures over the years. But really, if you're getting strict about definition, you need an XO pattern for it to be Fair Isle. It might be beautiful and awesome, but it might not be a Fair Isle.
Here's one we could argue over. I'm not sure if I consider it traditional or not, but I'm putting it here to give you an idea how hard it is to label some of the newer designs. And in the overall scheme of things, it doesn't matter a damn - it's a beautiful sweater and looks quite durable and warm, and that's what matters. But we're talking about correct labels here, so I'm trying to be, you know, correct. All above Fair Isle pictures are from the lovely book "The Art of Fair Isle Knitting" by the wonderfully skilled Ann Feitelson. If you're at all interested in traditional knitting, it is an excellent purchase and covers a great deal of history and color theory as well as having twenty-ish really nice, well written patterns.

Lusekofta ('lice coats' after the white flecks), or Setesdalen (after the valley of Setesdal where they were unvented) are ANOTHER type of traditional sweater also knit with the stranded color technique. They are very well known, so I'm including them in the retrospective.
White on black, with most of the torso in white flecks. Often an XOX design, but not necessarily. VERY traditionally, the placket and collar of the cardigan or pullover are done with black felt, embroidered with lots of color, and held shut with pewter or silver (or other 'white' metal) clasps. This one is from Dale of Norway. Knit with stranded color. NOT A FAIR-ISLE. Get how this works? Now that you've seen it, you can look at the Hafjell I knit, above, and argue whether or not it's a "real" Lusekoft because it's blue, and because the pattern across the shoulders is quite big. But you can certainly see what the inspiration was.

BOHUS STICKNING is the name of a Swedish knitting co-op that's been out of business for decades. It is thought they developed the yoke sweater, to showcase their incredible color work, done with STRANDED COLOR:
It is very likely that all yoke sweaters are descended from them, though it can't be proven at this late date. Not all of Bohus' sweaters were yoked, though. Some were all-over, some were just the fronts, or cuffs, etc. But they were known for their use of color, especially using purl stitches in a stockinette field to blend things:
Some of their designers are still alive and enjoying some well-deserved fame. And there's a book out, with patterns and a history - "Poems of Color" by Wendy Keele. Sweater shown is the Blue Shimmer, pattern available in the book.

So there you go. By now you've probably got the idea why this stuff drives me crazy. Stranded color is the TECHNIQUE. Fair Isle is a specific folk style (that's pretty darn cool). Anyone who finds traditional folk styles interesting, you should look at "Knitting in the Old Way" by Priscilla A Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. They discuss all this in great detail, and lots besides, as well as tweaking the EPS into doing all sorts of amazing things.


Laurie (Moo!) said...

Good info. I looked at that Intarsia coat and said "Intarsia must mean Insane, in some language". I felt that way when I did the Drunken Argyle vest. At some point, the pain stops and you start enjoying it. Mostly. Kinda.

Kate said...

Thank you so much for this great explanation. I knew that the term "Fair Isle" was frequently and widely mis-used, but wasn't aware of what exactly Fair Isle was - I just knew what it *wasn't*, IYKWIM.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh-kay. NOW I understand stranded color.

I picked up an explanation of fair isle I knew it was from a specific location.

Great explanation of everything, side by side. Together. Thank you.

stellanite said...

You know, honestly, this is the first explanation that really made sense to me. So thanks for that.

Roxie said...

I do love you!

Argyle is a faux plaid created using the intarsia technique. Initially developed in Scotland to match socks to tartans.

joyce said...

Thank you!! Mislabeled stranded knitting drives me batshit crazy, too. Loved your comments on the latest Vogue.

A constant reader,

Emily said...

Well-done! Excellent explanations, and I agree that it's annoying to have the terms misused so casually.
I hate knitting intarsia too, but there are things I can't get any other way, so I grit my teeth & carry on. You didn't mention triple-stranding, which is particularly loathesome. But, again...sigh. There's a gorgeous mitten (adapted by moi from a glove pattern) that I long to wear, and I'll have to bite the bullet to get them. Sigh. But after that, I swear, never again.

Nicole T said...

Thanks for posting this! I don't really know much about colorwork knitting, so I tended to keep my mouth shut since I didn't want to be 'that guy' that misuses the terms. Maybe I can open my mouth more freely now, hah.

That pullover picture right before the lusekofta sweater, the one that may or may not be fair isle? Is that in 'The Art of Fair Isle Knitting' too?

Kathleen said...

Great explanations. Did it drive you as crazy as it drove me that everything in the latest VK that was *stranded knitting* was labeled "fair isle"? I really almost lost it.

And I've always thought of intaglio/inset when I talk/read about intarsia. Looks like "tarsi" is Arabic, and "tarsia" Italian, according to

Kaessa said...

Thanks for the info! This is stuff I did not know. Every day I learn something knew is a good day. :)

Amy Lane said...

very nice-- and very specific--and very good to know.

Jess said...

holy crap you are hilarious.