Ladder-Back Jacquard Tutorial – Solution for Fair-Isle Knitting Floats – Guest Post by Krystal Stoll

What’s Your Knitting White Whale?

What’s that one technique that no matter how many times you try, you still haven’t figured it out?

For me it’s been stranded colorwork.

Every time I try a stranded project, I discover that there’s more to learn. Like the theory of color dominance, or the importance of maintaining even tension.

But each stranded project has also brought its own challenges.

Colorwork Project Disaster a Christmas Ornament
My "Christmas ornament" turned out so big it took up half a shoebox.
My first colorwork project was a disaster. It was supposed to be a spherical ornament, but it came out looking like a huge smooshed stress ball, with the design pulling in the middle.

I had failed to get gauge, of course. But I had also failed to choose yarns of similar thickness, and so the rows with the thinner white stitches were tighter than the rows of just green.

That was in 2010, and I’m learning something new about tension in stranded colorwork all the time. Most recently I’ve been trying to master stranded socks.

How Do You Get Stranded Socks to Stretch?

Brewing Magic Harry Potter Inspired Advent KAL Socks
My Brewing Magic! sock with LBJ on the leg. This tutorial shows the addition of the pink foxes on a green background.
Socks are tricksy because they need a certain amount of negative ease to ensure they stay up, but stranding itself pulls a fabric in. This makes it quite difficult to get a good fit.

Currently I’m working on Brewing Magic!, the 2019 Harry Potter-inspired Advent KAL Socks. These socks are designed to use up scraps, and the color choices change for each section.

I started them late but figured they’d be done in January. Instead, I spent most of January ripping and reknitting the foot to finally get a good fit.

I performed a difficult dance between having a tight enough gauge to reduce wear on the sole, but enough stretch in the floats so I could get the darn things on my foot.

I tried all the different things I had learned so far to get enough stretch for the socks to fit:
- working inside out, so the floats stretch around the corners rather than across them
- changing needle sizes
- adding stitches to the design (not recommended for this pattern, by the way)
- keeping my floats loose (but not too loose, which is a serious art form)
- stretching the sock out every row
- catching long floats every 4-5 stitches

None of this gave me enough stretch to get my feet into the foot of the sock. The foot fit, if I could get them on, but the more of the leg I knit the more impossible it was to get my feet into the foot of the sock.

So after a bit of cursing and a glass of wine (or two), I gave up and put the socks in time out.

I needed a new technique.

The Solution: Add Stretch to Stranded Colorwork with Ladder-Back Jacquard

I love knit-alongs. There’s so much wisdom and help to be found from other knitters all working on the same pattern together. From this group, the best advice I received was a link to a tutorial on the ladderback jacquard method of trapping floats behind stranded colorwork fabric.

Add Stretch to Stranded Colorwork with Ladderback Jacquard Ladder-back jacquard (LBJ) adds slack to stranded floats by essentially creating a second, loosely knitted fabric behind the main design. To the left, you can see the LBJ method used for the longer pink floats, alongside some regular short floats (usually in green).

The floats forming the ladder-back jacquard are stretchier than regular straight floats for the same reason that knitted fabric is stretchier than woven fabric: the loops created by knitting provide much more flexibility. (Click here for a fascinating physics explanation of this phenomenon).

To create the section of sock above, I worked with a dark green/grey self-striping yarn as my background/main color, and a bright pinky/coral contrast color.

The LBJ method is time consuming and a bit awkward at first—especially with the set up—but once you get going it gets easier.

Here’s how to get started:

Step 1

Work your stranded chart as normal until you reach a long stretch of stitches in all one color. For socks especially, I consider anything 5 stitches or more as “long”. You’ll want to put 1 loop of the inactive color between each group of 3 or 4 stitches in the active color.

In the following pictures, I’m knitting a long stretch of the green/grey MC. The pink will float behind.

Figure 1 A
Figure 1-A
A: Once you’re ready to place your first float loop, pull the working yarn to the front. (Note that I’m knitting the sock inside out.)

A loop of inactive yarn on the working needle.
Figure 1-B
B: With the active yarn in front, twist a loop of the inactive yarn and place it on the working needle. Essentially, you’re using the backwards-loop method to cast on one stitch in the float color. Return the active yarn to the back.

Difference Between the Float Loops (pink) and the CC Stitches
Figure 1-C
C. Notice the difference between the new float loop, which is placed between (and behind) two stitches, and a CC stitch which is part of the design and was worked into the row below.

Step 2

Continue working in this manner, placing float loops as needed. When you come to one of these float loops on the following round, simply pull the active yarn to the front again and knit the loop with the floating yarn.

Figure 2 A
Figure 2-A: Pull yarn to front.

Figure 2 B
Figure 2-B: Knit with float yarn

Main Fabric of Ladderback Jacquard
Figure 2-C: Notice the float is not part of the main fabric.

The reverse side of Ladderback Jacquard
Figure 2-D: The reverse side of the fabric - two pink CC stitches are between green MC stitches and 2 worked float loops.

When you no longer need a float ladder, simply knit the loop on the needle together with the stitch to its left. The float may peek out a bit, but with a k2tog the stitch below should be in front of it. A slight tug to the float yarn in the back will hide it back where it belongs.

You can also experiment with how performing an ssk with the stitch to the right of the float loop shows up.

3 Helpful Hints:

1 - Changing Colors

Main Color and Contrast Color Sock Yarn You don’t have to knit a float loop with the same color as the loop. For instance: there will be times where the contrast color that was floating in the row below now becomes the active color, and you will need to float the main color. Simply pull the active contrast color to the front and use the inactive main color to knit the cc float with.

2 - Sliding a Float Loop on the Needle Over a Stitch or Two

To slide a float to the left: With the float stitch closest to the resting needle tip, insert the working needle through both stitches as if to k2tog. Slip the stitches to the working needle, then back to the resting needle separately.

Knit the first (active) stitch through the leading leg (which will be in the back, for western/traditional knitters). Then pull the active yarn to the front and knit the float stitch also through the leading leg.

To slide a float to the right: With the float stitch to the left of an active stitch, slip both stitches knit-wise. Insert the resting needle through the front as if to form an ssk but slip them back to the resting needle instead.

This will not change the order of the stitches, but it does change the way the stitches are mounted. Pull the active yarn to the front. Insert the working needle into the back of the float stitch and knit it, then knit the active stitch.

3 - Putting a Float Ladder at the beginning or the end of a Needle

This works fine! Simply remember to leave the tension loose — don’t be tempted to tug it tightly the way you normally do to avoid ladders at needle corners. Remember, the ladder is what we’re going for.

Since employing the LBJ method, my stranding is stretchier and these socks have a new life. I’ve decided not to redo earlier sections, so they still won’t fit my feet — BUT, with the added stretch from LBJ, they will fit a good friend of mine.

Then I can cast on a new pair of stranded socks for me — and finally catch my white whale.

Leave a Comment

What is your personal white whale? Is there one knitting technique that keeps eluding you? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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Krystal Stoll headshotKrystal Stoll spends her days homeschooling two teenagers, a pre-teen and a tween - none of whom remember her without knitting needles close to hand. By night, she helps small businesses and non-profits connect with their communities through web design, social media and the effectiveness of the written word. That doesn't make her a superhero, though she is a superhero fan. She also enjoys spinning, weaving, reading and - surprisingly - cooking.

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