Learn a cool new colourwork technique

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

Knitting has taken a bad rap over the years. It was what grannies did with gaudy yarn and then gifted to their grandchildren. Who hasn’t bit their tongue and said, “Granny I love it,” and then secretly wondered where you were going to hide it.

When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago I met a man in the hotel who asked what I was doing in his city. “I’m presenting at the knitting conference,” I said. He looked shocked. “You don’t look like a knitter,” he said.

I knew he meant it as a compliment, but in truth, I am one of those grannies (although you won't want to hide my knitted gifts) and I look very much like a knitter. You look like a knitter as well. We all look like knitters because knitters are everyone and almost everyone who isn’t a knitter wants to learn how to knit. And, so I have found out, everyone who knows how to knit wants to learn more about knitting…new stitches, new patterns, new wool, new needles, new techniques and new stories. Because knitting is not only fun, relaxing, and just plain cool--it is smart.

Knitting makes you think. The knitting stories I write are about innovation, determination, creation, they are about life and they are about death. My books; Working with Wool, Yetsa’s Sweater and Knitting Stories explore, what I call, the many knitting intelligences--emotional, intellectual, physical...which is why recently I decided to take my knitting in another direction. I decided to combine telling stories with teaching knitting techniques.

I have been using a remarkable colourwork method for the past 40 years or so. No one sat down and taught me how to do it. I intuited it the same way Coast Salish girls and boys intuited it from their mothers and fathers. Knitters who have studied the reverse side of Cowichan sweaters have also intuited the technique.


It’s not complicated but it is unique. Even the oldest Cowichan sweaters I can find use the same technique for carrying their wool when using two colours. It’s not stranding, not jacquard. It’s not like Fairisle or Scandinavian colourwork. It gives the design bands maximum elasticity. It’s tidy, and you won’t snag your fingers or rings when putting on garments using this technique.

I still don't know exactly how the technique emerged or why it caught on. Perhaps it was because Coast Salish knitters used heavy handspun, which made Fairisle stranding too bulky…it’s the only reason I have come up with so far. The trouble with that explanation is that early Coast Salish sweaters were knit with much finer wool than they are today so I'm not completely satisfied with that answer. The historian in me is still investigating. For now I believe it is important to include Coast Salish techniques in the broad field of knitting methods so we can better understand how peoples have borrowed, shared, and fused ideas and how new techniques emerge and then continue to morph. I am particularly interested in how people identify with their knitting and how it brings us together. 

Ideas aside; learning a new colourwork technique is a lot of fun. It makes you think. It challenges your coordination. It takes patience and brings tremendous satisfaction. With a little guidance, a few good stories and lots of persistence the wool almost tells you how to do it. 

In my workshop you learn to make a basic geometric design on a simple west-coast toque. It takes about three hours to get you far enough along and confident enough with your new skill that you can take your knitting home and finish.

If your knitting group is interested in learning this technique let me know at

Thanks Janet Ellis for this wonderful photo of your dog Maddy...she makes a great model.































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  • I`d love to learn this technique. When I carry yarn it always looks messy and bulky on the backside.

    Helen on
  • As I live in the United Kingdom there is no way to take your class is there another way available to learn the technique?

    Deborah Keep on

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