Crochet Colorwork 4 Ways: Mosaic, Stranded, Tapestry, and Intarsia

Snefrid Cowl from Interweave Crochet Winter 2021

I love the challenge and excitement of exploring new ways of manipulating yarn with a hook and/or needle. After crocheting for more than 30 years, I find that colorwork creates endless possibilities for what you can make! So, let me introduce you to four major crochet colorwork techniques: mosaic crochet, stranded and Fair Isle crochet, tapestry crochet, and intarsia. These may look complex to the untrained eye, but they are usually worked with basic crochet stitches (such as chains, single crochets, and double crochets) so that the colors can do the talking.

ABOVE: Snefrid Cowl from Interweave Crochet Winter 2021

One thing to remember—the key to successful crochet colorwork is managing your various colored strands of yarn. If you can manage your yarn and keep it from becoming tangled, you can handle any colorwork project.

Mosaic Crochet

If yarn management is the measuring stick for colorwork difficulty, mosaic crochet is by far the easiest. This colorwork technique uses only chains, single crochets, and double crochets along with just a single color per row or round! No need to deal with multiple colors and color changes: Just alternate colors as you change rows/rounds and create the color design by working double crochets into the stitches two rows below. And, as an added bonus, you end up with a fashionably striped back, making this colorwork technique ideal for projects that show both sides. (To find out more about this technique, check out my article “Mosaic Crochet: A New Take on Colorwork” in Interweave Crochet Summer 2020.)

Front of mosaic colorwork crochet swatch
Front of mosaic crochet swatch
Back of mosaic colorwork crochet swatch
Back of mosaic crochet swatch

Stranded & Fair Isle Crochet

Stranded colorwork has been made famous by the many knitted colorwork sweater patterns that come to us from Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Shetland Islands. This colorwork technique uses multiple colors on the same row/round and is named after the loose strands or “floats” of yarn that are carried between stitches along the back of the fabric. This technique is ideal for small, horizontal, repeating patterns in order to keep the floats short; longer floats tend to catch on fingers and buttons. Because of the “messy-looking” back side, this technique is best used for projects that have a non-public side that won’t show.

Stranded crochet colorwork (top half of swatch) & Fair Isle crochet (bottom half of swatch)
Stranded crochet (top half of swatch) & Fair Isle crochet (bottom half of swatch)
Stranded crochet colorwork  (top half of swatch) & Fair Isle crochet (bottom half of swatch)
Stranded crochet (top half of swatch) & Fair Isle crochet (bottom half of swatch)

Fair Isle Crochet

Fair Isle crochet is a subset of stranded crochet in that it is traditionally restricted to only two colors per row or round. The color pairing can change row by row, allowing for very intricate-looking designs. You can also keep things simple by trying Fair Isle crochet with a single pair of colors before tackling more color combinations.

The key to successful stranded colorwork is mastering the color change from one color to another and controlling the tension of your floats behind your work so that the fabric stays flat and doesn’t pucker.

How to Change Colors Correctly (within a row/round)

Work the last stitch before the color change to its last yarn over, drop the current color to the back (non-public side), yarn over with the new color and complete the stitch (Figures 1–2).

color change figure 1
Figure 1
color change figure 2
Figure 2

Changing colors correctly ensures that the chain sitting on top of the stitch is the correct color (Figure 3). Switching colors after the last stitch of the old color is complete creates little color blips that distract from the design (Figure 4).

color change figure 3
Figure 3
incorrect color change
Figure 4

Trapping Long Floats

It is common practice to trap the floats every half to one inch, or a length you are comfortable with. Stagger the trapping stitches so that the trapped floats are less likely to show through on the front.

To trap a float, work for about one inch, place the unused color (float) at the top on the wrong side of the working row, then insert your hook in next the stitch and underneath the float, and complete the stitch with the current color—the float has been trapped inside the stitch just made.

Due to the highly visual nature of color designs, square graphs or charts provide an ideal format for seeing color placement and staying on track with the design.

Reading Charts

  • Read chart from bottom up
  • Right-side rows are read from right to left and wrong-side rows are read from left to right
  • 1 square = 1 stitch
  • Change color on last square of a color

Tapestry Crochet

If you would like to tame the messy floats of stranded colorwork, tapestry crochet is the technique for you. Like stranded crochet, tapestry crochet also uses multiple colors on each row/round, but it encases the floats so that both sides are clean and presentable. To ensure the floats don’t peek through to the front, use a hook one or two sizes smaller in order to get a denser gauge. Another perk of this technique is that the fabric can be quite sturdy (depending on how many colors are being carried along). This sturdiness makes it an ideal technique for projects that need extra structure.

Front of a tapestry colorwork crochet swatch
Front of a tapestry crochet swatch
Back of a tapestry colorwork  crochet swatch
Back of a tapestry crochet swatch

Tapestry crochet is usually worked in continuous rounds (without joining), and it should also be worked with modified single crochets; for example, in the back loop only. This will cause the stitches to slant less and stack up more vertically than regular single crochets, creating a smoother, less ridged and distracting fabric—a perfect canvas for intricate color patterns.

The key to working tapestry crochet successfully is to master the modified single crochet and the tension of the encased floats to avoid accidental hourglass shapes created by the puckered fabric.

Modified Single Crochet:

Insert hook in the back loop only (blo) and under any unused color strands/floats, yarn over, pull up a loop, yarn under (place hook from top down behind and then under yarn and bring forward and up) and draw through both loops on hook (Figures 5–7).

Tapestry crochet
Figure 5
Tapestry crochet
Figure 6
Tapestry crochet
Figure 7

Tension Check:

Every couple of inches or before the next color change, especially after a longer stretch of working in one color, stop your work and tug on the carried stands to take out any slack so that they retreat into the encasing stitches, and stretch out the fabric to its proper width.

Intarsia Crochet

To me, the intarsia colorwork technique can be thought of as a paint-by-number that uses yarn to create pictures, one-off design placements, or random color blocks.  Each color section has its own yarn source, and the yarn is never carried across the back of the fabric or used elsewhere in the row. Because the yarn is neither stranded nor carried, the fabric is only a single layer thick, keeping its drape and making it perfect for garments and afghans. In fact, many corner-to-corner graphghans use the intarsia colorwork technique!

The key to successful intarsia crochet is managing your yarns, working over the tails as much as possible, and weaving in the ends as you go.

Intarsia can be worked with as few as two colors or up to dozens. Use center-pull balls for large color areas, bobbins or yarn butterflies for small- to medium-sized areas, and strands of a few feet for small or short transition areas. Arrange the colors in the order they will be used and shift them around as they trade places, or, in the case of the long strands, simply tug them free from any tangle (Figure 8).

snowflake intarsia colorwork  yarn management
Figure 8

To determine how many yarn sources you need, move your finger across a row and consider each color change a candidate for its own yarn source (Figure 9).

snowflake crochet chart colorwork
Figure 9

Multiple yarn sources does mean there are many tails to weave in. However, if you take advantage of working over the tails whenever you have a few stitches to work in the same color as the tail, it will cut down drastically on the time you spend weaving in ends. I also find it very helpful to add a few minutes of weaving in ends every time I sit down to crochet. This leaves me with very few remaining ends when the project is complete.

There you have it—a quick tour of four major colorwork crochet techniques. I hope you might have spotted one to try out. If you’re feeling intimidated, remember that these techniques are worked just like any other crochet technique: one stitch at a time.