Conquer Intarsia Knitting Like a Pro

Intarsia or “picture knitting” is a color-work technique used to create basic geometric shapes or complicated pictures in a knitted piece. Intarsia knitting patterns can be worked in as few as two colors or as many as needed for a given design. Unlike Fair Isle knitting, in which small repeating patterns are created by alternating two strands of yarn in different colors across a row, intarsia knit designs are generally free-form, and each area of color is worked from an individual ball, bobbin, or length of yarn. When a color is not in use, it is dropped to the wrong side of the work until it is needed again on the next row for its designated stitches.

Check out these intarsia knitting examples that involve adding color to your knitting projects.

Intarsia knitting patterns are generally worked from a chart in which each stitch is represented by a colored square or a square containing a color symbol. Charts for very large intarsia projects can even show every stitch of an entire knitted piece. If only one area of the project features an intarsia motif, then the chart will usually show only the stitches and rows used for the motif itself, and the instructions should tell you where to position it. Although most patterns are worked in stockinette stitch, there’s no reason not to explore the possibilities of texture stitches in intarsia knit patterns.

Ready to visually understand the basics of knitting intarsia? This informative intarsia knitting video download, Inside Intarsia with Anne Berk, will help knitters of all levels work through the ins and outs of how to knit intarsia. From managing yarns to knitting intarsia in the round, watch this video to get a deeper understanding of this technique. Discover intarsia and gain the confidence to take your colorwork to the next level.

The key to working intarsia is to interlock the yarns when it’s time to change from one color to the next. At each color change, the old color is brought over the new color; then the new color is picked up from under the old color and worked from there. Overlapping the yarns catches the old color as the two strands “link elbows” and prevents a gap at the color change. Another important thing to note when knitting intarsia is that although the main color is often referred to as the background color, an unused color is never carried horizontally across the wrong side of the work, even if it is needed several times across a single row. Each isolated area of background color requires its own separate bobbin, butterfly, or strand of yarn.

In working with intarsia knitting patterns, as previously noted, each square of an intarsia chart represents one stitch. Chart rows are read from bottom to top (the same way your knitting grows). Right-side rows are read from right to left, and wrong-side rows are read from left to right. You may find it helpful to draw arrows in the margins of the chart to indicate the correct direction of knitting. To keep track of the current row, use a magnetic strip on a metal board, or a long Post-it note, and align the strip or paper along the top edge of the row you’re working. Placing the marker above the current row allows you to see how it relates to the rows already completed.

Most knitters’ stockinette stitch contains more rows per inch than stitches per inch. If you’re creating your own intarsia design on graph paper, remember that any motif drawn on a square grid with the same number of rows and columns per inch will look more “squashed” from top to bottom when knitted. To prevent this, look for graph paper created especially for knitters in your local yarn shop or on the internet. Knitter’s graph paper contains more rows than stitches per inch, so designs drawn on it will look more like the drawing on the graph paper when knitted.

Intarsia Knitting Technique: Joining a New Color

Learn this intarsia knitting technique on joining a new color with the knit side (RS) technique, figure 1.Knit side (RS) Begin the row with the color indicated on the chart. When the chart shows that the next stitch or set of stitches is worked in a new color, drop the old color to the WS of the work. *Insert the right needle into the next stitch as if to knit. Leaving a 4″ (10-cm) tail of the new color, work the stitch with the new color. Let go of the new color, then pick up the strand of the old color and place it over the strand of the new color just worked. Keeping a slight tension on the old yarn, pick up the new yarn from under the old and make the next stitch with the new yarn (Figure 1).

Drop the old yarn and continue to work the stitches indicated on the chart for the new color. When it’s time to change colors again, repeat from *. Remember, if the chart indicates that the next set of stitches is worked in a color that you’ve already used, start a brand new strand of yarn or bobbin of that color. Don’t carry the old strand across the back of the work. When you reach the end of the row, turn the work as usual to begin a wrong-side row.

Learn this intarsia knitting technique on joining a new color with the purl side (WS) technique, figure 2.Purl side (WS) Begin the row with the color indicated on the chart. When the chart shows that the next stitch or set of stitches is worked in a new color, drop the old color to the WS (the side facing you). *Insert the right needle into the next stitch as if to purl. Leaving a 4″ (10-cm) tail of the new color, work the stitch with the new color. Drop the new color. Pick up the strand of the old color and place it over the strand of the new color just worked.

Keeping a slight tension on the old yarn, pick up the new yarn from under the old and make the next stitch with the new yarn (Figure 2). Continue to work the stitches indicated on the chart for the new color. When it’s time to change colors again, repeat from *.

Changing Colors after the First Join Once the colors have been joined and the work is in progress, continue to work the stitches as indicated in the intarsia knitting instructions/chart. When you come to a color change, drop the old yarn to the WS of your work, insert the needle into the next stitch as if to knit or purl, then bring the old yarn strand over the new before you take the first stitch in order to close the gap.

On the row after a completed motif, you no longer need to work with separate bobbins for the background color. Just work across the background color stitches with a single bobbin or strand of yarn, and snip off the unneeded strand when you come to it, leaving a 4″ (10-cm) tail to weave in later.

— Adapted from an article by Leigh Radford, from Interweave Knits, Spring 2006.

Intarsia is a wonderful skill, and it’s really quite easy once you have the hang of it. The most important thing to remember is to drop the old strand of yarn over the new strand before you knit the first stitch with the new yarn. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with a gap between the old and new yarns. We don’t want that to happen!


Knitting patterns for beginners and favorite resources:

Art Deco Argyle Stockings Knitting Pattern

Top down, plus flat and in the round, sock lovers will truly enjoy this design! Art Deco Stockings, one of our favorite intarsia knitting patterns, shows rich color, precise geometry, and unexpected whimsy, while showing off your skills.

Inca Knits eBook: Designs Inspired by South American Folk Tradition

Each featured project has a striking feature, be it a clever stitch pattern, combination of yarns, or unusual use of pattern motifs. Enjoy intarsia and many other stunning colorwork techniques when you order the Inca Knits eBook.