Get Started with Intarsia Knitting

One of the fun things about knitting is the color! You can choose to work projects in a variegated multicolor yarn, of course, but with those you’ve got no control over how the colors appear. It’s better when you can create your own color patterns—like intarsia knitting—using multiple shades in a single project.

There are two main types of colorwork: stranded and intarsia. Each type is a completely different technique, but they can be used together to create intricate motifs.

Two-Color Stranded Knitting

Stranded colorwork is most often used for small color patterns. This technique is characterized by the use of two colors at the same time, alternating across the row or round; both colors are carried all the way across. You can easily identify a pattern using stranded colorwork: do both colors go all the way across? If so, it’s stranded knitting. (And it really is just two colors—most stranded colorwork patterns use only two colors per row or round.)

Intarsia Knitting

Intarsia is commonly used to create large-scale pictures, such as the classic Mary Maxim–style sweaters with images of hockey players or moose on the back. Intarsia is all about blocks of color that are limited to certain parts of the fabric. In the case of the Moose Cardigan from PieceWork July/August 2017, the brown of the moose is only used in the center, not on either side.

When you change colors, twist the two strands of yarn around each other—if you don’t, the two halves won’t be joined, and you’ll just have separate pieces of knitting. To twist the two strands together, drop the color you’ve been using to the left of the new color, pick up the new color from under the old color, bring it over the old color, and resume knitting (or purling).

intarsia knitting

Twist yarns together at color changes (knit side on left, purl side on right).

Use intarsia knitting rather than stranding when you want to keep the sections of color distinct. There’s no need to carry the orange over the green section (and vice versa), since you’re only using the orange in that one area.

A quirk of intarsia knitting is that you need to knit back and forth in rows. For the example above, the green yarn is left at the tail end of the dinosaur. When purling back, I just pick it up, and work back across the green block. If I was working in the round, the yarn would be in the wrong place when I came back around to the body! Some designers and knitters use a short-row technique to make seamless items; you’re still working back and forth in rows, but you use a short-row wrap at the start/end of the row to close the gap.

For the motif used in the Brontosaurus Hat, you can see clearly that the central portion of the body has a large section of green, with orange on either side. This portion is worked with three separate balls of yarn: one ball of orange for the section to the right of the dinosaur, one ball of green for the dinosaur, and a second ball of orange to the left of the dinosaur.

Use a separate ball of orange for each side and a ball of green for the body.

You don’t need to have two full balls of the orange yarn; for this project, I just divided the skein of orange yarn into two balls. For smaller sections of color such as the body, wind off a few yards to make a mini ball or a bobbin. You can even get little plastic bobbin holders to wind the yarn onto for easier handling.

Hybrid Methods

For even smaller sections such as the neck and head, you can use a slightly different technique. For the neck, the green section is quite small—only 3 to 5 stitches wide. For this, a hybrid stranded/intarsia technique makes things a little simpler. You can do this because the neck and head sections are narrow, and so you can easily keep the orange in the back without affecting the fabric or tension too much.

A hybrid intarsia technique is easier for narrow sections of color.

To work this using a stranded technique, you need only one ball of orange yarn. Work across in orange to the neck. Pick up the green yarn and twist it around the orange, drop the orange, and knit the neck stitches in green, then—without pulling it too tightly—pick up the orange yarn that you left to the right of the neck, twist it around the green, drop the green, and then finish the row in orange.

You can use the same method for the legs of the dinosaur. For this section, attach two bobbins of green yarn (one for each leg) but continue with only one ball of orange yarn. For the lower tail and belly, I stranded the green yarn from the nearest leg and continued to use a single ball of orange yarn for the entire motif.

Use a hybrid stranded intarsia technique.

These hybrid rows are all about reducing the number of different balls of yarn that you might have attached. You can reasonably strand up to about 5 stitches without affecting the fabric, but larger sections require another ball of yarn.

Once I got to the body, I broke the green yarn for the back leg and tail and continued with a single ball of green yarn. Since there’s a huge section of green, I also added in a second ball of orange. I worked up the dinosaur with one ball of orange, twisted it around the green yarn, dropped the orange yarn entirely, and used the green yarn to work the dinosaur. Then I dropped the green yarn, tied the second ball of orange yarn to the green yarn (when adding new yarn, I prefer to just tie the new one around the old one so that there are no loose stitches), and finished the row with that. I finished the body using the intarsia technique.

One final trick makes things easier for very small sections: The dinosaur’s eye, which is a single knit stitch of black, is embroidered on after the fact using duplicate stitch. His mouth is embroidered too, since that’s just a line.

This may all seem a little complicated, but it’s worth it! These techniques allow you to create all sorts of wonderful and complex pictures in your knitting. Give the Brontosaurus Hat a go to try them out!

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