Cast-On for Intarsia & See Where It Takes You

The art of working colored pictures into your knitting is called intarsia. Picture-knitting has its place in every knitter’s repertoire of skills.

The Picture-Knitting Concept

If you’ve worked stranded knitting (see last week’s post for more on this technique), using two colors in one row is nothing new to you. But stranded knitting calls for carrying both colors along the length of the row. Intarsia calls for dropping one color, then picking up a new color, dropping that color, picking up a new color, and so on down the row.

When you drop one color, you don’t take it with you—you leave it behind as you work with new colors down the row. This means you need several balls of yarn attached to a given row to work the row. And hence the joy of bobbins. Bobbins are plastic spool-like objects found in yarn shops and craft stores. The purpose of a bobbin, regarding intarsia, is to wind small amounts of yarn onto it, eliminating the need for (and complication of) full balls of yarn attached to your knitting.

Join a New Color

Following your motif chart, work in the first color to the first contrasting stitch. Pick up the bobbin of the second color and knit the first stitch, just as you would join a new ball of yarn in any project. There will be a gap between the last stitch and the first stitch in the new color. Before knitting the second stitch, bring the working end of second color under the hanging end of the first color, then knit the next stitch.

Work down the row in this way, twisting the two yarns at each color change, anchoring them to the second stitch of each new section, and slightly tugging the new color to close up the gaps between sections.

Twisting Colors

On the returning wrong-side row, twist the colors at the color change—meaning, twist the working ends of the two colors to each other, and not to the second stitch in.

Like in Row 1, you’ve twisted the working yarns of the two colors, but this time you did it between adjacent stitches. This twist is the big intarsia secret. It is the best way to eliminate gaps at color changes. If you pull it tight enough (but not too tight), it will pull the adjacent stitches together seamlessly, so they don’t look like two sections made from different yarns. On the following right-side row, you twist yarns at the color changes again, always leaving the hanging ends on the wrong side.

What’s that mess?

You’re probably starting to get a tangly mess at the back of your work. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to avoid this. Especially if you pack your knitting into a bag and carry it around, those bobbins will make a mess with each other. It’s slow, but you can wind each color up tight on its bobbin when you’re done working with it and stick a paperclip through the yarn on the bobbin, holding the working end in place and keeping the bobbin from unrolling. Or don’t use bobbins and instead use lengths of yarn that hang free from the knitting, allowing you to pull the strands through the tangles with some ease.

The third option is to wind a yarn butterfly and pull the working end from the center of the butterfly—the same idea as a bobbin, except without the bobbin. The process of bobbining, joining new colors, and twisting yarns at color changes is the basis for working intarsia. That’s really all there is to it. If you can read a chart, you can do this. Being happy with your end product requires a little more finessing.


Always weave tails into like-colored areas. Knot two ends together where needed and weave in thoroughly to prevent any looseness at color changes or where new yarn was joined. If you’re using a blockable yarn, block the piece. This will help even out tension and make everything look better.

Jagged Patches

You’ve woven in a hundred ends, firmed up your color joins, and blocked the piece. You look at your motif, and the edges are boxy, jagged because stitches are rectangular and create a stair-step effect when you change colors. First option: Leave it as is and accept that this is the look of intarsia. Second option: Embroider over your fabric, obscuring the jagged edges of the motif.

Two options for next time: Choose a very soft, fluffy yarn; something with mohair would be good. The halo of such yarns will soften the jaggedness. Or, choose to felt your intarsia project. Not ideal for a sweater, but if you work your motif on a bag, you can felt it, and the edges will be rounded, soft, and seamless.

Get Started On Intarsia