Knitting in Color: Intarsia Basics
Intarsia or “picture knitting” is a color-work technique used to create basic geometric shapes or complicated pictures in a knitted piece. Intarsia 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 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.
Intarsia 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 intarsia patterns are worked in stockinette stitch, there’s no reason not to explore the possibilities of texture stitches in intarsia patterns.
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 is that although the main color is often referred to as the background color, in intarsia knitting, 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.
Working with Intarsia Charts
As already 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’s 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.
Joining a New Color
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.
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 on the 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.
Weaving in Ends
Intarsia knitting with many colors will leave an unsightly forest of tails on the wrong side of your work. You can weave in the ends as you knit, but they may show through on the right side. For the best results, weave in the ends, one at a time, after your piece is completed. Thread the yarn tail onto a tapestry needle, and working along the perimeter of the color section on the wrong side, weave in the tail for about an inch before cutting. If you’re working horizontally, run the needle up and down in the purl bumps of your stitches, or weave it vertically in and out along the edges of the color areas. If the yarn is thick, divide the plies and weave them in opposite directions.
Rows versus Rounds
Intarsia patterns are generally worked back and forth in rows, not circularly in rounds. When working in the round, after knitting the first round, each color strand will be on the far side of each motif as you come to it on the next round; not in position to resume working. Some techniques for solving this problem can be found in “Beyond the Basics: Traditional Techniques for Creating Ethnic Intarsia Designs” by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts (Interweave Knits, Fall 2003).
When selecting yarn for an intarsia project, stick to yarns with a little fuzz. Yarns that are very smooth or tightly spun are less forgiving and will show any uneven stitches and gaps at the color changes. Select a yarn brand that comes in all the colors that you want to minimize any differences in gauge. It’s possible to mix yarns of different fibers and structures, for example a mohair, a bouclé, and a single-ply, but you’ll be sure to have success if you choose yarns that are similar in weight and gauge.
Before beginning a project, make a swatch with your chosen yarns and colors to see how they work together when knitted. What looks good when skeins of yarn are held together doesn’t always work when the yarns are knitted up. For intarsia motifs to stand out against the background, the colors need to have enough contrast so they don’t blend together.
You Need Intarsia Projects on Your Needles!