Helpful tips and tricks for knitters who want to perfect their intarsia knitting
I’m sure you are aware of all the beautiful possibilities with intarsia knitting. But if you ever knitted a project before, then you probably know what a struggle it can be to get it to look neat. Juggling 10+ bobbins, keeping the perfect tension, not messing up the joins – it’s so easy for your intarsia project to turn out meh, rather than wow.
If you have been following me for a while, then you probably know I am a big fan of intarsia (if you don’t, make sure to subscribe to my newsletter & get that free pattern). I prefer it to duplicate stitch and Fair Isle because the resulting fabric has a much better drape AND it looks neater when done right (here’s a guide exploring the differences between the two techniques).
That being said, I feel the pain every time I start a new project (like my love sweater or my pride socks). It’s just so easy to mess up. That’s why I felt like sharing my best advice for advanced intarsia knitting with you. These are 10 time-proven and solid tips and tricks for better results.
So, let’s dive right into it!
1. Alternate between turning your work clock- and counterclockwise to avoid yarn barf
One of the biggest problems when knitting an advanced intarsia pattern is handling all those bobbins. Once you pass the mark of 10, it’s incredibly easy for them to get tangled and create a mass of knots you’ll spend an hour or more to untangle. But there is one important trick:
Normal knitters will turn their work clockwise whenever they finished a row. When it comes to intarsia, you have to stop this habit.
Instead, alternate between clockwise and counter-clockwise turns. That way, you don’t add further twists to the yarn.
In fact, this method gets even more magical: You are twisting the yarn with every color change. But if you turn your work the right way, you will un-twist the yarn with the next pass. So, you are not only preventing the bobbins from twisting further and further with every turn of the project but you are also avoiding twisting the yarn past the point of no return with every color change.
Example: You start with a knit row, twist the yarns as normal with each color change. Then you turn your work clockwise and purl all the way back twisting as normal as you go. Now, you turn your work counter-clockwise. And as you knit, you will be untwisting all the tangles again and your bobbins will be hanging down from your work without a single twist (that is, as long as you didn’t add further bobbins).
2. Weave in and twist every new color/Bobbin
Every intarsia tutorial I ever read starts with showing you how to twist the yarns when changing colors. Fair enough, that’s important. But it’s equally important to have a solid method to join in a new color. If you don’t have one, then you will create loose stitches with every new bobbin you start – and that can ruin your whole work.
Step 1: Basically I create a float with the new yarn one stitch before I start a new color block.
Step 2: And when it comes to actually knit the first stitch in the new color, I twist the previous yarn twice around the new color and then I tug on the tails to secure them.
That way, you trap the new yarn twice for an extra tight join that will be super easy to knit in the next row. This is important because the first stitches are often too loose in so many intarsia projects I see.
Note: As an alternative, you can also use the Twist & Weave color-changing method.
3. Twist the yarn one last time after you finished a pannel
And likewise, it’s equally important to have a proper strategy for finishing a panel. Here, you are facing, once again, the risk of creating loose/unsightly stitches. That’s why I always twist the yarns one more time after I finished a color block.
So, when you reach the beginning of the color block in the previous row, you don’t just knit across it with relief that you have one bobbin less to handle (that’s how I always feel, lol!). Instead, right at the beginning where the yarn is still dangling down, you pick it up from underneath one last time and twist it around your working yarn. That way, you secure the stitch and prevent the creation of gaps.
4. don’t have too small Intarsia panels (1 stitch wide)
Advanced intarsia patterns can get very complicated. As knitters, we are trained to count in rows, rather than columns. Well, here’s the thing about intarsia: It’s no problem at all to have a color block that is only one or two rows high. You only have to be careful with the width. Too small color blocks (one stitch) just don’t look neat – especially if there are many of them.
The join between two blocks might be tight and might not have any gaps, but the fabric you create will still be different from the way two regular knits (or purl) stitches are held together. Normally that’s nothing you will notice, but if you have many small panels next to each other, it will turn into a dominating factor.
Also, be aware that you have to weave in ends after you finished. These tails will reinforce your fabric (one way or another) – the more blocks you have, the more tails you will end up with. And again, that will change the structure of your fabric, change the way it drapes, etc. So, avoid too many too small color blocks.
5. Knit Intarsia in a place where your bobbins can stay in place
Most knitters I know have this one favorite place to knit. Pictures of grandmas in their rocking chairs might be a bit outdated but I for one love the little couch on my east-facing balcony where it gets cooler in the afternoon. But here’s the problem: If I were to knit complicated intarsia patterns (15 or more bobbins) in that place, my yarn would get tangled all the time and I’d spend half my time trying to untangle the bobbins. No fun.
Instead, I usually knit intarsia at my dining table. Here, I can arrange all my bobbins and balls (I actually prefer knitting with them and only use bobbins for really small blocks) in front of me. If you heed tip number #1 at the same time, it makes for rather carefree and speedy intarsia knitting.
Note: You could also craft a little board to attach all your bobbins instead. So, a bit like the board for the cones of a knitting machine. That’s a handy little trick if you do a lot of complex intarsia knitting. For small bobbins, an egg carton will also do the job!
Some people will keep their bobbins very close to their work (like 1 inch or so) and just let them dangle down. I personally don’t like this as you will spend a lot of time winding and unwinding bobbins.
6. Print your chart and cross out the stitches you knit
It is so easy to lose track when knitting intarsia. And frogging or tinking (reverse knitting) a project can be a nightmare due to all the twists and color changes. I always print out my charts and cross out sections I knitted. If you have one, you can use a see-through ruler and place it above the current row, so you can see your current position at a glance without risking accidentally skipping a row. You can also use checkered paper (as in my example above).
One missed stitch doesn’t ruin an intarsia project but when there are too many of them, it becomes a different story. If it’s not a very complicated pattern, it will be somewhat easy to read your project. But with a thousand tiny boxes in different colors, I have tremendous problems finding my exact position – doubly so if there are mistakes.
7. Don’t knit with too big needles
Most yarns can be knit within a certain range of knitting needle sizes. Say size 6-8 like in the example picture above where I magnified the label a bit for your convenience. While it may be tempting to go for the bigger needle size (it’s faster after all), this will also result in a fabric that is a tiny fraction more transparent. As the holes between stitches get bigger, it also gets easier to see the weaved in tails and the twisted joins.
Most importantly: The joins between two color blocks need a certain stitch density to disappear completely. Knit with too big a needle, and you get a fabric that tends to stretch out these joins. Also, straight needles are a tiny bit better than circular needles because the stitches don’t get stretched the wrong way once they are off the needle.
8. Don’t mix intarsia and fair isle knitting
Sometimes, your chart has two stitches in color A, then 3 stitches in color B, and then another 2 stitches in color A (just like the middle section of the letter “N” in the picture above. It’s tempting to knit the two adjacent blocks in color A using floats / Fair Isle technique. But I strongly advise against it.
First of all, intarsia works best when knit flat, while Fair Isle looks best when knit in the round. Setting these small differences aside, they also create two fundamentally different fabrics. All the floats of Fair Isle essentially create a project that is almost twice as thick as a similar item in plain stockinette stitch. And even if you take care when knitting the floats, the resulting fabric will also be considerably less stretchy.
So, what’s the big deal? When you do stretch a mixed technique project, then only the intarsia sections will give, while the Fair Isle portions are more likely to resist the stretching (a fabric always stretches around the “weakest link”). Ultimately, this will look kind of weird.
If you are knitting a wall hanger, then it probably doesn’t matter. But for a hat or a sweater, you will be able to see the difference.
9. Plan your bobbins for advanced Intarsia Patterns
Nobody likes to play yarn chicken. So personally, I always recommend over-buying yarn. If your pattern says 330 grams, buy 350, etc. You can always use the spare for some scrappy socks, a nice accessory or to knit one of my little mushroom patterns. But when it comes to intarsia, you are basically splitting a skein into many little bobbins and that will ultimately result in a lot of extremely short scraps that are more or less worthless (except you knot them together and plan to knit a washcloth or potholder).
Instead, calculate the yarn requirements ahead. Knit 20 stitches (with a knitted cast on, or just unravel the first row), unravel them again and measure just how much yarn you needed. Then, you can go through each color panel, count the stitches and find out the exact yarn requirements with a little bit of math.
- Divide the length you needed for those 20 stitches by 20. This will give you the exact amount of yarn needed for one stitch.
- Multiply the number of stitches needed for your color block with the result and add another 5-10 percent (so, multiply with 1.05). Then add another 10 inches for the tails on each side.
- Pick up a measuring tape, lay it flat on the table, and measure out those bobbins by pulling out the required amount of yarn in the air above the tape.
Now, you might say, what’s the big deal? I just wind up bobbins with plenty to spare and I actually don’t mind the scraps. Well, while I personally try to avoid wasting a lot of yarn, it also greatly depends on the project. If you are knitting with inexpensive acrylic yarn, it probably doesn’t hurt you all that much. But when you are knitting with cashmere or camel hair yarn, where a skein of 50 grams or less can cost up to 50 USD, then it will be a totally different story. Also, sometimes you are working with yarn from your stash and you can’t simply buy more.
10. Test out different methods to weave in ends
Last, but certainly not least, it’s very important that you knit a swatch and test a couple of methods to weave in the ends. If you end up with 50 tails +, then you better make sure you are not messing up the drape of your finished item with all those tails on the backside.
I wrote a detailed tutorial on the best way to weave in ends here.
I usually go diagonally using a sharp-pointed tapestry needle. But as we are all different in our likes and preferences, I really urge you to test out a couple of methods on a little swatch so you find the best way for your pattern and yarn.