Advanced Intarsia Knitting: 10 tips for better results

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).

the finished front of my love intarsia sweater
The front side of my love sweater right off the needles

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!

Note: Here’s how to knit intarsia in the round and here are some more general knitting tips.

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.

This method is part of my intarsia tutorial, and you can get the full step-by-step (including a video) in my full tutorial about Weave in & Twist. But here’s the gist:

Step 1: Basically I create a float with the new yarn one stitch before I start a new color block.

cross the new yarn over the current working yarn to weave in a new bobbin

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.

twist the yarns if you change colors on the knit side

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.

weaving out the tails in intarsia knitting
Twisting the yarn 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.

managing multiple bobbins while intarsia knitting without getting tangled

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

crossing out finished rows of a intarsia pattern chart with a ruler

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

finding the right needle size for intarsia

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

Intarsia knitting swatch with the letter N
It’s tempting to knit the middle section of this letter “N” mixing in Fair Isle, so you don’t need to join in two additional bobbins.

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

measuring out yarn requirements for the bobbins

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.

  1. Divide the length you needed for those 20 stitches by 20. This will give you the exact amount of yarn needed for one stitch.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

the wrong side of an intarsia swatch with all tails woven in
The backside of an intarsia project

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.

So, Those were my 10 tips for advanced intarsia knitting. Let me know in the comments below if you still have problems these tricks couldn’t fix

advanced intarsia knitting - 10 tips and tricks

34 thoughts on “Advanced Intarsia Knitting: 10 tips for better results”

  1. Hello, I found your website and Facebook page today whilst searching for help on intarsia knitting. I hope you can help me.

    Ive never knitted this type of pattern before but have been knitting for many years, so I’m not a complete beginner. I’ve been trying to knit, what I think, is quite a complicated dinosaur pattern sweater for my grandson. Ive already finished the back and sleeves so please don’t tell me to start with an easier pattern or I’ll be devastated! Having attempted 6 times to knit this pattern I’ve realised I need help. So my questions are; do I need to have a separate bobbin for EVERY time I knit a different colour? The problem being that my dinosaurs legs and tail have two different colours, some with just one stitch here and there and do I need to twist the yarns every time I switch colours even for just one stitch? I’m sure this is difficult for you to comment on without actually seeing the pattern but any assistance you can give me would be much appreciated. Obviously I have looked at your online tutorial and I shall put into practice points you make as I go for my seventh attempt at this dinosaur!

  2. Hey Norman I love your website! These tips were super helpful, im doing a big flower jumper and the twists to secure the colour change have been really helpful to keep it clean and even 🙂 I was wondering if you could help me, I am working intarsia in the round (knit to end, then purl back) how do I stop from there being a hole at the end point where I turn it around? Or should I give up working in the round ha!

    • Well, there shouldn’t be a hole. But sometimes, you just have to adjust your tension manually. It’s my honest opinion that intarsia in the round is a somewhat flawed technique – and I tried many different version. I always fix things later one stitch at a time.

  3. I learned a great technique for adding a new color, from Suzanne Bryan. When you add a new ball, place it between the needles with the TAIL IN BACK of your work. Then cross the “old” yarn over top of that. The tail goes in the back no matter what side you’re working on. If you’re working on the RS, the tail will hang down on the WS of your work. If you’re joining in a new ball while working the WS of your work (which is normally difficult for me), the tail will be hanging down on the RS of your work. So you will have tails on both sides of your work when finiushed. When it’s time to weave in the ends, you pull the tails on the front of your work through and to the back. It won’t leave a hole. Then weave in the ends on the back as usual.

  4. Hi Norman,

    Thank you for this article. I am now a bit confused though. I’m trying to revive a vintage Nordic sweater pattern with not many instructions – at first I assumed it would be normal fair Isle because it has a yoke with the classic tiny diamonds and zigzags. But it also has these big argyle like diamonds 11 across in lots of different colours and of course it is in the round. This seems to go against every bit of intarsia advice I could find on this site – should I be using a different method that I don’t know of?

    Thank you for any advice you can give me.

    • Well, it could be a combination. The yoke was done with fair isle and then maybe then even knitted it flat with classic intarsia and seemed up to the armpit. I mean, without a picture it’s virtually impossible to say.
      Besides…I love intarsia and my tips may not be in line with what other knitters feels is acceptable 🙂

  5. This article was extremely helpful! I am planning to start a flat knit project that has multiple animals side-by-side. The original design has only one stitch of background color between the animals. Are you suggesting that switching from one to two stitches of the background color between the animals should take care of the problem with the twists? Thank you!

  6. I never thought to alternate turning direction. I was going nuts with the tangles even though I was only using a few colors. I’m going to have to try that after I spend time untwisting a few things.

    I’ve been doing garter stitch intarsia for a paneled shawl project. So my pattern repeats. I did a lot of fair isle floating on my first panel but once I learned about adding more bobbins my next panel looks so much better. I wish I could go back to clean up those floats.

    Anyway, thank you for these awesome tips.

  7. Hi Norman,
    Thank you for these tips and tricks! You’ve helped me understand where I’ve been going wrong on my Kim Hargreaves Carlotta sweater ( When I plotted out the rose pattern on graph paper, I found a lot of places where I would either need to start a new block or drag the yarn three or more stitches away from where it ended on the previous row. I decided to count those as new blocks and ended up defining 424 individual blocks of color. That seems like… too many? Can this pattern even be done as intarsia? I have more than 20 years experience knitting and I’ve done some pretty complex patterns, but this one has me questioning whether it can be completed as written. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank you!

    • Well…anything can be done… the question is if it looks neat. And judging from the (very blury) pictures, the sample has quite some nasty puckering going on. So, whoever designed it, didn’t stick to proper intarsia rules (or, my guess, did it with a form of stranded knitting).

      My advice would be: simplify the chart so you end up with much bigger colorblocks and add some details through embroidery/duplicate stitch.

  8. The Intarsia technique has answered some questions for me! I recently knitted a sweater that should have been done with using it, but I didn’t know anything about it. Now I can see a way to get vertical patterns without a lot of loose ends.

    I don’t like to stick to “The Rules”, so experiment a lot. For a sweater like the one I mentioned, I would work in the round, reversing at the end of a row, but staggering the turnaround stitches so I won’t get holes/ disconnect of the work. Also, if the entire sweater is based on a Fair Isle type of pattern, it ought to be OK to carry strands across the back. It won’t turn out feeling the same as a straight-out intarsia sweater, but I live in Vermont and the double thickness will increase how warm the sweater will be!

    Thank you for this learning experience!


  9. I loved your article! I only wish I had found it earlier. I do have one unanswered question, though. Several times I come to a point where the “new” color starts a stitch or two earlier in the row than it did on the previous row. Thus, I have to kind of stretch the new color ahead of where it was on the previous row. Does this make sense? Anyhow, I find it hard to get those joins to look good. Do you have any advice? Thank you in advance.

    • well, what I do in these cases, I create a preliminary float. So, I basically already drag the color along so it will be at that spot for the next row.

      • In combination with tip no 9: when yarn is not long, a “forgotten” preliminary float can be corrected using a tapestry needle.

        TIP. I now sign the print where I must make a preliminary float on behalf of my next row.

        _this intarsia is quite a challenge_

  10. Dear Norman. Very VERY usuful. Again. Especcially the warning not to mix fair isle and intarsia, how tempting it is. And no 5 (egg carton). Little bobbins of yarn tend to tangle. Make them a little bit heavier e.g. safety pin already helps if one has no offficial bobbin. Thank you again. You’re a big help.

    • Hello. Thank you for these tips!! I’ve knitted for over 60 years but I still need advice!! Background for my question: I’m knitting (from pattern bits and pieces because I couldn’t find a knit pattern for this project) a Star Wars Cape for my great grandson by adapting a pullover top down knit pattern as a guide for the initial cast on and yoke increases. Im using an adult cape pattern to help eith when to add increases, etc. So im doing the working out of all of the “knitty gritty” for this knitting adventure!!!

      I have been using intarsia techniques to handle the challenges of the multiple colors needed for each image. For some of the colors I want to use various textured yarns to embelish some of the Star Wars images…for example: the light sabers, characters with furry faces, and use some glow in the dark yarn colors for the light saber blade color blocks. The velvet sparkle and furry yarns, etc. are obviously of different weights even though their label recommends the needle size I used for the background portions which were knit in a smooth typical acrylic worsted weight yarn. So…my question: how do I incorporate these various textures and avoid puckering and misshaped stitches? Because of the puckering that resulted in the places where I knitted with these textured yarns, I’ve unraveled my first 2 attempts. I’m using the typical stockinette stitch.
      At this point, which led me to your timely article and comments from other knitters, I’ve considered experimenting with knitting the velvet sparkle yarn, for a trial run, with a larger dp needle for those color blocks for the hilt for the light sabers to see if the larger needle size would provide more space for the bulk of the textured yarn.

      Any recommendations you might offer are greatly welcomed.

      Thank you.
      Carolyn Griffin

      • well, some of it will block out but ultimately different yarns will always behave differently and it will be very difficult to maintain the same gauge.
        I am not sure how feasible knitting these portions with a different needle size will be…also sheep wool yarn will be more stretchy than say alpaca or arylic. and the needle size won’t change that.

  11. Hi Norman,

    When you have a diagonal color change from the row below the current one, I think you said in your YouTube Intarsia tutorial to carry the yarn to be changed in the next row for 1-3 stitches if necessary using the technique of catching that yarn with the yarn you’re knitting with. Am I understanding this correctly? How many stitches can you carry the yarn in this manner without having to start a new bobbin? Also, I’m using a pattern with frequent small (1-3 stitch) color changes. My understanding is that you suggest changing the pattern to eliminate these little changes. Am I correct?

    Thanks for your wonderful tutorials!

    • Yes. Well…how long…i typically try to avoid longer stretches but say 2-6 stitches is typically fine. it will be noticeable a slight bit perhaps but so will weaving in the end.
      Jut make sure that the float is not too loose or, worse, tight.

  12. I am not a great knitter but had a friend who wanted gnomes on an afghan. I already had a lot of squares knitted up so I decided to knit 8 different squares with gnomes on them. My question is, since the afghan will be washed, should I put a iron on pellon on the back of the gnome squares to secure the stitches? Please advise.

    • Well, typically you weave them in properly and then you don’t need the pellon. I never use it. If it’s cotton or some very slippery yarn, you might consider it. Do however, also consider that it will change the stretchieness of those portions of the fabric as well. So..i dunno. I would be hestitant.

  13. Trying to decide on needles to use for a sweater project. Prefer cable but you mentioned straight are suggested for Intarsia due to the number of bobbins BUT notice on your table sample photo you are using what appear to be very long circular needles. Straight vs very long cable needles? Any suggestions?

  14. Trying to make vertical stripes on a scarf (all garter stitch). There are 11 stripes alternating black and white just for 12 rows. 6 black/6 white. Should I use intarsia or some other technique? It is a scarf so I don’t want floats in the back (loops from the 6 stitches to the next 6 stitches)…any suggestions. I keep getting holes when I switch color yarn.


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