How to knit intarsia in the round

A step by step tutorial on knitting intarsia in the round without a seam using double-pointed needles.

Intarsia is a great way to transfer pictures and other complex designs into knitting. But there is one major flaw: You need to knit it flat. Knit it in the round, and your bobbins will always be in the wrong place as you start your new round. They will still be dangling down on the far end of the color block, and not at the beginning, where you actually need them. So, in this tutorial, I want to present you with a solution on how to knit intarsia in the round nevertheless.

Before I start, I want to urge you to read my intarsia knitting guide and my list of 10 important tips for advanced intarsia knitting. All the basic principles of this amazing technique apply to knitting in the round as well. There are just a couple of additional things you need to take into account. Also, check out my tutorial on knitting in the round on DPNs. I will concentrate strictly on the intarsia specifics in this post and not touch more basic techniques.

I also want to stress that this is a very advanced technique and I’m not entirely sure it’s suitable for knitting beginners. While the basics are in fact quite simple, it’s quite difficult to achieve neat results with it. And when you are knitting more complex patterns, then it’s incredibly hard to manage all the yarns.

Note: If you are looking for a fun intarsia pattern, check out my love socks. If you are wondering if this technique is right for you, here’s a guide exploring the differences between Intarsia and Fair Isle knitting.

Intarsia in the round: The instructions

The intarsia dilemna - the bobbins end up in the wrong place when you knit in the round
The dilemma: The bobbins end up in the wrong place after you finished a round

I already quickly touched on the more general problem in the introduction: When you knit across a row, all your bobbins end up on the left side of their respective color blocks. But as you start the next round, you need them to be on the right side. There is only one way to solve this: You need to knit back and forth!

There are three ways to do this:

  1. Creating provisional joins
  2. Slipping stitches of the background color as you knit the color blocks and thereby creating floats (a bit like in fair isle)
  3. Using a “seaming” technique to hide the point where you changed directions.

(And of course, you can knit flat and join in the round using mattress stitch.)

a swatch knitted in intarsia in the round

I am only going to show you version 1) in this tutorial, because it’s the only technique I feel that produces consistent results and that can be applied to almost any pattern. It’s also the only truly seamless way to knit intarsia in the round.

Important: Knitting intarsia in the round works best with a double-pointed needle set (I am using these Knitter’s Pride Dreams DPNs*). If you are using a magic loop, then I advise you to knit with two circular needles. As you are working back and forth, you absolutely need to make sure your purls and knits have the same tension. Continental or flicking is best in this case.

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Also, please be aware that knitting intarsia in the round is quite a complex technique, so there are a lot of steps involved. You can watch the video instead:

Step 1: Start a new color block by weaving in the new yarn as normal.

Weaving in a new colored yarn by twisting the yarns

Step 2: And continue knitting according to your chart to the end of the color block/s.

knit first row according to intarsia chart

Step 3: Once you reach the end of the block, you need to turn the project around and create a provisional join. To do so, bring the tail of the previous color forth from the start of the color block, and twist it like you normally would. In that manner, you’ll create a little loop of yarn.

create a provisional join at the end of the intarsia block

Step 4: And then purl one stitch in the other direction and enlarged the loop by gently tugging at it. You’ll need this loop for knitting later on.

pull out the loop from the provisional cast on so you can knit with it

Step 5: From here, you can continue purling all the way back to the start of the color block, ignoring the teal (or whatever color you picked) loop for now.

continue purling back with the red yarn to finish the intarsia block

Step 6: Once you reach the end of the color block, you pick up the (teal) loop you created, twist the yarns as usual (so pick it up from underneath), and continue purling the wrong side with the new color until you reach the other end of the color block where you created the provisional join in the “air”.

twisting the yarns to create a solid join for your intarsia in the round
continue purling the wrong side

Step 7: Once you reach the other end and knit all stitches on the loop, you tug on the tail gently, and close the loop, so you secure the join.

pulling on the working yarn to close the loop and the provisional join

Important: Before you can do so, you have to untwist the yarns by pulling the bobbin/different color through the loop..

pass the yarn through the loop to untwist the strands

…and then you can pull tight.

pulling on the working yarn to close the loop and the provisional join

Step 8: From here, turn the project around again, and create another loop/provisional join by bringing the other yarn forth and twisting them.

create another provisional join with the red yarn

It should look like this now.

View of the provisional join from above

Step 9: Continue knitting all the way back (in the teal color), ignoring this loop for now. When you reach the start of the (red) color block again, pick up the red loop, and twist the yarns….

twisting the yarn after you finished the knit round at the start of a new color block

Step 10: …knit one stitch in the new color, tug on the tails to secure the join, and continue knitting according to your intarsia chart.

pull on the tail after you twisted to secure the join

Step 11: Once you reach the end of the color block, you can close the provisional join/loop by gently tugging on the tail. Remember to untangle the yarns by pulling the bobbin through the loop.

pulling on the working yarn to close the loop and the provisional join

Continue repeating steps 3-11.
So, turn the project, create a provisional join, purl all the way back to the start, etc. It should look like this now.

view of the provisional join with the loop from above

In a nutshell, this technique boils down to knitting back and forth and creating provisional twists/joins before you reach the actual point in your chart. Half of the time, you will be knitting with the yarn of the loop and not the actual working yarn.

Problems you should be aware of

This technique works totally fine as long as you only knit squares in a single color. But as you probably want to knit some more complex intarsia patterns in the round, there are some issues you need to be aware of:

1. Knitting diagonally can be a challenge

My Love Stocks

When you want to knit a diamond or a heart, then you have to enlarge or decrease your color block by a stitch every round or two. But here’s the problem: In the return row, this means you might have to knit stitches in a different color you actually have not knit yet. You can fix some of these problems with slipped stitches to a certain degree (meaning, in the row before, you are not knitting the first sitch after you turned the project, but just slip it)
So, when you are plotting your chart, make sure you don’t have any decreases or increases that you cannot knit. A simple way to solve this problem is only decreasing or increasing every second row.

2. When you have more than two colors, things can become very complex

I showed you how to knit intarsia in the round with two colors. Obviously, you can add further colors and you can actually knit across these and set the turning point at the very end. You only need to decide for one “background color” and use the edges as the places where you create the provisional joins and turn the work. So, that’s kind of sweet.
But, but when that background color block ends (for whatever reason), you need to plan where you do the turns in the next row.

3. Purls with a different tension will mess up your project

A lot of English knitters have tremendous problems with their purls. They are just so much loser than their knit stitch equivalents. It’s fundamental that you practice your purls before you start with knitting intarsia in the round. Otherwise, your final project will look quite a bit wonky. If you want to learn how to purl the continental way, read my purl stitch tutorial here.

4. Don’t be tempted to mix in Fair Isle floats

Sometimes, you end up with very small color blocks where you might think: Hey, I can use the same bobbin for the next block as well by bridging the gap with a float. Don’t! Even if you are a proficient Fair Isle knitter and really know how to create the perfect floats, they will still leave that portion of the fabric a bit puckered. This, together with the fact that the entire technique is already a bit difficult, spells out disaster. I tried and tried it again and again, but I was never able to get it right. I mean, go ahead, try it, but don’t expect a perfect result.

5. Use lifelines

Frogging intarsia is already quite a nightmare because of all the twists. But frogging intarsia in the round is even worse because of all that knitting back and forth. You will end up with a mistake eventually. But if you frog it, you will soon notice that it’s almost impossible to frog it one row at a time. It’s very easy to accidentally pull on a twist and frog one additional row of a color block.
So, either use lifelines every 10 rows or so or reverse knit. Everything else runs the risk of spoiling your whole work.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s how you knit intarsia in the round. I hope I was able to show you this technique. Let me know in the comments what you plan to knit with it and feel free to ask your questions.

how to knit intarsia in the round

4 thoughts on “How to knit intarsia in the round”

  1. Thank you so much for this in-depth tutorial. Best i have read – and I have read a lot. With the video and the pictures i was finally able to start my first intarsia hat!

    Reply
  2. Thank you Norman!
    This is extremely helpful and have watched sections a number of times as I get to my color block. I will be adding a third color. Can you provide a bit more detail to your text, “You only need to decide for one “background color” and use the edges as the places where you create the provisional joins and turn the work.”
    I’m hoping it becomes more obvious when I add the third color with which colors to make the provisional join and when to turn.

    Reply
    • Hey Mary,

      glad you found my tutorial helpful. I think it will make sense once you come to the place where you add the third color.

      Let’s say you have a simple square and then you want to fill that square with another square in a different color. You would need 2 more bobbins to do this. If you keep the previous turning points, then you can simply knit across in the middle doing two traditional intarsia joins/yarn switches and then the tails will all be in the right place as turn around and purl backwards.

      Reply

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