How to knit intarsia

A detailed tutorial on how to do intarsia knitting for beginners.

So, you saw a beautiful intarsia knitting pattern but you have no clue how to knit it? And now you want to master this amazing technique yourself? Well, then you came to the right place! In this tutorial, I am going to show you everything you need to know about knitting intarsia.

A swatch knit in the intarsia technique with the letter "n" from above

I really love intarsia (check out my intarsia sweater & my intarsia socks) and actually prefer it to Fair Isle knitting. It’s a bit more complicated and may require a bit more planning, but it also delivers fantastic results that are more in line with my aesthetics. All you need to know is how to knit the stockinette stitch and how to weave in ends. You don’t need any special tension techniques, etc.

Still, this will be quite a massive blog post as there is a bit of planning and preparation involved when knitting intarsia patterns. So, please bear with me when I don’t show you how to knit it right away. I am doing this for a reason! (though feel free to scroll down)

Note: Don’t forget to read my tutorial on advanced intarsia knitting as well.

What is intarsia knitting and how does it differ from fair isle?

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

Intarsia is a knitting technique that allows you to create panels in a different color/yarn in the middle of your project. By using a special joining method, you prevent your fabric from falling apart. Unlike in Fair Isle, you don’t have to carry two (or more colors) with you as you knit your row or weave in floats every 4 or 5 stitches. This allows for bigger panels and more intricate designs. It also doesn’t consume as much yarn. On the negative side, you will need to start knitting with a new bobbin for every new panel. Thus you end up with a lot of tails to weave in. It’s also rather complicated to knit in the round.

So, let’s dive right into it, eh?

How to do Intarsia Knitting

Knitting intarsia is easy if you follow a couple of rules. That’s why I broke down the process into four easy steps, so you can design and finish your own intarsia projects the right way. Intarsia is usually knit flat and the techniques I will show you now won’t work in the round. Before you start, this is what you will need:

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Intarsia knitting swatch with the letter N

1. Planning your project

An intarsia knitting chart for the letter n
A chart for knitting the letter “N” with intarsia chart (as an example)

Intarsia basically allows you to transform any picture into knitting. Think of each stitch as a pixel you can fill with a color of your choice. As a beginner, I urge you to start with something simple. In this tutorial, I’m knitting the letter “N” to show you the basics.

No matter your design, it’s probably a wise idea to start with a chart. You can do this online (I am currently using stitch fiddle) or checkered paper and some crayons. If you do it using paper, then be aware that a typical knit stitch is wider than it’s high.

Once you got the design in your hand, it’s time to start the real planning. Why? Well, every time you have to change color, you will need to join a new skein. Now, most intarsia projects only need small amounts of yarn for each color panel, that’s why experienced knitters will wind a bobbin with a short length of yarn according to the requirements of your pattern.

So, what you have to do is, you have to go through each row of your chart and count the yarn changes and prepare a bobbin for each of them. Obviously, you can use the same bobbin in the next round if the color panel continues across multiple rows. But you can’t carry the yarn across different color panels s as you could in Fair Isle. You can, however, go diagonal by a stitch or two.

Intarsia knitting chart with all the positions marked where you need to join in a new bobbin

In my little example, you would need two red and two additional teal bobbins starting from row 5. You will be able to use the same five bobbins for the next couple of rows until you reach row number 11. But pay attention: You will actually need two additional bobbins as you need another red bobbin for this middle section. I marked every time you need to join in a new bobbin with a little arrow.

Your chart may look different, but the principles of intarsia remain the same. Every new color panel in a row (! important, don’t look at the chart as a whole, always just at a row) requires a new bobbin and you can only jump rows, not columns. Obviously, you can use more than two colors. In fact, you can use as many as you want. Be aware, that the more bobbins you have, the more complicated it will be to manage them.

2. Join in a new color the right way

When you prepared all your bobbins, it’s time to start the actual knitting. In this example, you can knit the first 4 rows in plain stockinette stitch. A standard longtail cast on will be perfectly fine. Row 5 is where things get interesting. Here, you have to join in your first four bobbins to start with the letter “N”.

In advanced intarsia patterns, you usually join in quite a couple of bobbins, so it pays off to have a good joining technique. Obviously, you can’t join in a new skein at the end of a row, as you would typically try when knitting flat. This is very important because you don’t want loose stitches at the start of every panel.

This is how I usually do it:

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

Step 1: Knit up until one stitch before you need the new color (so, 6 in this case). Before you knit the last stitch, pick up the new color, and weave it in. So, place the new yarn in between your needles and the working yarn with the tail pointing towards the right.

Knit one more stitch after you weave in

Step 2: And then just knit the stitch. That way, you trap the tail on the backside.
Remember to leave a long enough tail for weaving in later on!

Step 3: Then, for the next stitch, pick up the new color but bring the old color around so it rests on top of the new yarn. Thus you will add another twist for an extra secure and tight join.

twist the yarns if you change colors on the knit side

Step 4: Knit the next stitch as normal

knit one stitch in the new color

Step 3: Once you knit those two stitches, tug on all tails to secure it. You will instantly notice how much firmer it gets.

this is how the weave in looks like from the back side
How the weave in looks from the wrong side

Once you joined the new color/yarn, you can continue knitting according to the chart until it’s time to join in the next (teal) bobbin using the exact same method.

Note: There is also the so-called twisted join, but I feel it’s a bit more cumbersome and doesn’t deliver better results.

3. Twist the yarn whenever you change color

And now it’s time to continue knitting. In my example, you would have to turn the project around and purl all stitches. When your chart tells you to change colors, you don’t need to join a new bobbin anymore. You can, obviously, use the one from the row below. But, you can’t simply knit with the new color. If you would do that, you would create two separate pieces with a gap in between like a big buttonhole.

Instead, you have to twist the yarns to create a join. Here’s what you have to do every time you change color. The technique will be the same on the purl and on the knit side, but I’m going to show you both versions anyway.

Step 1: Bring up the new yarn from underneath the old yarn so the old yarn rests on top.

twist the yarns by picking up the new color from below

Step 2: Pick up the new yarn, give it a little tug to tighten up the stitch one row below, and knit the first stitch in the new color. The old yarn should be trapped on the backside of the stitch, just like a float in Fair Isle.

the result after you knit one stitch with the new color on the purl side

Step 3: After you knit the first stitch in the new color, give the tail of the previous color a gentle tug to tighten up that stitch as well.

Continue knitting according to the chart.

Whenever you change colors, you have to twist the yarns in that manner to avoid gaps.

On the knit side, it’s exactly the same. You always have to bring up the new yarn from underneath the old yarn so the old yarn is on top as you knit the first stitch in the new color.

Step 1: Bring the new color up from underneath so the previous color rests on top of it.

cross the yarns if you change colors on the knit side of an intarsia project
Note: You can see two teal yarns because I also weaved in the the tail once again.

Step 2: Then knit the next stitch and tug on the tails

knit one stitch in the new color on the knit side of the intarsia

That’s the only way you can create a permanent join and avoid gaps.

Do this meticulously whenever you change yarns because if you forget it even once, you will create a gap. The wrong side of your work should have a neat little cable in two colors.

the wrong side of an intarsia project with two neatly joined color panels

Left-slanted or right-slanted diagonal color changes

Most intarsia patterns are not only squares. If you got a diagonal color change (like in row 6 and 8 in my example), you really don’t need a special technique. Just bring up the yarn one stitch before (or after) making sure to twist the yarns.

Technically speaking, you don’t need a twist for left slanting color changes, but do it anyway.

There’s one important thing you do have to know, however: You are creating a tiny little float bridging one or two stitches whenever you change colors diagonally. If you tug on the tails too much, this can shorten the stitches a row below.

If you have diagonal color changes that bridge more than one stitch, you will have to create floats by weaving in the yarn. Either in the previous rows (if it slants to the right) or in the current row (if it slants to the left).

6. Weave in the tails

weaved in tails on the backside of an intarsia swatch

This last step in intarsia knitting is probably as important as all the rest, even though it often gets neglected. Once you finished a color panel (like in row 18 or 21 in my example), you shouldn’t just cut away the bobbin. Instead, twist the yarns one more time, even though you will continue knitting in the same color. That way, you create another anchor for the tail and avoid gaps.

After you finished the last row, you have to do some further weaving in. That’s the big problem with intarsia knitting: You end up with a tremendous amount of little ends that need to be secured. As this is such a big topic, I wrote a detailed post about weaving in ends in knitting here.

But here’s the gist: Weave in the ends on the purl side using a sharp tapestry needle going diagonal in two directions trying to spear the little purl bumps. If you notice any gaps, you can do a little bit of grafting and weave in the tails so they are secured on the backside the way they would be after twisting two yarns.

So, that’s it. That’s how to do intarsia knitting. I hope I was able to show you this amazing technique. Feel free to ask your comments below!

intarsia knitting for beginners

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