Intarsia Knitting vs Fair Isle – the difference explained

Knitting colorwork techniques 101: Everything you need to know about the difference between Intarsia and Fair Isle.

Chances are high one of your first ever knitting projects was a scarf or a little pot holder in garter stitch. Soon after you finished that you probably realized that you can add stripes to your knitting by alternating yarns at the beginning of a row – the easiest colorwork technique. And now you want to knit something more elaborate but you have no clue about the difference between Intarsia knitting vs Fair Isle. Which technique is right for you?

the difference between intarsia knitting vs fair isle as shown with two swatches
Two swatches: Fair Isle (left) vs Intarsia (right)

Both Intarsia and Fair Isle knitting are advanced colorwork knitting techniques that will bring a whole new dimension into your knitting. But each has its limitations and excels in different areas. There are certain designs you can achieve with Intarsia that you simply cannot practically knit with Fair Isle and vice versa.

backside of a swatch knitted with fair isle vs intarsia
The back of these two projects

So, let’s take a close look at, eh?

Intarsia: Pros and cons

Intarsia is not the most popular knitting technique in the English speaking countries. Probably because there is a century-long tradition of Fair Isle and it’s the more complicated colorwork technique of the two.

close-up of my intarsia sweater knitting pattern
An intarsia sweater (it’s a free pattern here on my blog)

So, as a start I recommend you to read my complete intarsia knitting tutorial and my 10 tips for advanced intarsia knitting. Both blog posts will be invaluable to you and there’s even a how-to video for beginners.

The basic idea behind Intarsia is knitting little color blocks in different yarns using bobbins and joining them with a special joining method. This produces a very stretchy and drapey fabric and allows you to have an “unlimited” number of different colors per row.

The backside of the intarsia sweater before weaving in the tails
The back of a complicated intarsia project before weaving in the (many) ends

On the negative side, you end up with a bobbin for each color block. Once you have more than five bobbins per row, it will become increasingly hard to keep these bobbins from tangling. Also, if you are not an experienced knitter, it’s really easy to mess up the joins and create a wonky fabric with lots of holes.

view of the provisional join with the loop from above
Intarsia in the round requires you to create provisional joins and knit in two directions

Intarsia is notoriously hard to knit in the round and you will end up with a loooot of tails to weave in. Despite the theoretical possibilities, Intarsia knitting is not good for too small color blocks (like 1 stitch in red, then a stitch in black, and another stitch in green) but can be amazing for larger patchwork-like designs.

Pros:

  • Virtually unlimited ways to transform any kind of picture into knitting
  • Very drapey fabric that behaves pretty much like standard stockinette stitch.
  • Can be combined with almost any knitting stitch pattern (like cables, ribs, lace, etc) as well.
  • You can insert a color block in any position in your fabric.

Cons:

  • Complicated to knit due to the many bobbins.
  • Not very good at intricate designs with lots of very tiny color blocks.
  • Hard to knit in the round.
  • Not the best technique for people who hate weaving in the ends.

Fair Isle: Pros and cons

Stockinette stitch fair isle sample patch on the needles close up
A simple fair isle project in stocking stitch

Fair Isle is a traditional method of knitting with two strands of yarn at the same time, alternating the colors as you go. The technique evolved over the centuries into stranded knitting. For the sake of brevity, I will treat both techniques as the same. Technically speaking, Fair Isle has some (self-imposed) limitations.

The basic idea behind any form of stranded knitting is just as simple. You alternate knitting one or more stitches in one color and drag the second color along on the wrong side. And when it comes to switching colors, you cross the two strands (so your knitting doesn’t fall apart) and continue with a different color.

Unlike Intarsia, this allows you to knit a repeat of alternating stitches in two colors (like 1 red, one blue, one red, one blue, etc). But whenever you change colors, you are creating a so-called float on the backside – a simple strand of yarn connecting two small color blocks with each other. These floats make the fabric twice as thick, and, when executed poorly, can lead to puckering. It also uses a lot more yarn than Intarsia, because essentially it’s double knitting.

the floats on the backside of a swatch knit in the Fair Isle technique

You are also limited to two or a maximum of three colors in one row and you cannot really create color blocks that are larger than 8 stitches (traditional fair isle would say no more than 3 stitches actually) – and even then you need to create anchors for the floats on the backside. Still, handling two balls of yarns is fairly easy and doesn’t really risk a tangle after every stitch (unlike in Intarsia knitting).

Traditionally, Fair Isle is knit in the round, though you can easily adapt it to knitting flat. The floats tend to curl the fabric on the edges, so it’s a technique better suited for sweaters and hats than for scarfs, shawls, or blankets.

You should also be aware that due to the double-knit characteristics of the resulting fabric, it takes careful planning to combine Fair Isle with other segments knit in a single color. Usually, you will have to knit the uni sections one needle size smaller and it will still have a slightly different drape and stretchiness.

PROS:

  • Fairly easy learning curve and little danger of getting tangles.
  • Easy way to knit multi-colored small repeats with a neat finish on the right side.
  • Very efficient for abstract designs and traditional nordic motives.

Cons:

  • Limited to 2 or 3 colors per row
  • Only small color blocks possible, so not very versatile in transforming pictures into knitting
  • Creates a very thick fabric
  • Due to the floats, best knit in the round with wool and other high friction yarns
  • Quite the yarn eater
  • Takes a lot of care to combine with other knitting techniques

Fair Isle vs Intarsia – My summary

A pair of socks combining Fair Isle and Intarsia knitting techniques

To sum it up, Fair Isle is perfect for intricate abstract designs that only use a couple of colors, have small individual color blocks, and fill the whole fabric. Intarsia, on the other hand, excels when it comes to projects with a lot of colors and larger color blocks. It’s perfect for transforming pictures into knitting.

Still, I don’t want you to think that either of the two was better than the other. It’s not really Intarsia knitting vs Fair Isle. Both have their advantages and weaknesses. As you proceed along your knitting journey, it’s probably a smart idea to learn both.

You will probably develop a liking (for me it’s Intarsia, never been a big fan of Fair Isle) but you will also learn to know when you really need the other technique. At one point, you will also realize that if you bend the rules a bit, you can pretty much achieve anything with both Fair Isle and Intarsia.

So, I hope I was able to explain the difference between Intarsia Knitting vs Fair Isle. Feel free to comment below in case you still have any questions

Explaining the difference between fair isle and intarsia knitting

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