Intarsia:  Getting It Right

Having now completed two intarsia knitting projects done correctly (for the first time in a 50-year knitting career), I wanted to post about the right way to do intarsia so that it’s even and tidy on both sides.

Intarsia is knitting using blocks of color to make an image.  I find it fussy and messy, something to get done as quickly as possible so I can move on to the kind of knitting that I really enjoy (creating a design with stitches rather than colors).  However, as I wrote below, being the family’s Designated Knitter means that sometimes I make things out of love that I wouldn’t otherwise make.  Two recent projects are examples:  this and this.  And when I had done them right, I realized that intarsia isn’t so bad after all.  It appeals to my Enneagram Type One personality, which is all about “getting it right.”

The Wool Shop is gone but their bag lives on.

It was also a pleasure for me to carry on this family tradition, even to the extent of using my mother’s old bent pink plastic knitting needles and keeping the project in a bag from her favorite knitting store, which closed decades ago.

I couldn’t have managed this without this book, which I picked up years ago at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.  So here’s the deal… three things to remember:

Thing One:  Always start a new piece of yarn when starting a new area of color.  It doesn’t matter if it’s only a few stitches away from the last place you used that color.  Don’t carry your yarn over those few stitches.  START A NEW PIECE.   This means that (a) your knitting, and therefore your image, will be a lot less distorted; (b) you won’t have big loops of yarn running along the inside of your work; and (c) you will have a hell of a lot more ends to weave in when you’re done.

I got kind of carried away with using just the right length of yarn for a particular color section.  You don’t have to do this unless you are ridiculously committed to not wasting yarn.

Always keep your clipboard and calculator handy.

What I did was first figure out how much yarn was used in one stitch (in this case, .86″).  Then using my hand-colored chart, I figured out how many stitches I would need for a block of color when I came to it.  This involves counting stitches going in both directions (L to R and R to L) so that it would be clear where I would be starting and stopping each block.  Then I did the math, adding 12″ to each piece — 6″ for each end where I started and stopped knitting with that piece.

I gave up on using bobbins long ago, since they just get tangled with each other and are a nuisance.  I simply added long pieces of colors as I needed them, and didn’t worry much about untangling them unless they were too tangled to work with.  This meant that my work space looked like a rat’s nest, but I actually did know what I was doing.

Thing Two:  When starting a new piece of yarn, leave the tail hanging out on the right side of the work.  If you’re on a knit row, the right side of the work is facing you.  Lay about 5″ of the new yarn between stitches (immediately before you’re going to knit with it) with the tail toward you.  On the back side, where the long part of the new piece is, put it under and to the right of the strand you have been working with, then bring it up, looping it over the old strand, and start knitting with it. This will lock the new piece under the old piece.  It’s essentially the same thing if you’re purling, though the right side of the work will be away from you.  Lay the new piece on the right side of the work with about a 5″ tail, bring the working part of the new piece under the old strand (again it will be under and to the right), and then start purling with it.  What this means is that as you work your way along, you will have lots of ends on the right side of the work. Don’t worry.

It will look like this while you are working on it.

Or like this.

Thing Three:  When you have completed knitting the piece, you will need to weave in all those ends.  OMG, that’s a lot of ends!  But just be patient… one thing at a time.  You will have the beginnings of color blocks with ends hanging out on the right side, and the ends of color blocks with ends on the inside.

Yup, that’s a lotta ends to weave in. This is the right side.

We’re gonna weave in that white piece.

Start with the outside, thus:  Thread an end piece onto a large sharp needle with a big eye (for ease of threading).  Note that it should be sharp, not a blunt tapestry needle.  Carefully bring the yarn back through the hole it’s coming out of, so that you are working on the back.  It will still be anchored in place.

Poking the end back in.

Aiming in a downward direction (all starting ends should be woven in downward; all ending ends should be woven in upward), weave the yarn diagonally through the back loop of several stitches, going INTO the yarn of the loop rather than completely under it.  Going into the yarn allows the natural little barbs of yarn to grab onto itself and hold it firm.  Ideally you will want to weave the end into a block of the same color so that it won’t show at all on the right side.  (My book maintains that when done correctly, even yarn woven through a different color shouldn’t show, but that wasn’t always my experience.)  Go back and forth diagonally so that the woven-in end is in an S shape.

weaving 1

Starting the weaving.

Second part of the S.

Third part of the S.

How it looks like you’re done.

Before cutting it off (with about 1/8″ left), stretch the fabric in several directions to be sure that there is enough slack in your weaving.  Weave in all of the ends that are left on the outside; you’ll be left with a tidy piece of knitting and a pile of ends.

Outside done. That’s not so many pieces, is it?

But there’s still the inside to do.

Or this, as the case my be.

Then go to the inside (yup, lots of ends again!) and do the same thing, weaving in the ends in an upward direction.  Note that it’s okay if you have to weave ends into places where there already is yarn woven in; if done correctly, none of this should pull out.

inside done

When you’re done, you’ll have a bigger pile of ends and a piece of work where the image looks quite similar on the right and the wrong sides — not a lot of loops on the back obscuring the design.  I think that’s the indication that you’ve done intarsia The Right Way.


Have fun!


One thought on “Intarsia: Getting It Right

  1. Laura

    What an informative post! Thanks for linking to it in the MasonDixonKnitting comments. I just realized that I have that little book somewhere on my knitting shelves as well. I don’t much like Intarsia either (so hard to find a rhythm with it) but the results are so sweet sometimes.


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