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Painting with Yarn: Intarsia

For years I wondered how knitters created large colorful pictures in their knitting without needing to manage long yarn floats. I finally found the answer to my question: intarsia! To me, this technique feels a lot like painting a picture with yarn. I really enjoyed choosing different yarn colors and shades and planning how the yarn would combine to create a knitted picture. It seemed almost magical to see the picture emerge using only a knit stitch. But of course, there’s no magic to it; it's just another interesting knitting technique!

Intarsia is a technique used to change colors within knitting without carrying the yarn behind or float it. It is mainly used to create large sections of color rather than just a few stitches, unlike stranded colorwork. Pictures or color-blocked sections can be created without puckering the fabric because there isn’t any yarn to float behind the knitted piece. To begin knitting intarsia, start with the main color. When ready to switch colors, simply drop the main color yarn, pick up the new color, and begin knitting with it. To be successful at knitting intarsia, a little planning is required and it is important to remember to twist the yarns together.


Intarsia is an excellent way to use up some of those small, leftover balls of yarn from other projects. Just be sure there is enough to complete the design. Most likely, the largest amount of yarn needed will be for the main color. Minimally, you will need two balls or skeins of this color so that it can be reattached after working the contrasting color(s) of the design. This can be done in several ways: use two new balls or skeins, pull from both sides of a singular skein, or unravel a quantity of yarn from one skein creating another, separate ball. Bobbins can also be helpful here for dividing yarn but are not necessary. Of course, the amount of yarn required also depends on the overall scope of the project.


The most important thing to remember when working in intarsia is to twist the yarns together when changing colors. This is crucial, otherwise, there will be holes in the knitting or the color block could be completely detached from the rest of the knitting. The best way to make sure that the yarns are twisted is to drop the working color to the left so that it lays overtop the new color, sort of like the letter X (see the picture on the left below). Then pick up the new color making sure to bring it from underneath the first color and then up overtop, thus twisting the yarns together (see the picture on the right below). This technique of twisting the yarns is necessary for rows after the initial color change.

As a colorwork technique, intarsia has a lot of benefits. It is quickly learned as it only requires the knitter to know knit stitch. It also allows the knitter the freedom to change color in large sections of his or her knitting and it is an excellent usage for leftover, partly used balls of yarn. The largest drawback is that there are A LOT of ends to weave in. Many people don’t mind this task, and some even find it soothing. However, I do not, so while intarsia does make creative and fun designs it is probably not a technique that I will often pursue.

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