Well that’s not scary: Knitting Intarsia

A FEW WEEKS BACK, I ASKED ON INSTAGRAM IF THERE WERE THINGS THAT OTHER KNITTERS FOUND A BIT SCARY. BECAUSE I’VE GOT A THEORY THAT ALL BUT THE MOST CONFIDENT AND CAVALIER OF KNITTERS HAS A SECRET LIST OF THINGS THAT THEY FIND A LITTLE BIT INTIMIDATING.

I know I did. I’ve written before about how I found yarn substitution to be a thing of absolute mystery. But that wasn’t my only fear; I had a whole big mental list of scary techniques. They intimidated me right to my yarn-y core. So much so that I’d avoid any patterns that used them, no matter how beautiful those patterns looked.

I’d see people talk about these terrifying techniques, and I’d freak right out. How could they do this incredible thing with this scary technique, and I couldn’t?

Turns out there’s a simple answer to that one. They’d tried, and I hadn’t.

Because – and this is the point of my asking the “what scares you” question on Instagram, and of starting this new series of blogs – nothing in knitting is actually that scary. It’s just yarn and sticks. The worst that can happen is that it goes a bit wrong, and you try it again. And that’s fine.

And so, in the spirit of de-scarying knitting, I thought I’d start off by talking about colourwork – after all, quite a few people said they were scared of it. And I’m not starting with just any colourwork; I’m starting with intarsia, the style of colourwork that scared the beejesus out of me until a few short months ago.

What the hell is intarsia?

Good question. Sounds fancy and magical, doesn’t it? But the basic definition is this:

Intarsia is colourwork where the fabric remains single thickness. Instead of carrying (or “stranding”) the yarn across the back of your work to the next area of that colour, you join in a new yarn for each area – or “block” – of colour.

(It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s defintion, this one – smushed together from the Ultimate Knitting Bible by Sharon Brant, Rowan Yarns’ definition, and The Spruce Crafts)

Right. Lovely. What does that actually mean?

The simplest way to explain intarsia is to look at it. So, let’s look at this dog cushion. It’s one I designed and knit back in the summer because I’m a ridiculous woman who decided to make my first intarsia project a little bit complicated.

A light teal cushion with a knitted spaniel dog on it

You see all those little patches of colour on that dog? Each one is a different bit of yarn that I joined in, just for that patch*. Each eye? New bit of dark yarn. Pink tongue? Little bit of pink yarn. The teal background on either side of the dog? Two separate bits of yarn. You twist your new yarn round your old yarn at the back of the work when you join it, and that stops it forming holes. Magic, hey?

*this isn’t strictly speaking true, but we’ll get onto that later. So let’s just ignore that for now, shall we?

So, now we’ve established what intarsia is, let me share my hints and tips for how to make a great big success of your next intarsia knitting project, rather than staring at it in fear.

Let me hit you with my intarsia hits and tips

Plan out your intarsia project before you start

I know, I know. Planning is so very boring. But believe me, it’s pretty crucial to making a success of intarsia knitting. I’m not saying you have to swatch every little bit, but have a look at your pattern and have a great big think about how many areas of colour there actually are, and how many different yarns you’re going to need. It’s guaranteed to be more than you think.

For example: I didn’t initially consider that I’d need a new bit of golden yarn for each side of the dog’s nose. Or that I’d need one for the fur to the left of his eyes, one for in between his eyes, and one for to the right.

If you’re using a paper pattern, then I’d crack out a pen and circle each area. If, like me, you’ve come up with something on Stitchmastery and are just hoping for the best, then good luck to you, friend.

Bobbins are your friends when it comes to intarsia

Dark brown yarn wound round a small cardboard bobbin

And what, pray tell, are bobbins?

They’re these things; little bits that you wind your yarn around (technical, I know). I just hacked into some of the endless cardboard that we’ve got knocking about to create mine. You want one for each different area of colour you’re going to knit, so you may find yourself with four of one colour. That’s fine. That’s good. That’ll stop you getting into a flap once you realise you need more golden yarn and all your golden yarn is currently in a big ball attached to your work.

Definitely not speaking from experience there.

Do the twist

Back of a piece of knitting, showing twisted intarsia join between patches of colour

Twisting is the key to intarsia. It’s what stops big holes appearing between each patch of colour, and keeps your work one lovely bit of material. Tin Can Knits have a great blog showing you how to do this twisty join, which I should’ve looked at before starting.

Even though I didn’t check that post out though, I still managed to work it out. See, for example, the twists on the back of the cat cushion I’ve absolutely not left languishing in my WIP pile. They’re pretty much the same thing as the Tin Can Knits join, which shows that even a cavalier fool like me can work intarsia out.

Sometimes you have to cut your losses

I’m not going to lie to you; when you’re working with umpteen different bobbins, you are at some point going to end up in an almighty tangle. If you do, then it’s absolutely fine to just cut your way out of it and start again.

By which I mean to just snip off the working yarns, and rejoin them without the tangling. Not to get in a rage and take scissors to all your work. Let’s keep things in perspective here.

And finally, duplicate stitch is your friend

I’m a big fan of doing what works, regardless of whether it’s the official “correct” thing to do. So remember when I said that technically speaking, I didn’t knit with a new yarn for every single patch of colour in that dog?

That’s because I got myself into one of those almighty tangles, threw a bit of a strop, and decided that the smaller patches of colour could be added later with duplicate stitch. It was a wise choice to make, and one I would absolutely make again.

Because after all, when it comes to knitting there is no single right way to do things, there is just the way that works for you.

Have I missed anything out on my quick jaunt around the intarsia universe? Is there anything you want to see me try and de-scary for you? Let me know.

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