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.

Well that’s not scary: Turning heels is actually easy knitting

Back in the day, before I started knitting socks (which is considerably more recently than you’d think; an Instagram reminder popped up the other day to tell me I knitted my first socks two years ago), I was absolutely terrified of turning heels. SO SCARED. It seemed like some impossible black magic that I would never be able to master.

The backs of the Ya Basic bedsocks, showing their heels

Sock knitting was difficult, I was convinced of it. I should not even give it a try. Quit before you have the chance to get behind.

Well, if the title of this blog hasn’t already given it away, then I’ve got something I need to share with all other knitters who are scared of socks. Heel turns aren’t scary. Heel turns aren’t difficult. Heel turns aren’t witchcraft.

Heel turns are actually simple, and also quite fun.

Yes, there are many different types of heel turn. And yes, some of them are more complex than others, and some suit different feet better and some suit different socks better and blah blah blah. But let’s not worry about that. All you need to worry about is the heel turn in the pattern you’re using. Let us designers worry about the best way to swivel that heel round.

So, to show how simple heel turns can be, I’m going to walk you through one.

Take my new Ya Basic bed socks; the heel turn on those is so simple that I’m almost tempted to get my 3yo to try it out to see if he can handle it. To be honest, the only reason I haven’t done that is because I don’t want to get into another ridiculous situation where he insists he has to do something himself and it takes such a very long time and I lose the will to live because I could just do it so much quicker. I have visions of him running across the playroom every time I want to turn a heel, and I am not prepared for that to happen. No.

Anyway. The Ya Basic heel turn is…well, pretty basic. In case you don’t believe me, I’ve actually filmed all the stitches you need to do it, so you can see for yourself how it works. It’s like the knitting equivalent of unmasking the Scooby Doo villain; pull the sheet off, and there’s nothing frightening there are all.

What the hell is a short row heel turn?

First things first; you’ll see in the pattern that Ya Basic uses short rows to turn the heels. This sound like another bit of baffling knitting jiggery pokery, but really it just means this: when you knit a short row, you don’t knit across all the stitches in that row. You knit a few, and then you turn your work round and knit back again. At each end of the row you do a different stitch from the standard so you don’t end up with holes. That’s it.

One thing you’ll see in the Ya Basic instructions is “Sl 1”, which translates as ‘slip one stitch’. That’s one you can take pretty literally; you just put your right hand needle in to the first stitch on your left hand needle, and slip it across without knitting it. Simple. You’ll see that at the start of the rows in the heel turn section.

So how do I ssk (slip, slip, knit?)

Next up, you need to do a ssk before you turn your work. What that translates to is “slip 2 stitches as if to knit, and then knit them together.” Way easier than it sounds. Just watch this:

See what I did there? I slipped those two stitches over to my right hand needle. Then I inserted my left hand needle into the front of them, wrapped the yarn round the back (right hand needle) and slipped them off lefty. Then, for the sake of completing the short row, I did one more standard knit stitch and then turned my work.

Watch it a few times. Slip, slip, knit these two stitches together. Knit one more. Turn.

Right. And how do I p2tog (purl two together)?

If you’ve got the ssk down, the p2tog is going to be a piece of piss. Again, let’s have a look:

This one’s even easier than the ssk. You basically do a normal purl stitch, but rather than putting your right hand needle through just the first stitch, you put it through the first two. Then wrap your yarn and finish your stitch as normal. Again, I’ve done a standard purl stitch after the p2tog just to show exactly how to finish the row according to the pattern.

P2tog done. And with those two stitches you’ve done the bulk of the heel turn.

But how do I pick up stitches?

If, like me, you look at the instruction to pick up stitches and the first thing you think is “but I never put them down in the first place”, then this instruction can seem a bit tricky. But again, it’s not.

When you were knitting the heel flap of your sock, you will have slipped the first stitch of each row. That gives you a lovely big stitch to pick up these mysterious stitches from. Let me show you:

At the start of this video I’ve got to the end of the last heel turn row, so it’s time to pick up those stitches. That bit I’m showing you by my left thumb is the lovely big slipped stitches along the side of the heel flap.

To pick up and knit stitches from along there, you insert your right hand needle under both loops of one of those stitches, and then wrap your yarn and knit as normal. Do that right up the side of the heel flap for as many stitches as the pattern tells you, and you’re good to go.

(A little tip: try and make sure you pick up one of your stitches right up in the corner where the heel flap starts. That should stop you getting any little holes there)

Is that it? Have I turned a heel now?

Yes. Yes you have.

See, I told you it wasn’t hard. If you want to give it a shot, you’ll find the links to buy the Ya Basic pattern below. And don’t forget that 10% of all sales goes to the wonderful Bluebell Care.

Team toe up: why knitting socks toe up is the best

Lace and rib socks

Before I started knitting socks, I had absolutely no idea how on earth people managed to do it. I couldn’t get my head around the construction at all. Heels, in particular, baffled me. And it turns out that there are very many ways to knit a sock, and that indeed many of those ways have to do with heels. But there is a big battleground in the handknit sock world that I wasn’t expecting; whether you knit them top down, or toe up.

I’ve surprised myself by having incredibly strong opinions on this one. Indeed, in this Blur vs Oasis, or NSync vs Backstreet Boys, or other 90s musical analogy of a showdown, I fall firmly in the toe up camp.

Toe up socks are, as my three year old would state, “brilliant amazing”. Let me tell you why.

Starting knitting with the toe feels like magic

My favourite way to start knitting toe up socks – and the one you’ll find in my patterns – is with Judy’s magic cast-on. And trust me, this cast-on lives up to its name.

You start with a slipknot, you wiggle the needle around the yarn a bit, and then you’ve got a load of stitches on your needle. Start working in some increases at the edges, and you’ve suddenly got a sock toe.

And believe me, a little toe all on its own is very cute.

You can try toe up socks on as you go. Easily.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to try on a pair of top down socks while you’re in the middle of knitting them, but it’s an absolute arse. You’ve got to adjust all your stitches across the needles, try and get your foot through without knocking any over to somewhere they shouldn’t be. If you’ve already turned the heel this is an absolute nightmare. Even if you haven’t, the fact that the needles are the last thing your foot comes to makes it something of a challenge.

Work in progress yellow sock being tried on

With toe up socks, you just put your foot in them. You can hold them by the needles, and pull them up. Simple.

Perfect foot length every time.

They’ve got a roomier gusset

Minds out of gutters, people. We’re talking the bit of the sock before you get to the heel turn, where your foot starts chunking up a bit.

If, like me, you have insanely wide plank feet then the extra stitches added to a toe-up gusset are you friends. Because seriously, my feet are the same shape as a your standard plank of wood. That period in the early 00s where all shoes were super pointy was a nightmare.

It’s really easy to add a decorative bind-off and jazz your socks up

I like to make my socks a little bit fancy. My Party As a Verb socks use a picot cast-off so they’ll look extra great peeking over the tops of ankle boots. This kind of thing is simple to do with a toe-up sock. And, because the cuff is the last bit you get to, you can decide to add a picot on a whim.

Picot cast-off on blue Party As a Verb handknit socks

Sure, if you’re knitting top down you could do a provisional cast-on and then go back and do something jazzy at the end, but I got tired just typing that out.

It’s super obvious how long to make the leg of your sock

Farewell, yarn chicken. There’s nothing worse than getting towards the end of your second sock and realising you don’t actually have enough yarn left to get to the toe. It’s an occupational hazard of the top-down knitter. So easy to get carried away with a lovely long leg and not leave yourself enough to work with.

That’s not going to happen if you toe-up it though. Especially if you’re one of those clever people who divides their yarn into two balls, so they’ve got one for each sock. You can just keep going until you run out of yarn.

Time to try out a toe up sock pattern?

Just in case I’ve not made myself totally clear: I’m all about team toe up. That’s why toe up is the method you’ll find in my patterns

Although, as with all rules, I make one exception: chunky bed socks. Which is a good thing, because they’re coming your way soon.

Why I’m supporting Bluebell Care

Something you may or may not know about Woolly Badger knitting patterns is that 10% of all sales goes to Bristol-based perinatal mental health charity Bluebell Care. I possibly haven’t talked about it enough up until now, because I’ve been so busy trying to get patterns ready and test knits done and websites built and all that other bumpf that goes into a knitting pattern business that isn’t just sitting and doing some knitting.

But I want to be very clear on why it is that I’m supporting Bluebell by donating a portion of every single sale I make. It’s because they’re truly amazing, and very possibly saved my life.

I’ve had struggles with anxiety and depression in the past, and spent my late 20s on and off medication, before finally deciding (somewhere around my 30th birthday) that I just needed the boost that antidepressants give me to be able to function properly. I’ve spent the best part of a decade in therapy. I stopped drinking. I started walking absolutely everywhere. I quit my high-stress job, and moved out of London to Bristol, which is a way more chilled city.

In short, I did everything you’re supposed to do to help manage mental ill-health, and on the whole, it worked pretty well.

But, after the birth of my second son last year, I found myself dealing with the scarily familiar relentless weeping and feelings of hopeless failure. I knew what it was. I knew what was coming. And I felt totally and utterly powerless to stop it; after all, I’d done all the Right Things and still found myself buried under postnatal depression.

It was awful.

Thank God, though, for Bluebell. I will be singing their praises for the rest of my life. At a point where I was properly despondent, they came along and they helped me. The thing that makes Bluebell different – and, in my opinion, properly amazing – is that the women who work and volunteer there have all experienced perinatal depression and/or anxiety. And they’ve come through it, and got well, and committed to helping other women. They are literal lifesavers.

Back in the winter, when I was feeling Not Good, I was assigned a Bluebell Buddy who came out and talked to me and supported me. I was gently encouraged to go along to Bluebell Place, their hub in the centre of Bristol (which has been closed thanks to Covid, but will hopefully be back soon), and join in some of their weekly groups. They gave me a spot on their Mum’s Comfort Zone course, which was perhaps the single biggest help in my recovery.

And when the pandemic hit, they kept their support going through phonecalls, and their facebook page, and even put me forward for a course on Maternal Journal (another thing well worth looking at).

And they did all this for free. FOR FREE. I didn’t have to pay a single penny for all this support. Families can access their support regardless of income, which is truly remarkable for mental health.

So, of course I want to give something back to them. Of course I do.

Plus, knitting and mental health are good bedfellows. I’ve long believed in the soothing power of knitting. I think it’s the combination of repetitive movement being enough to calm me down, with the sense of achievement from actually making something. I’ve never really analysed it too much, if I’m honest. All I know is that knitting makes me feel better, and that’s all I really need to know. So if I can help other women feel better by donating some of my sales, then I’m going to.

I’m hoping that one day soon I’ll be able to support them in person as well; pre-Covid, Bluebell ran a knitting and crochet drop in called “Woolly Wednesday”, and I’m planning to go and help out there as soon as I possibly can. Because sometimes you do just need a nice cup of tea, a sit down, and a bit of crafting.

You can support Bluebell directly on their JustGiving page.

The Woolly Badger guide to yarn substitution

There’s been a lot of talk in the online knitting community over the past few days about how to make sure that knitting is financially accessible for as many people as possible. As a large part of that responsibility rests with designers, and the yarns we choose to use, I wanted to lay out my approach to choosing yarn, providing alternative options, and helping people find the yarn that will work best for them. I’ve pulled together some helpful yarn substitution resources at the end of the post, so if you’re just here for them then skip to the end.

Yarn stash shot
Yes, that’s only part of my yarn stash. Yes, I have a problem.

Ah, yarn substitution. You funny old beast. I’ll be honest; for years, I didn’t even realise yarn substitution was a thing. I thought you had to knit the pattern in the yarn that the pattern told you to knit it in, or it would all go terribly bad and wrong. Every single time. No exceptions.

I now know that not to be the case.

And I also realise that yarn substitution is actually a pretty important thing. Switching in a different yarn can be the difference between being able to afford to knit, and not. When I first got into knitting a lot of my friends assumed I was going to save myself a lot of money by being able to knit my own jumpers, and I had to explain time and again that that’s really not the case. Unless you’re willing to knit everything in acrylic (and to be clear, I have nothing against acrylic except a bit of environmental unease, but that’s a whole other blog about how sometimes slow fashion made out of acrylic can be better than a constant stream of fast fashion made in terrible conditions with supposedly ‘better’ fibres), then chances are you’ll end up spending rather a lot more on your knitwear than you would if you bought similar on the high street.

So, yes, having yarns at a variety of price points is really important if knitting is going to be accessible for as many people as possible. And having patterns that work for yarns at a variety of price points is a pretty big deal too. I used to look at patterns and think I couldn’t knit them because I couldn’t get the yarn they called for. Sometimes because I couldn’t find it, but sometimes because I just couldn’t afford it.

These days I’m lucky enough to be able to afford some really, really lovely yarn. And as a designer, I really want to support other indie businesses by using their yarns in my designs. That’s why you’ll see a lot of fancy, hand-dyed yarn used in my patterns. But I also know that won’t work for everyone; spending £20 on a single skein of hand-dyed yarn is not going to work with everyone’s budget. And crucially, not everyone will have the knowledge, or indeed the confidence, to substitute the yarn I’ve used without getting a little help from somewhere.

So, the other side of my role as a designer is supporting people who need more affordable choices. I’m not going to lie here; I am not a yarn substitution expert. My preferred method for my own projects starts with looking at yarn weight, takes a brief sojourn past fibre content, and then invariably gets wildly distracted by colourways. It’s probably not the way you should do things.

But, I’m going to put my haphazard ways aside and make sure that where I can, I’m recommending at least one more affordable yarn choice with each of my patterns. But, that’s still not really enough. The great joy of the internet is that people from all over the world can use my patterns. The great ballache of that is that not every yarn is available in every country, so it’s going to be impossible for me to recommend a yarn for every possible scenario. But I can recommend places that help.

Your local yarn store

Man, local yarn stores are great. They’re run by people who love yarn, and who seriously know their stuff. If you ever need help substituting a yarn for any pattern you’re knitting, I’d really recommend starting there.

Now, I know not everyone is lucky enough to have a local yarn store they can just drop along to. But one of the (very few) good things about the Covid-19 pandemic is that more and more people are trading online, including yarn stores. Chances are a quick google will be able to bring up someone who will be happy to help you via phone or email, and then post your goods out to you.

Online resources

Now, I could write a nice blog about which fibres behave similarly, and which swapouts work particularly well. I could, but I’d largely be making it up. So instead, I’m going to point you towards some other resources from people who really do know what they’re talking about.

So there you go. That’s the Woolly Badger guide to doing yarn substitution the right way, as opposed to the haphazard way. Writing this post has almost convinced me to start following my own advice.

Almost.