3 fixes for knitting intarsia

Lots of knitters avoid intarsia designs because they haven’t been successful in the past, or they just imagine that it’s going to be unimaginably difficult. There’s actually very little that’s difficult to intarsia knitting and there may be a few problems that can easily be avoided or fixed. For this example I’m using the very brilliant and soft Dona yarn from Universal Yarns – it’s a great alternative to acrylic as it’s a superwash merino wool.

Intarsia Knitting

Knitting intarsia is basically like finding a knot in your ball of yarn and having to cut that and join a new ball mid row. You knit the last stitch of the first color, and then you insert the needle in the next stitch, and leaving a substantial tail of yarn, you knit the next stitch with the new color. On the return row (usually the purl side), you simply lay the yarn you’ve just been knitting with over the ball and yarn of the next color and pick up the new color to continue purling across. This creates a half-twist between the yarn strands that closes the gap.

Intarsia swatch

Uneven stitches in the rows

When you look at the white stitches in the swatch above you’ll be able to see about 3 rows where some of the stitches are looser than the average ones elsewhere in the swatch. While this problem of short bursts of loose stitches can happen in any stretch of stockinette stitch, it’s quite common in intarsia knitting.

The problem of loose stitches is usually one of the hands playing with the tension of the yarn as you feed the needles. If you tend to look up frequently, set your project aside for moments, reach for your mug of coffee, cup of tea, or glass of wine a lot mid-row, you’re going to get these little blips. In intarsia knitting it tends to happen when you struggle with skeins or bobbins of yarn that are twisted, tangled or simply annoying you. On the purl rows, this does tend to happen a bit more.

To solve the problem of loose stitches while doing intarsia, the trick is to pull from the balls, skeins or bobbins the yarn you’ll need for each section of each color and have it drape loosely on your lap or a table if you’re at one. Not having to tug at the yarn for any section of the work is key. Also, it’s important to save untwisting yarn and bobbins and drinking till the end of rows.

Loose color joins

Many people do find that it’s easy to run into loose color joins when knitting intarsia. In the lower teal section of the swatch 3 rows away from the black, you can see an extra loose stitch. While these are easy enough to avoid, if one sneaks in despite your best efforts, it’s simply a matter of distributing the extra slack by working it through the nearest 4 to 6 neighboring stitches. With the tip of a needle 2 or 3 sizes smaller than the one I was knitting with, I tugged on the right leg of the loose stitch, then on the left leg of its neighbor, then the right leg of the same neighbor and so on. This is the result. I haven’t re-blocked the swatch, but that would finish smoothing everything out.

Fixed loose stitch

Intarsia stitches looking loose and tight at color edges

Another issue that surfaces in intarsia is the appearance that every other edge stitch in the column next to the other color looks either looser than the ones in between or tighter. This happens to most knitters. To some it happens on purl rows, to others on knit rows. It happens to both continental knitters and to English-method knitters. The other thing to do is to tighten the first stitch of each color when you’ve just switched on the row (check if it’s your knit row or your purl row) and on the last stitch too.

It takes some playing around till you’re consistent. You can’t rely on your automatic muscle memory or natural tension to deal with this. It’s a microsecond of stop, think and tug. In the end, it’s worth it when you have a great knit item with lovely edges between colors.

Intarsia Swatch

Your yarn will affect the look of your intarsia edges

I’ve had the pleasure of swatching with Dona yarn (see yesterday’s post). It’s a DK weight merino wool with this interesting springy twist.  This yarn as well as many others yield a stockinette fabric in which the individual stitches look more like check-marks, rather than V’s. This happens in some really springy yarn because of how the twist likes to settle in each loop after you’ve knit a stitch. If you see this check-mark look to your knitting, you’ll most likely find that the fabric is lofty and springy to the touch and there’s a lovely drape that has a bit of substance to it. This check-mark appearance will affect the edges of colorwork in intarsia knitting, but not too seriously. There is no real solution to that other than to change yarn. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I think I’m going to knit a baby boy’s checkerboard top with a chess player symbol in one of the squares.

This is part 2 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 1:  Finding an alternative to acrylic yarn for washable apparel

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Susan A Beckham May 14, 2018 - 1:20 pm
Thank you Charles for making this awesome video! I love intarsia . It is my fave to knit. I am so happy to see your videos as there are no good intarsia videos out there! I would love to see how to rip out a section of intarsia to repair stitches below, without having to rip out the whole project.
Charles Voth May 14, 2018 - 4:09 pm
I haven't ever had to do this, but I imagine I would work up to the offending error and leave 2 or 3 columns of stitches on either side of the error drop and unravel down to a few rows below. Then with double pointed needles, I would work back up the column, fixing the stitches to match the chart correctly.
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