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6 essential tips for knitting intarsia

by Cynthia MacDougall

Welcome to the last post in my Deluxe DK and Deluxe Worsted Superwash series. It’s been a great run!

Throughout the week, I’ve been tying in a child’s vest pattern, the Argyle Junior Vest. The pattern is free, and, in addition to allowing me to talk about sampling and the vast range of colors for each yarn (along with a little color theory in yesterday’s post), it’s given me the opportunity to introduce intarsia knitting in a manner that won’t overwhelm the knitter who is new to it.

The Argyle Junior Vest in two colorways – one that would suit a bold little girl, and one that would work well for a dress-up Thanksgiving at Grandma’s.

True confession: I don’t do a lot of intarsia knitting, even though I love color and blocks of color. Intarsia is a little fiddly to work, but there are a few cheats you can use to help it go a little more smoothly.

TIP 1. Using some form of bobbin is usually a good idea – several different kinds are shown in the photo below. Depending on the complexity of the intarsia project, though, you can sometimes get by with a few ‘butterflies’ (also in the photo below). That’s what I did for this vest.

Bobbins come in different styles. The flat white one, top left, and its larger counterpart open up (bottom center) for winding on. The navy and pink “butterflies” are an inexpensive alternative.

TIP 2 For really small areas, like the lines in the argyle pattern, I opt for not using a bobbin at all. I just break off a length of yarn I expect will be long enough to complete the lines. Sometimes, it’s easier to pull short strands up through the scramble of yarns that will form on the back of the work.

It can be a challenge to gauge how much yarn will be needed to complete a motif. I wound approximately 4 yards/ meters for each diamond, which turned out to be about double what I needed. That’s OK, though – I have enough yarn to make another sweater, so I can work those bits into it. I also could have managed with about 24” [60cm] of each strand of the gold, instead of the full yard/ meter I cut for each.

Three rows in, the tangles have already started! Once I’ve pulled the short gold strands out of the mess, though, the pink and navy won’t be too difficult to untangle.

There, that’s better! I’ve wound the pink and navy yarns into butterflies, and sorted everything out. While this photo shows the wrong side of the work, I’m ready to start the next right-side row of the chart.

TIP 3 I don’t like to carry the different colors behind the work for any more than one or two stitches when I’m working intarsia. I find that if I do, it affects my tension. That’s why I made butterflies with the pink yarn as well, so I can maintain my gauge throughout the intarsia area.

TIP 4 With intarsia, it’s important to pick up your yarn the same way at every color change. It will prevent the formation of holes, and it will help keep your tension the same. I always drop the ‘old’ color to the left, and cross the ‘new’ color up toward the right, crossing under the ‘old’ color. This tip applies whether you’re working a knit row or a purl row.

At this color change, I’ve laid the “old” navy yarn off to the left, crossing it over the “new” pink yarn. I’ve laid the pink yarn up toward the right to show it “coming into play.”

TIP 5 While knitting, it’s easy for stitches to loosen off where the colors change. I keep an eye on my work, and when I come across a loose one, I gently snug it up so it looks like its friends in the row below. This helps me keep my gauge even across the whole piece.

TIP 6 Speaking of loose stitches, when the knitting is complete, the loose tails of yarn often cause those beginning and ending stitches to be loose, too. Intarsia creates a LOT of loose ends, as you can see, but that’s OK. We want to embrace the entire process of knitting, so take a deep, calming breath, grab your sewing needle, and follow along. You’ll be glad you did.

I’ve tried to point out most of the loose stitches that have been caused by loose threads on the back of the work.

From the front of the work, gently tease the loose stitch (and sometimes its also-loose neighbor) into place with a knitting or yarn sewing needle so that these stitches match the gauge of the other stitches in the garment. Gently turn the work over and thread the end of that strand into the sewing needle.

Weave that end into the back of the next stitch of the main color to prevent a hole. (We’re working on the same principle as when we were picking up a new color.) From there, you can begin to work your yarn back through the loops and carries for the same colored yarn as what’s in the needle. When weaving in the yarn end from where the new color began, weave the end into the back of the previous stitch. The idea here, again, is to prevent a hole in the work.

When the work is complete, the tension in your intarsia section should match the tension in your plain knitted area.

When all the ends have been woven in, the tension of all the stitches should be as even as possible.

This has been a great week. I hope my intarsia tips have inspired you to create beautiful, colorful knits!

This is part 5 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 4: 63 and 72 colors in the Deluxe DK and Worsted Superwash collection! Yay!

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