Sometimes known as picture knitting, intarsia is a method of creating a single thickness knitted fabric with a motif on it. As yarns are not stranded/carried across the back of the work (as with stranded colour work or fair isle knitting) each time you come to a new colour, you start a new bobbin/length of yarn.
How to work it
In order to prevent gaps appearing in the work at the edges of the colour changes, the yarn that is being put down is twisted with the new yarn that is being picked up. On vertical lines the yarns are twisted every row.
When working on a diagonal slant, the yarns are twisted every other row. For a diagonal slant to the right, the yarns are twisted on the right side. For a left slant, they are twisted on the wrong side.
The result as mentioned above, is a single thickness fabric comprised of sections of different colours.
When to use Intarsia and when to strand?
Intarsia is usually used for blocks of colour and single motifs where colours are not regularly repeating. Stranding is usually used for repeating patterns where each motif is only a few stitches width and colours are repeating all the way across a row/round.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that intarsia can’t be knitted in the round. As yarns are being left at the end of each motif they require a wrong side row to pick them back up again.
Sewing in the ends
Lots of bobbins means lots of ends to sew in (as well as a few tangles during the knitting process). Where possible I try to follow the edges of motifs when weaving my ends in during finishing.
Patterns to practice your intarsia skills
The following two designs use an intarsia motif for decoration. Follow the links in the captions to the pattern.
I hope I’ve given you a taste for picture knitting. It is a lot of fun despite the tangles, and is a method I’ve often used for my knitted art work as well as knitwear. If you’d like to watch a video on how to make a butterfly “bobbin” then visit my Instagram page and take a look at my stories.
A subject that comes up regularly in my workshops is how to choose a good colour scheme for fair isle, the double knitting technique and intarsia. I thought it would be helpful to write an article on it. But be warned. This post isn’t about colour, quite the opposite in fact. We are going to set the tone……
Assessing the tone
When faced with the sweet shop effect i.e. shelves full of knitty goodness at the local yarn shop or festival, it is very easy to pick the colours that you think will look great together, only to be confused and a bit disappointed when you’ve swatched them up. The colours appear to have merged in to each other and the motifs in the pattern aren’t standing out. How has that happened?
If you want a colour scheme to “pop” then looking at tonal values can be really helpful.
How do I know if the lovely yarn selection on the left will work in a four colour stranded colour work pattern for example? Without doubt the colours themselves go beautifully together. But how do I make sure that the motifs in my hypothetical chart stand out?
Instinct tells me that the cream is likely the lightest tone. I can hazard a guess at the other three colours but it is easy to get that wrong (in my experience!). The easiest way to confirm the tonal values is to take a photo and turn it into black and white (so easy for smart phones as it is an option in the edit photo function).
My black and white photo shows that I was correct with the cream. The turquoise and the green have very similar values, and the brown is the darkest (but not massively different from the turquoise). If I was to knit with the turquoise and the green in a two colour section of my motif (or the turquoise and the brown for that matter), e.g. a row of hearts on a background say, the hearts would blend in to the background. I may want this subtle effect. But if I wanted those hearts to be visible and pop out of the background I will be very disappointed. The best yarns to achieve this from the selection above would be the cream and the brown as there is the greatest tonal difference between them.
Choosing the tone
A great amount of time and effort is spent by designers swatching colours when designing knitting patterns to get the effect they want. So when you have a pattern in front of you that you have bought from a designer but you want to choose your own colours, a good way of assessing if you are going to get a similar effect, is to turn their photo in to black and white. Armed with the tonal values, you can then photograph your potential yarn selection in black and white and match the tonal values to the original.
Designing your own
If you are designing your own colour work patterns, a great starting place is to choose a light tone, a mid tone and a dark tone. This will ensure that you have a good contrast to make your design lively. Take your camera phone with you to the yarn shop and do a black and white photo of your potential selection before you spend your money, just to be sure.
I hope that this post has been helpful and has given you more confidence in your yarn selections for your colour work projects. There is plenty more to colour theory but I’ve given you a good tip here.
As mentioned in previous posts about colour, don’t be put off by the theory. Carry your camera with you so whenever you come across a colour scheme that you like (a visit to the garden centre, the local park, a colourful door against a painted wall) take a picture of it and keep it for reference. Start a Pinterest board or a physical mood board if digital isn’t your thing. If you’d like an example of what I mean have a look at my public Pinterest board on colour inspiration which can be found here.
With the added bonus of black and white also at your fingertips, analyse the tonal values of your images too and see how they impact on the overall effect. Keep in mind that similar tonal values blend and merge producing subtle colour effects. While a big difference in tonal values creates a pop and allows colours to stand out on each other.
I wish you lots of fun with your colour adventures x
Knitting charts are a diagrammatic representation of a stitch pattern. They are presented on a square grid where each square represents a stitch. The chart below shows a 24 stitch motif worked over 32 rows.
How to read a knitting chart for colour work (intarsia, fair isle and double knitting)
If you are working on two needles, using stocking stitch, and starting with right side facing, the first stitch to work is the bottom right hand corner. Right side (knit) rows are worked from right to left. Wrong side (purl) rows are worked from left to right.
If you are working in the round on a circular needle for fair isle, then every round is a right side (knit) and is worked from right to left. You might have discovered for yourself that knitting in the round doesn’t work for intarsia as you end up with the yarn at the wrong side of the motif each round!
Keeping your place on the chart
One of the great things about using charts for your colour work adventures is that it becomes relatively easy to see where you are with the work. What you are creating in front of you in the knitting should match what is in front of you on the chart (obviously some motifs are harder than others to keep track of). Additionally, you can immediately see how the row you are working on now should match up with the stitches you have just worked.
However, it is easy to go a little cross eyed at times and end up merging rows together. There are a couple of ways to keep track of where you are if you are using a printed version of the pattern:
You could put a line through each row as you do it.
You could balance a ruler across the row you are about to start working (this is OK if you don’t jog it).
Personally I am a big fan of using a magnetic board.
The board shown in the image above is created for cross stitch but has become my must have for working with knitting charts. The best thing about it is that you can even pick it up and move it without worrying about losing your place as the magnetic ruler is strong enough to stay put.
An example row
Using the diagram above, the ruler shows me that I am about to start row 21. As a right side row I will be working in knit and reading from right to left. I would knit 4 stitches in white, 16 stitches in grey, 4 stitches in white.
A note about the double knitting technique
Some charts used for the double knitting technique show a square for every stitch you are working, one for the stitch from the right side fabric, and one from the wrong side fabric. This is necessary if you are creating a different fabric on each side.
For my patterns where the motif is in two colours and the back fabric shows the inverse of the front, I keep my charts simple so it is easier to read the motif, and they can be used for intarsia as well. The charts show the front facing fabric with each square representing a pair of stitches. So for the example on row 21 above: each of the four stitches in white represents a knit in white for the front fabric, and a purl in grey for the back fabric. For the fifth pair of stitches to the 20th pair of stitches, each square represents a knit in grey for the front fabric and a purl in white for the back fabric. For the 21st to the 24th pairs of stitches, each square once again is worked as a knit in white for the front fabric and a purl in grey for the back fabric. When working back on the wrong side fabric, the inverse of the colours is worked.
It sounds complicated written down but once you get the hang of seeing each square as a pair of stitches you can use any two colour intarsia chart for the double knitting technique without having to rewrite it.
I hope that you have found this tutorial on reading knitting charts helpful. I have talked about colour work knitting but of course charts can be used for any stitch pattern as the principle of each square representing a stitch applies whether it is indicating a colour or a stitch type e.g. knit tbl, yo, etc. If you are not used to working from charts I do suggest that you persevere with them. If you get the hang of using them you might find that you get a better idea of how you are creating the effect (rather than just following the instructions). This is especially useful when you need to put right a mistake or if you want to modify stitch patterns. It also gives you access to patterns that aren’t written in your own language.
Over the past month I have been working on probably the hardest piece of art for me, to date. It represents my humble tribute to an extraordinary man who’s sudden and unexpected death this March has left so many of us in a shocked state of bereavement. It is difficult to categorise what he meant to me personally: friend, mentor, brother….. none of these quite describe his constant presence in my life over the past 30 years. He was there helping and advising me during the pivotal moments in my adulthood. He taught me how to revise for my first degree, introduced me to competitive sport and the hard work required to train for it, helped me through the stress of buying my house by negotiating on my behalf, and found me a business premises to work from when I changed career.
He was also an encouraging if somewhat brutally honest supporter of my art endeavours (if you didn’t really want to know the answer you wouldn’t ask his opinion) always making an effort to attend exhibitions where I had work on show and was the first person to buy one of my knitted paintings.
A high achiever in everything he did, his no nonsense hard work attitude was an inspiration to so many of the people he interacted with, both within the local business community and particularly the national triathlon and cycling communities. As it was originally through cross country running that I met him it seemed most fitting to me to celebrate his sporting achievements in this piece of work as competitive sport was such a major part of his life from runner to triathlete and finally, cyclist. One of his most significant achievements was as holder of the British Ironman record. This 8:15:21 time stood for 13 years until it was broken in 2008. In 2010 he was also national 12 hour cycling time trial champion covering 275.01 miles in the allocated time.
So here it is, I hope he would have approved. Made with love for John, Karen and especially Erica (the yin to his yang). RIP Julian x