What is Intarsia Knitting & how does it work?

Intarsia is a clever way of adding different coloured designs within your knitting – Jane Crowfoot shows you how it works

What is intarsia knitting?

Intarsia knitting is named after a noun that refers to the art or technique of decorating a surface with inlaid patterns. When used in knitting it describes the technique used to create patterns with multiple colours with only a single thickness of fabric. Intarsia is one of the main ways of creating different coloured designs within your knitting. The other major one is Fair Isle where yarns are woven or stranded across the reverse side of the fabric, resulting in a double thickness.

As with the woodwork technique, areas of colour are inlaid in one another using separate pieces of yarn, which are knitted to appear like a jigsaw puzzle. This method creates a single weight of fabric in which many colours can be used to a row, unlike Fair Isle, which produces a thicker fabric and traditionally has just two colours to a row.

Featured image: Sasha Kagen: Sweet Briar pattern, from The Knitter issue 85

Following a pattern

Most colourwork patterns will ask you to proceed in a certain way. The pattern may ask you to use the Fair Isle or intarsia technique or a mixture of both. Indeed, without an idea of how to work both techniques you will be stumped as some of the methods (such as carrying colours from one place to another and weaving in the yarn ends) transpose between both Fair Isle and intarsia. Over the past decade more and more knitting patterns include a chart of stitches. These charts not only save space, but also give the knitter a visual idea of how their knitting should progress. If you have never tackled chart knitting before, intarsia is the ideal starting place. Each square or rectangle on the chart represents a stitch (horizontally) and a row (vertically). You may have a chart filled with colour, or maybe one that has symbols such as stars, dots and crosses to represent the colour used.

In the Argyll Leaf pattern by Sasha Kagan (The Knitter issue 10, page 56), we are given coloured squares for each block of colour.

how to do intarsia knitting

It is always a good idea to photocopy your chart; you may want to enlarge it to make it easier to read. You may even want to use a ruler to make each line clearer to read (Post-it notes are also good). Make sure that you line the ruler up under the row you have completed and do not block from sight the next row up the chart, this will help you to see what needs to be done on the next row and whether or not you need to carry or weave in any yarn to a certain place in preparation for it.


It is essential that you do some ground work before you start knitting. The more prepared you are the better and the less likely you are to get in a major tangle.

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 1

How to make a bobbin

Bobbins are used when you do not wish to have a whole ball of yarn attached to the knitted piece while working intarsia. For larger areas of color you may wish to wrap the yarn in small plastic bags, secured with elastic bands. You may want to use plastic bobbins which are available from most suppliers or you may want to make your own. Wrap the yarn around two fingers of your chosen hand in the form of a figure of eight. Carefully remove the yarn from the fingers and cut the yarn. Wind this end of yarn around the centre of the figure of eight and secure tightly with a knot.

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 2

When using a bobbin pull the yarn from the centre of the bobbin (not the knotted end) a little at a time and keep it as close to the work as possible to avoid tangling.

Preparing the yarn

Across a row of intarsia you could have many bobbins or balls of colour hanging from the reverse of the work. To prevent these from becoming tangled and knotted, it is definitely a good idea to keep these in good order. To roughly calculate how much yarn you will use for each area of colour: •

  • Count the number of stitches used by each colour. I am going to use the example of the ‘Claret’ pair of leaves at the centre point of Sasha’s chart. The two leaves are made from 90 stitches of this colour. Wrap the yarn around the correct size knitting needle 10 times and this will show you how much yarn 10 stitches would use. Measure this piece and multiply by your number of stitches, for example: if 10 sts = 14cm, then 90 sts = 9 x 14 =126cm.
  • Allow enough yarn to get from one row up to the next. To allow for the fact that you may also need to travel across some stitches it is a good idea to add an extra 2 stitches worth of yarn for every row of colour. In this case that is another 46 sts worth of yarn so the calculation would be 4.6 x 14 = 64.4 rounded up to 65cm.
  • Allow enough yarn for the tail end which will hang at the beginning and the end of the motif. Add another 15cm worth of yarn for each tail: 2 x 15 = 30cm.
  • The total amount of yarn needed for this motif will be approximately 220cm. The calculation is motif (126cm) + travelling yarn (65cm) + tails (30cm) = 221cm yarn. In this case I would round this up and cut myself a yarn length of 230cm to be sure that I had enough. For Sasha’s design I would keep the background colour (Grey Mist) as a full ball and would wind off small amounts of all the other colours.

Working the first row


You Will Need

  • Yarn
  • Knitting needles

Total time:

Step 1

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 3

In most cases the first row of a chart will be a right side row.

Just underneath the first chart row, write in pencil the number of stitches needed by each colour on the first row.

Leaving a tail end of yarn approx 15cm long, work your first piece of colour. Pick up the next colour and (leaving a similar tail end of yarn) work one stitch.

Step 2

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 4

To catch in this tail end of yarn take the first colour used over the top of the second then take the second across to the left (over the first colour you used) and hold it over your left index finger.

Insert your needle into the next stitch and at the same time place it under the tail end of the yarn which is held on your left index finger.

Knit the next stitch.

Step 3

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 5

Let the tail end of yarn drop down to the reverse of the work and knit the following stitch. This will catch the yarn between your stitches.

• Repeat this process at each colour change. This is a weaving technique for Fair Isle and is used to carry yarn from one place to another and for weaving in the ends. For Fair Isle it is repeated a few times, but for intarsia only one ‘weave’ is required at the beginning of each yarn colour.

• At the end of this row (and each subsequent row), untangle the yarns.


Working the next row

(You will have the wrong side facing). Work along the row to the point where you need to change colour. Insert the right needle into the next stitch purlwise. Take the yarn that is finished with over the top of the next colour needed and drop to the left side. Pick up the second colour ensuring that the yarns remain crossed over and continue according to pattern.

Working the next row

(You will have the right side facing).

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 6

Work along the next row to the point where you need to change colour. Insert the right needle into the next stitch knitwise. Take the yarn that is finished with over the top of the next colour needed and drop to the left side. Pick up the second colour ensuring that the yarns remain crossed and continue according to pattern.

Carrying the yarn

Intarsia knitting tutorial step 7

In Sasha’s Argyll Leaf pattern, she has suggested that you carry the main shade (Grey Mist) across the reverse of the leaf motifs. This will create a double thickness of fabric at these points and will give the knitted piece more of a 3D effect. To weave the background colour across the reverse of the knitted piece, work as for the weaving technique that I gave for the first row, but repeat until the yarn has travelled to where you need it, weaving every 2 or 3 stitches. It is essential that you do not leave a gap any bigger than this between catching the yarn in, as otherwise you will make your piece prone to puckering.

Sewing in the ends

Where yarn colours have been added in or finished with you will be left with ends of yarn attached to the knitted piece. In the case of Fair Isle it may be preferable and certainly quicker, to weave these ends in as you work using the weaving-in technique as described. However, for the intarsia technique a neater and safer alternative is to sew in the ends. It is a REALLY good idea to sew your ends in as you go along. Perhaps sew them in after every pattern repeat or allow 15 minutes towards the end of your knitting session.

  • Thread a slightly sharp sewing needle (such as a large tapestry needle) with the end of yarn and sew around the outside of the shape it has created. Do this by weaving the yarn in and out of the points where the colours have been crossed over, making sure that you sew in the direction that will close up gaps and doesn’t enlarge any holes.
  • Pull the knitted fabric slightly to ensure that the sewn stitches have not been worked too tightly and secure by sewing the yarn over itself a few times.
  • Do not cut the yarn too close to your final stitch and leave an end a couple of centimetres long. This will prevent the yarn end from coming undone during wearing and washing.

Fixing mistakes

If you find you have made a mistake in your colourwork, there is no need to rip back, it’s possible to just Swiss darn over small areas of colour.