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Intarsia and Stranded Knitting: Two Ways To Add Color To Your Knitting

Updated on September 23, 2011

Creating Pattern Through Color

One of the most effective ways to add interest to your knitting is through the use of color. But, many new knitters don't know where to start when it comes to changing yarns or reading color charts.

In this lens we'll explore the two most common ways to change color, intarsia and stranded colorwork. Intarsia is used for large areas of color, like the heart in this picture. Stranded knitting (also called stranded colorwork) creates more intricate patterns, like the pink band below the heart.

(photo by Brian Sawyer)

If you are going to change color in the middle of a row of knitting, I highly recommend using yarn bobbins. Bobbins hang off the back of your knitting, holding a small amount of yarn. They may seems scary at first, trust me. These are much easier to deal with than full sized sceins of yarn.

You can buy plastic bobbins of various sizes, or you can make your own. Here are two videos showing you how to do just that.

The first one demonstrates how to make your own bobbins from scrap cardboard. (It's a crochet-centered video, but the bobbin she makes can be used for either craft.)

The second video shows you how to make a butterfly. A butterfly is a way of making a bobbin without the plastic (or cardboard) bit. You wrap the yarn around itself in a specfic way so that it neatly hangs in the back of your work, while still being able to reel out new yarn to you as you knit.

Intarsia - Creating blocks of color

Did you ever get one of those knit sweaters with a Christmas tree or reindeer right smack dab in the middle of it? That charming motif was probably made using intarsia knitting. Named for the woodworking technique used to create mosaics, intarsia knitting creates large areas of different colors.

It's a fairly easy method of color knitting. Simply knit until you get to the place where you want to change color. Then drop your main color, and knit with the new color. No big scarriness. It's very much like adding in a new ball when you run out of yarn.

The only thing that's different is that you must twist the two yarns around each other when you change color. If you didn't do this, you would just be knitting two separate panels of fabric with no connection to each other.

This video shows the twisting very clearly. She changes color at the beginning of the row, but this technique will work just fine in the middle of one. Also, she carries the tail of the new color for the first three stitches. This can be a way to keep the back of your knitting from being too cluttered, but it can also make a lumpy spot in your knitting. Use this technique with caution.

Intarsia Inside-out - What the back of an intarsia piece looks like

Here's a good picture of the wrong side of a piece of intarsia knitting. Note the twisted yarns where the two colors meet.

(photo by Emily L.)

Reading Charts

When working in the round (also called circular knitting) all lines of a color chart are read from right to left. Simply follow along as you knit across your needle.

When working flat (working one side, then turning to work the other) right side rows are read from right to left, and wrong side rows are read from left to right.

Back to Christmas sweaters. This time it's the ones with the snowflakes or little dots all over the top half and sleeves. This is stranded knitting.

Probably invented as a way to add extra warmth to a garmet, stranded knitting involves carrying two different yarns as you knit. The "live" yarn is actively knitted while the other is just hanging out behind the work. When you want to change colors, drop the live yarn and pick up the other. Now, this one becomes the live yarn and you are ready to knit with it.

Because stranded knitting is used for quick color changes, rather than blocks color, there is no need to twist the two yarns together. But, if you happen to knit more than five stitches before changing color consider "wrapping" your yarn. This is demonstrated in the video below.

Check out this video by KnitPicks for a good introduction to stranded knitting. It shows you how to knit holding a color in each hand, and gives you sneak peek at Fair Isle and chart reading, subjects also covered in this lens.

Another Way To Hold The Yarns

The video above shows how to perform stranded knitting by holding one yarn in each hand. But, if you are not comfortable holding yarn in your right hand you may want to try holding both yarns in the left. Here is a video showing how to do just that.

Floats - What the wrong side of stranded knitting looks like

This action of carrying two yarns throughout the whole garmet creates a double layer of fabric. Little strands of yarn, called floats, cover the wrong side of the work. These floats are created when the non-live yarn is dragged across the back of the work.

When using stranded knitting be sure to keep these floats at an even tension. Too loose, and your knitting looks like it's falling apart at the color change. Too tight, and your fabric will pucker.

(photo by Jessica)

Fair Isle Knitting

Wild and Crazy Stranded Knitting

Named after an island off the coast of Scotland, Fair Isle is multi colored stranded knitting. It peaked in popularity in the 1920s when the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) sported his collection of Fair Isle vests while golfing.

Fair Isle may look scary to knit, but it's really no different than stranded knitting. Each row still only uses two colors at a time. You simply change the colors at the beginning of a row to create the rainbow-ish effect.

(photo by Katherine)

Design Your Own

The knit stitch is rectangular, so normal graph paper doesn't give an accurate preview of what a charted color pattern will look like in your project. Click here to print graph paper that matches your stitch and row gauge.

Further Reading

Need further instruction? Check out these books about color knitting.

Chime in about your color knitting projects, leave a link to your favorite pattern, or blab on about your favorite tutorial. Got a question? I'll do my best to find the answer.

Thanks for reading my lens. Happy knitting! :)

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    • profile image

      Donna Cook 4 years ago

      Terrific lens! You happened to choose the very video that taught me Fair Isle. It took about four rounds to get used to holding a color in each hand but after that it was sooo easy. Haven't tried intarsia, I'm having lots of fun with Fair Isle.

    • profile image

      Donna Cook 4 years ago

      Trying to wrap my head around intarsia and fair isle. The videos really helped!

    • evawrites1 profile image

      evawrites1 4 years ago

      This look amazing, I wish I were a better knitter...

    • profile image

      CindyADH 4 years ago

      This definitely gives me some ideas to amp up my knitting. Thank you for sharing!

    • jennabee25 profile image

      Jenn Dixon 4 years ago from PA

      I LOVE Fair Isle knitting! I prefer it over intarsia, actually. Great lens!

    • kimberlyschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel, MLS 4 years ago from Greensboro, NC

      Great photos. I love color knitting--just lots of stockinette stitch and the colors do all the work!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Wow Tina, me too!! My sis taught me when I was 8. I'd add a few rows to my UFO every few years. No passion there. I saw a knitted cabled blanket online in knit One purr two's) blog & fell in love with knitting cables! That was sept 2011. Now I'm finishing one of my abandoned beginner projects a scarf for the hubby inspired by his love of chess. Blocks of 5stitches black &5 stitches cream. I have puckers from floats too tight! I'm using patons wool not sure if blocking will help! This scarf tells my knitting story lol. The scarf grew flatter as my knitting (and tension) improved, great great article!!

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 5 years ago

      @captainj88: What a wonderful cause. Thanks for letting me know about it. I've got a bunch of left over little balls of yarn that could be used for squares.

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      My current knitting project is a ripple afghan for my own bedroom, but my ongoing project is called Kidney Afghans For Kids where volunteers across the USA knit or crochet 6"x6" acrylic squares (any pattern or color) that are pieced together into afghans given to children on hemodialysis for various kidney disorders.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thanks for the info. I learnt how to knit half a year ago (after 15 years of crochet) and I will never go back to crochet when colorwork is involved! Knitting with colors looks so much prettier, in my opinion.

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 6 years ago

      @freyalou: Ya, keep on trying. Stranded can actually be easier if you hold one color in each had. And just remember to twist your yarns for intarsia. Learning a big patch of color v/s little blocks of it helps with intarsia, too. Good luck!

    • freyalou profile image

      freyalou 6 years ago

      Thank you for such an informative lens. One of my resolutions for next year is to get to grips with intarsia and stranded knitting. I've tried it a couple of times, but always ended up in a tangle! Hopefully some of these techniques will make it easier.

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 6 years ago

      @anonymous: Hahaha! Thanks for catching my mistake I can't believe I did that. I apologize to anyone from Wales who happened to stop by the lens. Please forgive my occasional bought of stupid-American-ness. I'll go take care of it right away.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      That would be "Prince of Wales." Whales are something different.

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 6 years ago

      @Lady Lorelei: Well, I hope the lens can help in some way. Just keep at it, the more you try, the more you'll feel comfortable changing colors. Good luck!

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 6 years ago from Canada

      Adding colors was indeed the hardest thing for me when I was knitting. In fact I still don't have the hang of it completely. Your lens just may help me conquer that. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge here at Squidoo.

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @Lemming13: Keep trying on the intarsia. It can be awkward at first, but it'll "click" after a while. I hope the lens does help! And, thanks for the blessing. :)

    • Lemming13 profile image

      Lemming13 7 years ago

      I'm awful at intarsia knitting; somehow I always seem to get holes around the motifs. Hopefully these tips will sort me out. Blessing this lens.

    • ChemKnitsBlog2 profile image

      ChemKnitsBlog2 7 years ago

      @MerryChicky: I had to come back to bless this lens ;)

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @ChemKnitsBlog2: I hear ya! I love the look of stranded work, but I always think long and hard before starting one because of that. I know some people who love weaving in ends, though. It relaxes them...I guess it takes all kinds.

    • ChemKnitsBlog2 profile image

      ChemKnitsBlog2 7 years ago

      I really love stranded work. The only reason I don't love intarsia is that it involves a lot more loose ends to weave in at the end of the project!

    • profile image

      poutine 8 years ago

      Fabulous knitting. I don't think I could ever do so good.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 8 years ago from UK

      It looks tricky but I like the clear instructions you give, along with the photos and videos. A very nice lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Just received gift of KnitPick EAST MEETS WEST SATCHEL. Looking at the first chart I notice in the middle of the chart there is a stretch of 7 stitches. Am I correct that on the 4th st I will carry the yarn and do the st that will not show on the right side? This pattern is definitely meant for a very experienced knitter. I have knit all my life, doing multiple row patterns, but never have never carried yarn more than three or four sts as in patterns for small children. I WILL LEARN TO DO THIS!!!

    • MerryChicky profile image

      MerryChicky 8 years ago

      [in reply to spirituality] Thank you! :)

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

    • profile image

      PeacefulWmn9 9 years ago

      I learned to knit just last year and made scarves for everyone for Christmas. Your's is fantastic.


    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 9 years ago

      I'm not very good at knitting but I enjoy doing it. Your scarves are beautiful.

      Great lens