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Multi-Color Knitting: Intarsia and Fair Isle

Two wonderful styles of knitting with multiple colors are Intarsia and Fair Isle. Don’t let knitting with more than one color intimidate you—they are both easy to learn!

Intarsia Knitting

In intarsia knitting, a separate ball of yarn—or bobbin of yarn to avoid the balls getting tangled—is used for each block of color. The more color blocks you’re knitting, the more helpful using bobbins will be. The yarn is not carried across the back of the work.

Wind yarn around the bobbin if you will be working with bobbins. Use one bobbin for each block of color. The bobbins can hang freely from the back of your work, and as you need to use a color, you can unwind the amount you need. If you need only a small amount of color, you can cut lengths of yarn (usually no longer than 36 inches).

When it’s time to change yarn colors, on the wrong side of the piece, twist the new color around the old color by picking up the new color from under the old color. If you skip this step, you’ll have a hole where the colors change.

On the wrong side (or purl side), follow these steps:

  1. Purl with the first color until you’re ready to work with the second color.
  2. Let go of the strand of the first color.
  3. Pick up the strand of the second color from under the first color.
  4. Now purl using the second color.

When knitting in intarsia, you use the same method. The only difference is that you twist the colors at the back of your work before continuing knitting in a new color. If you change colors at the same point every row, you will work vertical stripes.

Multi-Color Knitting: Intarsia. To prevent a hole in the fabric, pick up the new color from under the old color when beginning a new color block.

To prevent a hole in the fabric, pick up the new color from under the old color when beginning a new color block.

Fair Isle Knitting

Traditional Fair Isle knitting, the most intricate of color techniques, is worked with two colors per row. A number of stitches are knit with one color and the other color is carried, or stranded, across the back of the piece. For this reason, if you look on the inside of a traditional Fair Isle piece, you’ll see that strands of yarn run horizontally across the fabric on the wrong side.

Stranding from the Right Side

Fair Isle patterns are worked in stockinette stitch, with the knit side being the right side. You keep the stranded yarn on the purl or wrong side. To work a Fair Isle pattern on the right or knit side of your piece, follow these steps:

  1. Knit with the first color until you’re ready to work with the second color.
  2. Let go of the first color, and pick up the second color. Notice in the following illustration that the new color you’re about to knit with is on top of the old color.
  3. Now knit the next stitch with the second color. Be careful not to pull up the stranded yarn so tightly that the front of the piece puckers. Let the stranded yarn rest easily in the back of the piece.
  4. When you’re finished knitting with the second color and are ready to knit again with the first, gently pull the first color across and knit with it. Again, be careful not to pull up the stranded yarn so tightly that the front of the piece puckers.
Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Changing from the first color to the second color.

Changing from the first color to the second color.

Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Changing from the second color back to the first color.

Changing from the second color back to the first color.

Stranding from the Wrong Side

Traditional Fair Isle is worked on circulars in stockinette, so you never need to purl. However, a nontraditional pattern might ask you to use this technique on straight needles. You purl in Fair Isle almost the same way you knit; the only difference is when you’re purling you’re facing the stranded yarn. Here’s what you do:

  1. Purl with the first color until you’re ready to work with the second color.
  2. Let go of the first color, and pick up the second color. Notice in the following illustration that the new color you’re about to purl with is on top of the old color.
  3. Now purl the next stitch with the second color. Be careful not to pull up the stranded yarn so tightly that the front of the piece puckers. Let the stranded yarn rest easily in the back of the piece.
  4. When you’re finished purling with the second color and are ready to purl again with the first, gently pull the first color across and purl with it. Again, be careful not to pull up the stranded yarn so tightly that the front of the piece puckers.
Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Changing from the first color to the second color.

Changing from the first color to the second color.

Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Changing from the second color back to the first color.

Changing from the second color back to the first color.

Twisting Stitches

You shouldn’t strand a color for more than 5 stitches. If the pattern calls for more than 5 stitches of a single color, you will need to twist or anchor it on the wrong side to prevent long floats of yarn (which can get caught in fingers). Some people twist the colors every other stitch, regardless of whether they’re changing colors.

Twisting is similar to stranding; the only difference is that the yarn is anchored every 2, 3, or 4 stitches by twisting it around the working yarn.

To twist, literally twist the color you’re not using around the color you are using. In essence, you’re catching the yarn in the back of the piece. Alternate between twisting clockwise and counterclockwise to prevent the yarn from getting tangled.

Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Twisting yarn on the right side.

Twisting yarn on the right side.

Multi-Color Knitting: Fair Isle. Twisting yarn on the wrong side.

Twisting yarn on the wrong side.

Twisting can create a problem when you’re carrying a dark color behind a light color. The twisted yarn can show slightly on the right side at the place the twist was made. The result is a fabric that doesn’t have completely clean, crisp color changes.

By using these multi-coloring knitting techniques you can create beautiful pieces that are sure to impress. Have fun, and happy knitting!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Knitting and Crocheting Illustrated, Third Edition, by Barbara Breiter and Gail Diven