2 Kinds of Color Knitting: Stranded vs Intarsia

You can add as much color to your knitting as you want.  Stripes are easy to figure out; you just stop one color and start another.  But what if you want to do something more complicated?  Well there are two basic categories of color work:stranded and intarsia.

Stranded color work is mostly what it sounds like.  You carry two (or sometime more, but let’s stick with two per round for this explanation) different strands of color along together and knit each stitch with one strand or the other in a pattern of your choosing.  When you are carrying two colors across the back of your work and only knit with one of them, the one you didn’t knit with leaves a strand hanging like a swag along the back of your work.  These little swags are called floats. There are methods of trapping the floats over long stretches, but, for the most part, stranded color work motifs tend to have small stretches for the floats to cross; not usually more than five or so stitches.

This method is the basis for several knitting traditions including Faire Isle (#1), Faeroe Island (#2) Scandinavian traditions from Norway (#3), Sweden (#4), and Iceland (#5) Baltic traditions from Latvia (#6) and Estonia (#7), Cowichan (#8) and Bohus (#9) to name a few.  Each of these traditions has distinct color patterning and specialized motifs that identify it as belonging to that tradition.  But the basic method is carrying strands across the back.

StrandedColorworkCarrying floats in front while working on the purl side of your fabric is challenging.  Stranded color work is best done in the round to keep the tension between the used and unused strands even and consistent.  This means that most of these color work traditions make common use of steeks (a technique of stabilizing your stitches, then cutting your knitting to make holes for neck, arms, etc.)

Intarsia color work uses only one color at a time and switches colors at the edges of shapes within a background field.  You begin a row with one color and, when you come to the place where the next color should be, you drop the old color and pick up the new color, making sure to twist them together where the sections join.  Each colored section of an intarsia pattern has its own ball or bobbin of yarn which is not carried across the back of the work.

This method is the basis of South American knitting traditions from Peru (#10) and Bolivia (#11), American Folk Art (#12),  Scottish Argyle (#13), and, very notably a whole passel of designers from the 1980’s  (#14) who had a penchant for bold contrasts and wild color combinations, and those sweaters we now call “ugly” and trot out for special Christmas (#15) parties.  (you know who you are *wink*)


Using separate balls or bobbins of yarn allows you to make larger, more pictorial motifs and gives sharper, more defined edges than stranded color work motifs which tend to blend more.  It also means that when you change colors, you leave the old color behind as you move along your row.  As a result, Intarsia is most often knit flat so that when you work back across your rows, you’ll come back to the colors you left behind right where you want them to finish the purl sides of each of your color sections.  Nifty, huh?

Neither technique is especially difficult.  Either way you work, you form the stitches the same way; pull a loop through a loop.  But the whole world of color opens up when you realize that you can choose with each stitch what color you want to make it.  Amazing!

Written by mim


2 Comments on “2 Kinds of Color Knitting: Stranded vs Intarsia

  1. This was very helpful, thank you!

    When I made my own intarsia pattern to follow as an experiment, I ended up with floats on the right AND wrong sides of my knitting. Are patterns designed in a particular way so that all floats would be on the wrong side, or is it possible to knit any pattern and maneuver the yarn so that the floats are all on the same side?

  2. Hi, Kristin,

    Most stranded color work is worked in the round so, when you keep your yarns behind your work and carry them along, you get all the strands on the non-public side. If you are trying to do stranded color work flat, you just have to move your working yarn so the float goes where you want it. Some tradition, Bohus, for example, use purl stitches to add texture and color shading, but they keep the float on the non-public side. Some stitches, linen stitch, for example, have floats spaced evenly and predictably on both side of the fabric. Just keep in mind where you want the floats to be visible…or invisible..and put your working yarn there.

    Intarsia, on the other hand can only be worked flat. The places where you twist the old and new yarns together will always be on the non-public side.

    Hope this helps.


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