In the name of buffalo

Simply put, intarsia is consuming my life.

I never made any pretense that I like knitting intarsia. There are more fiddly techniques (cough Magic Loop cough), and less fiddly ones (stranded knitting in the round), so intarsia is somewhere in the middle of the annoyance scale for me. I like following the charts, I don’t mind weaving in the ends and straightening out the design (at all), but the whole “a strand of yarn for each color section” gets me all discombobulated.

Behind every gorgeous buffalo is an unrivaled tangle of yarns. That’s the bit that kills the loveliness of intarsia for me. I’ve tried using bobbins to keep the strands apart, but they just don’t work for me. They feel like someone is sitting on my bag of yarns and I have to fight their weight to get out every single inch!

So, I let the strands tangle as they will, I let entropy rule, I yank and I coerce, and sometimes I join a new strand rather than untangle… and then I gleefully cut off the whole ugly mess after the intarsia motif is done. And into the trash can it goes!!!

What aspects of intarsia, if any, do you enjoy making? If you don’t like any aspects of the process, what would convince you to knit an item with intarsia motifs?

73 thoughts on “In the name of buffalo

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  1. Elizabeth

    Hi Kathy … Years ago(nearly 2 decades) I read somewhere the good advice to cut your intarsia colours into 2-3 yard lengths; then when you need a colour you just pull it up and shake it free from the mess of yarns. Works like a charm!!

    Even if this does create some extra end sewing sometimes, it’s worth it.

    Good luck. Elizabeth

  2. jody

    i was just going to say what elizabeth said. i was told it was a method kaffe fassett taught, although it wouldn’t surprise me if it predated him as well.

    as for what would get me to do intarsia? a motif i just couldn’t bear *not* to knit, and one that just wouldn’t work if it was stranded. so far, i’ve only found one that ever did it for me (a sweater i made a few years ago) and even then, i stranded whenever i could :)

  3. Brenda

    The only knitting project I’ve ever abandoned was an intarsia sweater I started about 15 years ago. I knit the fronts and the backs, and fizzled on the sleeves. I finally threw the whole thing away a couple of years ago. I couldn’t stand to look at it or the yarn again.

    I’ve got plenty of bobbins if you want them!

  4. Marnie

    Have you tried tying yarn butterflies? You still have to untwist them but they are a little more manageable than loose threads with no added weight.

    I don’t much like knitting intarsia and there are very few intarsia patterns I like, so it’s been largely a non-issue but if anything were to motivate me, it would be a beautiful or special end product.

  5. Misstea

    Love. That’s only reason I would use intarsia. I have two little nieces, and once they start being able to vocalize what they want, I can just see myself knitting a princess sweater. Or something else equally ridiculous.

  6. Adrienne

    I just finished up a pair of argyle socks. While not as intensive as your Buffalo, I did find that weaving in the ends as I went along helped with the tangled masses. I used 3-4 yard lengths wound into butterflies which acts as sort of center pull yarn source. It worked, took a year to complete, but worth the effort.

  7. Maus

    Argyle. That’s the *only* thing that would *ever* get me to use intarsia… and even then I’d consider buying whatever damn thing it is instead of knitting it. Even if the colors weren’t as good and the fit was awkward.

  8. knitica

    I have the same feelings about intarsia, it’s my least favorite knitting method. However, there are many intarsia designs that I love. My favorite cardigan is a Jo Sharp intarsia intensive design, but it took ages to knit! I adore it, but that was ten years ago and the only intarsia I’ve done since then is a few argyle socks and one pair with flowers. It would take an equally stunning design to get me to do a whole sweater again!

  9. Lisa

    Your slash & trash method of handling the messy ends sounds very satisfying. But if you want another alternative, here’s something I learned in a class that Annemor Sundbo taught last year:

    Annemor’s bobbin trick.

    The photo shows a glove (Annemor’s work) with multicolored fingers. she wound each color of yarn on a separate sewing-thread bobbin, then skewered the bobbins on a DPN. You can pull out each color as needed and the rest behave nicely.

  10. Emily

    I hate intarsia. The only intarsia project I’ve ever finished is a Christmas stocking- my grandmother started making the whole family matching stockings using an intarsia pattern. It’s now my job to make them for new members of the family. I hate doing intarsia enough that I’ve considered making everyone new stockings in a new pattern.

  11. janna

    I made one small intarsia project (the knitted robot) and it really turned me off all kinds of colorwork. It took a year for me to realize that stranded knitting was not nearly as discombobulating! (And, btw, “discombobulate” was one of my dad’s favorite words – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone outside of my family use it before now!)

  12. Starfish

    Delurking to say that I can’t believe that you,

    Grumperina, with all the crazy complicated patterns you knit just for the sake of knitting them, the ability to become an expert at new techniques by trying them once, the ability to find errata akin to a needle in a haystack with utter ease, with the ability to make modifications by doing complex calculus equations, thinks MAGIC LOOP is fiddly. By God woman, are you serious? You should be able to do that in your sleep! Sheesh, if an idiot like me can do it, who doesn’t have 100th of your talent! I mean this with the utmost level of respect for your skills and talent of course. It really just strikes me kinda funny.

  13. Regenia

    My first sweater ever was an intarsia sweater vest that I made for a friend. It was awesome pulling out 13 balls of yarn to knit in my biology class! I found that cutting each to an appropriate length (knit like 4 square inches, count stitches, unravel, and measure. Then figure length per stitch, count stitches in each color, multiply and add a bit) and then separating them each into their own ziploc worked best for me.

  14. Rachel H.

    I was going to complain about your defamation of magic loop (aka my god of socks) but then Starfish did it so much better than I could hope… anyway, seriously, did you use bad needles or something?

  15. Karen

    I have never knit intarsia, the time I tried was utter and total failure. It would have to be the most fantastic, life-altering, and magnificient pattern for me to try it again. Of course, I once said that about two-handed fair-isle, and now I can do that. :)

  16. Marcia

    I’m surprised too that you think Magic Loop is too fiddly!

    Intarsia…started a pair of Argyle socks, but all the tangled ends on the back practically gave me hives. Then the thought of having to weave in all those ends, seam the sock, embroider in the diagonal lines, then start it all again for sock #2???? Nope, I frogged it before I got to the heel of sock #1. I did look up some tricks and tips on intarsia and am glad I know them now, but it would have to be something really, really special for me to try it again.

    Or maybe in a few years I’ll forget how much I hated it and be suckered into something else.

  17. =Tamar

    I guess I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy being able to put a motif where I want it without having to repeat it all across the garment, and without having to

    Armenian-strand the yarn and have it show through between the stitches. I enjoy looking at it later and feeling the pride of accomplishment of having done something difficult. Also I really don’t like duplicate stitch, it seems like cheating.

  18. Sheila

    Good Lord Kathy! What a labor of love! Buffalo no less! Intarsia is not my bag either – a simple one motif is all I can take! I admire your stick – tuit-ivity. The buffalo would be in my dust bin by now!

  19. Kristen

    I HATE intarsia. I’m completely fearless when it comes to knitting – I’ll try anything, and I almost always enjoy it. Except intarsia. The only thing in the world that could make me do intarsia is deep, deep love for someone. Like, if my husband asked me. I don’t think I’d even do it for my mom.

    The other situation I can envision would be something like what you’re doing – where someone has passed away and a relative wanted a replica of something that person had made. But dang, I’d REALLY have to care about the person wanting the intarsia. I’d probably do it for my best friend and that’s about it. Heh, she’s the only one I know who has a skilled enough elderly knitter in her family to ever need such a service. That’s lucky for me! :)

  20. Beverly

    Money. I knit an intarsia stocking once for someone – she paid me fairly well for it, though not near quite enough! BTW – you used one of my favorite words – discombobulate. If you want to smile, go to dictionary.com or somesuch site and click on the pronunciation audio. Makes me chuckle every time. (My 7th grade students have an affinity for the word “nub” – just say it out loud – it’s a funny word.)

  21. Diane in Chico

    Give me a magic loop sock over intarsia any time :-)

    The “drunken argyle” pattern in knitty.com is pretty cool. And those math people in the U.K. (Pat Ashforth and Steve Plummer, “Cushy Numbers”), have some patterns I liked. I have the patterns, but… there is always something else to knit first. Intarsia? Bleh!

    It’s the dangly bits that bother my sense of having things in order.

  22. Kris

    NOTHING could convince me to knit intarsia again. NOTHING. I knit up a cute Christmas stocking with a snowman on it, but I hated every moment I was knitting it. Now all of the new babies get stranded colorwork in their christmas stockings.

  23. Robin

    I tried an intarsia wristband (uh, yeah, I *know*) once. It was relatively successful, but there’s just something about intarsia that I just don’t get. I always feel like it’s wrong, even if it could sort of work out. I’ve just accepted the fact that, when it comes to this particular method of color work, I’m intarded. (Offensive? I know, but I’ve been hanging on to that one for a while.)

    What I’d really love is for someone with a pretty blog that I read daily to do a great lesson on it. I’ve always thought that it might just be an issue of finding the right explanation.

  24. Diane

    Magic Loop is GREAT. When I see a pattern that has 4 dpns required I start breaking down the pattern to magic loop it. I think Lorilee from City Knitting has a video on utube showing how to do it. I learned from her.

    Now intarsia… I’m hopeless when it comes to that. All those little lengths of yarn…ugh. Its like granny squares in crochet… too many ends.

  25. Gisi

    Hello Kathy,

    I do not enjoy knitting intarsia, either. They were all the rage back in the 80′s when I started knitting in earnest. You would enthusiastically start a project and than abandon it halfway through.

    I would knit swaters with cute animals for my nephew and niece, though. Also there are these designs with lots of flowers. I have a couple of them that still look good and I might knit them one day …

  26. Sarah

    For me, Magic Loop is far less fiddly than intarsia. Anyway, I do not much enjoy the process of intarsia. I have only used the technique once, and I used those yarn bobbins. I did love the way the back of my work looked when I was done. I was knitting my part in a gift of love. That helped make the work worth it. Plus, it really looked great when I was done. I had seven yarn bobbins plus the main color and was working a cabled pattern. I got better with it as the project moved along, and felt good for having overcome the difficulties and frustrations. I would knit intarsia again, but I will be selective of which project I chose. I think it is worth the work if you really want to knit it, whether it be for love of someone else, or the finished project. I cannot give a comparison between using the bobbins and the free-flying yarn method you are using, but I think that the bobbins might work better for me. I believe that the added weight of the yarn-wrapped bobbin helps to keep the yarn in better order. Susan Bates Yarn Bobs were what I used. I had used some others that were not as nice, and the knitting moved much more smoothly after I replaced those with the Susan Bates Yarn Bobs.

  27. Shaina

    I’m somewhat ashamed that I would assume I don’t like intarsia without ever having even tried it, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. Fiddly bobbins? Weaving in 214,235 ends? Tangles? No thank you. The only way I may ever be inspired is if the heavens themselves drop a China Clouds kit in my lap.

  28. anne marie in philly

    no way in hell would I subject myself to this torture. tried it once; mos def NOT my cuppa tea.

    now if ya wanna talk about color knitting, illusion (shadow) or mosaic are my favorites. far less fiddly.

  29. Wendy E

    The only thing I’d consider doing intarsia for: Kaffe Fassett’s Windows cardigan. (And then, only if someone GAVE me the many pounds of Rowan yarn it calls for – that’s got to be one expensive project.) But it’s drop dead gorgeous. It would probably take me the rest of my life, too.

  30. Ashley

    Does _anyone_ like intarsia? Or is it just a means to a desirable end? (Desirable for some people, not me. I’m lucky that I have yet to see the intarsia pattern I really want to knit, because blech, no thank you.)

  31. knitannie

    I have only attempted one intarsia project and I didn’t love it… or even like it… but I did find using clothes pegs to hold the little tails of yarn was the easiest method. The yarn is wound around the middle of the peg then kept in place in it’s teeth. You just unwind a yard or two when required and it prevents a big tangled mess.

  32. Holly

    About two years ago I knit an intarsia baby sweater. I was befuddled by the bobbins hanging everywhere and I had many comments on my blog telling me to get rid of the bobbins and use “manageable lengths”. Once I did that, everything was fine. While I’m not crazy about the process, I am crazy about that particular sweater. I feel that it was my best knitting endeavor and I have a photo of it hanging on my bullitin board at work! I’m getting ready to start another one. I have a grandaughter coming in May and that is reason enough to do it all over again!

  33. Marsha

    Sigh…..after seeing the back of your sweater, I really feel SO MUCH BETTER! And I just thought it was me not doing something right. Maybe I’ll give those wrist warmers another go.

  34. margaux

    wow. i haven’t even tried intarsia and not so sure I would – but if I saw something drop dead gorgeous I would give it a go! You my friend are a strong woman haha :-)

  35. Frisian Frillies

    I don’t know if this tip helps you, but I recently bougt some sock pegs, to hang socks on the washing line. These are also great this for small amounts of yarn, because you can peg the little ball and then hang it on your needle. It doesn’t hang in the air, bouncing about and weighing you down, but is easily held by the needle. I’ll try and demonstrate this week on my site…

  36. Joy

    Like Emily, many years ago, I made *3* intarsia Christmas stockings for our kids, following the pattern Mom used for us – at this point, I can’t imagine a project that would persuade me to repeat that exercise! I definitely do NOT like intarsia, though I’ll at least try almost any other technique.

  37. KathrynGrace

    gah! Intarsia! Not my thing. There is….well, maybe nothing that I like about it, except for the pretty things it makes on the other side.

    And by the way, I can’t imagine any other time in the history of the world when the words “gorgeous buffalo” have been said. tee hee.

  38. Marie

    I knit a Superman sweater to gift to my husband’s three year old nephew. Other than the black socks I am currently enduring it is the only knitting project I’ve ever undertaken that I didn’t enjoy. The pattern had sizes from adult down to child but just one chart for the Superman motif. I had to adapt the chart in order to get it to fit, centred across a smaller chest than the pattern’s smallest sweater. That didn’t bother me but the intarsia was just awful to do. I too used the “I don’t care if it gets all tangled up” approach.

    In the end the sweater turned out beautifully but my sister in law gave it away without letting her son wear it because she didn’t want her boy wearing something that “glorified violence”.

    I still talk to my sister in law but I’m pretty sure I’ll never bother with intarsia again. (The jury is still out on knitting with black yarn in the future.)

  39. Mizzle

    Call me silly but what’s so bad about intarsia? (Except that most patterns look really dated to me… That’s the main reason I wouldn’t do it.)

    If it’s the weaving in ends, I’m currently finishing a sweater (my first)… It’s striped and by doing a quick calculation, I figure it’s over 200 ends… Not my favourite task, but quite doable…

    Then again, I also think magic loop is great… I’m good at dropping things and almost poking them in my eye. (I wear glasses, so I can’t actually poke my eyes.) Having just one needle greatly reduces the chances of both…

    Plus, it’s less of an investment. :P

  40. threegoodrats

    I like using charts and in theory I like using more than one color, but I’ve been developing some hate recently while working on my intarsia socks! I will try it again, though, because I want to make argyle socks. There are some great suggestions here in the comments of how to keep the different yarns straight and I think I’ll try a couple of them next time.

  41. Helen

    I’ve just recently finished and intarsia shawl. It took me years to do because of the fiddliness with all the strands. Alas, these were LOOOOONG blocks of color — the angled stripes went the full length of the sides of the triangle.

    The sections of smaller motifs was fine. I’d do those. Bits where the strands aren’t more than a yard — then the tangliness never exceeds the degree at which you have to untangle or cut…

    I agree re bobbins — they just weight things down, and then get tangled anyway (or unwind themselves and get tangled).

    Someday, another intarsia disign will catch me. But for now, I’ll stick to lace and stranded and textured designs, thank-you-very-much.

  42. Li

    My first intarsia project was for a friend whose mother passed away before finishing knitting up a pair of argyle socks. That was my intro. to intarsia, and I never thought I’d knit something so intimidating in this lifetime. But I did, and the amazement and glee I experienced as I saw this taking shape was totally addicting for me. Yes, the ends are a pain in the ass to weave in, but I’d do it again just for the process. By the way, you’re doing a great job. Ciao, Li

  43. Laura

    I use Kaffe Fassett’s method, too. Before that I didn’t dig intarsia, but now I love it. I love the interplay of color, the blocks or flowers or circles or what-have-you do something for me. I do, though, especially love a lot of Fassett’s designs. My all-time favorite sweater is one I knit from one of his books, but in *completely* different colors. :-)

  44. Marlyce

    I enjoy intarsia primarily for the possibilities of design in projects. I know what you mean about the tangling ends though. I have used Kaffe Fassett’s advice, and don’t add balls of colour, but rather

    long strands which usually pull through. (If the motif only uses a bit of colour I just use a short strand) After you’ve completed a motif you usually can estimate pretty well how much of each colour yarn it uses.

  45. Susan B

    My three rules for living are:

    1. Never eat anything bigger than your head.

    2. Don’t go out in the rain in your socks.

    3. Life is too short to knit intarsia.

    So I’m in awe of your buffaloes. Thunder on.

  46. Seanna Lea

    I did what Elizabeth suggested in my first (and admittedly only) intarsia piece, and it did really work quite a bit better. When I did need to untangle, I just flipped it over and spent a few minutes sorting out the color I wanted, and it never took too much effort.

    Intarsia is almost as good as lace for seeing the magic of weaving in ends and blocking. It makes such a big difference to the finished product.

  47. Leslie

    I worked a little sweater for a baby long ago and since I almost started smoking over it, decided it just wasn’t worth it!

    BUT, for all those little cut ends of wool? Don’t throw them in the trash! We’re approaching nesting season and the birds would really appreciate wool for the nest. I put little bunches of leavings in various places of the yard when I know it’s not going to rain and they mysteriously disappear. It’s rather neat spotting a nest with bright red or yellow yarn during the season.

  48. Mandy

    I really enjoy the twisting of the yarn when changing colors. Mind you, I dislike a great deal the tangle, so I can’t really explain why I like the bit that causes all the tangle. The best part, though, is trusting that the pile of yarn you’re manhandling is eventually going to look fabulous. Blocking and strategic end weaving do wonders for intarsia.

  49. Elaine

    I don’t mind too much. I need a quiet place and some relaxation time after, but it’s totally doable.

    I figure out how much yarn I need for each block, figure an inch or so per stitch just to be safe and wind it up into a mini-ball.

    Then you use the shoebox method. Get a little shoebox, punch some holes in the top, put all your bobbins in and poke each end out through a hole. You might need to tape the lid down or something. Easy.

  50. Ruby

    This post on your blog and reading the comments cemented for me that I’m marching to a different drummer. I really like working with the different colors and I find the bobbins fun. I find that they are very well behaved and I can let out just the amount of yarn that I need and they flip around each other politely when I twist between the colors. The most that is needed is to occasionally untwist one color from around another. I also find that with bobbins that the number of ends to weave in is less. I must say too, that I particularly like argyle!

    Just sayin’.

  51. Marta

    A knitting teacher taught me this trick. You set up a TV tray or small table in front of where you are knitting and place all of the ballwinder-wound balls of yarn on the tray. When you finish the RS row, turn the knitting clockwise and when you finish the WS row, turn the knitting counterclockwise (or the other way around). Very few tangles should result. You just need to pay attention when adding a new ball. I was knitting the Kaffe Fassett Shaded Diamonds coat and had 14 balls of yarn going at times and managed just fine. P.S. I love the garment, but will never ever knit intarsia again, since I wove the thousands of ends in by hand for that perfect look.

  52. Red

    My first sweater was intarsia: the world sweater from Vogue Knitting and rather enjoyed it. It was satisfying to twist the different colors to make sure there were no holes.

    I used bobbins for the larger landmasses and just 2 or 3 yard yarn butterflies for the smaller parts.

  53. SallyA

    I was going to suggest what Marta said but I took a class w/ Anne somebody years ago who had a product that helped. It was as if you took some of those clear plastic boxes with straight up sides(like you can get at Container Store) and glued them together & drilled a hole in the top of each one. Then put one yarn in each. If you then do the clockwise & counter-clockwise thing, you never have tangles. But I found doing all that too fiddly myself.

    And Magic Loop? I couldn’t knit socks without it! I knit two at once that way. Otherwise I would end up w/ lots of singletons. I find it not at all fiddly (esp. when compared to using 4 or 5 needles!!).

  54. Mitty

    I am making piratey Aaargh-yle socks for my daughter, and I am dreading sewing in the millions of ends (my least favorite task generally). Also, it is taking me *forever* (literally months and still on the first sock) because I have to be alert and well-rested and able to concentrate totally on the sock (not the TV) to make any progress. This is my first intarsia project, and I like the challenge, and seeing the design emerge, but am realizing I should have started with something simpler.

  55. Christy / Not Hip

    the only thing that would convince me is if a loved one fell in love with an intarsia pattern…and then I would only be convinced if it was a very small bit of intarsia. I’ve done a small bit once, but in general, even just the look of the bobbins hanging off gets me all stressed. Stranded colorwork, on the other hand, competes with cables as my fav knitting skill.

  56. Suzanne V. (Yarnhog)

    I “invented” intarsia when I was a teenager, before I learned about patterns and gauge and the fact that other people had already figured all this stuff out. I made tiny bobbins for each color. Kept them from getting tangled (bread bag closure tabs work well).

  57. Judy B

    Thanks for dispelling my notion that I’ve been doing intarsia wrong all these years. I thought all other knitters had some clever secret about how not to tangle the yarns.

  58. Louise

    Having just watched a Magic Loop video, I have to say that I agree with Kathy. Having to fool around with circulars like that would make me scream. Long live bamboo DPNs!

  59. tina

    I don’t hate intarsia per se, but the mess of it does bug me. I also hate Magic Loop and all of it’s fiddly offspring. I like the pleasure of it not the pain.

  60. Ann

    I do enjoy intarsia & don’t have a problem juggling the bobbins around. The only part that I really….hate is the sewing in of the ends – there’s too many! Good luck on your project.

  61. Sooza

    Hey there,

    I don’t do intarsia. I tried. Multiple times. The whole mess puts me off. I can’t seem to get the tension and the transitions between colours even. What would it take for me to do an entire intarsia project?! The design would have to be so extraordinary, so beautiful, so incredibly alluring for me to consider trying again.

    Happy untangling ;-)

    Sooza

  62. Sue F.

    I don’t feel the love for Magic Loop that so many people seem to. Cables flailing, pulling and shoving the needle tips; even 2 circulars is better than that. In my opinion. But whatever floats your boat.

  63. Charlotte

    My daughter, apparently, is the only motivation out there for me to even consider attempting intarsia. Does anyone remember “London Calling” from one of the Stitch & Bitch books? Yeah…made that one for her, out of the yarn it called for, which I had to special order. Started it…got to the tangled multiple balls of yarn on my lap part and put it away for a year. Finally finished it, but at it’s peak, there were 13 balls of that fluffy mohair stuff spread out on the foot stool part of my favorite knitting chair. That was one project that never left the house (well, I don’t think it left the chair even)…or at least the sweater front stayed home until it was finished. And then the whole thing turned out to be gynormous and could fit my daughter if she were approximately triple the size she actually is. I think it almost went down to her knees. She’s never worn it. So, I swear to all who read this, NEVER, NEVER again will I subject myself to that particular form of torture!

  64. Bryn

    “If you don’t like any aspects of the process, what would convince you to knit an item with intarsia motifs?”

    I’m thinking either a six-pack of Guinness or a fifth of Bushmill’s Irish. I admire nicely-done intarsia, but have never felt the pull of its wicked ways. Stranded color-work, now….

  65. Natalie

    When I first started knitting I learned an intarsia trick from the Big Book of Knitting. On every other row, turn your needle the opposite direction when you finish a row and switch out working needles (Clockwise if you usually turn counterclockwise, and vice versa). If your yarn balls are lined up, then turning the needle the opposite way will untwist the working threads. It’s counter intuitive at first, but untangles threads like magic.

    I don’t know if someone has already posted this tip… I didn’t read through all the comments. Hope it helps!

  66. Selvy

    I’m doing argyle last night for the first time, and too bad I did not read your post earlier, hiks. I just realized Intarsia is really “something”, and I don’t have any bobbins to help, so I used some hairpins for the yarns, can you imagine?

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