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Knitting Tips - Intarsia versus Fair Isle Knitting

Fair Isle

In Fair Isle or "stranded" knitting, you use one ball of each of the colors. In traditional Fair Isle, only two colors are used on any one row, but in other types of stranded knitting this rule is sometimes broken. When you knit across the row, you knit whichever color is needed for the pattern, and carry the other color loosely across the back of the knitting.

The Seashore Sweater is an example of Fair Isle Knitting, although the patterns are not traditional ones!

This type of color patterning is characterized by small repeated patterns across the knitting. This type of knitting may be done circularly or flat. When knitting flat, you will, of course, need to purl across in the color pattern on the wrong side.


In intarsia, there are large blocks of single colors, that make an abstract or representative picture. It is not practical to carry the yarn across the back of large areas without using it, so a separate small ball or bobbin of yarn is used for each area of a color across the row. When you come to the edge of a color block, and want to start a new color, the new strand is always picked up from underneath the old one. As you work your way up the knitting, this twists the strands around each other, connecting the edges of each color to the next.

The Radiants Vest and the Nightsky Sweater are examples of the intarsia technique.

This type of knitting is normally only done flat, so that you can pick up the strand at the edge of the knitting on the way back on the the purl side. It is possible, to do it circularly, but it involves carrying one color across a color block while slipping the stitches in the other color, then turning and working the second color back on the purl side, then slipping all those stitches back to the right needle so you can continue circularly with the first color. If that doesn't make sense, don't worry about it! Not many people bother to try to do intarsia circularly.

If you become annoyed by small balls or bobbins of yarns becoming tangled when working in intarsia, try just breaking of an arm's length of each color and letting it hang behind your work. When you need a particular strand, you'll find it easy to simply pull it free from the other strands.

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