Intarsia: The Full Ball Fallacy and Other Tangle Tips

By Kay Gardiner
December 3, 2020
Field Guide No. 16 is here! Simple intarsia, in Kaffe Fassett's glorious colorways.

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  • I have never even attempted intarsia (I am stuck in my ruts, really), but I absolutely love “The tangle is a beautiful thing, Get right with the tangle, and all will be well” as a metaphor for living. What a great spiritual lesson for those of us who struggle with perfectionism and control when life serves up tangles big (a pandemic) and small (the mess that hides the top of my bureau.) And a reminder that we treat ourselves and those with whom we live with so much more compassion when we remember to pull gently.

    • Beautifully articulated. Thank you.

      • Kay you always make things that could be a yawn, into a party.

    • Wise!

    • I thought the same thing when I read that line – that it’s a great metaphor for life – but this is said more beautifully than I could have!

    • Yes !!!

  • When you reach the end of a row and turn your work, turn your tangle over the same the same way. It helps avoid twist.

  • I casted on two weeks ago and put it down after row 6. I love the colors and the pattern but not the tangles. I will pick it up again and I am hoping it turns into fun and my tangle angst subsides! I’ve used butterfly bobbins in the past for smaller projects because you don’t have the weight of plastic or wood. I am not sure butterflies will help with my Kite.

  • Thanks for the boost. I am more than 1/2 way finished with my village cushion. Love everything about it but the tangles. I wound mini balls of each color which helps a bit, but will try your “one meter at a time” approach. The colors are beautiful and I wake up at 4:30 in the morning thinking about knitting so I sit up and knit! Being surrounded by a tangle of yarn is a good way to start a day! And a good metaphor for life especially this year.

  • Ok. I’m going to give it a go! I love all the projects so I can’t decide which one to choose. I love stranded colors but haven’t tried intarsia. I am afraid of the tangle but eager to try!

  • “Soft tangle” – what a USEFUL phrase. Describes exactly what I get occasionally when I rip out a few rows and know enough – finally! – to leave those strands be. Don’t move, jiggle or mess with them in any way. Just start re-knitting from that soft pile of worms and all will be well. Soft. Perfect word!

  • Kay, at first I wondered why you didn’t use a long circular instead of straight needles for so many stitches, which led me to: would intarsia in the round be Too Much Tangle? For a non-intarsia project like this I would usually go with a steek, but it’s kind of scary to imagine all those ends tangled within a long tube.

    • Have always done Fair Isle and intarsia in the round with short lengths and a steek. It has never occurred to me not to because I hate straight needles and find ways to avoid them if at all possible!

      • I’m with you, Deborah, plus the great advantage of knitting stockinette in the round – no purling! Thanks for your reply.

    • My concern would be not having the right colors to continue the pattern if knitting in the round.

      • That’s the problem. When you knit across a motif, the tail is at the end of the motif. If you’re knitting in the round, when you return to the motif, you’re at the beginning of the motif, and the yarn is not there. I’m sure there is some very clever way to solve this, but I don’t know one myself.

        • But you could use circulars and just knit flat, not in the round, right? I too avoid straight needles like the plague!

        • There *is* a clever way to solve that; I learned it from Anne Berk. Check out Annetarsia (google it?). She has a book, and teaches classes at Virtual VKL. I took her class a couple months ago and did actual intarsia in the round!

          PS: This straight line intarsia is very appealing, and makes me want to try more intarsia. My previous intarsia experience was two Vogue Grumpy Cat sweaters for my kids, and that was not as rhythmic and easy to follow. Cute, though.

        • Oh – I get it! Thanks Kay for saving me from myself!

  • Wow. Your intarsia backside could almost be a front side.

  • Darn, you did it again. Something new I want to knit and naturally I don’t have the proper stash. Your project is beautiful!

  • That is really helpful, Kay thanks for the counterintuitive advice. bobins have never worked for me and I’ve not been sure of why. You spelled it out!

    • Hmm – I’m knitting from the balls for the Cityscape scarf. Perhaps not as bad since it’s only 3-4 at a time? Yours is beautiful!

      • Yes, it can be done, for sure. If you try knitting with long strands instead, you might find it easier, or not! I found that even on the little houses that only use 2 or 3 colors at a time, I was more comfortable with strands than full balls.

  • I’ve been doing intarsia for over 50 years and it’s bobbins for me. I find them very useful tools, but you have to use the right ones, that don’t leave a long tail hanging, and have a little “clasp” at the top that keeps the yarn close to the work. I love the rhythm of the flip of the bobbins as I work, locking in the colors. “To each his own,” seems a good mantra for this type of knitting: as I’d never try to change someone who is happy with their method that works correctly for them, so I would assume no one would try to change my method which which works correctly for me. It is what’s good about knitting, and knitters.

    • I have never done intarsia and I’m interested in both the soft tangle and the bobbins. What kind of bobbins have clasps at the top?

    • I would love to see you knit with bobbins, I’m so curious to see what I’m missing and understand how it’s done.

      • Yes, video please! If I couldn’t find bobbins would maybe improvise with rubber bands or something. That tangle strikes fear in my heart though it seems like it got more organized as the rows went on.

    • I’m with you. Been knitting intarsia since my 2nd sweater, in 1960. I’ve used bobbins and have had no problem. Maybe, it’s because I am a picker, not a thrower. Most of the movement is on the tip of the needle. Also, when knitting in the round, especially when stranding or doing intarsia, I knit on the inside of the circle as the “right side”. The outside of the round is the wrong side, and holds the many skeins for intarsia at a bit of a distance, so they are not all pooled together in the middle, rubbing against each other. It is easier to do stranding this way, as you can easily see if your tension is correct on the wrong side, without having to dive into the dark center.

      • I’ve tried pulling and bobbins. Bobbins work best for me. For me tangles are too messy and can take to long to untangling

      • Oh! I will try this, I want to make the little house motif double-sided, a tubular bag shape, say. Working wrong-side out appeals to me. This is better than the other scheme I had, double-knit intarsia…

      • Love this idea! (Knitting inside the circle.) Must try!

    • What kind if bobbin do you use? I have not seen that type. I have lengths of yarn from other projects that I would like to use but keeping them wound until I am ready to used them isn’t working well.

    • Yes, I remember seeing someone using the little plastic tags you sometimes used to get fastening bread shut, they used the little slit to slide the yarn into to keep it from unwinding.

    • I’m with you Ellie, for me bobbins are wonderful!

    • I too ,have been knitting for over 50 yrs and use bobbins. I totally agree ‘To each his own.”

  • Bless you! Your letter was just what the doctor ordered after the radio alarm woke us with the grim COVID update. You had me laughing out loud and reliving some very fond memories. Our son had quite a devotion to owl pellets at one point in time!! Also appreciated the helpful info. I have been a bit wary of intarsia, but your guidance gave me courage and I’m ready to cast on and “pull from the soft tangle.” Thanks again. Stay safe and well.

  • I love this, because I truly love untangling tangles. I always have. My friend’s dog took a ball of yarn I had and turned it into something that looked like a bowl of spaghetti. Untangling that was so meditative. So the thought of intentionally incorporating a tangle in a work speaks my language. Thanks!

    • If you’re looking for a meditative retreat (when we can all travel again, of course), come to my yarn/play room and untangle to your heart’s desire. 😉

    • Untangling doesn’t spark joy for me, but my dear husband LOVES it. He even accepts tangled yarn from my friends. Says it’s like a good puzzle and relaces him. Plus it’s fun to work on fiber projects together, with him untangling or frogging an old project I no longer want and me knitting.

    • In these Covid times a young woman in my neighborhood has advertised her new found skill of untangling jewelry. Her post expressed both pride and satisfaction.

  • Off topic really; just made me laugh:

    “This is a big piece of knitting, over 200 stitches wide…” Made me cringe. I just cast on a sweater of 200 stitches for me. Gauge maters! It’s the gauge!

    • Lol! It’s a big piece of…stitches!

  • I am so happy I read this article. I am busy with an intarsia project which I was struggling with but I’m going to follow this advice and hopefully it will be easier from now on.

  • Wow. This post has simplified so many things for me. My yarn tangles don’t work because I need to get rid of the yarn butterflies. Thank you!

    • I am trying intarsia for the first time (the cowl) and think I will eventually enjoy it. I frogged my first few rows because I thought I could do better and now I’m waiting for the mood to try again. I like things neat and tidy so I am trying to convince myself that I can deal with the mess that is intarsia. I love a challenge so I am confident that I can master this.

  • Slowly, slowly you are giving me confidence to try knitting this blanket

  • Years ago I did intarsia – predominately dinosaur sweaters for the grands. Then I took an intarsia class from Anne Berk and have been loving intarsia again ever since. I knitted the Man’s V-Neck Vest by Melissa Leapman) Now I am knitting my 4th Argyle Hat (Harry Wells) for the grands. I never have tried a Kaffe pattern but you have inspired me to try something new after the holidays. Thank you, as always, for an inspirational article – inspirational both for knitting and life.

  • OM almighty G! I so subscribe to your hatred of bobbins, they are to intarsia and yarn management as boiling tar is to sunburn !
    I love your description of a loose tangle. I’m not a frequent intarsia knitter but when I have successfully intarsia’d it has been with a loose tangle – though more out of desperation than strategy.
    I suspect I might do more in future, knowing I’m not the only tangle-happy knitter out there! And because well, yes, that kites throw looks amazing…

  • I love the juxtaposition of the 1st row compared to the front and back of what you have so far knitted. Chaos to calm. Like the act of knitting itself.

  • I, too, have begun the Kites Throw and I am following Kaffe’s advice to “pull from the tangle”. (My project and its tangle look almost identical to yours.) I have taught intarsia classes in the past and I am amazed at how much of a difference that little snippet of wisdom has made in my level of intarsia enjoyment. I am loving this project more than anything I have knit lately. It has everything – color, rhythm and is a bit of a challenge. I can’t wait for work to end each day so that I can knit on it a bit more. Thanks for another great knitting challenge.

  • You’re preaching to the choir here, in life as well as knitting. Tangle on!

  • In addition to sharing your knitting insights (aspirational at this point) I love your wit and wisdom! Thanks for the smiles and the encouragement!

  • Thanks Kay for wise words on pulling from the tangle. I started knitting the Watercolor Cowl with larger blocks and reversed colors—a la Ann’s brilliant variation—and so far I’m managing the tangle. My question, though, is about needles. Are you using straights? Do they make the tangle easier to manage than circulars—I have noticed that the yarn gets tangled in the cord. And what kind are they? I haven’t used straights in years. Thanks!!

    • Rowan sent us their new needles to try. I haven’t knit with straights in years, but Ann told me she found intarsia easier on straights, so I’m going with it for now. I wonder if at some point I’ll feel like there is too much fabric hanging off the needles? In which case I may revert to circs for comfort and see how that goes.

    • Chiming in to say that I haven’t used straights in ages, but I’m finding them much faster to work with than the circs I used for my previous intarsia project, the Kites. There’s no getting hung up at the join of the cable, and the stitches are nice and tidy when I start a new row. My piece now is 90 stitches wide, which fits well on these Rowan straights.

  • Remember that Felted Tweed spit splices beautifully so if you want shorter lengths you can always add to them.

    • Yes, I’m spit-splicing for sure. I am gravitating toward longer strand lengths now that I’ve got my tangle taming skills on point. I like spit-splicing but you do have to stop to do it, and the less of that the more I like it!

  • My god. This is an epiphany. I’ve done Intarsia and hated it because of all the fiddly tangles. I actually think I may try it again!!!

  • Thank you for sharing the magic of the back side of Intarsia – having a visual (photo) of what the work in progress looks like – right side and back side – takes the doubts out of “Am I on the right path creating this beautiful project” out of the journey knitting with many colors.

  • Kay, This column was so helpful. But straight needles? I haven’t used them in dogs’ years. Please enlighten us. And, more specifically, which needles did you use? This will help immensely. Then I will get to it after I finish Patty Lyons 2 Affiknitty cardigans. LOL

    • Hi Myra, I’m using straights for the first time in YEARS because this Ann Shayne lady told me she thought her intarsia was behaving better on straights. They are Rowan’s new line of needles, which are made of very hard, smooth wood. I’m like it but as I mentioned further up in the comments, I may switch to circs as the blanket gets heavier, for ergonomics and comfort.

  • Sitting in time out is an intarsia scarf I started at least 2 years ago. Never could get into a rhythm or enjoy working on it because of the bobbins twisting and pulling and in general driving me crazy. I’m going to cut off those bobbins and go with your “tangle ” method. Thanks for sharing and for all the wonderful inspiration you and Ann provide.

  • I’m knitting from balls for the cityscape. I pull a long bit loose from each and the balls sit in my lap like little kittens. I tried the short lengths method but I had to splice way too often.

    • That’s definitely a consideration. When I’m working on a smaller project I will try the Kittens Approach.

      • I’m now using 3 meter lengths! It works fine! No worse than the 1 meter lengths and it lets me really crank away. Highly recommended.

    • I concur about the balls in the lap method! I just completed the Memuro cardigan from Rowan 59 and I used a combination of balls and lengths, since that pattern combines large sections of just one colour and little bits of colour in others. There’s always a bit of tangling, but it’s manageable (I have the same issues with fairisle). I keep my yarn balls in little zip lock bags which I can partially zip up to keep the balls in place (sometimes a bag for each, other times I might have two balls in each bag) and pull lengths in advance which keeps my lines from becoming taught as I knit (as Nicole describes), since I manage tension with my hands. I realize while reading these posts that I really need to do an intarsia project with straight lines!

  • This reminds me of my 1st intarsia project 30 something years ago. It was a beautiful kaffe fassett sweater. I was having some trouble with that because it was a slippery polished cotton yarn. I took it to the knitting shop, whose owner was in my knitting group known as the pig knitters because we would get together and eat and knit. Brigitte, my friend and expert knitter, looked at the ends, so many ends, and said in her beautiful German accent “oh no, vat haff you done here? It is a disaster!”. End of that…
    These beautiful photos are ALMOST enough to entice me…

  • The tangle is such an emotional thing! My husband (who is not a knitter) periodically looks over as I’m working on my Kites throw and I can practically see sweat beads of anxiety on his forehead when he sees the tangle. We’ve been doing this funny little dance where I catch him looking and shrug at him, while in return he gives me one of those little “I love you but do not understand you right now” head-shakes.

    I’ve not knit intarsia before, but the learning curve is the right kind of gentle climb for me right now. Having now completed the first row of triangles, my key takeaways are shorter lengths (3.5 wingspans is about perfect for a complete triangle) and that a bent-tip tapestry needle works well to gently isolate a particularly entangled strand. I’m totally sucked in and can’t wait to get back to it!

    • love the term ‘wingspan’ – I call them ‘lenghts’ (from nose to right hand reach) – a quick handy way to measure without fussing with yardstick or tape measure.

  • OK, so I just decided that my guiding light “word” for the rest of my life is PRACTICE, and I think I also need a guiding light “phrase”… PULL FROM THE TANGLE!! It’s a lovely little mess that works itself out wonderfully. I’m at a standstill while I wait for yarn deliveries but I can’t wait to resume. Your throw is going to be amazing.

  • This is beautiful, although I can’t deal with tangles. I’ve done basic intarsia with like 3 colors and I pulled from the whole balls LOL one day I may be brave as you. I do like to see the backside. I imagine it’s from my incessant need to have things tidy from my cross-stitching days. I also love those colors. Something dreamy about them…sigh

  • I am right here with you! I completed the pillow with squares and started the kites pillow. About 1/4 of the way into the first pillow, I gave up on using the full balls of yarn. Then I tried some bobbins I had on hand (I think they are so cute!) and soon abandoned them. Next, I did a google search and landed on butterfly yarn winding. It was a winner. The butterfly allows for more yarn and fewer joins but they are not so heavy like the bobbins! I am back in love with my projects!
    I may take up marionette puppets next! It seems like a short leap after intarsia!

  • Right on!

  • So much colorwork wisdom here that I learned the hard way! My family would constantly fear for my sanity with my pile o’ tangles, but now I can say, “this is what the knitting experts say to do.” Thank you for contradicting the naysayers and giving me permission to make a calculated mess in pursuit of cool intarsia!

  • I am ‘that’s person who wants to see the back haha. I’m always curious as to whether the back is a tidy as the front it. My curiosity has been satisfied. Thanks for sharing these great tips, I definitely have fallen for the full ball falacy and spent a lot of time trying to completely untangle my yarn.

  • I’ve purchased pattern and yarn. Making this for my granddaughter’s Bat-mitzvah! I’m totally scared! Are you suggesting using 1 meter lengths and joining? Does 1 meter do a triangle? Does felted tweed spit splice? I’ve used bobbins in my only attempt at intarsia. Here goes!!!!

  • I have 4 Kaffe projects just waiting for Christmas projects to conclude.
    BUT does anyone have a secret for finding the center end of a Rowan Felted Tweed skein without pulling out half the skein to do so?

    • Will follow your question. I am having same issue. It’s frustrating.

  • Owl pellet ⁉️⁉️⁉️

  • You are absolutely right! The soft tangle is fine! It’s working. And I think Frlted a tweed is perfect because it splices! I’m able to do this! Hurray!

  • “owl pellet” LOL! Hilarious! So, MDK and Arne and Carlos gave me the confidence for my first stranded color work project. Pretty soon, I will start my Village Scarf! Love!

  • Looking GREAT!! I am cheering you on!!

  • FYI, ‘pulling from the tangle’ also works for strings of Christmas lights as I found out shortly after reading this post!

  • Hi Kay 🙂 really liked your take on the tangle with intarsia. Just curious…why do you use straight needles instead of circular for your project? My inquiring mind wants to know…

  • Thank you for permission to tangle!! Kaffe Fasset has been my hero for decades (!), but I’ve always been discouraged from doing full projects with his designs because the multiple balls/bobbins drove me nuts. I’m now going back to his books (yes, I have them all) and dive back in!

  • Another way to manage the yarns is to knit backwards (left to right) instead of turning the work and purling back. You keep the same side facing you and the yarns stay in the same place and in the same order. As you knit, you cross the yarns in one direction when twisting to avoid holes then uncross them when twisting on the way back. I did this for a bulky blanket in a Brandon Mably pattern, where, like Kites, the colors stay in the same order for many rows. For other patterns, like Houses, the gentle tangle and “manageable lengths”is the way to go!

    • I’m going to test your method as soon as I get out of bed. LOL I’m trying to visualize what you say about the reverse twists—it makes sense! You could be the next knit star teacher du jour with this approach! Go on (virtual) tour!

    • Yes! I do this too! Knitting backwards is such a useful skill, and not really all that hard to master. I use it a lot in all sorts of knitting.

  • Dear Kay. I loved what you had to say about working with the tangle. If I ever decide to try something like that, I’ll remember. Thanks for your good hints!!

  • Years ago I taught intarsia classes at a local yarn shop here in Denver, and when students asked about bobbins I urged them to try them if they really thought they would help. Almost every bobbin user eventually returned to class with the same discovery: all that “order” means you’re spending most of your time untangling the bobbins rather than knitting! Smaller lengths for smaller discreet sections, and a yard/meter max for larger ones allow you to just get ON with the process of creating art. And for a consistent repetitions (like the kites) you’ll soon figure out whether the meter length is too long (or just enough!) for each section of that color, and you can cut appropriate lengths ahead of time so they’re at the ready when you need the next. Brava, for the wonderful explanation of this approach, Kay: let’s just get ON with creating the art!!

  • This is a very helpful tip. Do you join new lengths of the same colour by “spit and spin?” I think that is what I would do.
    Confession: one of my WIPs is the fabulous KF wrap that is on the cover of a recent Vogue Knitting magazine. I AM using full balls of yarn for the colours, but with the following strategy.
    It all sits nicely on a big tray, balls to the back and work to the front. I am using a circular needle long enough so everything is not bunched up. Each yarn ball not in use (all but one or two) has an elastic band loosely around it.* The balls are all in the order as needed. I avoid tangles by always keeping the front of the work facing me: I knit even-numbered rows backwards. Every third row of this pattern is stranded, and I work those backward, also. When I switch colours for the intarsia I move the elastic over to the ball just finished with, after twisting the colours.
    Sounds cumbersome but is all organized, and works for me!
    *The yarn I am using is Jamieson and Smith 2-ply. These are smaller balls. If I was using Rowan Felted Tweed my arrangement probably would not work, as those balls are much bigger!

  • Any reason you are using straight needles instead of circulars with so many stitches?

  • This tangle talk took away my fear of intarsia!!! Thanks so much.

  • I’ve been knitting intarsia for 65 years since I knit a pair of argyle socks for my dad when I was 11. I’ve used bobbins and I’ve used whole balls, but dislike the short strands. (Too many ends to darn in at the end!) I learned an interesting fact about intarsia during a period when I used a knitting machine to do intarsia. You twist the yarns on the knit row, but they magically untwist themselves on the purl side as long as you are not introducing new colors! This is why I use whole balls. You can line them up on a cloth-covered table – the cloth keeps them from rolling around, or put each ball in a little bowl. What is important is that each color is in the order you will use it. Voila! No tangles. If you do have to introduce a new color (which you don’t with the KF Triangles pattern), you will have to slide the bowl around at the end of that and possibly the next row, but that is all. I once knot something similar to the KF Triangles pattern using a box packed with soda-bottles I’d cut in half and put each ball in its own bottle with the yarn led out the top neck. Worked like a charm.

  • For the last eight hundred years, I have been ‘in the middle of’ that snowflake blanket that everyone else on Ravelry finished eight hundred years ago. It is a dumpster fire of bobbins and full balls. Sometimes, the yarn from both ends of the full ball is on the go.

    You have inspired me to fetch the scissors and free the snowflake! Bobbins out, soft tangle in!

  • I am indeed a tangler! Learned that from a Fasset article years ago and never looked back….

  • I read all the comments and there is so much to learn. Thank you all for weighing in. Forty years ago I knit Jack’s Back Jacket from Glorious Knits for my son and have been a fan of Kaffe ever since. I think I’m ready to try intarsia as the next technique on my list. I already have Painterly on the coffee table.

  • just asking – what about when you are some (a few – a lot!) rows along & find where you missed wrapping the yarn when changing to the next color (leaving a gap). do you rip out (if it’s only a couple rows), panic ( if it’s a lot) or just carry on?

  • I ALWAYS want to see the back of someone’s intarsia project — I’m a visual learner and seeing the joins reassures me that I can do it.