How to Use Motifs in Knitting

Knit Yourself a Picture

Knitted heart hanging by ribbon from bedstead, close-up
Ruth Jenkinson / Getty Images

Using charted picture motifs in knitting is a fun way to add interest and whimsy to an otherwise plain knitting project. Motifs can be knit into the surface of the work, stitched on later or even worked with beads on the surface of the knitting as the project is knit or once it is completed.

You can find projects that already incorporate motifs, or you can add a motif of your own choosing to an otherwise plain knit project. As written it's worked in plain Stockinette Stitch, but it would be easy to add a picture to the center of the chest, along the bottom or in one "corner" of the front of the shirt, for example.

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    Motifs in Textured Stitch Patterns

    One of the most common – and easiest – ways to work a motif on a piece of knitting is by using a contrasting textured stitch pattern. One easy way to do this is to work the chart in Reverse Stockinette Stitch while the rest of the project is worked in Stockinette (or vice-versa). Garter Stitch, Moss Stitch, and Seed Stitch are also commonly used.

    When the project is finished, the pattern will stand out from the background because it is worked in a bumpier stitch than the background, or it will recede if the background is the more textured stitch and the image is worked in Stockinette.

    Textured stitch patterns are best for very simple, large motifs that make it easy to see what the image is supposed to be, like in the Heart Washcloth.

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    Stranded Knitting and Intarsia

    Stranded knitting (also called Fair Isle) and intarsia are two different techniques that can sometimes be used together to produce a motif on a piece of knitting.

    In stranded knitting, the yarn is carried along the back of the work, so it's best not to use this technique over very long stretches between color changes. When big blocks of color are used, you'll usually want to use intarsia, in which a different ball or strand of yarn is used for each color section. It makes for a cleaner wrong side of the work and adds less bulk.

    Both techniques might be used in the same pattern when some sections of color are small, and some are large.

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    Duplicate Stitch Motifs

    Another easy way to add an image to a piece of knitting is through duplicate stitch, a method of covering up or duplicating the knit stitches with yarn and a sewing needle.

    Also known as Swiss darning, a duplicate stitch is a relatively quick and easy way to jazz up Stockinette Stitch (it doesn't work on other stitch patterns). It works best over somewhat small areas, because duplicating the stitches adds bulk and can make the underlying fabric stiff.

    It's also a great way to add a bit of detail or extra color to a motif worked in intarsia or stranded, such as adding an eye to a dog or making a faux argyle.

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    Beading a Motif

    Simple knitting charts, like those used with textured stitch patterns, can sometimes be worked successfully with beads. You can choose to work a bead into every stitch that would otherwise be worked in the textured stitch, or you can just work beads at the edges to provide more of an outline to the motifs.

    There are several ways to apply beads to knitting, depending on the size of the beads and yarn you are using, how big a motif you are working and your personal preference for how to add the beads to your work.

    You can string the beads onto the yarn before you get started and knit with the beads as you go, add beads as you work with the help of a crochet hook, or sew the beads onto the surface of the knitting after the knitting is done.

    The Peace Sign Chart shows how to work a motif in beads.