Using Color in Your Knitting

Sometimes nothing can be as satisfying, or as contented, as working on a knitted garment with colors. In fact, half the reason we even buy yarn is because of their colors! There are so many styles and varieties available that it can overwhelm even the most experienced knitwear designers. Here are a few ways you can think about color when designing or knitting your next piece.

Reading a Color Wheel

Reading a color wheel is easy, and a helpful tool in picking out colors that call to you.

 
color_wheel
 

From a general color wheel, there are four palette styles seen in the design world. These are: a monochromatic palette, an analogous palette, a complimentary palette, and a tet-rad palette. Monochromatic and analogous palettes are perfect if you’re looking to stick to one or two colors in your design selection. Complimentary palettes are wonderful if you want to tell a story of conflict (or harmony) with color. Tet-rad palettes are a good choice for complex designs, finding a balance between four (or more) colors at once.

Picking Color Palettes

There are infinite ways that you can put together your color choices. Photos are a good inspiration for color work and color stories. You can either choose colors that inspire you from a photo by eye, or you can use open source programs to pull colors from photographs. Sites like Color Palette FX or Hex to Pantone are good sites to source your colors from.

An alternative from pulling colors from photos is by using a color generator. You can explore color combinations but together through sites like Canva’s Color Exploration or randomize color schemes through sites similar to Coolers. There’s endless possibilities and you can customize your color collection however you want.

Muted and Vibrant Colors

The great thing about choosing your own palette is that you can not only pick what type of color you want, but how vibrant you want the color to be. If you’re looking to make a dark and moody garment or accessory, going with muted colors will achieve your vision. If you’re looking to tell a bright or cheery story, vibrant colors will make it easier to bring that feeling to life.

Cool vs. Warm Colors

 
Yarn: Paton Kroy Socks in Grey Brown Marble and Cadet Colors

Yarn: Paton Kroy Socks in Grey Brown Marble and Cadet Colors

 

Almost every color you find can be listed in warm ranges (red, orange, yellow) or cool ranges (green, blue, purple). If you’re looking to make a garment that speaks to a certain emotion or feeling then it’s important to pick your colors appropriately.

Color Dyes in Yarns

When you’re choosing yarn to go with your color palette, the wooly world is our oyster. Almost every type of yarn is available to you in (almost) every color perceived. Some prefer creating blocks of color through texture or others will let the color speak for itself. But not all yarns come in just one color, and knowing how those yarns are categorized will make your design decisions easier.

Solid Color Yarns

 
solid_color_yarn.jpg
 

When a yarn is dyed, it can be dyed with either one color or more. Sometimes a yarn is spun without dying at all, letting the natural color of the fibre speak for itself. When a yarn is dyed to represent a single color, they’re generally known as ‘single dye yarns’. Word of warning: If you are creating a large knitted piece or need a large amount of yarn in a single color, buy your chosen yarn in bulk. Dying yarns can be tricky, and the yarn production industry will mark their yarns with dye lot numbers, since the dye from their production facilities can vary from batch to batch.

 
Yarn: Lion Brand Wool-Ease in Violet Red with Grey Heather

Yarn: Lion Brand Wool-Ease in Violet Red with Grey Heather

 

Solid color yarns should not be confused with Heather yarns, as heather yarns are made from fiber of two of more colors. When you step back to look at heather yarn the colors blend together to appear as if they are one color.

Variegated Yarns

Variegated yarns are defined as yarn dyed with more than one color. However, a variegated yarn may be defined differently in the knitting world depending on the technique and the colors used to dye the yarn.

Gradient Yarn

 
Yarn: Madelinetosh DK in Plaid Blanket

Yarn: Madelinetosh DK in Plaid Blanket

 

You can find gradient yarns in knitting stores and online, and they are generally defined by their medium to long color transitions, creating a gradient of color as you knit them up.

Pooling/Flashing Yarn

 
Yarn: Tahki Yarns Bunny Print (discontinued)

Yarn: Tahki Yarns Bunny Print (discontinued)

 

Pooling or flashing yarns are commonly defined as variegated yarn. They come in all sorts of colors and are defined by the quick transitions of color, creating small pools or a marble effect in your knitting. These pooling or marbling effects can either be very stark or very subtle depending on the colors used to dye the yarn.

Self-Striping Yarn

 
Yarn: Paton Kroy Socks in Cadet Colors

Yarn: Paton Kroy Socks in Cadet Colors

 

Self-striping yarn is also a variegated yarn. These are dyed with a technique that results in a yarn that transitions smoothly from one color to the next, forming stripes as you knit and removing the need to switch yarns for color. These types of dyed are commonly used for sock yarn, helping knitters create self striping socks. Chromatic yarn and jacquard yarns are also considered self-striping yarn, but are defined differently: chromes are dyed with colors in the same color family and jacquard have both short and long color ways in them.

There are other forms of yarn dyes that may not be listed here, and if you find a style you enjoy, try it out!

Telling a Story with Color

Mathew’s thoughts on working with color:

When I was first learning to knit, I remember looking at color work knitting as a really advanced technique. My first attempts were not very successful and for a long time, I kept to K/P textures and cables. But somewhere in my late teens/early 20s, I found Kaffe Fasset’s work and was immediately drawn to color work knitting. Most of his designs were meant to be knit flat and a few of them even had 3 colors in a single row. I boldly waded into the world of color work and haven’t looked back since. In the Faire Isle tradition of color work, there are usually only two colors per row, but the colors change frequently in a striped pattern throughout the knitting and this adds incredible depth and complexity to the work. If you want a good place to start, there are many books written about Faire Isle knitting.

Sometime later, I came across a book called “Poems of Colour” which was a lovely introduction into the Bohus Stickening style of knitting which incorporated not only color (as many as 4 or 5 colors in a row) but Knit/Purl textures as well. This added dimension in the knitting lent a sculptural quality to the fabric that made many of the designs feel almost like jewelry.

Of course, no discussion of color work would be complete with at least a hat tip to Alice Starmore, one of the most talented and prolific designers of color work knitting today. Her work has inspired tens of thousands of people to pick up color work. If you have the time and patience, I highly recommend knitting one of her designs, they are breathtaking.

As I have continued on this journey of color work, I keep finding examples that inspire me. Like the early 17th century silk and gold color work cardigans which can be found in museums around the world. Knit in super-fine gauges, these garments were often worn as “comfy home clothing” and were rarely, if ever, seen out in public. Just as knitwear is today, it was meant for comfort and utility. Having seen so many of these garments personally, it is clear that there was a pretty strict and uniform process for making them. Any time something so uniform crops up in history, it sends up a red flag and makes me wonder about their inception and how they became so popular. Uniformity in construction is such a rare thing where historical clothing is concerned that to find such consistency in extant specimens leads me to more questions and makes me want to go much deeper.

Some of the pieces I have examined appear to be frame knit which is a term used for an early knitting machine. These garments leap into the historical record around the the year 1600, barely more than a decade after the first patent for a knitting frame was issued to William Lee in 1589, in England. I have seen specimens that were knit by hand and others that I believe were frame knit. There is a clear difference in shape and construction between the two. Frame knit varieties appear to be more tubular and have less shaping to them as well as elements which suggest that they’re made from simple frame-knit rectangles. Corners have been left uncut, but tucked away inside the garment rather than the hand knit versions which have clear increase/decrease shaping and often more complex color work (one example is a 3 color pattern).

In addition to these cardigans, there are many hats, gloves, stockings and other knit accessories from the Early Modern era which show us that knitters of the past were very skilled and had developed their crafts into a vibrant industry complete with its own guilds and guidelines. Techniques which we tend to view as more modern were already present in knitting 500 years ago. Short rows, sideways knitting, internal increases, complicated gusset and heel constructions on stockings and several fascinating ways of making gloves and hats can be found.

There are few limits on what knitting can achieve and today, as we work our needles and yarns, knitters are just as connected and passionate about the craft as our ancestors were. I strive to honor those knitters of the past by keeping their work alive in my own.

 
A pair of silk and metallic gloves in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Mid-17th century. In the cuff, there are a minimum of 3 colors used at a time with an additional 4th color periodically.

A pair of silk and metallic gloves in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Mid-17th century. In the cuff, there are a minimum of 3 colors used at a time with an additional 4th color periodically.

 
The back side of the color work cuff on the silk gloves, showing the incredible mass of stranding across the back of the work. The gold, though isolated is still carried across the whole row.

The back side of the color work cuff on the silk gloves, showing the incredible mass of stranding across the back of the work. The gold, though isolated is still carried across the whole row.

 

Working with color was so popular that charted books were published which could be used for various counted stitching/embroidery techniques as well as knitting. In many of our upcoming patterns, we will be using some of these old charts as the foundation for our color work before branching out into new and creative design.

 
Jacket of knit silk and silver gilt thread Circa 1600-1610. Boston Museum of Fine Arts Photo: Mathew Gnagy

Jacket of knit silk and silver gilt thread Circa 1600-1610. Boston Museum of Fine Arts Photo: Mathew Gnagy

 

The greatest thing about color is that the story you tell can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. The combination of color, texture, and form gives you endless possibilities when making with yarn. Tell your story with your knits, share them, and let the joy come through!

 

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