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My Very Own Fair Isle Swatches

Aug 25, 2008

Color WheelI found it fascinating that when I talked about my adventures in the world of knitting color, dozens and dozens of you wrote to say that you learned color in the context of quilting. Guess what? Years ago, I was a dedicated quilter, with a huge fabric stash and the whole shebang. Granted, my quilts were not the color showpieces you might see in Quilting Arts magzine. Most of my quilts were (loosely...) based on Amish quilts, with their "plain," rich colors. Those Amish colors are also echoed in all of my crafts. So, when I sat down to finish my self-imposed assignment: "Design a Fair Isle swatch using only the random balls of yarn found whilst packing," I sat down with our Color Works book and started with what I knew. Many of the Amish quilts I've seen are blue-based; thus, I began with the Blue Hue section of the color wheel.

I would have been completely lost at this point (yes, at the beginning...) until I remembered a conversation I'd had with Eunny Jang about her Venezia sweater (featured in the Knits Winter 2006 issue and available for download!) I had asked her (begged her, really) to help me understand how to select colors and here's what she said: "Pick two color families (hues). Then pick three variations of each--dark, medium, light. Now you have six colors that go together beautifully!" I was dubious. Maybe they would go together beautifully if chosen by Eunny; I wasn't so sure about anything chosen by me. Nevertheless: We are Fearless, and we must be bold.

I do have three shades of blue, and I do have dark, medium, and light blues; so that works. But what to choose for the second hue family?

At this stage in my learning, I have two options: I could choose analogous colors (colors next to blue on the wheel), or I could choose complimentary colors (colors across from blue on the wheel).

Swatch 1 Analogous Variant: Blues and Purples
Analogous colors to blue would be either greens or purples. I have dark/medium/light greens as well as dark/medium/light purples. The greens are not true saturations of each other--the lightest (and brightest!) has a lot more yellow (if it were a saturation, it would have more white); the darkest has more blue (rather than black). The combination of the three to me seems a bit off. The purple combination is much more pleasing. (No, really it is. Really!) I used the dark purple as the background, since it is darker in value than the dark blue I have. Swatch 2

Complimentary Variant: Blues and Golds
For the second variation, I used a hue family complimentary to (across the wheel from) blue--in this case, orange/gold. (I don't have any yellows, which would be the true compliments. Bear with me.) I'll use the same blues; and I'll use a dark/medium/light set of orange/golds. This time, blue will be the background, since it is darker in value than the darkest orange/gold.

Adding More Color Interest
Both of these variations are rather dark; I think part of this is due to the colors all having a similar value--a similar amount of grey. I also think that the color schemes are a bit limited by only working with two hue families--if I were brave and branched out a bit, then maybe I could add the flashes of color that make Fair Isle designs so very wonderful.

For example, what if I started with the purple/blue combination and basing my choices off the foreground color, blue, added an analogous color--bright green? I could also add a narrow line of a complimentary color to the blue--perhaps gold. The first swatch and its chart are the result.

Using the same logic, I could add interest to the orange/blue combination. Again basing my choices off the foreground color (orange/gold), I would choose an analogous color (red, since I don't have any yellow) and a complimentary color (a blue/green). The result is the second swatch and chart.

Those additions make the colors start to glow, as they would in a true Fair Isle. I don't think my humble swatches are the right color mixes to make the residents of Fair Isles proud, but you know what? They're a start. I learned more in this one exercise, playing with my little color butterflies and the color information in Color Works, than I've learned in years of knitting and beadwork before this. I'm still not ready to do an entire Venezia of my own, but hey...these swatches would make respectable pockets on a plain cardigan, perhaps!

Download the color charts for both swatches!

Want even more knitting and knitting information? Interweave Knits's sister publication, Piecework, features knitting patterns, knitting history, and eclectic knitting techniques from all over the world. Subscribe today

Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily. As you read this, Bertha-the-mannequin, Nicholas-the-husband, Buddy-the-dog, Dusty-and-Zoe-the-cats and myself are caravaning our way north to Canada. (Yes, of COURSE Bertha is coming with us!) The Camisa, worked in String of Pearls yarn from Muench (prettypretty not to mention sparklysparkly!) may or may not be done by the time I get there. (Canada countdown? 7 days till we get there!)


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Nan wrote
on Dec 29, 2008 5:51 PM
I did a science experiment in grade school about color and their opposites. If you place a color in the middle of a sheet of white paper and stare at it for 30 seconds, then look at a BLANK sheet of white paper for 10 seconds, you will SEE the opposite of the color that was on the first white sheet. It is amazing what our eyes can do!
Marimi wrote
on Sep 3, 2008 10:06 AM

It is very interesting to see how a same chart can reflects so differents ambiance (not sure about the term sorry i'm french) the first one make me think of winter, and the second of fall, why not making some allseasoned item with those, it can be quilt alike,

by the way like the motif

JennieV wrote
on Aug 28, 2008 5:31 PM

Sandi, this is the first time I've even heard an analysis of how colors are chosen for a FI pattern. I'm loving it! I hope there are several more installments. I'd love to design my own FI, but even before that, choose colors of my own for, for example, Venezia and other stranded patterns.

This is wonderful! Thanks!


SueH wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 12:38 PM

Venezia sweater:  On my monitor the sweater has greenish-gold bands.  I'm guessing it's the pattern, not the monitor...if so, I think it would be much more attreactive without them.  Nothing like horizontal stripes to make us look broader!  And I also think a band going across the boobs is very unattractive.  Basic pattern is lovely.

Sue H.

TriciaS wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 9:21 AM

Sandi, what software program did you use to do your charts in? Is is a design program like Illustrator? Also, I think one of the reasons Fair Isle seem to glow, is that many times there are intermittent stitches of white or a much lighter color, which interjects light into the pattern, therefore the "glow".

CeliaG wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 8:45 AM

Thank you, Sandi, for relating your Fair Isle color journey!  I'll have to take a look at Deb Menz's book since I already know about primary, secondary and complementary colors -- but that's about as far as I've learned with color combinations.  I was a math/science major in school and didn't have many spare electives for choosing art courses.  I also live out in the sticks, so taking classes requires more road time than class time.  I may take the same path you just did for my own benefit!!  I ALSO have a huge yarn there a knitter who doesn't?  Thanks for focusing on color and providing another option for studying it!

terrye wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 8:18 AM

I'm going to try this technique tonight, Sandy.

I learned from quilting to do the black and white thing to figure out dark, medium and lights.

This sounds WAY more fun!!


Knitting Editor

SandyW wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 5:46 AM

Orange/gold is the true complement of blu (depending on the hue) and any complement makes each color appear cleaner. and brighter. Complement of yellow is purple, complement of red is green.  Choose a color, any color and then choose the color opposite that first color and you have its complelment.  A simple color wheen from a craft store will help tremendoustly when choosing the color that will look great with no mistakes.  I am an artist.  I study color all the time.  Hope this helps.  Sandy

RachelS wrote
on Aug 26, 2008 5:42 AM

Joining you in this adventure of color work has been fun and enlightening!  Thank you for sharing your experience.

Debbie@8 wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 11:59 PM

I have found my best color combinations are those I draw from nature.  Dark greens and brown---think pine tree; light greens with yellows--think the colors of spring; greys, whites, and blues--think snowscape.  And who would have thought of putting together all those colors of the fall?  Try looking around you....and think, if it works in nature, it will work in a sweater.   Maybe they work because they are familar or maybe like my husbands favorite winter sweater done in the colors of the beach....blues/greens and tan.....they remind him on cold days that a trip to the beach won't be long in coming.


ElaineO wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 9:37 PM

Thanks Knitting Daily, for helping me be a better knitter.

After I post this I'm going to order myself a Fearless Knitter T-shirt!  

I recently finished a sweater for myself (first one in a long time), the Wanderlust Hoodie from Interweave Knits fall 2006; made from wool and alpaca yarn that I dyed with black walnut hulls.  At my mother-in-laws suggestion, I entered it in the Colorado State Fair creative arts competition and won 1st place.  Woo-hoo for me!!

I'd like to encourage everyone to enter these contests, they are a lot of fun and if we don't start getting some new people and ideas, they might just cease to exist.  

ElaineO wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 9:23 PM

This is excellent info on color - why are we all so scared of something that should be simple but isn't.  Maybe its like being in the toilet paper aisle in the grocery - just too many choices.  I usually stick with a single color and lots of texture,  but I'm getting more fearless thanks to Knitting Daily - you're the little voice in my head encouraging me.  

HelenJ wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 4:35 PM

Thankyou, thankyou, and once again, thankyou Sandy for this wonderful incite. It's right up my street, as I have been trying for ages to figure out the colour-combo thing. In the yoke cardigan I'm working on (ok, it's put away for the summer, while I finish some other UFOs) - I had got half-way there, choosing 2 purples and 2 gold/oranges, and stayed with just these 4 colours.

I'm fairly pleased with how it looks.

I also thought about the harmonious effects of choosing colour combos that occur in nature, especially as I'm drawn to natural greens more than any other colour. There are no flowers that clash unpleasantly with their leaves, are there? And flowers come in almost any shade.

We can also use any motivic shape with any colour, but the ones that look best (to me, at any rate) are those that suggest some connection or relationship in the memory of natural beauty. Organic, I guess I'd call it...

SandraCorp wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 4:22 PM

Hi,  I don't normally join in these comments but I just can't help myself.  Uh, not to be rude, but it's "complement" not

"compliment."   Also, the "complement" of blue is yellow-red (known as orange).  Look at a color wheel with only the 6 primary colors and you'll see -- the complement of any color is its exact opposite on the color wheel.  You can learn a lot about color with an inexpensive primary color paint set.  Mix a color with its complement in equal parts and you obtain gray.  Or, in the case of purple and yellow, a sort of mud-gray-taupe.  Painters mix smaller amounts of the complement with a color to mute the tone.   If you place a pure primary color next to its pure complement, they vibrate or seem to move forward or back.  That's why they use red and green on some of those eye tests at the DMV.  Try it, especially with red and green.  Many people really don't like the look of complementary colors used next to each other.   However, sometimes the vibration makes the fabric interesting.  There is a lot more to know about color than the length of this space allows -- the college course I took on it (called simply "Color") lasted an entire semester and we didn't even scratch the surface.    Anyway, I hope this helps someone.

MarthaL@2 wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 3:54 PM

I'm having my own adventures with color. I'm calling it Skeinology - the study and art of reading a skein of yarn. The study includes yarn I've dyed, and I'm swatching to see where the colors end up. It really is iteresting to see how knitting in the round vs. flat changes how the colors appear.

Thanks for your input, I think this is the most challenging aspect of knitting for me, and the most exciting -- sometimes you just don't know what you are going to get!


Divina wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 3:26 PM

One piece of advice about color that I've found incredibly useful: pick 2 or 3 colors you like that go together, then pick one color you dislike very much. Use the one you dislike as an accent. This works really, really well almost all the time!

KarenK@5 wrote
on Aug 25, 2008 3:26 PM

Surely colors on a color wheel are complementary, not complimentary?