Sandi’s Adventure in Color

Color. Color is my enemy. I think of myself as someone who could NEVER design a Fair Isle anything, simply because of the colors. And from the comments, apparently I am not alone…color is a daunting prospect for many knitters. But that's not very Fearless Knitter of us, is it? Should we be afraid of a little thing like color? Nope. But the truth is…I am afraid of color. Petrified, in fact.

I mentioned this to a friend at work, and she laughed and said, "You just need the right tools, that's all." (Like a new brain? What?) She handed me a book and commanded me to Read It. The book is our book, Color Works, by Deb Menz, and at first I was scared, because it has words like Hue and Saturation and Hexad Harmonies in it. But then I realized…there are SWATCHES all throughout the book. (Well, OK–photos of swatches. But still.) Lovely, lovely swatches, each one illustrating what Deb is talking about. I counted. There are nearly 300 swatches–and I am an extremely visual learner. Whoo! So I went through the book, and studied the swatches…and guess what. I started to Get It. I totally get the whole Hue thing now. I understand Value. Saturation seems a bit clearer to me. Hexad Harmonies, well…not so much. (I mean, Rome wasn't built in a day, you know.)

All right, so the book is really pretty…but what about when you are faced with Actual Yarn? That's the question I ended up asking, because all those swatches were lovely, but I am clearly not Deb Menz. So I devised a little color exercise for myself…

Sandi's Yarn Color Wheel

I am, of course, packing up the entire house for our move to Canada. Just when I am positive that I have packed up my entire stash, I unearth yet one more random odd ball of yarn from some dark corner (or the linen closet). I thought, what if I used these random yarn balls, and the swatches in Deb's book, to try and figure out some of this color stuff for myself? I wasn't ready to do a whole Fair Isle thing, but I figured even I could lay those balls out in a semblance of a color wheel.

So check it out! My first color wheel. So now you ask: "And what did you learn, Dorothy?" First: I have no yellows of any sort. There is an entire pie slice of the color wheel (an entire hue family, if you will) missing from my yarns. This limits the color combinations I can create. Second: Most of the yarn colors have the same "value"–when I turn the photo into a black and white version, as in the second photo, there's a lot of dark greys in there. This means that it will be difficult to do a proper Fair Isle design, as Fair Isles depend a lot on differing values to provide contrast and visual interest. Third: While I do have differing levels of saturation (brightness/dullness), the yarns here tend to be more shaded (have more black in them) than tinted (more white). Fourth: There are a lot of complex colors here–colors which are a mix, a combination of three or more primary/secondary colors. Fifth and finally: I have a lot of analogous colors (colors next to each other on the wheel) in the red-to-blue section of the wheel, but not much else.

Look at that. Right there, I've learned five times as much as I knew before I made my little partial color wheel. I understand hue, value, saturation, complex colors and analogous colors. Whoo! Go me. (And go Deb!)

All right, so it's not exactly a Fair Isle sweater, but it's a start. Could I do a Fair Isle design with these colors, and only these colors? Well…sure. It would be a very dark design, with little or no visual contrast, so you wouldn't be able to see it from very far away. But a subtle, rather modern interpretation of a Fair Isle design? Yes. (Would I be laughed out of the Fair Isles for it? Also: Yes.)

Stay tuned, because in a future post, I will show you a Fair Isle swatch I'll make out of the colors in my yarn color wheel, using Deb's swatches as a guide.

Editor's Picks

Color Works, by Deb Menz is a superb guide to color basics and beyond. Along with the 300 swatches I mentioned above, Deb provides numerous examples using yarns, fabrics, beads, and anything else she can lay her hands on! The back of the book even has pull-out color tools you can use to plan your own projects. Purchase the book online.

Color Style, by Pam Allen and Ann Budd, is coming out in October–but you can pre-order it now! I haven't seen the book yet, but I have every other book in the Style series and love every one of them–so I'm looking forward to this one very much. The Designer Notebook at the back, with its promised tips and tricks for colorwork, is going to be worth its weight in gold, methinks. And then there's the amazing Peace and Love Gloves by Veronik Avery…wow. Check out the preview and pre-order online.

Of course you can buy our books online, but don't forget to give your local yarn shop some love–and your business!

Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily. I'm almost done with the front panel of the Camisa, worked in String of Pearls yarn from Muench (prettypretty not to mention sparklysparkly!). I really hope I can wear this for you before I leave for Canada, but packing is stealing my knitting time. (25 days and counting now till we move into our house in Canada!)

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27 thoughts on “Sandi’s Adventure in Color

  1. Great article on color. I have worked with color a lot in my profession (hair, not yarn). It all makes a lot of sense to me.
    I will be anxious to see the next article and your color wheel out of your stash.

  2. excellent, thank you Sandi! Maybe I’ll have more luck with colour than I’ve had with sweater fits (despite the tons of info on +/- ease. Ruth in Paris

  3. If you can store your stash where you can organize it by color, and see it all at once, then you can easily see what you’re missing (and what you love to buy, like those red/blue colors that you have a lot of). When you go yarn shopping and stash-building, try to pick the colors and values you don’t have a lot of, and soon you will find it easier to come up with vibrant color combinations. I am also a quilter, and I find this easier to do with fabric than with yarn!

  4. I’ve had that book for 1 yr+. I read it and felt so overwhelmed that I haven’t touched it since. Sandi, you have shed some light in a very dark tunnel! I look forward to more!

  5. Can’t wait for your next post, Sandi!! Can’t wait to see that swatch. I too like blues.
    I learned a lot. I like colors and know what I like when it is together. Putting it together is hard. Like the quilter I get it with a log cabin quilt but only a little and applying it to other areas, like yarn and home decorating, aren’t so easy.

    Thanks for shedding some light on color. Now if I was just brave enough to attempt Fair Isle. 🙂

  6. Sandi – I knit and felt purses (100’S) and I generally pick 3 colors for each purse – they are quite unusual color combinations, but always turn out beautiful. I get compliments on my choices all the time. I tell people that I lay skeins of yarn in front of me while I’m knitting at my desk – if they don’t fight, they go in a purse together. Love reading KNITTING DAILY!!!

  7. I love your column! <3
    I took color theory as part of my sculpture training, but it was still hard for me to use it in my sculptures for a long time. I didn't really start using color until the year after I graduated from college. Then I accumulated over 100 pounds of pint cans of paint in every imaginable highly similar shade of spring green, because the exact color of the new leaves in spring turned out to look completely NOT like that color when I put it on one of my sculptures. I would airbrush one on, go "blech!", wipe it off, clean out the airbrush, and start over with a new shade. When I finally found the "right" color of green, I compared it to the leaves, and the two were nothing alike. Color is so fascinating to me, and so weird.

    I remember two things we learned in color theory that might be useful in designing fair isle colorways.

    Thing 1
    Say you have two complementary colors, maybe orange and blue. If you want other colors that will pop with the blue, you can look at your color chart on either side of the orange -- so, red orange and yellow orange. Likewise, if you want other colors that will pop with the orange, you can look at your color chart on either side of the blue: blue green and blue violet. These other colors are called *split complements* because they are combinations of the complementary color and a color next to it on the color wheel. I think all six of these colors together make the hexad thing you mentioned, but that was always too much for me -- I always preferred just using three at a time. My favorite combo was blue and the two splits of orange.

    Thing 2
    If you have a combination you like but all the colors are of similar value, you can change the visual effect by mixing any or all of the colors with black (called tones) or white (called tints). Or, you can leave the colors unchanged but vary their saturation. Saturation is just how many particles of pigment are in the mix. Yarn that is being dyed gets progressively more saturated with dye the longer it is in the dye bath, until it reaches its maximum saturation (as much dye as the yarn can hold).


  8. As a quilter I play a lot with colour — which has always translated well into knitting. I also come from a South Asian background, and am surrounded by cloth in which colour is used is often quite different from the (mostly) conservative use of colour in western European cloth/knitting. I love working with strong contrasts in my knitting, but have also had great results using very subtle hue-changes within colour patterns to get great effects.
    The fun thing about Fair Isle knitting is that you can try different colour combinations out – and even the swatches tend to rivet people’s attention, so you can make your ‘discards’ into coffee mug slips, or Bodum (French Press for yummy coffee) cozies.

  9. Sandi–the next step can be easy. Take a couple of those similar-value reds and blues in one pile, and all that pink in another. Now pick a simple graphic with short floats and either use the pink as the ground, alternating the reds and blues every few rows for the design, or the other way round–alternating stripes of darkish reds and blues with a pink graphic. Ta-daa!! Nearly-genuine, genuinely charming Fair Isle (or maybe more of a Nordic), and you don’t have to buy a single skein of yellow. Though if you get serious about this, a tiny sprinkle of yellow will jazz up just about any color combination without making you look sallow. BTW, if you look at what the Scandinavian designers are doing, it’s a lot of 2-color stranded knitting with very closely related colors–pink and orange or two shades of green in similar values. And the pieces are just stunning.

  10. Sandi – I’m right there with you! My personal colour wheel is cool, medium to dark in value, and is entirely missing hues like yellow and orange. I almost always end up with a very narrow value range when I just choose colours without a lot of thought to it (which explains the thousands of yards of beautiful, vegetable dyed alpaca in my stash which was intended to be an Alice Starmore design but didn’t really work) but as long as you understand what you are working with, it’s very possible to create very beautiful knits. I’m looking forward to what you come up with!

  11. It’s not ‘color’ that I’m afraid of, it’s changing colors in the middle of the garment. I tend to avoid all Fair Isle type gaments and those that have color changes mid-stream. I change yarns at end of row to avoid problems. No matter how much I twist the yarns, I get a whole or a bunching at the place where I made the switch. I’ve tried carrying the yarn in the back and it never lies smooth or flat. I am a left handed (advanced beginner) knitter and knit ‘Continental’, could this be why?

  12. Thanks for admitting the fear – that’s the first step. When I did that, I was able to move forward and begin to try new things with colour.

    Hope you like Canada – I’ve lived in Toronto, the prairies and now the Wet Coast – it’s the most wonderful country in the world, IMOHO!


  13. What a great opportunity to buy new yarn and get away from the stressful ordeal of moving. Going to your neighborhood haunts allows you to spend less time shopping because you know where the yarn are that you are looking for to finish a proper Fair Isle. This also gives an oppurtinity to the shops to get used to not having you as a costumer and even if you do not personally say good bye to its employees personally, you get to silently spend a moment and get a little ‘perklemt’. Waiting to get to your new neighborhood in Canada gives you a proper excuse to familiriarze yourself with the new shops’ locations so that you will not get lost when you need yarn for a particular project. This also ensures the new purchase gets lost in the shuffle of moving!! Whichever option you choose — make sure they are yellow and red yarns.
    A bien tot mes amies!

  14. I think we ALL do this to some degree. All of my picks are deep autumn colors and mostly blue-based. My friend loves vibrant (borderline obnoxious) colors, but that is ALL she really buys. Her solid “base line” colors are oranges, reds and limes, all yellow based.
    Sure, venture out for the Faire Isle but know that by wearing your “normal picks”, you will probably always match!

  15. Sandi, I will probably have a similar colour wheel to you except my blank area is blue not yellow. I think I should try your experiment as the one thing I shy away from is fairisle and I really must have another go at it. This maybe step 1 in the process (I really DON’T think I need more yarn though having just looked into yet another stash black hole!)

  16. For those who are worried about how to carry yarns & add them mid-stream, call Schoolhouse Press & talk to them. Get a video of Elizabeth Zimmerman and/or Meg Swansen, her daughter. Drool! Learn! Experiment!
    My very first ever!!! sweater is going to be a Dale of Norway colour stranded Nagano sweater [’98 Olympics?]. Heck, if I can make a sock, I can make a sweater! So, Christmas gifts this year are all going to have colour stranding! Wooooo
    & Way to Go, Sandi! I’ve always wanted to live in Canada. My Mom & Dad lived there twice… early in their marriage &, much later, when Dad worked as a mining consultant in Newfoundland. Oh, how I’ve wanted to go. Newfie is sooooo gorgeous! & you can really *use* those handknits!

  17. This was very interesting. I’ve put the book high on my list to purchase, and I’ve enjoyed reading the comments just as much as the post. Thanks everyone!

  18. Sandi,
    My problem isn’t the designing side of colorwork. My problems come from the execution of colorwork. My gauge is horrible from the stranding and I have to fight (seemingly) with every stitch. For this reason I stick to cables and lace; never any troubles with these good friends. My knitting is supposed to be enjoyable.

  19. Fairisle isn’t that hard, the first sweater I ever made was a fairisle sweater knitted in the round. the hardest part was getting used to holding and twining the yarns. the sweater also had some sizing issues, because I changed the yarns from the pattern rec’s and knew nothing about swatching then!! In choosing color, choose your favorites and Then for dash jump across the color wheel and add small touches of accent in those opposite shades. I love yarns that come in LOTS of colors and Shades of colors. Color MATTERS to me. I will give up a type of yarn I love in preference to a brand that offers all the shades I want!

  20. Wonderful article on colour. I think we all get stuck in certain colour choices. I certainly did – until I purchased books on colour, and a color wheel. I now keep a color wheel on my bulletin board in my knitting area, and it is a great help.
    To help me further, I hang my scarves in my knitting area – these scarves are a collection of poly’s and silks, etc that I wore mostly in the 1980’s – but the colour combinations in those scarves are wonderful inspiration. Another tip is photos of spring, summer and fall foliage and flowers – nature does produce the best colurs!
    Oh, Sandi – moving to Canada – if you’ll be in the GTA, maybe we’ll be neighbours 🙂
    Best wishes for your big move (been there, done that),
    Betty BJ

  21. I went back to re-read this post after you put out your fair isle article. Is this your entire stash or just a good representation. If I laid out my stash like this, I think I may have to photograph it from space! Seriously, though, I have a large suitcase worth of yarn. So how did you do it?

  22. Sandy~
    I too have color phobias even though I only wear sweaters that I make and I always get comments like, “Are you serious did you really make that? Will you make me something?” I too am nervous when it comes to dressing for an occation or anything that requires color coordination (we are getting ready to paint our house ~ need i say stress!!) But I wanted to say you looked gorgeous in your picture. I was really proud of you because I know how much courage that takes. YOU GO GIRL! I love your writting and your make over. You are a gift to knit and crochet.