Choosing Yarn Colours

colour star - version of colour wheel

Colour is an essential component of an artist’s toolkit, including the knitter’s toolbox. People often believe that mixing colours is an innate skill or “gift”, but with practice, some basic colour theory, and inspiration from a variety of sources, you can develop a wonderful sense of colour. After all, colour theory is both a science and an art, and as in the design process, there are no absolute rules. Colours can be combined in an infinite number of ways, and with a few basic principles under your hat, you’ll be able to mix yarn colours into a scheme that is both pleasing to the eye and interesting. 

What is colour?

Our eyes perceive colour. When we see something, this information is sent from your eyes to the brain, and tells us it’s a certain colour or hue. Objects reflect or emit light in different combinations of wavelengths, resulting in different sensations in the eye to produce colour.

Unlike painters, who can mix colours together to create the desired effects, knitters choose yarn colours from what’s available in the marketplace. Knitters have a huge selection of coloured yarns to choose from, including multi-coloured yarns that produce different effects. Multi-coloured sock yarns can be dyed to create effects, such as self-striping without having to knit with a number of solid coloured yarns.  Designer collections incorporate the colour trends for a season to meet the expectations of retailers and customers. Yarn companies also design collections based on trends and compatibility with their other yarns. These new yarn collections often work together from the get go, making it easier to choose colour palettes. We all have favourite colours, but it’s fun to explore and experiment with colours to find new alternatives, and this can be achieved with some basic colour theory.

The Colour Wheel

I made the above Colour Star during my early design years. It’s a version of the classic Colour Wheel.  A colour wheel shows the relationship between colours. In elementary school, we learned that the primary colours, red, yellow and blue are the only colours needed to form all the other hues.  A hue is more specifically the full saturated colour or 100% pure. 

The arrangement of colours in the colour wheel may be presented in different ways, like my Colour Star, but the basics are always the same. The wheel is composed of 12 standard colours:

Primary Colours: Red, Yellow and Blue

Secondary Colours: Orange, Green, Purple are made by mixing the primaries together. Orange is made by mixing red and yellow.

Tertiary Colours: Red Violet, Red Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow Green, Blue Green, and Blue Violet are made by mixing the primaries and secondaries. The primaries red and yellow make secondary orange. Orange mixed with red forms tertiary red orange; orange mixed with yellow forms yellow orange.

My Colour Star goes further than the standard Colour Wheel, by showing the shades of each colour in the tips of the star, and tints shown moving towards the center of the star. Tints, shades and tones are variations of each saturated colour or hue on the wheel. Colour value describes this variation of lightness and darkness. A tint is made by adding white to the hue creating a lighter version of the hue. An example is pink, formed by mixing red and white together. A shade adds black to the hue to form a dark version of the original colour. An example is burgundy, in which red and black are mixed together. A tone is the addition of grey to a hue, and reduces the colour’s saturation.

The wheel can also be divided in half to separate the warm colours (reds, oranges, yellows) from the cool colours (blues, greens, purples).

Harmonious Colour Schemes

  • Colour Families – a family of colours consists of all the tints, shades, and tones of a single hue. Monochromatic colour groupings are colours from a single colour family. Just picking a number of reds for a design may not give the most pleasing result. You have to put some thought when choosing a family of colours; the right mix of tints, tones and shades will give the most pleasing effect.
  • Analogous Colours – are 3 colours that sit side-by-side on the colour wheel; blue, blue-green, and green. One colour usually dominates, one supports, and one accents. This scheme is pleasing to the eye.
  • Complementary Colours – sit opposite each other on the colour wheel, creating a sharp contrast; yellow and purple, red violet and yellow green. Complementary colours make designs pop, like the classic contrast of black and white mosaic knitting. 

    Mosaic Knit Jacket (Vogue Knitting, Winter 2014/15, Design #7)
  • Split Complementary – is another 3 colour scheme. Pick one colour; move straight across the colour wheel for its contrast. Then choose the 2 colours on either side of the contrast. An example is the main hue as blue, and its split complementary is pink and orange.
  • Triadic Colours – are 3 colours that are equally spaced around the wheel. They are typically bright and dynamic. A classic example is using the primaries – red, yellow and blue.

Choosing Yarn Colours

As when searching for design ideas, colour schemes can be chosen directly from the colour wheel, or searching colour combinations found in nature, art, and textiles. These offer a wealth of colour combinations. The image below is from Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, and her designs are often inspired from the landscape where she lives.

shell inspiration - Alice Starmore Book of Fair Isle Knitting
Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, 1988 Taunton Press

There are no absolute rules for combining colours, but what you want is a scheme that is pleasing and interesting, particularly when using three or more colours. When designing Fair Isle projects, it’s important to create the right balance of colour with complements and contrasts. Fair Isle knitting has a background and a foreground, so there has to be enough contrast so that the motif patterns remain distinct. Stripes and Intarsia, which uses coloured yarn to form abstract and pictorial works, typically don’t require as much thought as to the value of the colour. You could make a subtle stripe pattern without a high contrast.

Colour schemes don’t have to be complex to be effective. When learning to mix yarn colours, the easiest approach is to picture the yarn colours organized around the colour wheel.

Approach #1

The simplest colour combinations to work with are these three schemes, chosen directly from the colour wheel: analogous, complementary, and split complementary. An analogous scheme like red, orange, and yellow creates a subtle blend. Complementary colours such as yellow and purple, give a nice contrast for stripes. An example of a split complementary is blue, combined with pink and orange.

Approach #2

One of the principles of design theory is that odd numbers of things are more interesting and appealing to the eye. Choose an odd number of yarn colours to work with, 3, 5, 7, and so on. For stranded knitting you can begin by choosing one colour, then build your palette, coordinating it by adding colours from the wheel according to the desired harmony.

When working with three or more colours, changing the values of the first and second colours, or going lighter or darker gives the fabric interest. The proportion of colour is important in stranded knitting. Unbalanced, or more of one colour than another is more interesting.

Approach #3

For Fair Isle , collect yarns in a wide range of colours. You can work from images and other inspiration. Choose yarns according to the colour palette that defines the source of inspiration to create motif patterns. Experiment with combinations by knitting swatches, which is the only way to see how the colours work together. Kaffe Fassett, a master colourist is a process knitter, working and designing projects right off the needles, mixing coloured yarns from his stash and sources of inspiration that surround him in his work space.

The above information includes basic colour theory and some approaches to choosing yarn colours.  Understanding colour basics combined with some practice, and a little inspiration will help you select colours that coordinate and enhance your projects. Colour choice is more art than science, so have some fun!