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Color Combining for Novices

This week, a  member of the ColorJoy discussion group on Ravelry (Ravelry requires a free membership… no spam involved) talked about her previous avoidance of multicolored knitting. Her belief was that she had “no talent.”

Despite the impossibility of that statement being true for a knitter, I think she felt that color combining was something born inside us or not. She presented the subject as innate, not learnable.

She was interested in my Crystal Sock from Knitty.com. She joined in a conversation with others who are doing a knitalong with this design. I encouraged her with a shorter version of this post, and it helped her. Maybe it could help you, as well.

It’s Never too Late to Learn

Luckily for us, color combining is something that can indeed be learned. I’ve been practicing it since I was a child… this was my focus from a very early age. However, you can join me in the fun! Start easy and work outward.

Three Parts to Any Color

Colors have three different attributes. We learn two of them as we grow up (light green/ dark blue), but the third is not discussed much. That one often is the problem when something seems not quite right with a grouping of colors/yarns.

  1. Hue: blue, green, orange…
  2. Value: dark, medium, light
  3. Saturation (also called intensity or chroma): hot, intense, soft, dusky
    (essentially, does it have any gray/black added or is it pure)

Debbie Bliss and Martha Stewart favor colors with a little softness… with gray in them, in medium to light values. Kaffe Fassett seems to use  warmer tones, rich and often toned down a bit. Lucy Neatby? Kristin Nicholas? Intense color, and lots of it. We seem to be color sisters. (Note that what we wear is not always what we design.)

My Personal Biases… with Reasons Behind Them

Me? Saturated most of the time, the brighter the better. My purples may go dark… yellow-green or silver may be light, but usually I stay to medium values. Turquoise? I love it from warm/light aqua to dark teal. Gray or no gray, dark or light… this color seems to make me look good no matter what “flavor” it is.

My personal preference is for cool colors that are totally intense, no gray or brown added… mediums, not too dark or light. That’s MY thing. I look best in this sort of color. If you look best in soft color or warm tones, you’ll have a different take.

Since nearly everything in my closet is magenta/hot pink, purple, turquoise, hot yellow-green… all my colors look great together though I never buy “outfits.” I’ve got intense blue-toned colors and they all work.

Scheme 1: Monochromatic Combinations
– Variations on One Color

I have so much of turquoise/blue-green in my closet and jewelry box that sometimes I end up wearing many versions of it all at once. I’ve found that once you get to the 3rd version of a color all together, they no longer look like they “don’t match.” They then morph into what artists call a “monochromatic” (one color) color scheme. At left, you see me in one version of turquoise monochrome.

We all know someone who wears all beige (a warm neutral, as opposed to gray which is a cool neutral). Top to toe, neutral. They look pulled together, right?

Think of it, though. Those beige sweaters are not the same color as the beige purse, beige belt, jacket, shoes. Often they are in the ballpark but not “matching.” (Don’t let me go on the “matching clothing is a marketing tool” road right now… I’m talking practical color combining today.)

This simple method of combining “colors” is a monochromatic color scheme. It’s simple, and effective.

You can do this with your own best color. Look great in loden green? Indigo blue? Charcoal? Red? Purple? Go for it.

Likely your most-chosen color makes you look and feel great. If you can free yourself from worrying about “matching” exactly, you can combine 3 or more versions of that color on the same day (and look Marvelous, Darling).

If you are doing knitting colorwork, however… be cautious. You will want to go dark/ medium/ light versions of the same color to pull off enough contrast.

The above neckwarmer shows a light icy robin’s-egg blue with a darkish teal. Both colors are in my favorite blue-green range but with enough value contrast to really show off the stripes. These colors would work for finer patterning in stranded (“fairisle”) colorwork as well.

Scheme 2: Analogous Colors
-Color Neighbors

An easy way to start combining colors if you’re new to the idea, is to group colors touching one another on the color wheel. Try a Sedona desert look with red/orange/salmon, or spring pond with purple/blue/turquoise/green (as seen on right).

Grouping things like this is called “analogous” color. Humans tend to like this sort of assortment (think batiks in indigo plus purple and green).

Here’s a lap blanket knit by my Sis-in-Love Diana (as a gift for me) from my Kristi Comfort Shawl /lap blanket pattern. The colors are analogous pink/purple/blue (what we call pink is a light purple-red/magenta on the color wheel)… all saturated, light to dark and all in between:


Next is an analogous combination of periwinkle (medium-light, muted blue-purple) and a lighter, also-muted blue-green. In this case, the contrast worked for stripes but might not work for more subtle colorwork.

Scheme 3: Contrast

I learned contrast first using polymer clay. The details in some clay work are so tiny, that colors near one another in the wheel (or sometimes in value) can blend together. This lack of contrast makes a failed project, and you can’t unravel a mistake in polymer clay. (Photo below, Polymer Gifts class projects by Brenda, Lori, Gwen and me.)

I took a few classes from Nanette Roche, author of The New Clay. This was the first book available on Polymer clay, and it still stands tall as an overall reference rather than a how-to-make-a-project book.

Nanette talked a lot about contrast in class. She was the first person I knew who talked about warm/cool as a type of contrast. Before her, I thought of it only as dark/light.

Since then, I’ve found that I can play with colors which are closer together in value (both medium) if one is warm and one is cool. For example, medium blue contrasts very well with medium red. This gave me a lot more flexibility, many more options. I continue to be grateful for this lesson.

Here are two examples of warm/cool contrast in knitting colorwork. Note that on the right hat, the “warm” is actually a yellow-green which might look cool next to a different set of colors. That hat benefits from value difference (a light versus a medium-to-dark multicolored yarn).

Below is a muted dark blue-green with a saturated light yellow-green (analogous colors with value and saturation contrast):

Here I show a Dark and Medium-light muted greenish-blue and a light cool neutral (silver-gray). Also I show a dark purple (barely muted and looking cool next to the other colors), with Medium bright saturated red, and light saturated warm yellow:

What if it Looks Wrong?

Of course, theory won’t do it all for you. I tend to go to the yarn shop or into my stash, grab a bunch of yarns I think might work together, and plunk them all down on a table. Then I add and remove yarns from the pile until I get what I think will work. See?

These are all a little grayed, and I used them all blended in the one project shown below. I feel it worked well.

Usually if I have a grouping of yarns and one looks way off, it’s an intensity/saturation problem. All saturated except for one soft/muted color? The muted one will look dirty or gray.  All subtle and muted except for one crayon-like color? Even if they are all the same value, the non-muted color will feel wrong and possibly garish.

I also look to see if my colors are warm versus cool. If I’m choosing six colors and one of them is warm but the rest are not (or vice-versa), that one may look wrong.

Generally, it’s a saturation issue about 90% of the time when something goes wrong. We tend to think blue goes with blue or pink goes with pink, but not always!

I taught this lesson in person a few years back at a library branch. One knitter who attended also is a quilter. She recently thanked me, and said she’s not having problems choosing fabrics as she did before my class. I’m thrilled.

In Summary (?)

Remember, colors look different depending on which other colors they are near. It really requires a look, not just a theory, to find what works well.

Did this information help you? I sure hope so.

I’d love a conversation about this. If you have any questions, input, further ponderings… I’d love to hear from you in the comments. You can post as a guest if you don’t want to sign up for a Disqus username/password.

I appreciate you deeply. May this information benefit you in some way. Hugs for now…

6 Responses to “Color Combining for Novices”

  1. Sandi Amorim Says:

    I’ll take one of those little neck thingys in Reds please :) 

  2. ColorJoy Says:

     It’s on the needles right now, Sandi. Patience!

  3. Sandi Amorim Says:

    I’m impatient, I can’t help it! Where’s the official order form (cuz I’m not kidding!)???

  4. Irene Says:

    So… red really IS the new neutral?!  I so appreciate this lesson, Lynn.  Thank you! 

    X  O

  5. kathy b Says:

    love the way you explained and explored this topic. I am a aqua/purple/blues girl….yet everyone says  I look good in BLACK….
    I copy from nature when I can..she is much bolder and braver than I most times though

  6. » Blog Archive » From the KnittyBlog: Advice on Color from Ms. ColorJoy Says:

    […] Lynn encourages knitters to choose their own color combos for the socks, and inspired by a question on Ravelry from a nervous color-combiner, she wrote a wonderful blog post on this topic – “Color Combining for Novices“. […]

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