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This article is more about tricks to help incorporate color into your knitting than an article about color theory. The reason this isn't about color theory is twofold: it has been dealt with very ably by Suzyn Jackson over here, and most of all because the term "Color Theory" causes my brain to seize up. It's not at all unusual for me to read a book on color theory and then find myself unable to get dressed in the morning because nothing matches. (Regardless of what my husband says, I assure you, IT IS NOT FUNNY.) I have studied color theory for years, knit sweaters, and most of all worn outrageous color combinations, and in many ways it is still a mystery. Conversation with artists in other media has revealed that I am not alone; when asked about color, a painter friend of mine said "Beats me. I just play around with paint." So this is more about ways I deal with color, than any formal Theory.

There are various ways to put more color into your knitting, and the easiest and most obvious is to use a variegated yarn and let the dyer do the work for you. This can work well, particularly if you are not bothered by the randomness of it, and the tendency for colors to pool together or create odd streaks or other patterns. (Unless of course you're using the new patterned sock yarns, in which case it's not quite random, but still out of your control.) One of my own favorite methods of using variegated yarns is to use one with a solid color to do slip-stitch patterns or simple stranded color. If you try this method, do NOT get your solid color to exactly match any shade in the variegated; get it a little lighter or a little darker, or another color entirely. When they're the same shade, eventually you'll put the solid and variegated next to each other and the pattern you're knitting will disappear. In Fair Isle knitting they call this being 'cut', as in 'don't cut the pattern', when you use two colors that are too close together in hue or intensity and the pattern disappears. I call it Not Good.

Another easy way to do things is to use two groups of colors, each group related among themselves, but contrasting markedly from the other group. Think in terms of background and foreground, and then assign a color group to each; blues for the background, and reds for the foreground. Then you can throw in everything you can possibly find in one of those colors and know it's not going to be a complete disaster. I am currently gearing up to knit "Persian Poppies" by Kaffe Fassett. I am using greens as the background -- any greens -- and pink/yellow/orange for the flowers. This assures there will be enough contrast to tell the background and foreground apart, while letting me throw in a worrisome number of colors without feeling completely insane. (Okay. I still feel insane. But it's not the color choices worrying me.) If you take a good look at Fair Isle sweaters, you will find that a lot of them work on this principle; two groups of colors, or even one color and a contrasting group.

When picking your two groups of colors, or any other time you're using color, you can dig out (or download) a copy of the good old color wheel, and use it. There are various methods; you can use adjoining colors (red and orange) for a blended effect, you can use opposite colors (red and green) for an eye-catching and sometimes jarring effect, you can pick three colors in a triangle (red, yellow, blue) for something with enough contrast to be interesting but enough 'match' to look good. You can use it to find groups of colors, like I did with my pink/yellow/orange flowers. Or you can scribble a line over the darn thing and then use every color that the line touches. It's possible to get a little too pathological about it. (I know. I do it all the time.)

Another great way to get unusual color groupings that you can be sure of 'working' is to steal them. That's right, rip them off from someone who DOES know color theory -- or guesses at it better than you do. It doesn't have to be from knitting, either. I used the colors Van Gogh painted "Starry Night" with to knit myself a jacket. While my jacket lacks the brilliance of the original (darn

it), it does have some wild color combinations I never would have thought of, myself, and they work together.
(Oh, and that blue sky in the painting? It's not blue. It's purple. Slap a color card on a good print of the original and look for yourself. It's a fine example of how putting one color next to another can seriously screw with how your brain sees it. And the black tree-thing in the foreground isn't black. It's forest green. Try putting a color card on top of your favorite painting. You'll be shocked.) Other than paintings, the sky's the limit. The Fasset Poppies sweater I'm knitting was inspired by the flower beds at my grocery store. I have tried repeatedly to capture a Hawaiian sunset. (That project is likely going to take hand-dyed yarn.) Like your grandma's quilt, your in-law's dining room wallpaper, a favorite cartoon character? Good. Steal the colors. If you work it into a slick enough pattern, no one will ever guess where you stole the colors from.

Another anomaly in color that I've found over the years has to do with men and color. Between 12 and 20 percent of European-heritage men are red/green colorblind. Uh-huh. THIS MEANS THE OTHER EIGHTY PERCENT ARE NOT. You wouldn't know it to talk to most of them, though. I think there's something cultural going on (at least in middle-class, Midwestern, white-bread America) with men learning colors. My husband serves in the military and therefore has been tested for every form of color-blindness known to man, AND PASSED. He swears that there are only eight colors in the world; the ones that come in children's large-sized Crayola Crayon box. (Those colors are red, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, and black. Just so you know.) To test this, I tried a scientific experiment (okay, I got out my color cards and bugged him). The conversation went something like this:

ME: "What color is this?" (While holding up a color card.)

HIM: "Which one?"

ME: "In general."

HIM: "Purple." Pause. "What's the card say?"

ME: "Blue-Violet."

HIM: "Right. Purple."

And I was expecting him to say 'blue'.

The only thing I can conclude from this is, if you're knitting a sweater for someone like this (I suppose there are women out there who see color this way...statistically they have to exist, right?), either negotiate every detail with them, and let them pick out the color themselves, or raid their wardrobe, find out what color they wear the most of, and knit something with that. "Honey, would you like a blue sweater?" is going to end in disaster.

Please note: I realize there are men out there who can carry on conversations involving color. I love you.

Gift-giving is tricky in the extreme, and throwing color into the mix complicates it further. Pay attention to detail. Sometimes you get lucky. My mother-in-law and I were visiting a yarn store, she pulled a ball of yarn off a shelf and said "Oh, what a pretty color!" and I knit her next Christmas present with it. (Mind you, it was a flattering color. I wouldn't have done it if she were admiring neon green.) She was delighted. I got off easy.

Observing what colors someone wears can work; if they're an artiste and only wear black, your decision is made. Most people tend to stick to a family of colors (blues, greens, neutrals) and if you make something in that neighborhood, you're home free. Do NOT knit them something orange to 'liven up their wardrobe' and expect it to get worn. On the other hand, you can push the envelope; when knitting for someone who wears a lot of brown, try an extremely dark shade of burgundy red. It's close enough they may feel comfortable wearing it. (You have to know your victim, though. Are they willing to wear slightly different shades?)

The fallback is, of course, blue. It's the favorite color of a lot of people, matches nearly everything (if it's Navy or Indigo or something like that), and is worn by a vast majority of the planet, in the form of blue jeans at the very least. I have knit more blue gifts for people than you can imagine. Giving out knitted gifts to everyone but a cousin you haven't seen in fifteen years? Knit them a blue scarf. It'll be fine.

Are you one of those people who can never find the right color? You have a color card (of course you have yarn color cards) of a yarn that comes in sixty shades, and none of them are the right one? You get DMC embroidery floss to sew up a sweater and you're mad because the match isn't close enough, even though it comes in over four hundred colors? I wonder how many of us there are, and how many have inevitably begun dyeing their own yarns. (I'm just about there, myself.) I don't know what to tell you, but I do sympathize. Jamieson and Smith sells 155 colors, and Cascade 220 has 245 colors on display over on their web site. (I for one am trying to get a color card.)

I haven't said a lot about specific techniques in this article, because really, you can put color in anything you knit, even if you simply choose a different color than the one in the pattern photo. Stripes are easy, too. Don't let know-how bog you down. (Although, you really should try stranded color. It's easier than you think.) And don't let the idea of the colors not matching slow you down, either. Throw some color in there! You'll be amazed at how happy you are with the results.

RESOURCES: Here are places to go for further information about color. But don't think about it too hard; just knit.


"Color" by Sally Melville. Probably the most intelligent discussion on color that is specific to knitting.

"The Art of Fair Isle Knitting" by Ann Feitelson. She de-mystifies a lot of the really complicated-looking Fair Isle patterns.

"Color" by Betty Edwards. Color theory books are almost inevitably geared toward painters, and this one is too, but not as obnoxiously as most others.

WEB SITES: It's fun. The amount of stuff they make other than crayons is breathtaking. I recommend the twist-up mechanical colored pencils for design work. The Ishihara color-blindness tests. (The ones with the little dots.) See once and for all if your significant other is color blind, or just subscribes to the Crayon Theory of Color. An interesting site containing everything from basic color theory to medical research on how the brain perceives color.


Color wheel from

Starry Night from

Crayons from

All other photos by the author.




Julie still lives in South Carolina, where she knits a lot, chases her cat out of the yarn closet, and argues with her husband about what color his shirt is. She has recently discovered the joy of knitting children's clothes -- they're small, so they go fast.

When she's not knitting, reading, or changing a diaper, she writes about knitting, reading, and changing diapers at Samurai Knitter.