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For many years, possibly too many, I have read and read about color theory, and the use of color, and how painters and dyers and potters and weavers and designers and landscapers and everyone in the universe chose colors. Until recently, none of the information did me any good; how other people did things was all well and good, BUT WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THE INFORMATION? Hue, intensity, shade, tint, tone, value, saturation, chromaticity?? All I want to do is knit a two-color sweater that doesn't look like a train wreck, not paint the Mona Lisa. So I read, and muttered foul things under my breath, and experimented, and finally, after a chance comment in one of Sally Melville's books, an article on how the brain sees color, and (hopefully) my own intellect finally kicking in, I figured out a way to use color theory that was easy and worked. It doesn't even involve the color wheel, though a black and white copier or scanner may be your new best friend.

This technique isn't really cheating. It's a valid method of using what people through history have learned about color, and applying it to our knitting. But it's so easy, it feels like cheating, especially when the results work, time and time again.

It's all about value. Well, okay, it helps if your hues match too, but I like wearing pink and orange together so 'match' is a relative term. But my days of having colors blend when I don't want them to, and having them stand out like a sore thumb when I want it to blend, of having to knit gauge swatches over and over and over to find colors that worked, ah yes, those days are over.

First, though I hate to do it to everyone, we're going to have a quickie review of color theory terminology. I promise to make it as quick as possible, and in return I would appreciate it if you don't cry or send me hate e-mail. Take a look at the color card illustration. There are three factors at work there; at least, three factors we're interested in. (A note in my defense -- these terms were developed by painters, for painters, and I unfortunately have to use a little bit of painting terminology to explain them. Galling, but there it is.)

Hue: This is what we traditionally think of as the color, and what I mean in this article when I say color. In this case, blue. With dying or painting, all of the samples on that color card would be produced with the same pigment. Ergo, they're the same hue.

Intensity: Brightness. In the paint or dye case, how much pigment is actually there. Also called saturation, which dyers would probably understand better. The longer in the dye pot, the more saturated the hue, and the more intense the color. Like that.

Value: Our best friend. And the hardest to define. Think of it as the underlying gray scale, because that's exactly how we're going to use it. I often think of it in terms of pastels, brights, and darks; it's a little more complex than that, but for most knitting purposes, we don't have to get into the details. (To veer off into painterland again, artists used to paint their works in grays before doing it again in color, to understand what values they wanted, where. This is the underlying sneakiness that makes you focus on what the painter wants you to look at: the sky, the face of the saint, the piece of pottery in the still life that seems to glow.)

Those are our three terms. We'll be dealing almost entirely with value and occasionally hue, so if you wanna forget about intensity you probably can. There isn't a test later. I hear you in the back, muttering about more useless color terms. Not true. Check this out.

Take a gander at the black and white version of the blue color card [shown above right]. (I put it through the scanner on gray scale instead of color -- you can also shove yarn samples, color cards, and swatches into a black and white copy machine.) See the wide variety of grays produced by the same color? That's all you need to know. Want to knit a two-color blue sweater? Use a light blue, like 11-4, and a dark blue, like 11-24, and it's guaranteed to work out; the colors will be distinct from each other and you will have saved a boatload of time spent fooling around with swatching.

Okay. What if you want to do a blue and green sweater?

What are you gonna do now? Hmmm?

Put it all in the copier, that's what.

Pick a color off each card, one in a light value, and one in a dark value. Say, 11-10 from the blue card and 5-4 from the green card. Bingo. Off you go. It's not THAT exciting with two colors, but it gets more useful when you're using multiple colors, in which you're trying to blend within groups but have them stand out from each other, like in Fair Isle knitting. You want the background and the foreground to move beautifully through color graduations, but you want them to be distinct from each other. Back to your copier with your yarn samples!

For a blended background, how about orange, Peruvian pink, and cherry delight? (Medium gray.) For the contrasted foreground, Bit of Blue. (Very light gray.) And voila:

Unfortunately the broad, lighter orange stripe in the center is discontinued and not on the color card; however you can see in the color to gray scale comparison that it doesn't blend as well as the other three background colors. I did this sweater before I understood how value worked, and I'm shocked that it's as good as it is. Sometimes we get lucky.

And sometimes, we don't.

Now that you know what to look for, you know what the problem is; the colors in the swatch are too close in value. Not the worst combo ever, but not great, either. Often when you put saturated colors of the same value next to each other, you get 'flashing colors', when your eyes cannot focus on the edge between the two colors and your eyes get all squidgy. Sometimes that's a cool thing, if that's what you're going for (art and clothing in the 1960s exploited this effect). In the case of traditional knitwear like the swatch above was supposed to be, it's definitely not a good thing. But it gets worse. Check this out:

This was supposed to be a sweater for my dad. Hahahahaha. At least now I know what in heck went wrong.

Where this method really shines, though, is in copying the genius of others. Behold, a Bohus Stickning sweater.

Those folks knew color. See how each band has its own distinct background, with accents in something sure to show up? Check out the center band; there are several blended colors at work there, with spots of dark blue to catch the eye. Pure genius. And if you wanted to copy it, all you'd have to do is shove your yarn sample card in a copier and choose the proper value colors. If I were doing this in green, I'd use a very dark green for the bottom band, a slightly lighter green for the top band (I never would have caught that value shift without the gray scale picture), and a VERY light green for the body of the sweater. The center band? Two different colors of nearly identical value. You'd still have to work at the colors a bit, but with the gray scale to cheat, the idea of shifting colors possible; without the values, I wouldn't know where to start.

The reason this works has to do with how your eyes and brain see color. The human retina (essentially the 'receiver' at the back of the eyeball) has two types of light receptors: cones and rods. Cones see color, and differentiate the hues and intensities. Rods see gray scale. (The cones don't work in low light; that's why in the dark everything looks black and white.) The way we normally think of color involves only that -- color. The cones. But by paying attention to value, we play to the entire visual ability, cones and rods, and the brain can interpret what's going on twice as well. And YOU will be twice as happy with your color choices.

Thanks to modern technology, figuring out value is easier than it ever has been. Black and white copiers are nearly everywhere now, including yarn stores and private homes. Most yarn stores will copy your yarn combination for you, if you ask nicely. (They may look at you strangely, though.) Even shopping on line, it's fairly easy; just print out the page of yarn colors on your black and white printer. Instant values for the whole page of yarns. (No one's ever done a study that I know of, but I'll bet you that the values on your computer monitor are more accurate than the colors are.) Once you get in the groove and start paying attention, you can often guess values without having to find a copier, and will start using the information when you're yarn shopping. That is when you know you have arrived. Have all your friends call you Color Sensei and bow when they see you. Or better yet, give you yarn.


  • Color card scanning done by Steve the Wonder Husband. All other photos by the author.
  • Color cards are from the 3-in-1 color tool available from
  • Yarn sample cards from Brown Sheep.
  • "The Purl Stitch" by Sally Melville contains the comment that got my brain in gear; she suggests that if you don't like the color of a sweater shown in a pattern, to copy it in black and white and look at it that way. (In the comments on "Another Coco Jacket".)



Julie is the frazzled mother of a one-year-old daughter, who uses knitting as an alternative to tranquilizers.

Read about the ongoing battle of wits on her blog. (So far the baby is winning.)