I have always been a bit of a nerd when it comes to colour. I could spend hours in a fabric shop just browsing, looking at all the different colour combinations. I also love to look at the colours around me, particularly in nature. I moved to Shetland just over 8 years ago, and although I had knitted before, it was when I took a local class in Fair Isle knitting that I really fell in love with knitting. My favourite part is choosing patterns and colours, and with the huge range of Shetland yarn available, the possibilities are endless. How I select my colours varies. Sometimes I may be inspired the colours I see around me. Sometimes an idea for a design may dictate the colours and other times it may be the yarn itself which inspires the design.
Whatever the season Shetland is always full of colour and taking time to notice the different colours often provides inspiration for a colour scheme, whether it’s the purple and white of clover against the green grass at the roadside in summer, the changing colour of the sea depending on the light and the weather, the wildflowers in spring, or the different shades of green, brown and red of the hillsides in winter. I found the inspiration for my Rocky Shores jumper on a walk by the shore, where I was struck by how wonderful the yellow and white lichen looked against the background of the dark grey and black rocks and immediately thought that that colour combination would work well with traditional Fair Isle patterns.
With the Rocky Shores jumper, it was a colour scheme which inspired the design. But in other cases, it is the idea for a design which comes first, and the colours are selected later. In this case the colours are selected to suit the mood or theme of the design. For example, bright colours on a light background for a cheery mood, gently shaded hues or shades and tints for a more subdued palette, or warm, earthy colours for a cosy mood. With my Enchanted Vest the colours were selected after I had formed the idea for the design and had sketched the patterns. The theme of the issue of KnitNow for which this design was created was fairy tales. My idea for the design was based on what would a fairy-tale princess wear if she was to wear something knitted, so I researched medieval textiles and embroidery for inspiration. I wanted a colour scheme which included rich warm colours to suggest luxury. I chose Berry Wine and Auld Gold from the Shetland Heritage range by Jamieson and Smith, which I paired with Flugga White and Moss Green.
Sometimes it is the yarn itself which is the source of inspiration. For example, I might find a ball of yarn in a particularly pleasing colour which I then build a colour scheme around. My Snowflakes for Adrienne hat and mitts set began as a swap on Ravelry. I wanted to knit a pair of fingerless mitts for someone whose favourite colour was blue. I had a ball of Petrol from Jamieson’s of Shetland, a lovely deep turquoise blue, which I really liked the colour of. For this design I kept to a simple colour palette, using the Petrol for the background and making use of the extensive Jamieson’s of Shetland range to create a shaded effect from a lighter turquoise to white for the pattern.
Once you have your inspiration for a colour scheme, the next challenge is to select the exact shades from the range available to you. With a large range of colours, such as in Shetland yarn, this can be quite overwhelming. Having a basic knowledge of colour theory can help and a good quilting book will usually have a section on colour theory and choosing colours. When it comes to selecting colours for Fair Isle designs, I think the important things to consider are hue and tonal value.
Hues are the colours which lie between the primary and secondary colours on the colour wheel. For example, a blue yarn may be pure blue, or may have a hint of green or purple, and a yellow yarn may be a pure yellow, or have a hint of green or orange. In Fair Isle knitting the colours are often shaded from light to dark or dark to light. Choosing lighter and darker shades of a similar hue is best for creating a gently shaded effect. A shaded effect can also be created by choosing colours which gradually move from hue to hue, for example starting with a red and moving towards purple. On the other hand, using a complementary colour can be a good way to liven up a colour palette. Complementary colours are colours which are opposite each other on a colour wheel, for example, green and red, yellow and purple, blue and orange. In Fair Isle designs, using a pop of complementary colour, perhaps on a single row at the centre of a motif, can really brighten up a design.
It is also important to think about the tonal value of your colour choices. The tonal value of a colour is basically how light or dark the colour is. Whilst this is easy to see in shades of the same colour, it gets more difficult when assessing the tonal value of different colours. The easiest way to do this is to sort your yarn into background and pattern colours and lay them next to each other in the order in which you plan to use them, and then take a black and white photograph. Colours of similar tonal value will look very similar in black and white. For a pattern to stand out from the background there needs to be a sufficient difference in the tonal value between the background and pattern colours. How sufficient this needs to be depends upon the pattern. If the pattern features larger blocks of colour, the tonal values of the yarns can be closer than they need to be if the pattern is more intricate.
My advice for anyone wanting to experiment with colour in their knitting would be to pay attention to colours around them and take photographs of colour combinations they find pleasing, pay attention to the makeup of colours (their hue) and swatch a lot. If your chosen colours don’t seem to work with a pattern try changing them around, a different order of placement may work out well.
Thank you to Claire for this article. You can find Claire on Instagram as @claireneicho and her designs on Ravelry at ravelry.com/designers/claire-neicho.