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Applying Colour to Stranded Knitting Motifs

October 30, 2018

The joy of stranded colourwork knitting is in the myriad of possibilities, and the depth and richness of its many possible expressions. You can start with a single motif, but once you decide to apply colour to it, the possibilities fracture into endless variations, it’s as if you are looking at the world through a kaleidoscope.

One Pattern, near ENDLESS possibilities

The endless possibilities are both the joy of colourwork, and it’s barrier to entry! There are many decisions, much knowledge and experience to gain before a knitter attains a deftness in applying colour to a pattern. But to me, this learning process, with so much experimentation, holds a wealth of satisfaction.

We aim to teach you useful strategies, to ease you into the process with some satisfying results early on, and also set a load of options in front of you in a simple step-by-step way. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the various different ways that a single pattern might be coloured up.

I’ve used this 6-stitch and 7-round motif throughout this post, to illustrate how changing the colour palette can yield so many different results.

I worked my swatches in Jamieson & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight, a fabulous Shetland yarn perfect for colourwork, with an extensive and nuanced palette.

Keep it Simple : Monochromatic or 2 colours

We talked extensively about using monochrome and 2-colour palettes in this post, which you may also find helpful.

A dark FG colour against a light BG colour.

How does this look on our chosen sample pattern? It’s easy to see; we can either choose a dark FG (foreground) on a light BG (background), or choose a light FG on a dark BG. The different colours chosen, and their relationship to each other, give different effects. There is a range from subtle to strong contrast, and colour combinations that look soothing together, or combinations that scream with vivid and harsh contrast. But in each case the motif reads clearly.

A light FG colour against a dark BG colour.

When speaking of the examples, I will use the terms ‘foreground’ (or FG) and ‘background’ (or BG), as I feel they are more descriptive than MC and CC given the many colour changes that may happen. I typically consider the foreground colour to be that which forms the pattern which reads against the background fabric. It is also typically the yarn which I will hold in the dominant position, forming slightly larger stitches.

The Cartography Hat looks great in a monochrome or two-colour pair.

Add Some Complexity: Use an Ombre

The second strategy, to add further complexity, is to use an ombre. We wrote more extensively about this here, but lets see how it might work on our sample motif.

This example shows an ombre of yellows (from light to deep) in the FG worked against a single dark, neutral BG colour.

The first example uses the ombre in the foreground position, forming the motif. The second example uses the ombre in the background position, against which the motif, in a single colour, pops.

This example shows a single FG colour worked against an ombre of reddy/pinks in the BG.

With the second example you can see how working shifting colours in the background can emphasize horizontal banding.

The Mountain Mist hat uses an ombre to great effect.

Add a Third Hue or a Highlight

When you take the step to add in a third hue, things get a little more interesting!

This swatch uses a lighter version of the same hue (blue). This is a very easy way to develop a 3-colour palette.
This swatch uses two distinct hues, teal and red, in the FG against a single BG colour. Because they both have good contrast against the BG colour, the pattern reads clearly.

The placement of the two hues or values within the pattern itself can create vastly different effects. The same pattern, shown below, is worked in the same colours, with their placement reversed. Which do you prefer?

All of the examples above swapped out the FG colour, but the BG colour can be swapped out to great effect too.

Swapping out a neutral BG colour for a more vivid, but still light BG colour makes this pattern sparkle.

The Cartography sweater is a great pattern to play with this kind of palette. Alexa used a single red for the narrower motifs, and two tones of teal to work the FG of the deeper motifs, against a consistent white BG colour.

Cartography is knit in Brooklyn Tweed Arbor.

Or you can work alternating foreground colours, if you’re making a garment or accessory with all-over colourwork.

Another way to add a third colour into a project is to work whole motifs using a different FG colour. In this version of the Cartography sweater, Alexa knit the deeper bands in light teal, and the narrower bands in golden yellow.

Fair Isle Style Blending

The fourth and most complex strategy for colouring motifs is developing Fair Isle style blends. This style of stranded colourwork knitting was developed and popularized in the Shetland Islands, but has spread far and wide and inspired many knitters and designers.

The basis of this method is the idea the foreground and the background colours may be swapped out over the course of a single motif band, although as a general rule no more than two colours are used per round.

Let’s look at a few ways we could colour up our chosen motif using this method.

I picked three palettes; each one with three different ‘light’ yarns and three different ‘dark’ yarns. It’s easy to convert a photo to black & white on your phone camera, to quickly assess whether a colour might fit the ‘dark’ or ‘light’ category of a palette. You can watch how I picked these palettes in this video.

The critical thing when choosing fair-isle palettes is the VALUE (relative darkness or lightness) of the yarns chosen. The HUE (the colour) is often quite a bit less important. Further explanation of colour terminology for knitters can be found here. This concept is a difficult thing to accept, and I find it counter-intuitive to use different hues within the same blend, but doing so really amps up the interest in the resulting pattern.

This Fleet hat is a good example of how the value of the yarns in FG and BG positions in a blend is more critical than the hue; the brick red is a very different colour than the navy blue, but as it’s a similar value (dark rather than light) the pattern reads clearly, and the palette is richer for its addition.

I worked our favourite motif in each of the 3 palettes I chose, trying light-on-dark and dark-on-light options.

With this brown, blue & gold palette I really like both of the final effects. The striking cobalt blue really adds to the vibrancy of the final pattern.

With this purple, brown and pink palette I prefer the light-on-dark option; perhaps the dark palette doesn’t have enough difference, one yarn to the next, to provide as much interest when it is placed in the foreground.

With this fuchsia and teal palette I really love the dark-on-light option. I chose the pink as the MC, one of the darker, more saturated colours, against which the jewel tones used in the FG really sing.

Get Knitting! Practice is the Only Way to Become Fluent In Colour

Here at Tin Can Knits, we focus on creating crystal-clear patterns and useful tutorials, in part to convince you that whatever the technique you’d like to learn, it is within your reach! This is our genuine belief.

That said, neither Alexa nor I find creating colourwork palettes EASY. The only way to gain proficiency is to practice, but we all love colour and knitting, so the practice is generally a pleasure. With this in mind put together this in-depth tutorial about swatching for colourwork, AND designed Anthology, a great free pattern that will allow you to trial motifs and colour combinations while making beautiful accessories!

Time to rip and swatch more extensively….

Or you can take it easy; just cast on one of the hat designs from our colourwork collection Strange Brew, and mix up the colour usage! Mountain Mist is designed specifically for an ombre, but the Cartography hat, Compass Cowl, and Fleet Hat could be adapted for any of the colour strategies covered in this post.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2018 3:41 am

    Wow! It’s all gorgeous. Love the cartography hat!

  2. November 1, 2018 9:00 am

    I’m attempting this right now! Ive finished knitting a folded (and knitted together) brim. Now, I’m trying to see if I can do a tessellated Escher pattern. 😓

    • November 2, 2018 3:58 am

      Yay! Excited to see how it turns out… you’re thinking big, I love it!

  3. Jess permalink
    October 31, 2018 11:12 am

    Wonderful post! Great resource. Is the video meant to have audio? Maybe it is just my computer system, but I don’t get any sound.

  4. Cameron permalink
    October 31, 2018 10:47 am

    The breadth of these posts is astounding. All those samples… Thank you!

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