This post is part of the Fall Shawl Together, a collaborative project featuring great shawl-related content from designers, bloggers, and podcasters. We're featuring a new post each week, now - December. You can check out all the posts on the Fall Shawl Together page, and show us what you're working on by tagging your shawl projects! #shawltogether
Shawls are my favorite thing to knit because they provide a unique showcase for color. However, picking colors can be intimidating, and color theory is a massive and complex topic.
In this tutorial, I’m going to share some simple tools and exercises to simplify the process of color selection, and help you end up with a very wearable shawl.
Step 1: Pick your foundation color
Almost all knitters are color-sensitive people. When you knit, you spend hours staring at a color, and this can impact your mood - hence the advice from Denny (via the Yarn Harlot) to not knit too much grey in the winter because it’s hard on the soul.
Right now, there is at least one color that makes you really happy. Take a minute and identify this color. Whether it’s driven by a fleeting mood or a life-long passion, whether it looks good on you or not, just take a minute to figure out what it is. For this exercise, this is your foundation color.
Step 2: Decide how many colors you’ll use together.
If you’re working from a pattern, you’ll have at least one main color, and anywhere from one to dozens of contrast colors.
If you’re designing your own pattern or modifying a pattern, you’re blissfully on your own.
Step 3: Make a Color Palette
Named for the flat surface on which painters mix their pigments, a color palette can be digital or physical.
Your palette can be as simple as a piece of paper with blobs of crayon or colored pencil, subtle as watercolors precisely blended to your desired shades, or as precise as tiny balls of yarn stapled to a piece of cardboard. If you want to make a digital palette, ColourLovers is fantastic and free.
All you need to make your color palette is a space for your foundation color, plus spaces for each of the additional colors you want to work with.
Exercise: Make at least three impromptu palettes, intuitively picking colors that go with your foundation color. If you’re having trouble, try searching for the name of your foundation color or search for “color wheel” on Pinterest.
Step 4: Make it Wearable
I love the process of knitting, but I also like to get a solid return on my investment of time - and that means being able to wear the heck out my finished object.
For shawls in particular (since you’re highly unlikely to wear them without other clothes), you’ll want to identify which items in your closet you plan to wear them with. If you add colors to your shawl design that go best with the garments you wear most, you’ll have a much easier time coordinating your shawl with your garments, and you’re more likely to wear it frequently.
The majority of the time, I wear shawls with a winter coat or with a sweater. With the exception of a very funky vintage mustard yellow coat, all my sweaters and coats are neutrals. The neutral color I wear most is grey, and you’ll notice I use grey a lot in my shawls designs.
Exercise 1: Look at the clothes you wear most and make a list of the colors that appear most often. These are your go-to colors.
Exercise 2. Take note of the neutral color you wear most (e.g. black, dark grey, light grey, white, tan, brown, or navy). This is your key neutral.
If you’ve having trouble finding your key neutral, take a look at your shoes. The shoes we wear most are usually neutral colors.
Step 5: Color Strategies
If you’re planning a two-color project, start with combining your foundation color with your key neutral. The beauty of neutral colors is that they look good on nearly everyone, and they’ll let your foundation color shine.
If you’re planning a three-color project, start with your foundation color + your key neutral + one of your go-to colors.
If you don’t like your results or you’re planning a project with more than three colors, your next step is to identify the hue closest to your foundation color.
Hues are like twelve giant signposts in an infinite wilderness of color variation. They’re the most basic answer to the question “what color is it?”. The twelve hues are: Red, Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow, Yellow-Green, Green, Blue-Green, Blue, Blue-Violet, Violet, and Red-Violet.
It's also important to identify how your foundation color differs from its parent hue (if at all). Hues only contain pure color, no white, black, grey, or brown mixed in. Your foundation color may be a pure hue (like primary red), or it could be a tint (red + white), a shade (red + black), or a tone (red + grey).
With this information, you can now use a color wheel to see the relationships between your foundation color and all the other colors. There are a number of relationships on the wheel that are traditional considered harmonious. Because everyone perceives color differently, it’s important to remember that there are no right or wrong colors - only the colors that look right to you.
Combinations I especially love are analogous colors (e.g. blue-violet, violet, and red violet), gradients of a single color from pastel to super saturated, and combining a hue with its tint, shade, and tone.
Wishing you happy color selection, and happy knitting!
Cate Carter-Evans is the Proprietress of Infinite Twist, a hand-spun and hand-dyed yarn company based in Shanghai, China. Cate blogs about knitting and life in China, designs knitting kits, and sends out a free knitting pattern every month via the Infinite Twist newsletter. You can find Cate on Instagram, Twitter, and Ravelry as infinitetwist.