How to get started knitting with colour

It’s a tale I’ve told many a time; long, long ago, when I was considerably more uptight and concerned with getting things “wrong” than I am now, I was terrified of just about everything.

In knitting terms, this equated mostly to being terrified of knitting with colour. And no, I don’t just mean that I was terrified of knitting colourwork – although I absolutely was. I mean that I was terrified of doing anything other than the exact thing that the pattern told me to do.

And yes, that does mean that I was one of those people who would only ever knit a pattern in the colour that it was shown in in the pattern photos. So I would, indeed, find a pattern that I thought looked lovely, and think “oh, but it’s such a shame that it’s knitted in that really bright red, because I’d much prefer it if it were in some shade of blue. Better find another pattern, I suppose.”

Did it ever occur to me to just buy some blue yarn and knit it with that?

No. No it did not. I thought the pattern had to be knitted in that exact colour, or the world would end. But here’s something that in retrospect is glaringly obvious;

You do not have to knit in the colour the designer tells you to.

Trust me, I’m a knitwear designer myself now. The world will not end if you knit my – or anyone else’s – design in a different colour. In fact, if you knit one of my designs in a different colour and then tag me in an instagram post about it, chances are I’ll get colour envy and decide that I want one in the colour you’ve just used. I bloomin’ love seeing other people make my patterns their own. It’s legit one of my favourite bits of knitwear design.

But, I digress.

I used to think that the designer would have made that colour choice for a reason, and they evidently knew better than me so I should just do what they tell me. And yes, there will have been a reason for the colour choice, but it’s not always because it’s the one that’ll make the pattern look best. Sometimes it’s to showcase a new yarn, or a new shade of an existing yarn. Sometimes it’s because that designer has a particular colour palette they tend to favour. Sometimes it’s because the colour and the motif match up beautifully. And sometimes it’s just because they’re working with a yarn company who really want to shift a load of a certain colour of yarn.

But whatever the reason is, it’s not good enough to stop you from knitting with the colour you want your project to be.

Speaking of making your project what you want…

You don’t even have to use the number of colours the pattern tells you to

I know, I know. This one gets a bit mind-blowing. But take it from me – a formerly scared knitter who would spend hours looking for the perfect striped pattern – that you’re very free to use as many – or as few – colours as you like.

Let’s run some examples, shall we? Say you’ve got a colourwork sweater that you absolutely love the look and fit of, and you wish you could have a plain sweater just like it.

Knit the sweater all in one colour. Boom. You’ve got a plain sweater that fits just like your colourwork one (so long as you’ve swatched first, kids – many knitters find their tension over colourwork is different from their tension using just one colour, so to make sure you do get the same fit you need to swatch it plain if you want to knit it plain).

My colourblocked Corinthian Cami by The Knit Purl Girl

And say you’ve got a beautiful plain sweater pattern, but you just wish it had a few colourful details, like a contrast coloured hem and cuffs. Do it. Just knit them in a different colour.

Or – and here’s where stuff starts to get really crazy – say you’ve got a lovely plain pattern for a hat, but you want it striped. Decide how many colours you want, decide how thick you want your stripes to be (I’m a fan of a 6-8 row stripe, personally), and just go for it. Yes, you will have a few more ends to weave in, but the process of changing colours is no different than the process of starting knitting with a new ball. Just start knitting with the new colour, and weave those ends later.

But what about yarn requirements?

I know, I know. I’ve been awfully cavalier up til this point, with all my “just knit it!” rhetoric. There is some prep you need to do, and working out how much you need of each colour is part of that.

If you’re knitting a 4 coloured stripe, and looking for a ballpark estimate of what you need, then you can just take the overall yarn requirement and divide it by 4. That’ll give you a vague idea of how much you’re after of each colour, but it’s not going to be perfect.

Human bodies – and the things that are made to fit them – aren’t completely straightforward, you see. If you’re knitting a circular-yoked sweater, for example, then you’ll find that you’ll need more of the colours that start towards the bottom of the yoke, where the stitch count is higher. If you’re planning to do your hem in one of your stripe colours, you’re going to need more of that.

There are a few factors that come into play, but you don’t need to work them out alone. Your friendly neighbourhood yarn shop – whether that’s in real life, or online – can help you figure things out. It’s what they do. And you can even contact the designer of your pattern to see if they’ve got any pointers to help you work out how much you’ll need.

But my base ground rule is this; if in doubt, get more. Nobody wants to be playing yarn chicken.

My beloved Camaro. That’s some good stripe.

And if you want to get a feel for how the shape of a garment can effect how much yarn you need for each stripe, I’l always recommend knitting a Camaro by Tanis Lavallee (Ravelry link).

A bit about choosing colour schemes for your knits

Now, this is where I find things get tricky. I love all the colours. I want to knit them all. Working out which ones to actually use is…sometimes tough.

I could go off on one about colour theory here, but there are two things that you essentially want to be thinking about. The first is the value of the yarns you’re looking at – which is just how light or dark they are – and the other is the hue, which is what actual shade they are. And I’m going to argue that the value is the more important one.

If you want big impact, you want to go for a big difference between the value of the yarns. Think bees, with their light yellow and their deep black. If you want to go more subtle, tone down that value difference. Lovely pastel shades all next to each other can give a very sophisticated look.

Photo by Alexander Grey on

As for the hue? Just think about what you like paired together in other things you wear, buy, and admire. Personally, I’m a total sucker for a green and pink. And a yellow and blue. Basically I’m all about those opposite sides of the colourwheel.

And if in doubt, just get someone else to decide for you. Loads of places do colour packs – I’m a big fan of Eden Cottage Yarn’s lovely curated packs – and any half decent yarn store will merrily help you pick out colours that’ll work brilliantly together.

A final word on playing with colour in your knitting.

To a certain extent, playing with colour is just that – it’s playing. You try things out, you see what works, you see what doesn’t. Sometimes you love the effects. Sometimes you hate them and frog. Sometimes you find an old half-finished jumper from years ago, and you combine it with the yarn from half-finished baby jumper that the baby has long since outgrown, and you end up with something wonderful and new and multicoloured.

After all, what can really go wrong? You accidentally knit something weird and ugly? Been there, done that, my friend. And we and the world are all still here. You will be too.

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