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).

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.

So you want to use a different yarn weight

Of all the things that have the potential to baffle a person about knitting, yarn weight has to be right up there. So many yarns, so many categories, so little cohesion.

Yes, there’s a generally agreed framework that people use when talking about yarn weight (which, if we’re honest, is really yarn width, since it’s really about how thick a yarn is. Girth matters, people). A 4ply is thinner than a sport is thinner than a DK, and so on.

But the reality is that these boundaries are all a little…well, blurry. Chances are, if you spend long enough around yarn (and you really should spend as much time as humanly possible around yarn) then you’ll come to realise that some 4plys look like some DKs, and some DKs look like some Arans, and some sport weights….well, sport weights are a whole thing of their own.

You see, even though there’re broadly-accepted guidelines based on how many metres per 100g equal which weight, the reality is that not all DKs are created equal. Or even the same width.

Doesn’t this make choosing the right weight yarn even more confusing?

Well, yes. But also – and I’m going to argue quite hard for this one – no. Because in some ways, what weight the yarn claims to be is pretty irrelevant. What matters is what gauge you get when you knit with it.

Hear me out on this one, because it’s going to open up a whole new world of lovely knitting for you. I promise.

Yarn weight is irrelevant? Oh God. Oh, you’re killing me.

I know, I know. Telling you to ignore yarn weight is a bit of a rogue move. And you can’t just chuck it out the window entirely; a laceweight yarn and a super chunky are never really going to be all that interchangeable.

But in and around those yarn-y boundaries you’ve got a lot of leeway, which means you also have a lot of options. And you can make your knitting just how you want it.

Take my Colin, You Flutter Me tee pattern. In it, I say that you need 4ply to DK-weight yarn that meets gauge. And that’s the crucial thing – that it meets gauge.

The pattern – and I – don’t care whether your yarn claims it’s a 4ply, a sport weight, or a DK. All we care about is that you can get 20sts to 10cm with it. And that gives you a lovely bit of scope to muck around with different yarns and get the material of your dreams.

Let’s look at this picking-yarn-by-gauge thing in a bit more detail

I’m going to plonk two photos here to help illustrate my point; on the left we have the Colin, You Flutter Me that I knitted in a yarn that purports to be a 4ply. Next to it, is one knitted in a yarn that claims to be a DK.

Same pattern, knitted in the same size, in two different yarn weights. Both fit in the same way.

What yarn-y magic is this?

Well, it’s no magic at all. Because both of those yarns hit the magic 20st per 10cm gauge that I needed for the pattern, and so both knitted up to the same size.

The difference is in the material itself; 20st per 10cm is a fairly loose gauge for a 4ply yarn, whereas it’s pretty standard for a DK. So the Colin that’s knitted in the 4ply has produced a lighter, airier material than the one that’s in the DK.

Both have the same number of stitches in the same area, but those DK stitches have a little more heft to them than their 4ply counterparts.

So you can get different types of fabric at the same gauge?

Yes. Yes you can. Broadly speaking, the thinner your yarn, the more open your stitches are going to be – and the lighter your fabric. You’ll have less yarn filling up the spaces between – and within – your stitches, meaning you can play around with getting floaty, semi-sheer fabrics.

Using a thicker yarn – or heavier yarn weight if you’re going to go with that lingo – means you’ll have more yarn and less air within those same stitches.

You ready for a shonky illustration? Well, you’re getting one.

See how those there very badly drawn stitches are roughly the same size, but look very, very different? That’s because one of them is drawn to represent a much thinner yarn than the other.

But what does that mean for needle size?

As ever, you’re going for whatever needle size you need to to hit the gauge you’re after. In practice, this means that you’ll often need to go for a larger needle when using a thinner yarn, and a smaller needle when using a thicker one.

Let’s go back to that 20st per 10cm gauge for Colin, You Flutter Me. The needle size my testers used to get that gauge varied wildly based on which yarn they’d picked. One of my testers, who was using a 4ply yarn, went all the way up to a 5.5mm needle. Another, who was using a DK, ended up on a 3.5mm.

And why is that? Simply put (I hope), your stitch size is a combination of two things; the thickness of your yarn, and the thickness of your needle. If you’re using a thin yarn, you’re going to need a thicker needle to boost it up to that stitch size. And if you’re using a thicker yarn, you’ll need a thinner needle.

Think about my terrible drawing again. That bit in the middle of each stitch is the gap the needle will have been in, so of course the thinner yarn needs a bigger needle while the thicker needs a smaller.

So you’re telling me I don’t have to knit with the yarn weight the pattern suggest?

Yes. Yes I am. You just need to get the gauge.

Gamechanger, hey?

Get to know your summer yarns

I know, I know. When most people think about knitting they think of cosy autumnal and wintery scenes, possibly sat in front of a fire, definitely with a big pile of cosy snuggly wool. It’s a craft that screams “cold weather” at you.

But knitting isn’t just for winter, I promise you. In fact, summer knitting is some of my favourite knitting, thanks to some lovely yarns and some equally lovely patterns.

The only thing to be aware of is this; yarns that work well for summer knitting often behave a bit differently to your classic wool yarns. You see, they’re often made of plant fibres, which kind of do their own thing. They don’t have the elasticity of wool, and so feel different to knit with, and can grow a bit with washing and wear.

But panic not; all it means is that you really should swatch, and wash and block your swatch, before you crack on with a summer knit. Because otherwise you might find that that stylishly oversized top is just…really, really big.

The pros and cons of cotton yarns

Let’s kick off with an obvious one, shall we? Cotton yarns are all over the shop, and come in all sorts of yarn weights.

If we’re getting into sweeping generalisations – and let’s do that – then there are two basic forms of cotton yarn – mercerised (like Anchor Creativa Cotton), and not mercerised. Mercerisation is a process which creates a shiny, slightly stronger, slightly more stable cotton yarn. But in getting all that shine and strength, you’re losing a bit of softness. Not necessarily the end of the world if you’re knitting a loose summer tank top, but try and give a baby a mercerised cotton blanket and they’ll probably get a bit annoyed with you.

Standard – as in, not mercerised – cotton lacks that shiny strength, but is still an excellent fibre choice for summer knits. As everyone who’s ever worn clothes knows, cotton is lovely and lightweight, and works extremely well for warm weather clothes. You could definitely do a lot worse than knitting a classic summer tee like Jessie Maed’s So Summer Shirt in a cotton yarn.

But two words of warning; cotton can stretch out of shape (just think about the arse of your jeans after a few wears), and its production can be very, very water intensive. There’s an increasing number of organic, GOTS-certified cotton yarns out there though, which is excellent news for those who care about sustainability in their knitting (which should be all of us).

I’ve had my eye on some Krea Deluxe organic cotton for a while now, and am just waiting for the perfect pattern to use it on.

Knitting with linen yarn

Man, I love me a linen yarn. It’s a sneaky little bugger, linen; when you start out knitting with it it feels a bit stringy, and can make your stitches look a bit uneven, and it can seem…not great.

But then! Then you wash and block it and oh my, does knitting that project in that linen yarn suddenly seem like a magnificent idea.

Linen softens with washing you see, and knitted linen has one major advantage over its woven counterpart in that it doesn’t crease like tissue paper the moment you breathe too strongly on it. It also has fantastic stitch definition, which means that lightweight lace tops look amazing when knitted in linen.

Take my Day Off Badge tee. I knitted two samples last year, one in pure linen (Lithuanian Linen from Midwinter yarns to be precise) and one in a cotton and linen blend (Mojave from Kelbourne Woollens). They’re both absolutely brilliant warm weather yarns, and I’d recommend them for just about any summer knitting you might fancy.

Lithuanian Linen Day Off Badge tee
Day Off Badge tee in Kelbourne Woollens Mojave

Lithuanian linen is a light 4ply/heavy laceweight, and Mojave is a sportweight/DK, but thanks to the wiggleability of knitting they both worked for the same project. You’ve just got to swatch to make sure you get gauge, and then you can knit away.

Another excellent linen blend that I’ve recently enjoyed is DMC Natura Linen, which comes in some lovely ice cream-y, pastel-y shades. It’s got a rather fun thick/thin slubby thing going on, which naturally adds a bit of texture to your knitting as you work, so it’s a great choice for a relatively plain pattern.

Bamboo – not just for pandas, but also for yarn

Bamboo is one of nature’s magic fibres. It’s super breathable, anti-bacterial (or so google tells me), lovely and soft, and really good on heat regulation. And it’s – to make a sweeping generalisation – often a more sustainable option that cotton, because bamboo grows like hell without very much help at all. Just ask my old garden, which got overrun by the stuff. Should’ve harvested it and turned it into yarn. Missed a trick there.

The downside to bamboo? Oooh, does it grow with blocking. It grows so very, very much. But so long as you got into your project aware of this – and wash and block your swatch – you can totally work with that, and end up with a very lovely summer knit. You might find yourself having to go down in your needle size, and there are likely to be some small panics along the way that your WIP is looking a bit on the small side, but after that blocking all will be well.

I used King Cole Bamboo Cotton for this Colin, You Flutter Me tee and it is LUSH.

There are loads of commercial bamboo yarns out there at some really reasonable prices – like King Cole Bamboo Cotton, which I’ve used for my upcoming Colin, You Flutter Me tee pattern.

Oh, and a heads up – some folks decide to refer to bamboo-derived fibres as Viscose, so, y’know. Keep an eye out.

And how about that tencel yarn I keep seeing?

When I first think of tencel, I think of a dress I had in the mid-90s that looked like denim but was in fact crazily soft tencel. I loved that dress. It was my favourite thing, but alas, I grew and by about 1997 it no longer fitted. Shame, because it would be right back in style these days. 10yr old me was a fashion icon, I’m telling you.

Anyway. I digress. Let’s talk about tencel yarn, shall we?

Tencel is another sustainability golden child, as it comes from wood pulp. It’s got a lot of the same properties as bamboo, and it has a lovely shine and drape to it. It’s having a bit of a moment right now; West Yorkshire Spinners released a new yarn this spring with a decent chunk of tencel in, and I’ve been meaning to knit myself a warm weather Summerdown top ever since they did. I’ll get round to it one day.

Summerdown, which would definitely look superb in a Tencel yarn

How about silk yarn? Is that still an ethical no-no?

If you’re anywhere near knitting instagram in the summer months, you’re going to find yourself seeing a LOT of Knitting For Olive Pure Silk. And I do mean a LOT; it’s very much the poster child for insta-friendly summer knitting.

Now, I’ll admit that I’ve not used a pure silk yarn for a while, but I do have a soft spot for a merino/silk mix, which does an excellent job for warm-but-not-boiling-weather knitwear. Two of my favourites are The Wool Kitchen merino silk, and The Woolly Tangle merino silk – because if you’re going for silk, then you may as well go all out on the luxury, right?

So, from using 50% silk yarns I can tell you that the drape and the sheen you get are, as you’d expect, off the charts. Silk has traditionally had a rep as not great on the cruelty front, but there’s a new breed of ethical, cruelty-free silk yarns like the insta-fave Knitting for Olive.

Mixed fibre summer yarns

I’ve already mentioned a few mixed fibre yarns here, but it would be remiss of me not to give them their whole little section. For sometimes mixing up your plant fibres – either with each other, or with a bit of wool – can give you a very lovely yarn indeed.

Definitely worth a mention is CaMaRose Organic Summer Wool, which has 70% wool and 30% cotton. I used it for the kids’ Only Magical Girl in Town cardigan, and it’s a brilliant summer layer; keeps the chill out, without causing overheating.

Only Magical Girl in Town – a summer staple

Also great in the wool/cotton yarn are is BC Garn Bio Balance, another GOTS-certified blend of 55% wool and 45% cotton. I knitted Hoopee from last summer’s PomPom magazine in it, and it’s a cracker of a yarn.

So, despite the entire premise of this blog post, you don’t need to steer entirely clear of wool in the summer at all.

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Big Jimmy Jab knitalong week 1 – German short rows

One of the things I really love about the Big Jimmy Jab jumper is how sneakily simple it is.

I say “sneakily”, because it looks like it’s going to be a bit of a fancy knit, what with that colourwork yoke and all. I’ll talk soon about how the colourwork is actually infinitely easier than it looks, but today, in the very first week of the knitalong, I’m going to talk about German short rows.

I’ve talked about German short rows before, see because I absolutely love them. I use them all the bloomin’ time, for all sorts of things. But in the Big Jimmy Jab, they’ve got a very simple purpose. And they appear early on in the knitting, which is why I’m talking about them now.

Short rows sound scary. What are they?

What short rows are is, in fact, not at all scary. The simplest way to explain them is this:

Short rows are where you only knit part of a row, before turning your work and knitting back the other way.

Not scary, see? You have to do a little bit of jiggery-pokery after you turn your work, but it’s the easiest jiggery-pokery you’ll ever do.

The point of that jiggery-pokery? It stops a hole forming when you go back to knitting across the full width of your work.

How do you work a German short row?

Handily, I’ve already done a little video tutorial on YouTube showing exactly how to work German short rows. So, when you get to that point in the Big Jimmy Jab pattern, watch it and you’ll know exactly what to do.

Plus the video features our dear old cat Matilda. So if I can’t entice you with that then…well. I’m not sure we can be friends.

What do the German short rows do in the Big Jimmy Jab?

They serve a very simple purpose – and one that you’ll find in a lot of sweater designs. Working these short rows at the back of the neckline raises that back neckline a bit.

Take a look at the start of my Big Jimmy Jab in the photo above. See how the circle of knitting is a bit thicker at the top than the bottom? That’s because of the short rows. They’ve added a lovely little wedge of extra fabric at the back of the neck.

And that wedge of fabric may seem unimportant, but it makes a big difference to the fit of your jumper. It has the effect of of creating a bit of a slope to the neckline, so it’s not coming up too high at the front and getting a bit uncomfortable on the neck.

And it makes it easier to work out which is the front and which is the back. Which is always helpful.

Want to join in with the Big Jimmy Jab knitalong?

It’s really easy to come join the fun. All you need to do is post a photo of your project with on Instagram with the hashtag #bigjimmyjabKAL

Everyone who uses the tag will get entered into a draw to win free patterns, with a big prize of a £35 voucher to use at lovely yarn shop No Frills Knitting.

The knitalong is running til the end of May, so you’ve got plenty of time to join in.

Picking a size for the Big Jimmy Jab jumper

The Big Jimmy Jab knitalong is kicking off in just over a week, so I thought I’d share some handy tips on how to pick a size. For the Big Jimmy Jab is not, you see, like other circular yoked jumpers. (I’m trying and failing to resist the urge to say “it’s a cool jumper” here, because many, many jumpers are cool. But MEAN GIRLS REFERENCE. Got to be done.)

You see, I’ve always had a bit of an issue with circular yoked jumpers. Not such a big one that I’ve stopped knitting them, or a big enough one for me to attempt to start a campaign against them. But they’ve always just…got on my tits.

Specifically, they’ve got on my tits wrong.

Why don’t boobs and circular yokes get along?

There’s a simple problem with a circular yoked jumper; they’re the exact same width on the front and back. That may be fine for some, but if like me you are “blessed” (I use the quotation marks because of back pain) with what is referred to in polite company as a “full bust”, then you might find this fact a bit troublesome.

Because you choose the size to knit based on your full bust circumference, plus the intended ease, you often end up having to pick a size that will fit your boobs but not the rest of your body. It can make for a jumper that totally swamps you, which is…well, annoying. A bit of waist shaping might take it in and do away with some of the “boob tent” effect, but it’s never going to be a properly good fit.

And how does the Big Jimmy Jab jumper fit boobs better?

In short; because I’ve stolen a concept that has long been used in sewing and have decided to apply it to knitting. The bust adjustment.

The basic principle is simple: you knit a sweater that fits the rest of your body, and then make extra space for your boobs. It solves all your annoying fit problems in one; the shoulders are the right size. The upper back doesn’t gape. The sweater doesn’t make you look several months pregnant.

So how do I pick a size for the Big Jimmy Jab?

The simplest way to explain it is to give you a look at the size chart. Because while you’re often told to pick a size based on your bust measurement, things are a little different for the old Big Jimmy Jab.

See that second column there, “actual upper bust”? That’s the key measurement for the Big Jimmy Jab. You want to be measuring that on yourself (here’s a handy tutorial on how to do that), and then picking the size that’s closest to that. Obviously, the normal rules of fit apply here; if you’re between sizes and want a looser fit, then go for the bigger size. If you’re looking for something a bit more fitted, then go down.

Once you’ve got your upper bust measurement and picked a size, you need to decide whether to work the bust adjustment. I’ve put two measurements in for the finished chest circumference of the jumper – with, and without the bust adjustment. Think about whether you want/need the additional space that the bust adjustment gives you, and then you’re golden.

But what about wearing ease?

Well, that’s all factored into the sizing table; the jumper is designed to have 4-6in (10-15cm) of positive ease, so that it’s got a loose, comfy fit to it. That means the finished chest measurements for the jumper are that 4-6in (10-15cm) bigger than the actual chest measurement of the body they’re intended to fit.

So, let’s take me as an example. I have an upper bust measurement of ~39in, and a full bust measurement of 46-47in. So I’ve knitted myself both a size 5 without a bust adjustment to get a boxy, cropped sweater, and a size 4 with a bust adjustment to get a slightly more “classic” fit.

And when it comes to my jumper for the knitalong, I’m going completely rogue and knitting myself a size 3 with bust adjustment, for a close-fitting jumper that for once will be relatively close-fitting all over.

The lesson here? You can make pretty much whatever fit you want, but for once your boobs will have been factored into the equation. Nice, hey?

If you want to know more about adjusting jumper patterns to fit your boobs, I run an online workshop all about it.