Tips & Tricks for Choosing Colors for a Fair Isle Pattern

Over the years, as the editor of various knitting magazines, I’ve noticed that stranded colorwork patterns are favorited a lot, but not necessarily knitted a lot by our readers. It’s always been a sad phenomenon for me, as a colorwork lover myself. Months ago, I was talking to my mom about it over our knitting—prompted by a visiting aunt (Letty of Churchtown Chapeau Company) who was making a giant Fair Isle afghan, all in the round!


Lisa’s aunt Letty knits a Fair Isle afghan, an original design of hers. Find Letty and her handknit blankets at


The finished afghan

And my mom (Nancy Shroyer) talked about all the classes she teaches on this topic, around the country, and how intimidated knitters are by choosing their own colors for Fair Isle projects. And that is why she wrote a book on the topic, and in turn wrote an article about it for the upcoming winter issue of Interweave Knits. She writes:

“What if you loved lots of color and wanted to work with it in your knitting and other fiber arts, but you had no inborn sense of color or formal art training? That was my situation. I love two-color stranded work and was happy to knit Alice Starmore and Ann Feitelson’s patterns until I could no longer get the yarns or colors called for in their books. And I wanted to start trying my hand at designing my own patterns. I could do the planning, math, and schematics, but choosing several colors that I felt confident went together well was my stumbling block. Always thinking about tools to help knitters, I felt sure there was a tool to help with color selection. There is! The color wheel. The color wheel is a tool, and like any new tool, you need to learn how it’s set up and how to use the harmonies to your advantage.”

In her book How to Select Color Palettes for Knitting and other Fiber Arts, Nancy explains how to use a basic color wheel to plan out color combinations and proportions for more successful Fair Isle.

You may see a gorgeous Fair Isle pattern, like the Ivy League Vest, and due to discontinued yarns, availability, or cost, you need to choose another yarn. Or you just want a different colorway.

The Ivy League Vest by Eunny Jang

And so you pick some colors you like, start swatching, and instead of achieving something like this:


A Fair Isle swatch Nancy developed for her classes and writings

You end up with something like this:


What happened to the motifs in this swatch? Why are they difficult to see?

Why isn’t the second swatch successful? What about the first one works better?

There are some real tricks to not only choosing colors that look good together (it can be very surprising what works and what doesn’t!) but there are also tricks regarding value, contrast, proportion, and juxtaposition. Tips such as:

  • If you use more than one color, an odd number of colors works best (for example, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on).
  • Proportion is important. If you want your project to be a certain overall color, 50 percent of the chosen yarn should be in that color, and 40 percent should be in the second position on the color wheel. Just 10 percent should come from the third position, which adds the contrast.
  • When you work with stripes or intarsia, the values (lightness/darkness) of the colors are not as important, but two-color stranded work has a background and a foreground pattern. If there’s not enough contrast in value between the background and foreground colors, the pattern won’t be visible.

Nancy has studied these tricks over the years and compiled her findings, plus a lot of options for using the color wheel, into her book How to Select Color Palettes for Knitting and other Fiber Arts. For a limited time, we are offering this book, along with Nancy’s preferred color wheel, in a bundle that also includes Mary Jane Mucklestone’s 200 Fair Isle Motifs, so you have charts to work your color experiments with, and Daniela Nii’s Stranded Colorwork Styles DVD, in case you want to try some different methods for managing your colors in Fair Isle knitting.

My personal approach to choosing colors for Fair Isle has always been SWATCH SWATCH SWATCH. I’ll choose some colors I like, choose some stitch patterns or design new ones, and just swatch the whole thing over and over until I find an arrangement I like. This has led to some successful projects, like the Bandelier Socks and Reeva Hat from Fair Isle Style. But it also takes a lot of time and guesswork, which is why I am so slow to design colorwork and ultimately my output is limited. Starting with some science, using formulas based on the color wheel, will probably help me a lot!


The Bandelier Socks


The Reeva Hat

How about you? Would these tips and tricks encourage you to knit more colorwork?

I hope so. I want to see more Fair isle out there!



P.S. Thanks Mom!



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