9 Hints for Selecting a Colorwork Palette for Stranded Knitting

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 knitting and was happy to use Alice Starmore and Mary Jane Mucklestone’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 colorwork 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 Valenzi Cardigan from Fair Isle Style shows off Mary Jane Mucklestone’s fantastic sense of color balance.

We all learned about the color wheel back in middle school as part of art class, but it had no meaning for me then, and I was probably dreaming about the boy two rows up instead of paying attention. So I bought a color wheel and borrowed a few books on the topic from the library. The books were interesting, but they were written by artists about painting. Paint can be changed by adding colors; yarn cannot. So I went off on my own color adventure. I began by taking two of the “harmonies” (a harmony is a pleasing relationship between colors) shown on the color wheel and the yarn I had on hand, and I started making swatches. I wanted to see if I could start making some sense of how using a color wheel could help color-impaired knitters like me. Here are my discoveries:

1. 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.

Most color wheels on the market come with simple instructions. Begin by familiarizing yourself with the terminology. A color wheel is the color spectrum bent into a circle. It shows the relationships between colors. Color combinations that are balanced and pleasing to the eye are the harmonies I mentioned. To get started using a color wheel for knitting or other fiber crafts, choose just one color, then build a palette that will coordinate with that color by adding colors on the wheel according to the harmony you’ve chosen.

2. For my design purposes, I found that I needed to use only two of the harmonies on the color wheel—the triad and the split complementary.

The triad starts with three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel. It’s represented by the three darkened triangles on the color wheel shown (Figure 1). Using these three colors makes a fabric with high contrast, because the colors are so far apart on the wheel. The split-complementary harmony has two colors that are close to each other on the color wheel, but the third color is opposite. It’s represented by the three darkened triangles (Figure 2). Because the main color and the second color are so close to each other, they create a fabric with subtle contrast; the third color, from across the wheel, adds a great pop of contrasting color. Both harmonies not only work very well for colorwork, but also for weaving and even for choosing flower color combinations for enlivening your garden.

3. If you use more than one color, an odd number of colors works best (for example, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on). See point 5.

4. 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 (Figures 3, 4, and 5).




Fabric made from Figure 3 would be boring; Figure 4 is much more interesting. Even though it has only two lines of yellow, they’re apparent.

5. To increase to five colors, rather than adding different colors, change the values of your current main and second colors (making them lighter or darker). Doing so gives the fabric more interest and maintains the 50/40/10 proportion (Figures 6 and 7).



6. When you work with stripes or intarsia the values of the colors are not as important, but two-color stranded knitting 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 (Figure 8).


7. Unsurprisingly, neither black nor white is shown on the color wheel. I found that the best way to use either one is to build my palette first, then substitute black for one of the darkest colors or white for one of the lightest. Using black or white as a contrast color is sometimes all that is needed to achieve the effect you want. In two-color stranded work, either black or white can be used as foreground or background (Figures 9 and 10).



8. On the color wheel, brown appears in the orange, red-orange, and red boxes. When I’m building a palette, I first make my choices from the reds and oranges, then substitute a brown for one of them (Figure 11).


9. You can’t get around the need to knit a swatch. Sometimes, even though the color choices are right, there isn’t enough contrast in the value. And sometimes, the swatch reveals that a color simply looks better at a different place in the pattern or chart. Small adjustments can be made with duplicate stitch rather than reknitting (Figures 12 and 13).



Building a palette

If you want a fabric with high contrast, choose the triad harmony. If you want a more subtle blend of colors, choose to work with the split-complementary harmony. First, find a color that you like—just one. Match it to a color on the color wheel. Turn the top wheel until one of the points of the triad triangle or one of the short points of the split-complementary triangle is on the color box that best matches your yarn. Now, follow the color wheel to choose your other colors.

For three colors, the proportion would be 50 percent for your main color and 40 percent for the second color from a color on one of the other three points of the triad or from the short side of the split complement. Choose a contrast color for 10 percent from the third point on the triad or the long side of the split complement.

For five colors, add more color/interest by choosing another value for the main color and the second color. For seven colors, add two contrast colors. These colors will be adjacent to the main and second colors on the color wheel, going toward the first contrast color. On the triad, these two are complements of each other. And to go to nine, just add yet another value to the main and second colors, so each will have a light, medium, and dark value.

There are many color theories, and I don’t call my method a “theory.” Rather, it’s an approach that works well for me as I develop my own designs. If you would like more details and actual “recipes” for choosing colors with this method, I invite you to check out my book How to Select Color Palettes for Knitting and other Fiber Arts. It comes with its own color wheel!

Nancy Shroyer is a teacher, designer, and the founder of Nancy’s Knit Knacks, makers of ballwinders and other tools. She loves colorwork knitting and introducing other knitters to its joys.

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  1. Barbara J R at 6:16 am December 11, 2017

    for me, it’s imperative to choose colors in natural light.

  2. Essie B at 5:09 pm December 15, 2017

    Thanks for this “quick start” article. A fast read like this, with concrete methods to try, makes me much more likely to try the technique. Then, once I’m hooked, I can buy a big book and learn more.

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