Fearless Fair Isle Knitting: Choosing Knitting Colors

Fair Isle Knitting swatch example.I’m still surprised at how often people tell me they just “can’t do” Fair Isle knitting patterns. Their fear is two-pronged: fear of choosing yarn colors and fear of the Fair Isle knitting techniques involved. They’re convinced that they lack the skills required for both. However, traditional Fair Isle colorwork has built-in “rules” for both.

These traditional approaches to color and technique, developed with efficient use of time and materials in mind, stem from the practicality of the frugal population of remote Fair Isle. Belonging to the Scottish Shetland Island group, this windswept island is located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. The islanders developed colorful, warm garments flexible enough to work in.

The distinctive patterning of traditional Fair Isle knitting is a clever way to combine the many odd bits of different-colored yarn that came originally from the native Shetland sheep, which have evolved a variety of natural fleece colors. And the islanders knitted with two yarns to create two layers that trap air and create warmth.

Fair Isle knitting patterns remain a living tradition with styles that change continually. There are no “right” ways to do things, only ways that please you.

In Fair Isle knitting, finding the value of the colors you want to use is more important than the actual hues. Value is how close a particular shade is to white or black. To find the value of a color, we suggest trying these tricks:

  • Scan yarn samples in black and white.
  • Take a picture of yarn samples and convert it to gray scale.
  • Or hold a red or green piece of cellophane over your yarns to cancel out their hues.

The Rules for Overcoming Color-Choice Fear

Find the perfect shade with this Fair Isle knitting tutorial on selecting colors.The sheer number of available colors can be overwhelming, so here are some important tips to get you going (Excerpted from Fearless Fair Isle by Mary Jane Mucklestone, from Interweave Knits, Spring 2011):

  • Choose your yarn colors in clear natural daylight.
  • Begin with a pile of colors that you like.
  • Separate the pile into a group of light colors and a group of dark colors. As we discussed above the most important aspect of each color is its value: its relative darkness or lightness.
  • Arrange each color group further in a value sequence from dark to light (Figure 1).
  • Choose three colors from each group: a darkest color, a medium color, and a lightest color (Figure 2).
  • Select a couple of crazy or odd colors you might want to use as occasional accents (Figure 3). Set them off to the side. Line up your choices next to each other. Is there enough contrast between the corresponding groups? The darkest color of the light group should be lighter than the lightest color of the dark group. Designate one group as pattern colors and the other as background colors.
  • After you’ve settled on your colors, give them a test run before swatching. Try wrapping several strands of each color around a card or flat stick in the sequence you want to use. Or make I-cord snakes, knitting an inch or two of each color, and carry them around for a day to see how they look in different lights.

Now that you know the “rules” for finding colors, the possibilities for working with Fair Isle techniques are endless! The next step? Actually picking from the many beautiful Fair Isle knitting patterns available, and giving it a try.

There are a few we can recommend for beginners, along with something more challenging. Or, if you are looking for more information or a more in-depth Fair Isle knitting tutorial, we’ve got a few of those we can recommend too.

Amazing Fair Isle Knitting Patterns:

More on Fair Isle Technique & Recommended Tutorials and Resources:

  • Knitting Daily Workshop Introduction to Fair Isle The Ivy League Vest with Eunny Jang
    For the basics of Fair Isle colorwork knitting, this DVD is second to none. An intro to Fair Isle technique, you’ll learn about tension, fixing common mistakes, steeking, and how to create this beautiful vest. Video download also available.
  • Fair Isle Style
    Celebrate a modern, fresh approach to knitting Fair Isle with this stunning collection. Featuring a collection of Fair Isle patterns from variety of designers, anyone looking to be inspired in colorwork knitting will love this book. Order the paperback or eBook version.
  • ColorKnits eMag
    This interactive magazine is all about knitting colorwork and taking color to the next level. Get instant access to a Fair Isle tam and “Color in Fair Isle” article, plus a variety of other colorwork knitting techniques, including intarsia with this eMag.
  • 200 Fair Isle Motifs A Knitter’s Directory
    Explore knitting in color with this rich and informative book of Fair Isle motifs. You’ll find easy Fair Isle knitting charts, clear photographs, and hundreds of designs to help you understand the art of stranded colorwork.