Jul 5, 2017

7 Tips for Choosing Yarn Colors

As makers, one of the greatest challenges we face is trying to picture a fabric that does not yet exist.

Sometimes, this challenge can feel overwhelming, because we know every choice we make from stitch and fiber to color combinations will affect the end result. By definition, these unknowns mean makers are intrepid folk, daring to go where few are willing to tread.

When it comes to choosing yarn colors, we all have our own methods. My approach is fairly simple, but because some of you might find them helpful, let's look at seven practical tips and tricks.

1. Choose yarn under the right type of lighting.

Typically, natural daylight is the logical option, and if it's not available, aim for full-spectrum lighting (which comes close to emulating natural daylight).Why is this important? It's the best way I know to see how colors appear under normal daytime circumstances.

On the other hand, if you're making an evening shawl that will primarily be worn under artificial or subdued lighting, choose your yarn (and beads) under similar lighting conditions so you can better envision the end effect.

Just like paint chips, you'll want to test yarn and swatches in various lighting conditions ranging from bright to overcast daylight, full spectrum light, fluorescent light, dimmed light, etc., to see how the colors behave.

If I owned a yarn store, I'd invest in good daylight lamps and fabric or tablecloths in a range of solid colors, so customers could audition yarns under balanced lighting against a background similar to its future use conditions.

2. Audition colors against the right background.

If the piece you're making will be worn with black, used against a black background, feature black stripes or modules, or constructed with black seams and edges (something I often do), test colors against a solid black background. I keep a large piece of black fabric near my knitting work table, so I can spread it out as a backdrop for yarn auditions. Black tends to intensify light or bright colors and mute deeper shades, so it's important to see how your colors are likely to behave in their future form.

The same is true with white. If what you're making will feature white (cream, natural), test the colors you're considering against a similar background. White tends to lift and brighten colors, so they appear pure and clear. It can also wash out light or faded hues, creating a subdued effect that can either be pleasing or precisely the opposite of what you hoped to achieve.

Valere is a good example. Four of the colors are the same (coral, light green, fuchsia, deep blue), but they take on different qualities based on the background and other surrounding colors.

Adopt a similar strategy for everything. Making an afghan to drape on a gray couch? Test yarns against the couch or a similar fabric. Choosing yarn for a sweater? Test it against whatever tops and bottoms you're likely to wear with it. Making a pillow? Test the yarn on the couch, chair or bed where it will reside. Making a table runner? Test it on the table surface or tablecloth with which it will be paired.

3. Test all the colors you plan to use.

It seems obvious, but it bears emphasizing: Every color you add to the mix influences every other color and shifts the overall color balance. A butter yellow that seems soft and subdued in isolation picks up intensity when its placed next to another color with yellow or blue undertones.

In combination, colors produce interesting, unexpected effects, some of which may delight and others which may not. For instance on its own, this purple strip knit with two closely related colors worked. When it was placed with its sibling strips, however, it raised more questions than it answered.

The solution, of course, was to frog the nearly-finished strip, keep the deepest shade, and rework it with a lighter color that offered greater contrast and echoed its siblings.

4. Test yarn on multiple backgrounds. 

From cowls and sweaters to afghans and pillows, if you plan to use an item against a patterned background, audition yarn colors against that pattern. The same applies to things you're using on wood surfaces, since the grain and wood tones introduce both color and pattern.

Once you've selected colors you feel work well, test them again on a similar solid background. Confirm they blend or contrast in a way you find appealing, because busy backgrounds can confuse the eye, making it difficult to spot a potentially perfect combination or color clash.

Obviously, the opposite is true as well. If you're making a runner or mat for your table or buffet, test yarns against those wood surfaces to see if they produce the effect you desire.

5. Decide whether you want colors to pop or blend.

In general, warm or light colors tend move to the visual forefront, while cool or dark tones tend to recede. Saturation and intensity play a role in this, however, so it's important to see colors in context. The typical trope is to avoid colors of similar value, but I break this rule on a regular basis. Angletyn Vivid is just one example.

If color value is the key criteria, then this version is a complete failure because the values are so similar. The black boosts intensity, however, and the interplay of red, purple and blue amplifies the effect, creating a look that certainly won't appeal to everyone but which does appeal to me.

6. Shift your color strategy to suit the circumstances.

The most important thing is to adapt your color strategy to the yarn, your tastes, the recipient and the project. Like many of you, I'll cheerfully make gifts using less-than-favorite colors if they suit the intended recipient.

7. Swatch.

Please do swatch. It is, of course, the only way to see if yarn, stitch and color interact in a way that appeals to you. And even then you may find, that yes, swatches do lie.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for choosing yarn colors?

For more color talk, click here.


  1. My favorite tip: choose colors in the right light. Learned that one the hard way ... more than once :)

    1. Right there with you, Noni, and I, too, have made that mistake more than once :)


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