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Colour: Don't Go Changin' To Try And Please Me

Some people are scared of colour. Not to the extent that they wake in the morning, brush their teeth, then don their transparent outfits and embark on their day (although wouldn't that be something!) No, they manage to dress themselves, but when it comes to a redesign of their living room, or an approval of a new logo, or even selecting the right yarn for their latest project, it's all hemming and hawing and umms and requests for approval and eventual disappointment.

So isn't it wonderful when yarn companies make it so easy for you by combining two, three, or umpteen colours, all in the same skein of yarn? You can begin at one end knitting green, and come out the other end knitting green, but you've travelled through aqua, teal, indigo, burgundy, framboise, cerise, kumquat, mustard, and chartreuse to get there. Heaven!

(Incidentally, I have no idea what to call this type of yarn, there doesn't seem to be a knitting standard (if there is, tell me!) The phrase "colour repeat" comes up, but the colour doesn't necessarily have to repeat—in several of the Noros, for sure, it starts as one colour and definitely ends up another, with no repeats. Some say striping yarn (or self-striping yarn), but that's too specific. Hopefully one day someone will stumble on le mot juste and we'll all adopt it.)

But just as there is no Royal Road to Geometry, these colour-changin' yarn skeins aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be. So here's Uncle Stashley's quick guide to when-and-where they're best-suited (and what to do when they're not).

Garter Stitch Scarf (or dishtowel, blanket, etc.): Yes! Go ahead and use your magic yarn. Your friends will ooh and ah, and only you (and other knitters) will know how easy this was.

Stockinette Stitch Scarf (or dishtowel, blanket, etc.): Yes! Again, magic yarn to the rescue. It'll be great.

Anything More Complicated Than Garter or Stockinette: No! Bzzzzt! You're wasting your time. You will put hours of careful work into your complicated stitch pattern (lacework, or moss stitch, butterfly, pine tree, whatever) and none of it will be visible. The human eye is so incredibly drawn to changes in colour that the colour changes will overwhelm our ability to perceive slight variations in light and shadow. Sue, maybe blind people fondling your washcloth up close will be mesmerized by the beauty of the texture. But no one else will ever know, and you've wasted $75 on Noro Silk Garden instead of $15 on something from Michaels that was washable to boot.

Anything More Complicated Than Scarf/Dishtowel/Blanket: No! Yikes! You're asking for trouble, You're going to have sweater with a bright red left arm and a right arm that travels from mud to mauve and back. Don't do it!

What to use instead of colour-changin' yarn:

If you have a beautiful, simple, repeated pattern (e.g. a Chevron Seed Stitch) then stick to a single colour, preferably not too dark. The beauty of your pattern will shine like a beacon of light, enticing all who see it to mentally add "Chevron Seed Stitch" to their list of stitches they fully intend to replace stockinette with, one of these days, on some unspecified future pattern that never takes place because by then they've forgotten. Here's an example (ironically it's actually using a yarn that changes colour, but sooooooo slightly—I can't count Blue changing to the tiniest-bit-darker-Blue as meaningfully changing colours: Chevron Seed Stitch Hat).

If you have a beautiful, complicated, non-repeated pattern (e.g. my current crochet project Sophie's Universe) you will want to bite the bullet and select a variety of colours that work well with each other, and use them sequentially. If you use colour-changing yarn, the details are lost. If you complete, say, a third of the product in one yarn, the middle third in another, and finish with a final yarn, onlookers will only see those massive colour changes, not the texture. If you use a single pale colour, sure, visitors to your home will still be able to murmur "It's so minimal," while they sip their wine and judge your parenting skills, but then why did you bother? No, like owning a lovely Painted Lady* in San Francisco, you need to vary the colours to pick out the details.

Where colour-changin' yarns really shine:

Fair Isle knitting (or other similar stranded-knitting patterns) rely on complicated charts, but are knit in stockinette. Choose your main colour, but then ignore all the other suggested colours, and simply replace all the contrasting colours with a special skein of multi-coloured yarn. I'm current working on Persian Dreams, and yes, I've chosen 20 different yarns, but it would have been an awful lot easy to have committed to sticking with a multi-coloured yarn for this one (as others have done).

As with the prior suggestion, it does often work best to pair the quixotic yarn with a plain one. Like selecting appropriate friends to stand next to you at the dance, choosing plain makes the pretty one pop. You could alternate stripes of neutral, then fancy, neutral, fancy, (you get the idea), and with luck you end up with something like grey, blue, grey, blue-green, grey, green, etc. In my double-knitting project I have a checkerboard pattern, with a grey Cascade 220 bumping up against a Noro Kureyon, and it's going to be lovely. (It's already lovely, but one day it will be lovely and finished, I mean).

Because of the nature of construction of Entrelac*, these yarns-of-colour work brilliantly for projects calling for that technique—it'll look like you've carefully selected 80 slightly-different yarns for your project. With luck each little diamond will coalesce into appearing as one colour, while its slightly-different neighbour will appear as another, and so on down the line.

Finally, put Ravelry to use: select a popular yarn (or perhaps exactly the one you've chosen) and see what projects people have tackled. Tut tut at the ones you and Uncle Stashley think are a waste of time, but pay close attention to the ones that sparkle. For instance, here are all the Noro Silk Garden projects, and here are those for KnitPicks' Chroma Worsted.

Off The Needles

Woo hoo! The Cabled Viking Hat is complete. The cables don't look quite like the picture in the pattern, but the hat looks fine to me, just different. I can live with different (I actually prefer different—my hat is distinctive, and not just because I opted for a bright red yarn against my husband's suggestion). I'm normally against winter hats and sunglasses, but in my defense it was very bright, and I had to wear the hat to prove it fits. (It doesn't always, which is why my colleague's one-year-old child was the proud recipient of a hat I'd intended to be mine).

On The Needles

(I will mark with a ! those projects that have advanced, and !! those projects that are new to the blog.)

  • !Sweater Sample (from the Sweater Workshop, in the short rows section)

  • !Sophie's Universe crochet project (Part 3: Round 20)

  • !Vice Versa scarf (double knitting!) starting the seventh row of squares

  • !GGN Norwegian Ski Sweater (about 13.7 inches into it, from the bottom. There's a magical time in every sweater project where, no matter how much you knit it, it never gets any bigger. I am there.)

  • !Persian Dreams Blanket (row 42 of the second hexagon)

  • !A Random Blanket (about 39% through)

On the backburner:

  • Feather Duster Lace Shawl (I'm repeating, for the first time, the body section)

  • A Church Mouse sock (post-heel)!

  • World's Simplest Mittens (prior to thumb)

  • A Hitchhiker Scarf (started over a year ago. It's for when I'm needing mobile knitting and every other project is stuck at a complicated point. I will be in the middle forever, I guess)

  • Simply Ribbed Scarf (again, it's ancient, intended for emergency mobile knitting, and I'm in the middle)


*Painted Lady = Gingerbread-covered Victorian home, painted in a variety of colours to pick out all the details.

*Entrelac = a method of knitting connected diamonds (usually), in rows, in different directions, giving a distinctive woven appearance to the resulting fabric.

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