I always jump at the opportunity to design a new Icelandic pullover or cardigan. After returning from my summer trip to Iceland in 2012, my love of the traditional Lopapeysa has been at an all-time high. My first swing at a traditional Icelandic sweater design was Grettir in our BT Winter 13 collection, with a more recent follow-up design – Atlas – in BT Kids.
One of the most enticing aspects of Icelandic sweater design is the opportunity to play with color. It’s truly amazing how a wide range of results can be produced from a single colorwork chart, based solely on the use (or abuse!) of hue and value. Choosing yarns for colorwork, however, can be discouraging if you aren’t familiar with a few fundamental rules about color theory. This week I wanted to share some tips with you that every colorwork knitter (or designer) should have in their arsenal.
In today’s post (Part 1), I’ll talk about the difference between hue and value and how these two attributes of color are intimately linked to the success of your final project. On Thursday (Part 2), I’ll show you how these theories were applied (with varying degrees of success) during my own design process for the Atlas pullover and cardigan. My hope is that these simple colorwork rules will keep you from the heartbreak caused by muddy, hard-to-see colorwork motifs in your knitting.
Hue & Value
When talking about color, there are two important terms to understand: Hue and Value. Every color under the sun (with the exception of pure black and pure white, depending on who you ask) has a hue and a value. These two words describe the two basic “ingredients” of color, and understanding their distinction is key to successfully combining color in knitting.
Hue refers to the attribute of a color by virtue of which it is discernible as red, green, blue, etc. The word “hue” is often used interchangeably with the word “color”.
Value refers to a color’s relative degree of lightness or darkness.
The easiest way to think about value is by visualizing color on a greyscale spectrum. Remember that every color has a value – though it may sometimes be difficult to discern depending on how saturated a color’s hue is. The diagram below shows a range of values from pure white to pure black, with equal intervals in value from one shade to the next.
Why is value important? Because it helps our eyes discern between colors by way of their contrast. The greater the difference between two colors’ values, the more contrasting they appear to our eyes and hence the easier they are to “read”.
Using Value When Choosing Color
With stranded knitting, value is especially important because colors are “mixed” as the fabric is created, with single stitches of one color neighboring single stitches of another. (Value is less of an issue with broad stripes or colorblocked fabrics because the surface area of a single color is large, making it easy for the eyes to distinguish between even subtle shifts of hue and value. Not so with stranded colorwork. If your value structure is not sound, all your careful handwork may result in a muddy motif that is difficult to see (and appreciate!).
Your best course of action is to “value test” your colors before you begin knitting. The easiest way to test your values is with the squint test. Place your potential colors on a flat, well-lit surface and huddle them next to one another. Squint your eyes and study how squinting causes the colors to become more or less similar in value. When squinting, values are easier to recognize. If – once squinting – your colors become MORE similar, you likely are working with colors that are too similar in value and should consider pulling in something with more contrast.
The second, more high-tech method, is to take a snapshot of your colors on a digital camera (smartphones are wonderful for this purpose) and convert the image to greyscale. A black and white image removes all hue information and leaves only the values of each color to compare. This is a fantastic trick that takes all the guesswork out of the equation.
Below, I’ve shown two different color schemes for a 3-color Icelandic yoke. The photograph on the left shows the colors as they appear to our eyes; the photograph on the right has taken all hue information away, leaving only values to be contrasted. It’s pretty easy to tell right away which of these two color groupings would make a more successful finished piece:
Value Combination 1 uses colors “Woodsmoke”, “Tent”, and “Artifact” and represents a true light-medium-dark value relationship. (Squint at the screen and look at the greyscale image on the right – the values become even more obvious than they are to the naked eye).
By contrast, Value Combination 2 uses three colors that look beautiful together upon first glance (“Thistle”, “Wool Socks” & “Homemade Jam”), but when the hue information is stripped away, these colors look virtually the same. (Squint again to double-check.)
If both color combinations were used to knit the same colorwork motif, you would quickly notice a drastic difference in the overall effect on the finished fabric. Combination 1 would have a graphic effect that enhances the angular motifs found in Icelandic yokes, while Combination 2 would cause the motifs to fade into a much less discernible configuration.
When choosing colors for colorwork patterns, the assessment of value should always be your starting point. I keep a trusty snapshot of our BT Shade Card – converted to greyscale – readily available. When I begin a new colorwork design and start pulling potential color combinations, I assess their value before deeming them worthy of swatching.
You can see below how quickly the palette separates itself into light, medium and dark values with a simple black and white conversion:
In the next post, we’ll take these fundamental rules for a test drive by looking at my design swatches for Atlas – examining why some are more successful than others due to their internal value relationships.
Stay tuned for more colorwork geekery later this week!