July means Tour de France. And while those batty bikers are spinning their wheels, silly spinners are spinning our wheels in Tour de Fleece - a loosely organized spinning challenge where the only ones we compete against are ourselves. We spin yarn while the bikers are riding, and rest while they rest. The idea is to challenge ourselves to something new, something big for us.
This is the first year I've participated, and my challenge is play. To play with yarns textures, colors, and techniques I haven't tried before. To make lots of instant-gratification skeins (aka mini skeins) with no attachment to what they will become. A three-week workshop of fun, if you will.
This week I spent some time playing in the mud. Not in the backyard, but on my spinning wheel.
I was playing with making the color “mud” – on purpose.
Lots of people will tell you that it’s a big no-no to mix complementary colors. They’ll tell you that mixing complementary colors will get you “mud,” and that you’ll be disappointed by it. But what “they” don’t tell you is that mud can be beautiful and fun. (Just ask any kid covered in real mud!)
A crash course in color theory:
That's really all there is to it!
The colors are often arranged in a color wheel, which is essentially the rainbow put into a circle: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple. Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are considered complementary colors, or opposite from each other. These pairs are: red/green, blue/orange, and yellow/purple.
The nifty thing about complementary colors is that each pair contains all three of the primary colors: one as pure primary color, and the other as a mix of the other two primary colors.
For the complementary color pair of orange and blue, blue is the pure primary color, and orange is a mix of the primaries red and orange.
The colors look satisfying together because they are opposites. They balance each other out. Think of college colors or sports teams – strong, opposite colors makes a strong and yet cohesive statement. The Denver Broncos, University of Virginia Cavaliers, and New England Patriots all use blue and orange as their team colors. I could go on, but I’d rather spend time playing with yarn than talking about sports.
What happens when you mix complementary colors, like paint? As with all things, it depends. It depends on the intensity of the colors you mix, the proportions you mix them in, and how thoroughly you mix them. But the general consensus is that when you mix equal amounts and strengths of complementary colors, you’re likely to get “mud,” which is often brown, black, or a grayish color.
Mud is the color that dashes the hopes of many an aspiring dyer or artist. They combine two colors that look great side-by-side and are disappointed the two didn’t combine to make something equally bright and exciting.
Because all three primaries are represented in a mixture of complementary colors, they all tone each other down into a neutral. Sometimes this neutral is a dull, boring color. And sometimes it is rich, subtle, and intriguing. As someone who really loves neutral colors, this is a fun place to play. What happens when I add just a little bit of blue to orange? Or just a little bit of orange to blue?
That’s what I was thinking when I decided to play in the mud this week. I wanted to show that mud isn’t something to fear. It’s something to understand, and use when it suits us. It’s something to help us achieve those subtle, complex colors that make people do a double take. What color is that? I love your colors!
First, I started out with truly playing. I took a braid of blue that I dyed a while back. In truth, I really don’t love this color blue – it’s too flat, too plain, too cold. It’s not my color. For my orange, I took a braid of Lisa Souza’s BFL. My braid says the color is Deep Autumn, but it’s pretty darn close to her current color Aww-Tum. I randomly put the two onto my blending board as the spirit moved me, then made a handful of rolags and spun my heart out. I wound the singles into a center-pull ball and plied it into a two-ply from there. Here’s the result:
I had so much fun with that experiment, the next day I wanted to get a better handle on exactly what that color combination was that I loved so much. So this time, I had a little more of a controlled playtime. I wanted smallish samples, so I set my scale to grams. I made a gradient where each sample was 3-4 grams total. I started with 100% orange, then 90% orange/10% blue (this is my best guess, as that small of an amount didn’t register with my scale), 75% orange/25% blue, 67% orange/33% blue, 50% orange/50% blue, 33% orange/67% blue, 25% orange/75% blue, 10% orange/90% blue, and 100% blue. Maybe I got a little bit carried away!
Then I set about carding the colors together so they were well blended. Each color blend got its own rolag, and I found that 4 grams of fiber is about the max my handcards can comfortably hold.
After carding, it was time to spin. As Norman Kennedy says, “Good carding – your yarn’s half spun.” But my wheel was acting up – she’s a grouchy old lady who complains when her joints are out of whack. My fiber prep felt great and easy to spin, but treadling my wheel felt like walking through sand. (Or mud! 😊) It took me just about all of my spinning session to get the wheel adjusted just right to where I was actually moving.
I spun the gradient in order, then chain plied to keep the color progression from orange to blue. I found that my favorite colors in this gradient are on the orange side, though the 75% blue/25% orange mixture reminds me of a lovely oxidized copper.
Using the technique of mixing mud on purpose can be really useful in colorwork of all kinds – you can create deep and intriguing colors that blend and speak with each other. And I'm not just talking about stranded colorwork in knitting - there are interesting places for this technique in anything that uses fiber and color, including weaving, crochet, rug hooking, rug punching, embroidery, you name it!
If you’re using an orange and want a brown, why not make it yourself by blending your orange with a navy blue? You’ll get something that is much more related to your orange because it already contains your orange. You can create a whole range of complex and deep colors from just a basic few. (Though I'll never tell you that you shouldn't add a fun new color to your stash!)
Making mud on purpose isn’t just fun – it gives you a huge range of complex colors to play with. All you need is a tiny understanding of color theory and practice, practice, practice!
When I was a new knitter, I would have gasped if you told me to cut apart my knitting. No way, no ma'am.
I distinctly remember a red Aran sweater my mother had - full of bobbles, cables, and knit at such a tight gauge it makes my fingers hurt just thinking about it. But she never wore it because it was too big on her. So she cut it apart and incorporated parts of the sweater into a lovely fitted jacket.
I was shocked. Won't it unravel? Who would cut into a knitted garment that someone had clearly spent so much time on?
The truth is, that while knitting does unravel, there are lots of ways to cut knitted fabric. Steeking is perhaps my favorite and most-used method, and this sweater does indeed have a steek running down the front.
Some design and fit issues left me less than thrilled with the finished product. That's the thing about experiments - they don't always work. My problems with this sweater were:
I'd already woven in lots of ends, which makes unraveling difficult. Plus, the yarns (mostly handspun Icelandic thel and Shetland Spindrift) don't unravel so easily. Which makes them great for steeking, but not for correcting my mistakes.
So I decided to try something I haven't tried before. I cut the yoke right off, and picked up the live stitches onto my knitting needles, and the sweater is ready for yoke attempt #2. It was easier than I could have imagined.
It's also possible to do it the other way - say I had knit the sweater top-down and wanted to replace only the yoke. I'd cut just like I did, but then I'd need to graft the new yoke to the old one. This sometimes leaves a bit of a line, but it's definitely doable.
I'd hoped that the end of January would mean that I have a new sweater to wear, but ultimately I want a sweater that is actually wearable, and that I like, so I'm willing to have it take more time.
All of a sudden, it's windy here. I guess March is truly coming in like a lion here. And February just whooshed by too, with glorious springlike weather that was equal parts scary (climate change is real!) and wonderful to play in.
Somehow, I managed to not be in this space at all, but that didn't mean there wasn't anything happening on my needles or on my loom. Whoops.
The most fun of all was the reprise of the Bang Out a Sweater knitalong - this time with worsted weight wool and rows of colorwork that had three colors at a time AND purls. Craziness.
Besides changing the color palette of the sweater, I more or less knit the pattern exactly as written - a rarity for me, since I see patterns more as, um, suggestions.
The changes I did make are what makes handknits so wonderful, because they're customized to one's own body and fit preferences. I knit a size smaller than I "should" have based on the pattern recommendations. The pattern was designed to have tons and tons of positive ease, and I figured I could do with a slouchy sweater but not so much a tent-blanket-thing. After blocking, I have a comfortable level of positive ease, but not too much, making me one happy camper. And, as I usually do, I shortened the body and the sleeves just a tad. And, for an extra touch of luxury, all edges are done in tubular cast-on/bind-off. Because it's pretty.
Can you spot the difference in these sleeves? On the left is the colorwork pattern as I originally envisioned it, but as I was knitting, I felt like the colors on the bottom were getting mired down. So on the second sleeve, I played with a different color combination, moving the darker colors to the center of the motif. Then I spent a day or two staring at them, deciding which one I liked better. All that was left to do was unravel the one I didn't like, and proceed with the sleeves.
The result is a sweater that some people on Instagram have called dark and moody, but I just think it's cozy and comfortable and I hope the March winds keep the weather cool enough so I can wear it all the time.
A side effect of knitting a size smaller than I'd planned is all the leftover yarn. Besides almost full skeins of each of the colors used in the motifs, I had two whole skeins of the dark brown. I used it to play with weft-faced weaving, naturally jumping into the deep end with flamepoint. I did go a bit cross-eyed trying to figure it out, with four different shuttles in play at a time, but I'm loving the effect. Perhaps a purse to go with my cozy sweater?
Have you heard of making shade cards as a way to plan out colorwork projects? It's a technique I learned from weaving, but it's useful for knitting too. It's simple, easier, and faster than swatching, plus it doesn't mess up the yarn by getting it all crinkly. A win-win-win, if you ask me.
All you have to do is wrap yarn around an index card, like I've done in the photo above. Use more yarn for colors you plan to use more of, and less for accent colors. You can do this as blocks of color, or you could sprinkle the accent color across a background of your main color - whatever works for you.
There are two things I like about using this method instead of just piling balls of yarn together.* First it lets me play with relative quantities of each color. Second, I can try out many different color combinations and compare them to each other - something that's hard to do with yarn in the skein unless you have lots and lots of it.
And another thing: unlike swatching, which leaves your yarn all curly and could mess up your gauge if you re-use it without steam blocking, wrapping your yarn around an index card keeps it as nice as it was in the skein. This is also great for more delicate yarns that start to look fuzzy if they're ripped and re-knit.
Of course, swatching might still need to be a next step (especially if gauge is important). In the swatch above, I quickly scrapped my original color palette to add more depth on each end of the reds range. I found that there wasn't as much contrast between the pink and the red as I thought, and played around with different colors. But that's the beauty of it - I at least had a starting point that gave me a solid idea of what I was working with.
So there you have it! A super easy way to play with color combinations. How do you plan out the colors for your colorwork projects?
*Which I still love, and do as a first step. The color cards are the second.
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