The problematic race to the POP

For today’s colour conversation we are joined by my dear friend and stranded colourwork expert, Felicity (Felix) Ford. Felix is the author of the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Playbook, an accompanying playful Colouring Companion, and, most recently, the Knitsonik and Friends Colour to Knit e-book. Felix is a highly experienced and super-enabling teacher. She’s starred in her own Knitstars masterclass, and now teaches in her own online school, where she’s recently launched a brilliant, brand new, self-paced version of her popular Knitsonik system. Felix is a wonderful teacher, and I heartily recommend her classes, which you might like to sample (for free) in this generous and inspiring series of videos exploring colouring in for stranded colourwork design. I think the subject of today’s post will resonate with many knitters who want to begin experimenting with stranded colourwork, but who might find putting shades together difficult. Take it away, Felix!

The problematic race to the POP

A few years ago, my good friend and colleague Janine Bajus and I were giving an informal talk about our work at a yarn shop. I love any opportunity to chat with Janine; our mutual passion for translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork means we always have lots to share. On this occasion we’d spoken about our creative paths and how we’d ended up focusing on Fair Isle and stranded colourwork design; about our different approaches to colour; our books; and some of our knitting projects. As we finished, we looked around the room to see if anyone had any questions. A nervous voice rose from the room: “how do you find the pop colour?” For those of you who’ve not come across the term “pop” also known as the “poison” colour, the question refers to a yarn shade that seems anomalous within a palette – a shade that doesn’t seem to “go” with the others – and yet is invested with a magical ability to make all of them sing together… to make the colour scheme “pop,” if you will.

I looked across to Janine. Would she answer this question? I really hoped she would.

You see if I’m honest, I find the whole concept quite tricksome; I avoid mentioning it when I teach classes on stranded colourwork design and in all my KNITSONIK books and patterns. I dislike the anxiety the term seems to unleash in the room when I’m teaching, and how it gets in the way and seems to dominate and undermine students’ tentative first goes at picking palettes. I’ve had students ask about the pop colour before we’ve even started to look at any yarn shades – sometimes before they’ve even taken off their coat.

There seems to be such fascination and fear around the mysterious pop colour! The burning need to identify it often seems to overshadow the important, foundational work that must precede this step. Conversations about pop colours nearly always involve strong reactions and feelings of discomfort around “difficult” colours; they always seem to concern colours we “hate” – brash, bright, gaudy colours – the kinds of colours that make knitters flinch and shudder: “that’s far too much for me”. To my mind the pop colour is a distracting and vague concept that undermines students’ playfulness and concentration; that invokes the horrid notion of being forced to knit with a colour we find foul.

Yet, in spite of being tricksome, when used judiciously, pop colours can be useful and can lead to beguiling outcomes. It is, I’m sure, this final point that prompted the question.

Mary Jane Mucklestone, 200 Fair Isle Designs , p. 183

What is the Pop Colour?

Let’s begin with definitions. 

In 200 Fair Isle Designs, Mary Jane Mucklestone describes a three-step process for assembling a stranded colourwork palette. Step 1, choose your colours; step 2, edit the colours; step 3; add a highlight:

“When you are happy with your selections, choose your ‘poison’. Poison is a rug-hooker’s term used to mean that wild bit of colour added to make a fabric ‘sing’. Special emphasis on the centre row is a hallmark of Fair Isle knitting.”

In The Joy of Color: Fair Isle Knitting Your Way, Janine Bajus defines pop colours like this:

“Pop colors really should be called focus colors: their job is to draw the eye into the center of the value sequences, to the turn point where the sequence and motif flip and mirror themselves.”

The Sea & Sand Sweater appears in The Joy of Color by Janine Bajus (page 60) look closely and you’ll see there are actually two pop colours used – as well as the brownish red highlighted in this illustration, a single round of mint green in the background helps focus the eye where the pattern shading sequence is at its darkest

In her Book of Fair Isle Knitting, Alice Starmore – while not specifically mentioning the pop colour – also touches on this idea of changing the whole look and mood of a colour scheme by introducing contrasting colours around the middle rows:

“… a single scheme can be significantly altered by changing just one or two colors. For example, a quiet, neutral scheme can be brightened by accenting the center pattern row or rows with one or two contrasting colors: bright, brash colors can be toned down with a neutral background.”

From Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting (p 73) Alice does not refer to the glowy effect at the centre of the motif as a pop colour (and is the yellow or the orange the true pop colour, or do they work together in concert?) but instead describes how this colour scheme was inspired by seaweed and driftwood.

There is, then, at least among these eminent colourwork experts, a tentative consensus that we can enliven the whole effect of a design if we can be open-minded about the colours used in the central rows of a geometric motif. We might call such brightening colours poison colours or pop colours if that’s helpful and – indeed – if (and it’s a big IF) the desired final result is a symmetrical, geometric pattern with a shimmering shading sequence that intensifies around its turn point(s). 

To give an example of these ideas in action, Beverley Dott– one of the contributing designers in the KNITSONIK & Friends: Colour to Knit eBook – designed a beautiful statement wrap whose colour scheme does precisely what Mary Jane, Janine and Alice are talking about. The large geometric motif is worked with a sequence of reds, corals and pinks in the pattern, while the background is worked in a sequence of earthy browns, purples and greens. On alternate repeats of the motif, the centre is worked either in hot fuschia pink against royal purple, or pale warm pink against a luminous shade of green. These very bright colours – which look so strident and vivid in the ball – make total sense in the whole context of the rest of the palette. They are the most saturated versions of all the other colours that are used and, once thrown into the mix, they pick up and amplify all the shades that are a bit like them. The overall effect is that the pinks and reds are pinker and redder, and the greenish browns are greener and browner. This can be the power of the pop colour!

from KNITSONIK & Friends: Colour to Knit (Chapter 4: Japonica Wrap by Beverley Dott) if you look at what’s happening at the centre of each large motif, you’ll see that fuchsia and royal purple are also doing a lot to make this design “pop” 

Finding the Pop Colour is slow

It’s worth clearly stating that there was no single instance in which Bev sat down, picked out colours, and then went looking for pop colours to bring everything to life. Instead, Bev went through an extensive process of exploring her inspiration source and her stash, as well as swatching to test the outcomes and whether the colours she wanted to use would interact in the desired way. The pop colours that Bev used emerged as a way of focusing the rest of her palette and through a careful process of observation and experimentation. Bev didn’t begin by looking for pop colours; they revealed themselves gradually, once all the other shades had been decided. 

some of the many swatches involved in designing Japonica

I think this might always be the case, and perhaps my problem with the pop colour concept is how quickly it is offered up as a solution, in my classroom. One student might be tentatively hovering over some greys, trying to choose just where to start, when another will jump in and say YOU’LL NEED A POP COLOUR! – an interruption that must immediately be diffused; the idea has come too early in the process and is only likely to confuse and fluster the poor first student and their careful selection of greys, and to undermine the beginnings of their colour confidence.

For precisely this reason – because it is unhelpful when it is introduced prematurely – the pop colour concept is only properly covered around halfway into Janine’s book, and she is emphatic that “the optimal pop color depends entirely on the colors and values that surround it and on the number of stitches involved. That’s why they weren’t discussed in the chapter on colors”. What comes before the pop colour in The Joy of Color is a really enabling set of suggestions and pointers, as well as examples of creative process which – just like Bev’s – are rich and extensive, and that involve swatching, experimentation, and a significant investment of time.  In her book, Alice also acknowledges the value of time spent on the process, and points to “constant experimentation and practice” as the only reliable tools for gaining knowledge and experience, and getting results that we love.

Yet in my classroom – and in the first question of our Q&A – the desire to skip over steps 1 and 2 in 200 Fair Isle Motifs, to leap to the pop colour section in The Joy of Color, to fast-forward past the tiresome swatching proposed in Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting seems strong, indeed! Maybe it’s the time pressure in a workshop, or time pressure in the yarn shop that makes the pop colour such an attractive prospect – “if I can only get this bit right, everything will work!” There is certainly something alluring in the notion that picking one or two mysterious balls of yarn will quickly transform our lacklustre ideas into something brilliant and shimmery: perhaps, for some of us, it holds much more appeal than the plodding prospect of trial and error; of time spent swatching or making less than perfect items of knitwear.

Bev’s workspace while designing the Japonica Wrap

Pop Colour and Perfectionism

There’s something, too, about how the search for pop colours relates to our private anxieties regarding not knowing the answer; not being good with colour; or being shown – in the knitting class – to have NO COLOUR SENSE (the horrors!) How seductive is the idea that, if we can only find the elusive “pop colour” we can simultaneously make an amazing stranded colourwork design AND reveal ourselves to be A MASSIVE COLOUR GENIUS?! Yet striving for indefinable excellence rarely means we’re having a good time. 

To my mind, the pop colour has become far too big for its boots. Because it has made a few particular kinds of Fair Isle patterns look all glowy and bright, it thinks it is hot stuff. It wants to be the VII (Very Important Idea) at all our colourwork parties. But what about its friends, who are far less sexy and glamorous, but who gave the pop colour all its confidence in the first place? What about swatching, what about mess-making, what about experimentation, what about persistence, what about playing, what about time

Helen put the palette for this beautiful waistcoat together through observing the many colours in a drystone wall

This beautiful waistcoat was designed by Helen, inspired by the dry stone wall encircling her garden. It features the many shades of blue, pink, grey and green present in the wall and has a very gentle, glowing quality. Just like the wall itself, on first glance the waistcoat reads as grey, with muted pinks, blues and greens, and a pale dusting of lichen patches.

Once you look more closely – just like Helen did with her wall – a myriad of subtle shades and tones and colours begin to reveal themselves. 

A careful process of observation and experimentation, dedicated swatching, and trial and error lie behind this stranded colourwork design and I’m deeply relieved that concerns regarding the pop colour never seem to have interrupted or disrupted this lovely process. Helen talks on her Ravelry page about how she built her confidence and certainty through swatching, allowing her vision to grow in tandem with her knowledge and experience of her palette: 

“I wanted the colours in my swatch to shade from blue to pink but retain that muted and soft appearance. I created the pattern from the crevices in the wall and the shape of the stones, red sandstone, slate and granite. The lichens were a wonderful contrast.”

Helen’s wall and its colours

It takes persistence to get from an initial idea to a finished garment like this which, as Janine writes, is “a not very exciting quality but an absolutely essential one”. In the same chapter (Getting it Done, The Joy of Color), she also talks about the stymying effects of perfectionism, and how our desire to do things perfectly can stop us knitting anything at all. Alice also reassures us of the value of experimentation, and acceptance of mistakes as vital to our learning:

“Get into an experimental frame of mind. In other words, have patience and be prepared to work at it. I suspect that even the world’s greatest colorists have hurled a few abortive attempts into the nearest waste basket. Lessons can be learned from all mistakes, however, so no effort is in vain.”

Perhaps it is because I cherish mistakes and how we learn from them that I am so suspicious of the race to the pop? The KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook is a celebration of process and intentionally features lots of swatching and lots of “mistakes”. I stand by their value and usefulness. If I’d run off to find the pop colour, I would never have found the motifs, shapes, patterns and shading sequences that I discovered here – by exploring and observing our beautiful walnut tree.  

one of many swatches from the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook pp 17 – 21. You’ll find no pop colours here!

The Pop Colour is defined by its context

All this, then, comes to mind when anyone asks me “how do I find the pop colour”? 

You can see why I hoped, back on that day in the yarn shop, that Janine would be able to respond to this difficult question! 

She considered the question for a moment and then said with characteristic warmth and wisdom, “the thing about the pop colour is that it always depends on the context: you can’t choose the pop colour until you have the context.” She then described a beautiful sweater knitted for her husband, John.

This design is called the Acorn Sweater and the dominant colour used for the pattern throughout is Shetland Black – a deep, natural, sheepy brown. The background is worked in a shifting palette of warm reds and oranges, in shades inspired by a photo of spices. At its darkest point this shading sequence is a rich shade of paprika and, at its lightest – at what Janine describes as “the turn point” – appears a single round of light, bright green: the colour of dried bay leaves in her photo. 

Looking around the room, Janine explained how this green yarn was handled during the knitting of the sweater: “John is not a flashy guy, and I knew he’d hate that green but I also knew the sweater needed it to make it work. So when I was knitting the Acorn Sweater, I’d just hide that ball under the others.” There was laughter around the room, and appreciation for the lovely little flashes of green throughout the sweater and their important effect on all the other colours used. We were assured that despite the subterfuge, John loves and often wears his beautiful Acorn Sweater.

The amazing acorn sweater

The room, especially me, breathed a great sigh of relief. We can all relax about the pop colour! If the idea is to find one, then the careful, foundational work of putting together our main palette must always come first. The solution to embracing “difficult” colours is to find them their place in our palettes – through experimentation, curiosity, and observation. There is no pop colour without context. Ultimately, we can only gather the information needed to “find the pop colour” if we can learn to relax; to listen to our own instincts; to not rush ourselves and, yes – to take off our coat before we begin.

Thank you, Felix!

Further reading

Janine Bajus The Joy of Color: Fair Isle Knitting Your Way 

Mary Jane Mucklestone, 200 Fair Isle Designs  

Alice Starmore, Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Kniting

KNITSONIK, Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook and KNITSONIK & Friends: Colour to Knit

Ravelry links

Janine’s Sea & Sand Sweater and Acorn Sweater

Helen’s Dry Stone Wall Waistcoat 

Beverley Dott’s Japonica Wrap