“where our brains and the universe meet”

When I thought of the friends I’d like to hear say more about colour for this series, I immediately thought of Donna Smith. I first came across Donna’s work many years ago on my first visit to Shetland, when I bought myself a beautiful felt-covered notebook, with a simple design in two different–two perfectly selected–shades of grey. Whatever medium Donna is working with, from hand-knits to wool felt, from the decor of her home to her own garment choices, she’s just one of those people with an immediately recognisable personal aesthetic, which is in part defined by its palette. Sometimes, someone’s work just has a feeling and to me, the feeling of Donna’s work is quite unusual, combining, as it does, the warm and welcoming with the pared-back and precise. Donna has lots to say about colour, so please sit down, get a cup of tea, and enjoy her post!

Colour is the place where our brains and the universe meet

Paul Klee

Colour, in terms of what we like, is a very personal thing. We tend to choose colours to wear or to knit with that we like and which make us feel good. I have often noticed when I am teaching Fair Isle knitting workshops, students will often tell me they have selected for totally random colours that they wouldn’t normally go for and then I tell them to look at their knitting and at what they are wearing. It becomes clear that the colours they chose weren’t so random after all!

If we use physics to explain colour we know that visible light is made up of a range of wavelengths of approx. 400-740 nanometres. In 1666 Sir Isaac Newton discovered that white light can be split into a rainbow when shone through a glass prism and classified the spectrum as being made up of 7 colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The colours we see are the wavelengths that are reflected back into our eyes. What we see though is not as straight forward as this: we see colours as different shades, hues and tones and many factors affect what we actually “see”.

Light enters the body through the eye, via the optic nerve that connects the eye to the brain. Within the retina at the back of the eye there are two different types of receptors, rods and cones. Rods are more sensitive to light than cones and are therefore responsible for night time vision or the ability to see in dim light. Cones are the receptors that are responsible for distinguishing colours. The majority of humans are what is known as “trichomats” because we have three types of cones, each of which can see 100 shades. This means that we can distinguish up to a million different colours. Other creatures in the animal kingdom have varying numbers of different cone types, and amazingly the crustacean, mantis shrimp, has up to sixteen sensors that identify colour!

Mantis shrimp

It is often suggested that colour can make us feel a certain way and the branch of science called “colour psychology” aims to study the effects of colour in the brain. It is of course, a complicated subject: colour signals are processed through multiple neural stages in the deep brain and studies on the brain itself have revealed different areas are responsible for processing the different colours. It can then be argued that colours are not actually there but are constructed in the brain. This complicated process it is perhaps no surprise that the way we think and feel about colour is not at all straightforward. One science writer, Oliver Sacks, stated that the area in the brain that process colour “signals to and converses with a hundred other systems in the mind-brain”. So many things affect our experiences with colour, our culture, personal experiences, the media, subminimal messages through marketing, politics, etc. The French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau suggested we see them through a prism more much complicated than Newton’s – a prism through which these external factors all come into play. Pastoureau summed it up well when he said: “colour is first and foremost a social construct”.

Over the last few years when the world as we know it came to a halt due to the Covid 19 pandemic and home-schooling became the norm, I discovered that my son (now aged 11) has the cognitive condition called synaesthesia, where one sense can trigger another. I first became aware of it when he told me that the days of the week and months of the year all had specific colours assigned to them and when he heard or said that word he would see the relevant colour. Some names have colour assigned to them (my name is a dull brown while his Granny is a raspberry shade!), while some words have a specific taste (I have to remember not to say the word “conduct” too often as that tastes of vinegar which he hates!). He has also described how when he feels a certain way a colour will almost descend into looking though tinted glass: the glass is orange in times of stress.

It fascinates me that colour is not only what we see through our eyes: our brains are amazing and complex things. We often categorise colours based on our many experiences and cultural associations, for example, red being seen as danger or a warning while blue is often seen as a calm colour. Yet we also often refer to it as an adjective when we say we are feeling “blue” or down in the dumps.

Blue, the colour of the sea, calm or gloomy?

Ever since Kate asked me a do a guest blog post on the subject of colour, how it makes us feel and my use of a restrictive pallete in knitting colour work, I have been thinking about why I use the colours I use in my work, or when I am choosing clothes to wear or in decorating my home. Anyone who knows me and my work will know that I am a huge fan of the colour grey and other neutral colours and will often use two colours only in any colorwork project. 

Shalmillens Snood – a Fair Isle design in black and white

It could be argued that grey isn’t a colour as there is no grey in the rainbow, that is in fact is a tone:  grey it is created when many different wavelengths of light are absorbed by a surface, increasingly gradually into black, when larger proportions of the incoming light are absorbed by a surface. 

Donna’s Langsoond yarn in natural greys

Grey is often thought as a negative colour and is associated with many undesirable things: bad weather, the concrete jungle, smog, dullness etc. I think that this is rather unfair, and I personally find grey not dull but very relaxing and calming. There are so many different versions of it, you can have bluey-grey, greenish-grey, pinkish grey, I could go on.

Sunwick Cowl in two shades of grey

My entire house is painted in a blueish shade of pale grey (which was once described as very “drab” by a family member!) and I feel that it helps to make it a calm environment to be in (maybe as it is often chaotic in other ways there needs to be some way to make it calm!). I personally find working with greys and a restricted palette is restful and relaxing. Maybe using only two colours or shades is a response to having a busy life and busy mind? Thinking also about the clothes I choose to wear, I tend to steer away from wearing highly patterned and colourful clothes, opting to have a wardrobe that’s largely full of black, grey, and navy. I recently told one of my friends I was going to branch away from black and dress more colourfully, after which I ordered a dark brown jumper! A shade not exactly classed as colourful! Why do I choose these colours? I’m not sure – maybe it helps me to blend into the background and not stand out? There’s certainly a bit of that. Or maybe it’s easier to have a restricted palette when it comes to wearing clothes as it makes getting dressed easier in the morning?

Aald Hoose Hat and Mitts in two contrasting colours of undyed yarn

The chemistry of colour has fascinated since I started natural dyeing. Different pigments in the plants reflect different wavelengths of light and create yarn with complex colours, as there are often several different pigments at play. 

If the pH of the dye is changed by adding either an acid such as vinegar or an alkali such as sodium carbonate, the colour of the dye can be shifted. The addition of certain chemicals such as iron sulphate (or using rusty water derived from iron metal) can change the colour, and iron can dull down colours. I find myself using iron often in dying especially if something is a bit too bright for my liking! It is usually said that the addition of iron “saddens” the colour, again, I feel this is quite unfair as the colours achieved are usually anything but sad. I love the alchemy of the process and not being quite sure what colours might come out of the dye pots. There’s something magical about it. I find natural dyeing is a way of connecting to nature and to the land, using what is around me to create something that reflect the place. But, despite having an almost infinite range of colours at my fingertips, more often than not I still find myself reaching for the undyed grey or Shetland Black yarn: why should we try to go against what we like?

Dear Donna, for me your quiet palette and balanced designs have the opposite effect of blending in: rather, in this sometimes loud and overwhelming world, they are what makes your work stand out!

You can find Donna’s home-grown yarns, patterns, and wonderful new book (about which I’ll have more to say another time) in her shop.