One of the things I was very keen for this series of conversations to do was to showcase what I feel is the really interesting range of work with colour that’s being done by creative women in Scotland at the moment. Last week we heard from Donna Smith, a Shetland designer who is well-known for her monochrome two-tone designs and her use of grey, and today, we are going to hear from Flora Collingwood-Norris, the Borders-based knitwear designer and visible mending practitioner, whose use of colour I always find bold, precise and distinctive. I think what Flora has to say here is very enabling and inspiring for anyone who ever feels uncertain about their individual palette and colour choices – enjoy!
It often seems funny to me when people tell me I have a distinctive use of colour. For years I lacked confidence in my colour choices, even though I’ve always loved wearing lots of it and being surrounded by colour at home. It’s only recently, really since starting Collingwood-Norris that I feel comfortable with my own taste and choices. Now I have a business that’s extremely colour focussed, and the days I enjoy best are those when I’m surrounded by lots of colourful cones of yarn!
I think my lack of confidence in colour began at university. I was continually marked down for my use of colour, and never given feedback on how to improve it. Thinking about it, we were generally told to choose a colour palette from one of the contemporary trend forecasts, and at the time I never liked any of them, as there were lots of sludgy greens and browns, so really it’s no wonder I didn’t do well in it!
In my freelance work after university, I often didn’t get a choice in what colours to use. In this work, I was making other people’s ideas come to life, and they chose the colours. When I was swatching (creating design ideas for other companies to buy), working with neutral colours was always best as then I wouldn’t be selecting the wrong shade of a colour that wouldn’t fit in with somebody else’s colour palette for the coming season.
Since Kate asked me to write this piece, I’ve been thinking a lot about when my use of colour started to come more naturally, and when I started to have more confidence in it. A few things slotted into place at the same time- I got my first dog, and started having to go out regularly for walks. That helped hugely with my stress levels, and my sense of belonging, and exposed me to more colour. One of the big family stresses I had had ended at that time too. So I wonder if feeling confident about colour has partly come about because I don’t have the same anxieties? Without those anxieties, I definitely feel more confident. I feel able to be more authentically myself, and I think that’s definitely reflected in my work and use of colour.
Also, knowing I won’t be marked on my choices anymore is freeing, and I refuse to even look at trends, which is also very liberating.
However, I started Collingwood-Norris with one scarf in greys, as it felt safe. Then a customer wanted it in colour. Having a limited budget, at that time I could only afford to buy about five or six colours, so I had to choose really carefully. I spent a long time working out which colours would work well together, which ones I really loved, and it was very helpful to be so restricted or I would have bought one of every shade that was available! I remember my mum advising me to always include some neutral shades when I chose colours, as they were often essential to make a colour palette work. My mum has a great eye for colour, and created some fabulous colour combinations when she made knitwear.
The first colour palette I chose for Collingwood Norris was inspired by my childhood holidays to Mull and Iona. I had a beautiful sea blue that reminded me of the waters there, a bright yellow that just makes me happy and reminds me of the wild flowers, a bright coral for the fishing buoys, navy, a bright blue for the lobster creels, and a cream colour for the sandy beaches. These holidays were filled with play- building forts, having races, and cartwheeling on the beach!
My scarf designs are minimalist, but the bright colours reflect that playfulness and joy for me. They are colours that make me feel light, happy and energised, but mixed with the peaceful sea blue for the calm I always feel there.
The greys have stayed as staple in my collection, a reminder of misty days on holiday, with long walks so wet I had to empty puddles out of my wellies.
More recently, and particularly since the first lockdown, I’ve looked to my local landscape for colour inspiration. I’m based in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, so there are plenty of rolling hills to enjoy, surrounded by a patchwork of fields.
Every season brings different delights when it comes to colour, and I enjoy all the changes. It has meant that my colour choices have started to shift to include more greens, purples and a deeper yellow that reflects my home surroundings. These are all colours that make me feel grounded, contented, and connected to my area. What I aim for with my colour choices is to capture my overall feeling of a place, rather than pick out exact shades.
Colours that bring me a lot of joy at the moment are warm greens and yellow, orange and reds. I find them on my walks in Spring, in gorse and blaeberry flowers, in the pinky red of some of the soil here. I find them in Autumn when the leaves change, and fly agaric toadstools appear. They’re colours I started combining in my repair work, which I then brought into my knitwear because I loved them together so much.
Knitting colours together, particularly with the minimalist structure I use can be a bit like painting. And the same can be said for darning. For example, blue and yellow together looks a bit green, red and blue can look purple. Sometimes there’s an unexpected outcome, and it can be hard to believe that a colour can look so completely different depending on what it’s paired with.
One of the reasons I love darning so much is the endless joy of combining colours in slightly different ways. Even by using just a few colours, there can be so many options to make the darns look really different.
Changing the proportion of the colour, or even changing one or two colours in a colour palette can make a considerable difference.
I’ve started using my darning workshop samplers as little colour studies, exploring different how one palette can be used for different effects.
One thing I’ve found out in recent years is that it’s essential for me to have natural light in order to be creative with colour. Even if I’ve chosen my colours in daylight, if I try to do any creative mending with them after dark in artificial light, something always feels off and it doesn’t work. It made me feel like I was lacking creativity to begin with, but now I know it’s just that I need to be able to see the colours properly in order for ideas to flow. So I think the key to enjoying colour is working with colours you love, in daylight!
So many wise words here, Flora, thank you! Find Flora’s beautiful lambswool scarves and hats in her shop and learn how to mend and care for your knitwear from her, beautiful book, tutorials and videos. You can also find out more about Flora and her work in this interview with me from 2021.
Dear all at KDD,
Each week I think: surely this must be the last one. And again these wonderful mails keep arriving.
I forwarded many of the mails about the colours in history to my friends. They also love them very much. As a chemist I find your research is spot on and wonderful in its depth.
The Wednesday mails I also enjoy very much, with all the richness they bring. Ideas on combinations that will make changing the standard colours of a pattern much more rewarding for me.
I knitted the Astragal hat for my son and I am going to make Schene for my grandson. So that will mean some calculation work, but no problem. And maybe the Starnkeeker will be just something for my sister. (by the way: my second child was a sterrenkijker, the Dutch word is the same)
So all in all I am extremely happy with your Allover project. Thank you so much!
I loved reading Flora’s post & the growth in her colour confidence over the years to a point now where her work, both in knitting & creative mending, is truly beautiful! The post was inspiring.
I enjoy seeing how Flora & other writers previously featured, derive inspiration from nature, from urban or coastal landscapes, & from their heritage.
I have very fond memories of Galashiels following a visit in 1979. One day I hope I can see the Border area again & many other parts of Scotland that I have seen in the posts.
There’s so much about this essay which resonates – in the 70’s id was a “freelance” knitting and crochet designer, which effectively meant being tied to someone else’s colour palette and ideas. After 8 or 9 years I gave up and took an unrelated job, it took me many years to even start knitting again. I’m sure if such a supportive and imaginative community had existed then, it would have been a different story. I get so much pleasure from admiring what people do these days (and occasionally trying to copy it!)
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Thank you very much for sharing your article on Flora Collingwood-Norris.
I’ve been following her for many years and have her mending book. I so enjoy her combining her beautiful knits and mended items with the gorgeous scenery (as you do also with your sweater designs). Scotland is so beautiful!
I love this essay and Flora Collingwood-Norris’ descriptions of colours of Scotland that are so familiar for me. They definitely form my palette too.
The photos of the samples of darning remind me of some old workbooks that my mum created when she was a student at Glasgow ‘dough school’ (now Queens college) in the 1950s. In my memory, the notebooks were filled with so much embroidery and different darning. Along with recipes and all sorts of other bits and pieces, they were a record of her learning the skills she used right through her life.
I don’t know where these notebooks are now ……. I must ask her! She will be so happy to know that darning is trending again, but I know that she has never stopped .
Very exciting to see that mending and I took another look at your previous interview. I do like how she worked the nature colours into her scarves.
I have never seen such mind blowing mending in my life. It is just stunning! So glad Flora has lessons and a book to learn from. The colours she chooses and her particular way of mending is just so pretty! Those plaids are glorious!
There is a interesting article in the February edition of County Living magazine about the work Flora Collingwood-Norris does.
Fascinating – only problem……another rabbit hole!!!! Love the idea of invisible mending for colour swatching, but know, if I go there…….and, already I have no time for routine housework etc 💕🙃
I love how Flora uses her natural environment to inspire her colour choices, and how she has found her own way of using this inspiration. I love to admire the colour combinations of our garden birds, and sometimes am bold enough to dress using them – how fabulous a bright coral jacket looks over a grey or black dress. Thanks to the bullfinches for that one. Or look at the jay with his bright blue, the goldfinch’s yellow and red, the male chaffinch’s pink and brown, the smart red black and white of the woodpecker, the cream and yellow of a gannet …. on it goes. Mother Nature must be a needlewoman I think.
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I find this essay truly inspiring. I’m all for more colour in things, particularly on a dreich day like today (possibly in honour of Rabbie Burns.)
Having recently knitted 3 pairs of Starkins in various colours – definitely choose colours in proper daylight. Or at very least get a decent ‘daylight’ light.
Off to darn a few socks more creatively. Maybe that’ll learn DH to give them to me when they have holes!