colour confidence

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!

A selection of beautiful, colourful mends

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!

photography by Susan Castillo

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.  

Flora’s favourite oak tree, and a scarf in all the greens

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. 

photography by Susan Castillo

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!

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. 

Grey mist scarf

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. 

heather colours. Photogrsphy by J Borghino

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. 

Autumn colour, in the landscape and Flora’s knits

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. 

A darning sampler using seven shades in different combinations

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.