Colour by Ella

A true colour treat today, from one of my favourite Shetland designers, Ella Gordon. Ella’s design work combines a respect for tradition with a feel for colour that’s full of individual personality. Ella works at the Shetland woolbrokers, Jamieson and Smith, and we’ve heard earlier in this series about that company’s important shades. Today, Ella’s here to talk about her own approach to colour, an approach which I find practical, inspirational and full of characteristic vim and humour. Among knitters, discussions of colour can often be rather serious, and the benefit of the last two qualities — with which Ella’s design work always sings – is not to be underestimated.

As a designer, colour is something that is very important to me and I think a lot of that comes from being a Shetlander.  The use of colour is so prevalent in our knitting culture that it is all around me, providing inspiration, and constantly informing my design work. People love to  describe Shetland as being isolated – which of course in some ways it is  — but being where we are has also made us open and outward looking, with cultural influences coming from all directions.  Many different kinds of knitting have arrived in Shetland, as well as being made here, and, as generations of Shetlanders encountered and interpreted different textiles, over time, our knitting has developed a look which is both unique and recognisable.

vintage Fair Isle allovers

I have been collecting vintage knitwear for well over a decade now. My collection includes a wide range of styles from different decades and it is a constant inspiration for my own knitting. Though some might say my collection is now completely out of hand I am proud to say that I now have some excellent examples of all types of Shetland knitwear. 

colourful crowns from Ella’s collection

I never directly copy anything in my collection – that isn’t why I buy things:  I would never take the credit for someone else’s design work. But I’m often interested in the construction, motifs, and colour inspiration of the vintage items I find.  In fact, what a vintage item teaches me about design is very often what I don’t want: Fair Isle yokes, for example, were once designed with very high necklines. The look of a Cluedo character might have been beneficial in a chilly 1970s Shetland house, but is not the vibe I’m going for now. 

Learning from construction, colour, and motif

In my own design work I probably relate most to knitwear from the 1970s and 80’s and I really like to use bright colours and graphic motifs. I am also often inspired by early textiles but I like to switch it up a bit. Knitters often ask me about my colour choices.  I definitely use lots of the same colours (almost always Jamieson & Smith Jumper Weight) and I thought it might be interesting to explore a few of my patterns in a bit more depth, exploring how I combine my colour choices with the design process.  

Radiant Star

Radiant star cowl

For this design which was originally in the Shetland Wool Week Annual 2020 I was inspired by the kinds of jumpers I saw boys and men wearing when I was growing up. I began with the motifs and designed an allover pattern which interlocked and repeated. I then moved onto the palette, which I wanted to work as a kind of wave with two sets of colours moving through it. 

Radiant star cowl

For the background I used J&S Jumper Weight shade 81. This shade is almost black, but has flecks of white throughout. These flecks mean that it is not a flat colour, and works as a great base and background for bright, bold, solid shades like 125 (the orange in the middle row). A bright middle row is something you often see in Shetland knitting: this was my starting point, and I worked backwards from that. 

Radiant star mitts

The number of rows in the pattern motif tends to determine how many colours I use. I find that 5 or 6 shades are usually my sweet spot as this gives enough visual interest but is not overwhelming.   I find I just don’t have the patience or interest to be using 11 shade variations that are barely different from one another – but that’s just me! I like opposing colours, so here I settled on two blues (71 and 75), and two yellows (66 and 91). You’ll see that the orange (125) blends with the yellows on their wave, but also stands out boldly against the blues. I like to knit between 3 and 5 rounds of each colour, as I think that any more than that can start to look a bit stripey – which is not a vibe I like. Using fewer colours does mean that the likelihood of stripey-ness increases, though,  so you do need to swatch and finesse your palette until you feel totally happy with the balance.

Houll Hat

Ella in Houll

For this pattern, I again used a bright middle row (shade 71), but I wanted to be much more subtle with the other shades. You’ll see that there are 3 other colours used, (FC38,  32, and 90)  and I wanted them to really blend into each other with the middle row being completely different and standing out. The pattern is another allover motif, inspired by a hat I bought at a saleroom in Lerwick a few years ago, which I found I was really taken with because of the way its pattern melded with, and grew out of, its crown shaping.

glorious Houll crown

When I was working on Houll, I knitted two colourways, with the same four-shade pattern palette but two different undyed background shades of natural white (2001) and Shetland black (2005. The result was startling, and really revealed to me the impact of a simple choice of background colour on an overall design. 

Houll, with natural white background

Ola Yoke

I went through a serious Fair Isle Yoke phase for a couple of years and was continually wearing, buying and knitting them. The subtle variations and changes you can make to a yoke, that mean you end up with a completely different look, will always fascinate me. Ola is one of my most popular designs: a kind of modern interpretation of a traditional Fair Isle Yoke. Here, I used a wider neckline and no background changes to allow my motif to really stand out. 

Ola Yoke

 Often in traditional yokes you have a band (my J&S colleague, Sandra, refers to this as “the wiggle”) of a peerie pattern, which divides a darker body from the lighter (often fawn or white) background of the yoke. In Ola I eliminated the wiggle, and retained the darker background, incorporating white instead into the main motif to make the pattern really stand out. Again, I used 81 for my main colour, with shading from blue to yellow and orange (this is obviously a favourite combination), but the use of white allows a nicely blended transition. Working on a really dark background will always make your pattern stand out boldly, but you have to be careful: some brighter colours can still read as dark, and with something as solid as this motif you have to try and avoid the dreaded (to me) stripey look.

beautiful blending

Hesti Hat and Mitts

 These designs which feature in the Shetland Wool Adventure Journals (the hat in volume 1 and mitts in volume 2) are my attempt at drawing inspiration from very early Fair Isle colours.

Hesti hat

In the earliest Fair Isle designs, natural colours and dyes– such as madder and indigo– would have been combined with undyed fleece shades like moorit and Shetland black. I used peerie (small) patterns, and a palette that, in its reds, yellows, and blues, would recall the traditional palette. But I really wanted these pieces to feel like they were already vintage so I used denim blue (FC47), orange (FC38), fawn (202) brown (FC44) and marled yellow (121) rather than a set of brighter shades.

Hesti mitts

This design was all about traditional motifs and pattern placement (which, if you use it well will always be successful) but turning the volume of the colour down, to effectively create a feeling. I actually made another version of the Hesti hat with even more sun-bleached-looking colours and was pleased with how that worked out.


Breiwick beret

The final design I wanted to look at was this hat designed for Kate’s Milarrochy Heids book in 2018. This time I was aiming for an almost 1940’s style design but using much more saturated shades than you’d see at that time. 


The Millarochy Tweed yarn has lovely nepps in it, so you can use it to pick up elements of your surrounding colours. Diamond shading is often seen in Shetland knitting and it makes the bridging between patterns and colours much gentler. To jump from the pale main shade (Hirst) to the background in the main motif (Lochan) would be a big tonal jump so to transition from a lighter blue (Smirr) and green-blue (Ardlui) through the diamond is really effective. 

The pink (Campion) and orange (Buckthorn) worked really well against the Lochan then of course I placed a bright middle row in the zingy green (Stockiemuir) I tried to balance out the gaps above and below the diamonds with the Buckthorn in a leafy motif and I used all the shades in the crown.

I’m constantly inspired by the women of Shetland, quiet artists who have in their way, been with wool for hundreds of years, creating garments and accessories that are worn by people every day. Textile traditions grow and change with the people. Being in Shetland can be hard, in the dark, windy winters and I’m sure our colourful knitwear comes as some reaction to that. Likewise in the summer as the landscape is awash with colour and this in turn brings endless joy and inspiration. In my own designs, I work to pay homage to my environment, culture and history while also making the things I want to knit and wear. I hope you have enjoyed this little look into my colour choices and design process.

Ella x

It’s always a delight to hear from you, dear Ella! Find Ella’s patterns in her Ravelry store and her blog here