How to play with colour

My good friend Felix (Felicity Ford) needs no introduction here, and I can honestly think of no-one better to discuss a topic that I felt it was very important to include in our Allover explorations: that of play. Colour is surely one of the most playful elements of any kind of creative work, yet many knitters find playing with colour an activity that’s both pressurised and difficult. If you are one of these knitters, Felix has many wise and helpful things to say to you in what follows, and her conclusions about the stubborn, resistant aspects of creative play will really resonate. Enjoy!

Felix, playing with colour

Why Play?

The open-ended nature of play can be hard to reconcile with the specific aims we have as knitters to produce things that are wearable and well-fitting, and in which we will feel comfortable and good. Those requirements can really crush experimentation and discovery before we even begin, crowding an uncertain course with questions leaving no space for spontaneity to unfold. 

When we play, we act from a place of curiosity and experimentation without being attached to end results. Playing means cultivating interest in what is happening without judgement and being able to hold awkward or messy outcomes with interest; with kindness; and often also with a sense of humour. Playing is fun – pleasure incentivises us to continue even when we’re unsure about what we’re producing; even when we can’t see where we’re going. When we play, we engage in creativity for its own sake.

I love the practical considerations of knitwear design and consider them to be absolutely their own form of creativity. There are times to be precise about the “right way” to edge or finish a garment; there’s a way to get the exact number of stitches you need to cast on for a hat or a jumper; but playing gives you other kinds of information for which there are no formulae or sums. 

Too often in my classes and workshops, I see knitters trying to do everything at once – pushing to make decisions about a final garment that needs to be amazing, while also striving to “play with colours”. At such moments folk will say things like “I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone!” with a tense grimace. This strikes me as the worst of all worlds. The joy of making something well and with certainty is tinged with pressure to “PLAY AND HAVE FUN!!!” Meanwhile the stakes are so high – “THIS HAS TO BE THE BEST HAT EVER” – that it’s almost impossible to relax and experiment with ease. Such an uneasy compromise is surely outside everybody’s comfort zone.

I think the trick to playing more with colour in our crafting is to separate it from other modes of making, and to give it a bit more space elsewhere in our lives. In this essay I’ve tried to share some examples and some practical exercises so you can try this out. 

I hope there’s something here that you can use, and – above all – that reading this will lead to your playing more. 

When the pattern of your attention has changed, you render your reality differently. You begin to move and act in a different kind of world. –

 Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. 

Making in this way means giving as much weight to process as to product. Or, put another way, it means expanding our notion of “product” to include all the hidden elements wrapped up in the making of a thing

 Lea Redmond, Knit the Sky 
1.    The more you look at colours, the more there is to see.

As a teenager, I saved up for art classes with a local painter – Pat Franco. On my first lesson, I was dismayed to see a ceramic chicken filled with boring eggs that was clearly to be that day’s painterly subject. Pat showed me her method for mixing paints using a palette knife. “After folding colours together to create the desired shade” she said, “hold the knife up beside the object you are representing to check the colour”. I impatiently concocted a milky-tea coloured shade of EGG and announced that my colour was ready. With infinite kindness, Pat steered my hand with its palette knife into my line of sight and held it beside the eggs. The colour I’d mixed was nowhere to be seen – all my prejudices regarding the colours of eggs had prevented me from seeing the real colours before me: the dusky blues, the soft pink tones, the touches of yellow and white, the shadows of sage and rust. 

That lesson continues to help me with my knitting – you might think of it, next time you see a basket of eggs.

Exploring my favourite road as a source of knitterly inspiration, I was overwhelmed by colour options (the road is 24 miles long and there are millions of colours from which to choose). One day I set myself the task of looking harder at the road itself. Looking through my camera lens, I realised how many subtle colours exist in the road surface itself, and its many patches and repair jobs. Different mixes of bitumen, tar and minerals applied over time produce something that – just like the eggs – is not one colour at all, but many. I covered the house in photos of tarmac and part-balls of yarn, and “ruined” roads for my husband, Mark. “Yesterday was a simple day”, he said. “The roads were grey. Now they are pink and turquoise and brown and there isn’t even just one shade of white when you look at the paint”

One way to have great fun playing with colour is to practice colour matching: that is, to habitually match shade cards or paint chips to objects in the world. Through this process you learn to “see” colour more clearly;  to understand the subtle nuances of shades – how one grey can be a bit purplish and another can be chalky; how the sea is slate grey or cobalt blue. We can all tune in to the specifics of colour if we let ourselves look more closely without judgement.

Don’t wait until the time-pressured visit to the yarn shop to get out your shade cards and play with them; enjoy them whenever you can. This means that when the time comes to pick out colours for a project, they are familiar friends. Take ingredients out of your kitchen cupboards and match them to shade cards or yarns you have in your stash;  take shade cards with you and match them to things you find in the environment where you walk, work, wait for the bus. Make up imaginary palettes for projects based on what you see each day, and yarns that match those scenes. Even if you never knit them, this kind of play is fun; doesn’t take long; and builds your knowledge and understanding of colours and your familiarity with different yarn brand palettes. 

take a shade card of yarns. Find a colour match for each of the shades in your card and make a note of your surprises and discoveries. 

2.    Deepen your appreciation for colour combinations you admire and use them in your work.

Colour is hard to appreciate in the abstract and I think it’s quite difficult to hold up yarn balls and attempt to predict exactly how they’ll interact in our stitches. In the balls, they are like big swatches – solid fields of colour – but when we knit them, they’ll combine and meld and influence each other in unpredictable ways. We can take some of the guesswork out of that by finding objects that combine colours we’d like to use together in our knitting.

Seashore socks

In the early 2000s I bought some Lorna’s Laces hand painted sock yarn in a colour called Seashore. I loved how the colours worked together and found it such a successful celebration of beaches and shorelines in yarn. Using my favourite game of colour-matching, I picked out all the colours in my Seashore socks as single shades of J&S 2 ply Jumper Weight. Using the socks and the palette of the yarn to help me, I was able to create colour combinations that really worked – and some that I would not have found without the helpful guidance of my socks. 

Seashore yarn wrap

Do you have a skein of variegated yarn languishing in your stash? Might it help you put together a palette for knitting a new project? 

Seashore swatch

pick a stranded colourwork pattern you like and note how many shades are used. Find a variegated skein of yarn (or a project you’ve made with variegated yarn) and use its colour combinations to help you design a new palette. Even if you never knit it, this helpful exercise might give you ideas for future projects.

a bad hat?

3.    When things go wrong, be interested, not defeated.

One thing that helped me understand the importance of getting help from existing objects when assembling a yarn palette was making a truly horrific hat. When I created the now frogged LISTEN HAT, I’d recently discovered Alice Starmore’s Hebridean 2ply yarns. There was no plan for knitting with them – I just wanted to use them ALLLLLLLL and so cast on without a second thought. 

. . . .or a tool for learning?

If colour scares or worries you, then I highly recommend this course of action. I learnt so much from the experience – not least that it doesn’t matter if you make a mess: it’s only yarn. 

I learnt that balls of yarn that harmonise beautifully as balls might not work at all once mixed up together as stitches. I learnt that when you have very large shapes and no diagonals, colour-changes between yarns become painfully obvious and lead to stripy results. I learnt that it’s hard to design a hat AND experiment with colours at the same time. 

No experiment is a failure

Rather than being defeated by the disastrous LISTEN HAT, I became interested in the factors involved in its failure. No inspiration source to help me organise my colours, no swatching to help me test out ideas, no experimenting with shapes and patterns before the high-stakes knitting began, no previous knowledge of the yarns. 

Several years later I embarked on a quest to address these matters, laying the foundation for The KNITSONIK System at the heart of my Sourcebook and my online course of the same name. If I’d not made such a mess with the LISTEN HAT, I’d never have so keenly experienced the problems many knitters face when playing with colour for the first time – perhaps I also wouldn’t have been so invested in trying to find ways to solve them. 

A great way to play with colour is to make something awful and then work out how you’d do it differently next time – this is a funnier and more forgiving path than trying to get things perfect right away. 

knit something bad. When you’ve finished laughing and are over your disappointment, try to work out why things didn’t turn out as expected. Too many colours? Not enough contrast? Motif too blocky? Motif too skinny? These are problems you can solve in your next colourwork project


4.    Play with yarn shades in a low-stakes setting where the outcome doesn’t matter. 

Colour play is much more fun if it’s not happening at the same time as trying to design a wearable object. To get help with the palette for a future LISTEN HAT, I turned to my EDIROL R09 handheld digital recorder; a small black device with silver and metal accents, a glowy record button, and a side held together with Sellotape. As my companion on many field recording trips, this object is especially appropriate and evocative to the context of listening.

Just like the eggs, just like tarmac, this unassuming object yields a surprising number of colour combinations and pattern possibilities, each of which I explored in a massive, happy swatch.

EDIROL R09 in swatch form

There are motifs inspired by the aqua blue battery symbol; the silver settings panel on the back of the recorder; the worn charcoal black and slate grey transport buttons; the big red button on the front. Exploring the details of my little field recorder in the low-stakes setting of a swatch rather than the stressful confines of a hat afforded me much more time to play with my inspiration source, and to notice its subtle palette. The swatch is a document of attention – its means of production is much closer to the very act of listening that inspired me in the first place. By giving time and space to exploring ideas in the zero-pressure context of a swatch, I was able to relax and enjoy playing with colour, and to gather all the information I need for when it’s time to redesign the LISTEN HAT.

The value of swatching for colour play is impossible to overstate. 

swatch for the next colourwork project you wish to make – and not just for gauge! Do several versions of the main motifs in different colour combinations just to see what happens and if you don’t like the results, try to identify why. Each thing you find you don’t like is knowledge that will help future you with your next project. 

5.    If you hate swatching but love playing, make systems.

My relentless incitements to swatch will not convince everyone, I know. Sitting down with charting paper, pencils and yarns; plotting out the next idea; gleefully accepting that there is no guaranteed success – this way of working uses precious resources we don’t always have.

At such times, working with a system can be fun. This means having a rough idea what the end project will look like but building in room for discovery and experimentation along the way.

My favourite example is Knit the Sky – a scarf pattern by Lea Redmond (Leafcutter Designs), from which her book of the same name takes its title. This project involves gathering small quantities of many shades of blue, white, grey etc. and committing to knit two rows every day, based on the sky’s colour for that day. You know the end result is going to be a somewhat stripey scarf in harmonising shades of blue, grey and white (with occasional bursts of sunset yellows or dusky purples, depending on the time of day at which you record the sky’s colour) and you know it’s going to be a scarf. But the pleasure of observing, recording and colour-matching your yarns to the sky each day are experiences that will unfold in time. There’s no swatching or tiresome pre-planning as Lea has already written the pattern and created the system – you just need to find your yarn, cast on, and start to play. 

knit the sky!

My Polkamania! pattern also use systems, so that play takes place within guidelines and parameters. Polkamania! explores what happens when you sequence darks and lights together and separately. It uses six shades (dark to light) of one colour, and six shades (dark to light) of another; these are sequenced from light to dark together for one half of the cowl and then in opposite directions for the other. Once you have a system you can keep playing with it in different ways; I also made a rainbow version of Polkamania! using a light rainbow and a dark rainbow – you can see more clearly on this example how colour sequencing is handled in the two halves of the cowl.


Systems that create parameters for colour play are a fantastic way to allow for discovery and experimentation while also producing something useful at the end.  

design a colour play project that uses a system. There should be a set outcome so you know what you get at the end – a scarf, a pair of mitts, a cowl – and a system for managing the colours

neutral outfit, patterned knits

6.    Continuing playing with the colours in your projects even after you’ve bound them off.

The kind of playing we’ve talked about so far is useful for pre-planning craft projects, but the joy doesn’t have to stop when we bind off. Here are some of the things I do to play with colours after I’ve finished knitting with them; hopefully some of them will speak to you.

Most of the clothes I wear are of one colour. This has become an increasingly deliberate choice, as my projects tend to feature lots of detail and richly-patterned colourwork. My approach to wearing my own designs is to make what I’m wearing a supportive canvas against which they can sing. I love picking out colours from my knitting to emphasise with accents – tights; eyeshadows; nail varnishes. This a case of looking for just the right shade of pink or green or blue to accentuate a detail in something that I’ve made.

matchy matchy

Some of my favourite ideas about colour and handknits can be found in the amazing Warm Hands book, the styling for which was a collaboration between Kate Davies and Jeanette Sloan. In this collection, all the gloves and mittens are worn with clothes that feature blocks of colour and little accents that pick up some of the shades used in each design. Matching details appear throughout – a necklace, a skirt, a word on a t-shirt – to emphasise colours used in each pair of mittens or gloves. If you are ever watching Great British Menu, you’ll notice that Andi Oliver does something similar, often accentuating one of the colours in a glorious patterned dress with a perfectly matched eyeshadow, glasses chain, or necklace. Siobhán McSweeney (Great Pottery Throwdown) regularly wears statement headbands, earrings and eyeshadows that pick up on a particular colour in her top or trousers.

Mimi, styled by Jeanette, for KDD’s Warm Hands shoot in Finnieston’s hidden lane

You can see these influences at work in the styling for my Colour to Knit eBook: a collaboration with fellow designers Beverley Dott, Patricia Kimmitt and Nolwenn Pensivy. When planning the styling, we thought about everything in terms of blocks of colour and accentuating details. I scoured Vinted and eBay for an ombre sweater to echo the softly-shifting pinks of the flowers in my Flombre pattern, and we overdyed the dresses with which we styled Bev’s Japonica wrap with “tulip red” so that the styling would chime nicely with the precise shades of yarn she’d used.

red and green echoes in the styling and photography of the Colour to Knit eBook

But you don’t have to be on TV or styling a knitwear collection to have this much fun playing with colour. Just experimenting with the highlight and accent shades of existing knitted pieces in your daily wardrobe can heighten your appreciation of colours and their interactions with the world. 

sit down with your favourite piece of colourful knitting or crochet and style a whole outfit around its colours – be really specific: that little flash of red you like so much, is it a tomato red or a brick red? Will you go for a big block of that colour – a top, a pair of trousers, a coat – or something smaller, like your nails or a matchy pair of socks? 

7.    The time for colour play is always now.

I think often we get stuck into thinking we would play more if there was only more time. Perhaps a fabulous three-week retreat with no distractions, or an uninterrupted afternoon. I’ve learnt that waiting for these magical opportunities can feel quite impoverishing and make SPECIAL TIMES TO PLAY feel deeply pressurised. Instead of waiting for the retreat that never seems to come, why not commit to playing with colour every day? It could be a very small thing – taking a ten-minute break during your working day and, instead of checking your phone, going exploring with a shade card and seeing what surprising colour matches you can find; decorating letters to friends or journal pages with combinations of washi-tapes you really like; playing with fruits in the fruit bowl and organising them from dark to light; ensuring you wear something in your outfit that matches the colours of your knitting and makes you happy; taking photos of food mid-way through your meal prep because you notice something interesting in their colour combinations… whatever appeals to you.  

look up from where you’re reading this, and find yourself a rainbow. Do it in under ten minutes – I promise there’s one there.  

Conclusion: Playing with colour is much more than fun and games

Everything we notice, experience and learn about colour nourishes our imaginative store. Stocking that store makes us more familiar, confident and conversant with colours so that next time we need yarn shades for a sweater or hat, we have lots of rich ideas on which to draw. However, if I’m honest, that’s not the main reason why I like playing with colour.

That’s a harder thing to define but I will try. It’s something to do with mischief and resistance. 

Something to do with how, in the era of late capitalism and at the height of the attention economy, it feels especially necessary to notice and celebrate the colours of eggs and roads; to carve out experiences of noticing and presence that cannot be monetised or optimised; experiences that might feel silly or pathetically sincere but that put us back in touch with our own senses and the details of this world. 

I sometimes feel this is a cynical time to be alive, but not when I’m standing at the edge of the road, heart wide open, filled with delight because I’ve realised it’s covered in colours. At those times the roar of love and gratitude for my little, real life drowns out everything else. 

Perhaps playing with colour, then, can also be a stubborn insistence on wonder; a refusal to care less about small things.

Thanks so much for your enthusiastic and generous contributions to the Allover club, Felix!

If you’d like to learn more about playing with colour from Felix, you can sign up for her KNITSONIK course on teachable, or find her books here.