styling colour

Here’s something I wrote for the Allover club about my experience of colour when styling knitwear: a topic I had thought nothing about before I fell into designing hand knits, and about which I’ve learnt an awful lot over the years, especially through working with Tom. It’s also a subject about which I could rattle on for an awful long time, so I have narrowed down what follows to a few colour themes I thought you might find interesting – beginning with . . . . 


Let’s start with complements. I am certainly aware of being drawn to particular colours when styling, and perhaps especially to certain contrasting colour combinations – which some theories refer to as complements, due to their positions opposite to one another on conventional chromatic “wheels.”  

One of my favourites is the combination of a bright, bold red or deep orange with a soft-toned, grey-ish green or icy blue.  You can see such a combination perfectly in this famous image of Grace Kelly – look how much work that lipstick is doing!

There’s a similar effect – once again achieved with a perfectly applied lipstick in the perfect shade of red – in this still from an otherwise unremarkable period drama, set in Scotland, starring Paul Bettany and Claire Foy – his traditional lovat tweed, and her red lipstick complement each other perfectly. 

My own take on this colour combination is far less glamorous, but I’ve found myself returning to it again and again – In the shoot for the Elizabeth Montagu stockings, for example, as well as that for Argyll / Argyle.

While preparing for a shoot (for the Brilliant Corners hat) I had not considered the combination at all until I happened upon the door below, at Carry Farm – and became totally fixated with the contrast its satisfyingly subdued blue-ish / greenish grey  provided with my orange skirt. I insisted Tom photograph me beside it – luckily our friends at Carry Farm are used to my photographic whims! 

Difficult Colours

I love all colours, but have occasionally found some shades difficult to style. One of my favourite skirts from Cabbages & Roses forms a case in point. I absolutely loved it, had treated myself to it, and had decided I was going to wear it to every occasion that I could over the coming festive season. The colours of the skirt’s fabric were completely amazing – but what on earth was I going to wear with it? I love mustard and mid-blue together, so I knitted myself a mid-blue pullover. When I tried it on, I loved the pullover (which was actually the first prototype of my Carbeth design) but I didn’t like the combination with the skirt. I then picked out a muted green with blue-ish tones- (the Islay shade, from our old Buachaille range) – and whipped up another pullover (Carbeth really does knit up very quickly). As soon as I put it on with the skirt, I knew I’d got the colours right. 

The tones of pullover and skirt just really spoke to one another. 

I often find purple and pink tones a wee bit tricky, and initially felt a bit stuck when considering how to style my Doocot pullover, which I’d knitted in the Doris shade of our Schiehallion yarn. Tom and I much prefer to work outdoors on our shoots, and though you can’t argue with the wonderful Scottish landscape, sometimes the greens and browns can really dominate, and undermine the colours of the knitwear you are trying to depict. In this case, however, I thought I could use my environs to my advantage, as they formed such a great tonal contrast with Doris – which is a lovely pale, soft pink with underlying mauve-ish, blue-ish  tones.

I matched the pullover with a pair of mossy-green cords, a forest-green base layer, and a resin pendant in which a pale green fern was suspended. I was very happy with how “true” to itself the Doris shade looked when photographed against the brown-ish greens of the muir.

Hot Contrast

The distinctive colours and styling of our Warm Hands book was very much a team effort. My brilliant co-editor, Jeanette Sloan, was responsible for selecting the collection’s bright yarn shades and bold hues, and it was Tom’s job to find a good location with plenty of the strong pinks, oranges, and yellows which Jeanette wanted to feature both in his  photography . . .

 . . .and graphic design

My task was to source and select a whole load of garments and accessories from the (ahem, extensive) KDD wardrobe  – yes, this is one of my favourite things to do! 

I knew as soon as I saw the samples that Sarah Mackay’s Dissonance mitts were going to work fantastically well with this Donna Wilson “house” pullover, and I was very happy to find the house windows  picking up the yellow paint of the wall that Tom and Jeanette decided on for this shoot. 

Jeanette put together this completely genius outfit from the KDD wardrobe, styling her Toasty Cosy mitts with one of my all-time favourite posh coats (the fabric is a really heavy woven wool in a paler-than-pale grey neutral that’s satisfyingly icy), with a pair of cropped, bright orange joggers I’d bought in a sale, and a simple necklace to echo the outfit’s pops of orange-red. Mimi looks amazing, and the necklace does quite a lot of work here –  picking up the hot shades of Jeanette’s glorious mittens as well as the duller, bluish tones in the cobbles and background. 

I wore the same necklace, but with a very different effect on a recent shoot for the Horology cardigan. Rather than bringing everything together as it does in Mimi’s outfit, here it provides a single pop of colour against a palette of muted greys. Which brings me neatly to my next topic . . . grey’s ok! 

Grey’s OK!

I loved styling our recent book SARK. All of the knits are grey, the hair of the models is grey, the landscapes in which the knits are depicted are grey, and the book’s layout echoes the monochrome theme with Tom’s beautiful black and white photography.

Not wanting the book to be totally devoid of colour, my styling challenge on the SARK  shoots was to find shades that were good tonal complements for – rather than competitors with – the range of greys in the knitwear.

I enjoy the indefinable shade of the pants I’m wearing here, which Pantone has decided is “spruce yellow”

And this soft chestnut-coloured shirt worked really well with Smookie

The SARK shoots were conducted over several seasons, and sometimes we found ourselves waiting for a day that was sufficiently grey enough for the look we wanted. Luckily, in Scotland, a good, grey day is always going to come along sooner or later!

Which leads me to my final topic . . .

Bless the Weather

Perhaps contrary to what you might expect, a bright, sunshiny day is the enemy of good knitwear photography: though there can be exceptions to this rule, a sunny day’s high contrast, stark shadows and direct lighting can make the colours of knitwear appear uneven and make colours appear unrepresentative. But Scotland is not, as a rule, a bright sunshiny land, and many different types of Scottish weather are genuinely fantastic for knitwear photography.  Tom and I love to make the most of the weather when we are out and about on our shoots and here  are a few of our favourite conditions:

1. A rising mist
 If there’s a clear night, and you don’t mind getting up at first light (I don’t), a satisfying rising mist over Carbeth Loch is pretty much guaranteed. Mist also militates against the problem I mentioned in relation to the landscape and the Doocot shoot – of there being too much brown or green. This photograph of Hap for Harriet was taken in early summer, but because of the mist, the bright, pale greens that dominate at this time of year are nicely muted.

2. The icy loch
Is there a better way to display a garment of glacial blue greens than against a backdrop of ice and snow? 

Actually, to  my mind, all colours look wonderful against the chilly greys that dominate a Scottish winter. 

3. The patch of sunlight
While you don’t generally want bright sun shining directly on your knits, it’s always nice to have a little bit of interesting light. During photoshoots, Tom spends a lot of time shouting  things like “three steps forward, two to the right, no, one back and left” to ensure the relevant patch of sunlight is in exactly the right place.

In an image that’s dominated by the dull grey-ish browns of midwinter, and the dull, brown-ish grey of my Knitting Season pullover, Tom’s captured a patch of weak sunlight behind me on the path, and a few, thin rays illuminating my pullover from the sun, sinking toward the westward horizon – which warms everything up just a little. 

This photograph was shot at sunrise on an Autumn morning. Here, I’m standing in shade, but the golden light filtering through the trees and bracken brings out the rich yellow-greenish tones of the Stockiemuir shade of Milarrochy Tweed in which Justyna Haberkowa’s Medieval Arches hat is knitted.

4. Take your chances! 
Finally, if you are willing to take your chances with the notoriously variable Scottish weather, sometimes it will reward you with startling colours that do all your styling work for you!

I knew as soon as I saw what kind of day it was that we had to get outside immediately to take some photographs of my Carbeth pullover:  bright blue skies and hoar frost hanging in the trees are simply not to be argued with! At the time, Tom was not terribly happy with the shadows and contrast across the pullover in this image, but the whole vibe was so colourful and cheery and wintery and excessive that he decided he could live with it.

And sometimes, you even get a rainbow to enhance an outfit! When I look at the images we shot of Claudia Fiocchetti’s Broken Herringbone cowl design from Colour Moves, when I look at them and see Fenella, so beautiful, so radiant in these shades of rose and red, I can also see Sam, crouching in the wind, desperately wrestling a reflector to focus what little light there is upon her smiling face, and I can also hear Tom shouting “one step to the left, Fenella!  Yes! That’s it! There’s the rainbow!” 

Sam and his reflector, behind the scenes