ON BUYING AND USING MULTICOLOR YARN

I got a private note yesterday from a knitter who seeing the fuzzy entrelac blanket posted yesterday, wanted to know how I knew the spotty yarn would work well for it. I reply.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my spotted yarn. But multicolors come in several flavors. While there are no hard and fast rules in knitting, there are some general principles I use to help figure out what to do with multicolors, especially because I’m one of the yarn-first folk. I rarely have a specific project in mind when I purchase yarn, and usually have to find or invent something to do with my new treasures. Also, as long time readers here have seen – I don’t always hit on the best use right away. Sometimes it takes me a couple of starts before things work out. I don’t mind ripping back. To me it’s part of the process of exploration and discovery. Now these thoughts are things that work for me. Your taste is probably different from mine, and there’s nothing wrong with that, so please don’t think these are put forward as rules for everyone.

For me, first comes yarn choice. Multicolors come in all sorts of types and color combos. I have to like the color set and mix proportions as a whole. I like to look at my target yarn from a distance – 10 feet at least, to see if the skeins “read” well as an aggregate. Lots of times one or more of the colors pops out strangely from a more harmonious background. I tend to avoid those mixes. I do however like multicolors that are composed of different colors but similar intensities.

Once a color combo has caught my eye, I look at the length of the repeat. On skeined yarn, this is relatively easy, especially if the yarn shop allows customers to untwist a skein. Never do this unless you have asked permission and you know you can return the yarn to the original twist, neat enough to be indistinguishable from the on-shelf stock. Then do so once you’ve made your evaluation. Or ask the yarn shop staff if they can untwist/retwist for you.

On DK and worsted gauge, I figure about 1.5 stitches per linear inch of yarn. On sport and fingering, figure 2.5-3.5 stitches per inch of yarn. A run of a single color as wide as my palm on a DK is probably a bit over 5 stitches when knit up – just under an inch worth of knitting in DK gauge. Shorter areas of color end up looking like little spots. Longer ones produce broken stripes. Really long segments produce larger stripes (depending on the circumference of the piece being knit and the gauge).

What to do if the yarn comes in a ball rather than a skein? You’ve got to guess and estimate. Look at the put-up. Estimate about how long one circumference wrap of the ball is. For example, if you look at the Noro Kureyon Sock below you can see that the wrap goes diagonally around the ball, and that there are about four or five wraps before the color changes.

noroskein.jpg

The ball is approximately 7 inches long (the spread from my index tip to small finger tip with my hand splayed – it’s good to know some standard biometrics of your own hand for guesstimation), so a rough estimate is that one wrap around the ball would be about 15-16 inches. The individual color patches on this yarn are probably on the order of 65-75 inches long, probably something like 24-30 linear inches of knitting at an approximate sock gauge. (My socks are about 11.5 inches in circumference on the ankle, so for socks one color segment would probably make a stripe a bit over two or three rows deep).

A yarn with lots of rapid color changes will read very differently from a yarn that’s mostly background color with scattered spots. The rapid color change yarn will, from a distance, almost seem to do an impressionist’s blend, and appear as a hue median to all the colors being represented. That means that a yarn with a zillion little spots of color, each individually quite clear will end up looking like a muted blend of all of them from a distance. Tweeds and multi-strand ragg style yarns (two or more plies of different, sometimes variegated color twisted together) are good examples of this effect. My Impossible Socks uses a ragg-twist multicolor tweed in combo with solid blue. The overall effect of the tweedy yarn is much darker and muddier than its constituent bits, even without the navy stripes.

impsox.jpg

Colors that blend one to the next can also present problems. Sometimes the nondescript areas between vivid colors predominate if evaluated as a general proportion of total skein length. A lovely multicolor on the shelf may actually knit up rather muddy, with only small flashes of the marquee hues. Conversely, colors that shift abruptly from one to the next can produce a rather motley and jarring effect, with each jostling against its neighbors. In longer repeats, I tend to favor yarns that have few or no blended transitions. I also prefer that any transition areas make up less than 10% of the total color cycle.

Because of the “tweens” challenge with shading multicolors and the perceived meld problem in general, I tend to stay away from yarns with wildly disparate color combos, and stick mostly to multicolors with either a well established and pleasing uniting background color; to yarns that present either multiple variants of the same color (like a continuum from light blue to navy); or to yarns that offer up two or at the most three closely allied colors (like red to yellow, with side trips to orange). The Paisley shawl illustrates this visual mind meld. It’s a raspberry to blueberry blend. The detail shows the color spots clearly, but the big picture blends both into a medium purply garnet.

paisley-4.jpg paisley-5.jpg

In terms of color repeat length, I try to match projects to the repeat length. I’ve found in general that unless I can engineer repeats to deliberately and predictably flash, I am not wildly fond of large areas of multicolor yarns knit flat. They’re just not very interesting to me worked that way. I much prefer trying to introduce movement or to break up the large-field effect. Entrelac works nicely. The color repeats in the strip below (from my Chest of Knitting Horrors graveyard of unfinished projects) uses Entrelac to make the most of a short color repeat. Each square is only about an inch across.

entre-2.jpg

If the repeat is long, you can engineer something fun like my Snake scarf, displaying the long repeat’s gradations to maximum advantage, or working center-out medallions that radiate from one color to another (the brown throw is all knit from the same color number Blauband sock yarn).

brownblanket_tn.jpg diagscarf-2.jpg

If the color bits are extremely short, the diagonal movement introduced by the Entrelac patches combined with the narrow “bounce area” of the patch width evens out the distribution of the spots, and makes them look like ice cream sprinkles (jimmies to my fellow Bostonians).

fuzzyblanket-1.jpg

Sometimes I’ve broken the rules and used directional-distortion texture patterns with self stripers to break up the march of concentric rings of color by zigging the texture this way and that. My SeeSaw socks, published in KnitNet ages ago are a good example. These are in fact my original SeeSaws, still in service after all these years:

seesaw.jpg

If I can engineer it, I really like making yarns flash – knitting them in the round so that patches of the same color align on top of each other to create an almost painterly effect. The wildly jarring colors of my Rainbow Mills Matisse sweater would not have worked well together if the piece hadn’t been designed to flash. Look at the cuffs and waist ribbing to see how muddy and non-descript the blend is without color stacking. You can also see the difference in the flash pattern produced by the difference in body and sleeve circumference.

parrot.jpg

An alternative approach is to limit the width of the strip so that colors bounce back and forth across a narrower strip of ground. That can make the individual stripes deeper, and add interest by adding the “collision lines” where the repeats abut. The piece below was interesting because it was made from four skeins of hand-dyed from the same batch. They were close, but different enough to each present its own periodicity of repeat when knit into strips of equal width.

typeset.jpg

Sometimes I’m faced with multicolors that just can’t be tamed by stitch direction, calculating garment widths to make them flash, or working them in narrow strips. My favorite solution for those yarns is to find another yarn that coordinates – either by picking up a color from the repeat itself, or by adding another color in contrast. Then I work my solid along with the variegated in stripes or other patterning, in a proportion that tames the wild mix, in effect forcing an new uniting background color into the repeat. In the sock top below, the solid is the magenta. The variegated was turquoise, yellow and hunter green. An unlikely and loud combo, but one that worked.

counting.jpg

So to sum up, there’s a use for almost every multicolor yarn. Things that make using multicolors easier include harmonious, balanced color sets (even if they’re bright), and a minimum of muddy areas. Introducing movement by stitch direction or by narrowing the strip being knit can be more interesting than the same yarn knit totally flat in stockinette. It IS possible to use texture patterns with multicolors, and even the most savage multicolor can usually be tamed by introducing a background or contrasting solid.

Hope someone finds this useful, so that a skein that’s been languishing in stash somewhere finally meets inspiration.


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One response

  1. Thank you for this post! There’s such great information here.

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