How to choose colours for fair isle (when you know nothing about colour theory)

When I shared my Pyukkleen cowl with you last week, I mentioned I’d do a separate post on choosing colours cos it was a PROCESS. So here I am, about to give you terrible advice for choosing colours when I have zero understanding of colour theory.

A woman stands in front of a garage door. She wears a handknitted, fair isle cowl and handknitted brown jumper.

The first step in choosing colours was picking a colour scheme. Being an uncreative clod, I stalked projects on Ravelry until I found a colourway I liked. Unsurprisingly, it was a 70s-inspired project bursting with chocolate browns, pumpkins, yellows, blues and vivid oranges that spoke to me. Full credit to NikkiFB on Ravelry for this idea – as much as I love the finished colourway, I could never have chosen the individual colours without her helpful notes.

A handknit cowl with a fair isle pattern made in brown, orange, blue and yellow.
My inspiration project. Credit to NikkiFB on Ravelry.

My next step was to find similar colours in one yarn range. I scoped out Knit Picks and Jamieson’s of Shetland yarns until I settled on Knit Picks Wool of the Andes, primarily for its colour choice but also its affordability. I then gathered images of colours I liked, and saved them to a Preview (PDF) file so I could rearrange them into different colour schemes.


It might seem like I’d passed the most difficult part, having chosen a colour scheme and now just getting to play with colours. But for me at least, the challenge in choosing colours for colourwork is not only finding colours that look good together, but that will work well when knitted together.

Some colours may look fabulous arranged in a little basket, but when you knit them up you might find that the pattern disappears into a muddy mess. This is usually because the colours do not have enough contrast, ie, they are too similar in value. This is fine if you want to create a very subdued pattern, but as I wished the nought/cross and peerie motifs to be discernible against the background, I had to ensure the colours would be distinct from each other.

A colourwork jumper is laid flat with yarn on top. The contrast between foreground and background gets more distinct from neck to hem. The same image is desaturated, showing contrast between colours.
You can see in these photos from Fearless Fair Isle Knitting that the colourwork pattern becomes more pronounced as the contrast between foreground and background colours increases. The low contrast section near the neck has a nice subtle effect, but if colours are more similar in value the pattern can be lost entirely.


Ysolda wrote a helpful blog post on this topic, showing how she arranged the 6 colours into 2 lots: 3 foreground and 3 background, arranged by saturation so the most intense colours are at the centre of the cowl. This colour arrangement, dark background and light foreground, least to most saturated, are C3-C6-C1, C4-C5-C2. I simplified matters by switching C6 & C2 on the chart, so the background and foreground colours were split numerically, C1-3 & 4-6.

Yarns in 6 colours, wrapped around card. The colours are separated onto 2 cards; light foreground and dark background. The same image is desaturated to show the contrast between colour groups.
Pattern foreground and background colours

So, I had to choose 2 lots of colours which were similar to each other but distinct from the other group (foreground & background). Not only this, but some sections (namely, the first small motif) called for background colours to be worked as both the foreground and background in the motif, so 2 of the background colours had to be sufficiently distinct from each other too. Clear as mud?


A screenshot of an inspiration image at left of a colourwork cowl, on right, various yarn colours are arranged to form a similar colourway to cowl. Below, the same image is desaturated to show contrast between colours.

The trick to determining contrast, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is to view your yarn choice in black and white.* You can see above that I moved images of potential yarn colours around, then viewed my choice in black and white to ensure the values of the background (top) and foreground (middle) rows were different enough to create a colourwork pattern. (The bottom row has other potential yarns.)

Ysolda wearing her blue, green and brown Pyukkleen cowl, and the same image desaturated showing the contrast between motifs.
You can see very clearly in the pattern photograph how the distinct colours create the motifs.

As the yarn was so cheap, I ordered a few options for colours so I could determine the final colour scheme in person. When they arrived, I could immediately tell that one of my blues (Winter Night) was too dark, so I put that aside and started to photograph possible colour combinations. For the background colours, I wanted a dark brown, orangey/rust brown and aqua or deep blue. For the foreground, golden yellow, mid orange and pumpkin or deeper orange.

8 images of various arrangements of yarn, in colours of yellow, orange, blue, and browns.
Choosing colours took….a lot of time. I found a random skein of Cleckheaton Country in a butter yellow which I included for consideration.

What I struggled with most was the foreground colours. The yellows were fairly light compared to the vibrant orange and deeper pumpkin, and I wanted them to be reasonably similar in tone so the motifs would appear as one cohesive pattern. The only way to find out if they would work was to knit up a swatch, so I did!

A swatch knitted in fair isle motifs, in colours of brown, orange, blue and yellow.
So much fun!
A small swatch knitted in fair isle motifs, in colours of brown, orange, blue and yellow. The overall colour scheme is vivid.
I ditched this colour scheme pretty quickly – although it had high contrast, in real life it looked garish and ugly.

Then it was just a matter of moving around motifs to choose my final colour placement.

Four swatches knitted in fair isle motifs, in varying colours of brown, orange, blue and yellow.

And finally, I had my colour scheme (bottom right)! If you want to know the specifics, my chosen colours were:
C1: Calypso Heather (aqua blue)
C2: Amber Heather (autumn brown)
C3: Chocolate (dark brown)
C4: Golden Heather (yellow)
C5: Pumpkin (deeper orange/brown)
C6: Orange (vivid orange!)
Keeping in mind that I switched C2 & C6 in the pattern. I also mixed up the colours in the small motifs, as there was more scope for variation with just two colours.

Flatlay of a handknit fair isle cowl, in orange, yellow, blue and brown.


I learnt a lot from this project, namely, that I hate choosing colours and would rather leave it to the designer! Hate is probably the wrong word: I found it stressful to have such creative control. You can be crafty and uncreative, and I’d really rather focus on the technical skill of knitting and leave the colour choice to the pros.

Luckily, most of Ysolda’s colour schemes really suit me (see Saudade, Strokkur, Solas, Ljós, I have a red Elska kit on hand, and I’m desperate to knit a Mareel!), so I’m happy to buy kits from her shop or recreate the pattern colourways in my choice of yarn.



*I did this using the accessibility settings on my Mac. You can also desaturate an image using an image editor.

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

12 thoughts on “How to choose colours for fair isle (when you know nothing about colour theory)”

  1. Great post Siobhan. I struggle enough with choosing a solid colour that is going to suit me!!
    I have knit a number of lovely jumpers in my past that, on completion, only got worn once then eventually donated as the colour just wasn’t right on me even though I loved it in the skein:(

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would have never known you struggled to choose your colors for this beautiful cowl, as it looked effortless! There is contrast in the palette you chose, but there is also a lovely harmony in it as well. And of course the knitting itself is gorgeous and I am awed by your skill! ❤

    Personally I love choosing colors and fabric but with knitting I end up trapped in a (beautiful!) rat maze of multiple combinations and variations; I don't have to worry about that with fabric! My current bugbear is an off-set striped sweater pattern and despite not intending to knit it next (or even 3rd from next…), I have no fewer than 5 separate palettes I want to use, each with alternates. It's utterly ridiculous!! And somehow the background color is the hardest for me to pin down–maybe we should collaborate? 😉 (Full disclosure, I am 99% sure I don't know d*ck about color theory and my taste in paint around my house may serve as evidence against my taste level…) Doing a comparison in B&W is brilliant advice, I will definitely try that before I commit to anything for a multi-color knitting project.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m in awe of the fact that you have such imagination with your colour schemes! I struggle to put one together, let alone five floating around in my head. You’re right, fabric choice is a lot easier as unless you’re colour blocking you really don’t have that many options. I can’t really imagine anything more torturous than choosing paint for interior design, so you must have a natural knack with colour!

      I’m fully in favour of thinking through projects long before you being them – that way, you get all your ideas out, mull them over and swish them around in your head, and by the time the project comes around, they seem to settle to the perfect outcome of their own accord. Perhaps that will happen to your striped sweater!

      Liked by 1 person

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