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Very Little Knowledge: On Color or Anything Else

7 October 2011
Variegated Scarf

Kettle-dyed yarn can be great for beginners, who enjoy looking at the changing colors and can more easily differentiate among stitches in variegated yarn.

My dears, I have been trying to write a post on how knitters struggle with color for about a month. I write and write and write, and then decide the whole thing has gotten out of control, and start a new post, with a new angle, and write and write and write, and then decide THAT post is also out of control, and…

We’re talking hours of my life I will never get back.

I am coming to the conclusion that this post is just not meant to be written by me. It’s not that I don’t have the knowledge, or the experience. It’s just that I don’t have anything to add to the conversation about color, and also I have generally learned my lessons about color after making ridiculous mistakes about it, and also I feel like I might be losing my mind.

That last bit has nothing to do with color or even knitting in general. It’s just that being in England is making my head spin. Mr. Trask and I have planned this move for the past two years, and yet it never quite seemed real. Now, it is real, and that is both wonderful and weird. We are still turning to each other from time to time and saying, “We live here?” Please don’t think I’m not grateful to be here, because I am. It’s just an odd feeling: everything is a little bit difficult. It’s much harder to get a bank account or a cell phone contract here than in the States – and we still don’t have any furniture – and meanwhile lots of boxes of books are arriving – all that jazz. Meanwhile, many points of reference that I had taken for granted are suddenly not there.

Ugly Rug

Here's an ugly rug I knit a long time ago.

Just to pick an example out of the air, think of when you go to the yarn shop. Picture, say, the biggest yarn shop in the world, with all the brands of yarn all laid out. There’s Red Heart, there’s Malabrigo, there’s Debbie Bliss, there’s Miss Babs. Now, when you see Red Heart, you know it’s going to be reasonably priced, even cheap. When you see Malabrigo, you know it’s going to be wooly and soft, and much more expensive. When you see Debbie Bliss, you know it’s going to be somewhere in between the two, but a good choice for lots of projects. When you see Miss Babs, you know it’s hand painted and made by a small woman-owned company. Right?

You have all that information just in your brain, because you have been surrounded with this information on knitting for years. Now, if you’ve ever trued to buy yarn in another country, think of what it was like try to figure out what was what. Of course, with yarn, you have some background information: you can look on the label, you can feel the yarn, you can smell it, etc. It takes a little more time, but it’s interesting and fun, because yarn is something in which you are interested and probably an accidental expert. [Plus, there are such things as international yarn companies, so you’ll recognize some of the yarn, but you were probably shopping for something new you could try, right?]

Ugly Blanket

And here's an ugly blanket...

The problem with moving to another country is that you have to go through that process with everything: dish detergent, clothing, restaurants, television shows. There are some familiar brands, touchstones of a sort, but lots and lots of the things around us are entirely new. [Meanwhile, as mentioned before, our house is entirely empty, so we keep having to go through this process for every little thing.]

Also, not to go off on a rant (too late), think of the cleaning supplies aisle in the grocery store. There are all different kinds of cleaners there, for all different purposes. Your eye sorts these by brand and logo at first, because you know in the back of your head that Cascade is usually dishwasher soap while Palmolive is diswashing liquid. If you don’t have that easy sort function installed in your head yet, there’s just a lot more noise that you have to interpret.

So…all of this has made me feel the littlest bit like I know nothing. This is one of the reasons people decide to live abroad for a while: having this experience is like hitting “reset” on your brain and realizing assumptions you were making that you never would have noticed. It’s absolutely good for me to live in a place where I don’t know which clothing shop is the “cool for thirty-somethings” one, because it frees me to just buy what I like. Ditto for restaurants and everything else. However, at this point I am tired and a little bit scared that I won’t figure all of this out. Of course, I will; this is just a part of culture shock. [Imagine what it would be like if I were living somewhere further away, or somewhere that required me to speak a different language! What a wimp I am.]

And, really, I wanted to move here – I am loving this city – this is what some might call a luxury problem. I’m going to be fine, so why am I complaining?

Pink Sweater

And here is a sweater I knit that, when I showed it to a friend, she said, "Wow, it was really brave of you to pick that color."

Anyway, the point is that I think trying to write the post about color is one too many things on my plate. Instead, I’m thinking that I’ll give you a few thoughts about color in a series of posts, so that I don’t have to try to pull my thoughts together into something more coherent. So here are a few things:

  • First reason I should not write about color for you guys: One of my favorite outfits when I was in high school was a pair of orange climbing pants and a purple sweatshirt.
  • Second reason: When I started writing fiction, the very first story I wrote was about a woman trying to describe color to a woman who had been born blind.
  • Secret about me: I think beginning knitters should be given variegated yarn. Based on the beginners’ classes I’ve taught, this seems to help them distinguish one stitch from another, and it helps them talk about knitting (“so I pull the green over the red?”), and it’s fun to watch the colors change.
  • Another secret: I have knit, not just one, not just two, but four hideous blankets due to poor color combinations.

So, you people tell me your color secrets, or theories, or fears, and I’ll respond and sympathize! And, hey, if anyone knows where I might find gluten-free granola in England…

18 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 October 2011 12:34 pm

    Um. I kind of love that ugly rug. (It reminds me of a half-square triangle quilt.) But what do I know? I am wearing purple and orange right now!

    Re. the grocery store brands etc.: it IS sort of fascinating that there’s all this information to sort through and interpret but what’s more you DO interpret it. Would it be interesting/helpful to think of it as kind of an anthropological or even literary exercise, to notice what assumptions you’re making about these totally new things (oh, I bought the dish detergent in the plain brown packaging, because I’m a sucker for that eco-minimalism thing)? Or does that just make you tired and want to cry? (In which case, disregard!)

    It’s okay that even the good and long-desired things are challenging sometimes.

    • Kathleen permalink*
      8 October 2011 8:32 am

      Sarah, I agree about the anthropological study! I have been doing that: stepping back and realizing how packaging affects me, what it means to me, etc. We’re always half-aware of this, I think, – and now that it is one of my only points of reference I am doubly aware of how misleading it can be! So interesting.

  2. 7 October 2011 12:35 pm

    Maybe this will help… or
    The Bakery on Main is available @ Morrison’s.

    Regarding color, you aren’t the only one with that problem> I guess it is a trial and error kind of thing. I will never be Alice Starmore. If I can’t copy the color combination and have to come up with my own, it never turns out quite like I expected either.

    This too shall pass…

  3. 7 October 2011 1:06 pm

    Hee! I think I am on your color wavelength, I’m with you. It’s all to do with the fact that I’m born to be NOT an artist. No talent. No natural inclinations. I tried dying yarn, and I loved it! But the first colors I combined were yellow and purple – apparently a no-no, who knew?

    Nevertheless, I am most impressed with your tenacity. A new country is no doubt a huge and overwhelming new challenge – and there you are right in the midst of it, taking it on. Looking forward to hearing more about it, you go girl!

  4. Lynda permalink
    7 October 2011 1:29 pm

    > this is what some might call a luxury problem

    Doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting. In fact, my understanding is that because you’re in a closely related 1st world country and don’t have to make the language shift, the culture shock is worse because you expect less of it. You should hear the kids who have gone (all of 200 miles north) to Canada talk about culture shock. LOL!

  5. Brooke permalink
    7 October 2011 1:31 pm

    Don’t fret; enjoy the discombobulation. Like you said, it’s great exercise for your brain. Here’s some color help:
    Have a blast!

  6. 7 October 2011 2:13 pm

    I like choosing a variegated yarn in a common weight, usually DK, and then picking solids that MATCH, and I mean match, the colors in the variegated. That means the coordinating is done for me. Then I can do stripes or mitered squares or whatever and it looks pretty good.

    Also, art classes that have nothing to do with knitting can be a help. Learn the color wheel without the stress of knowing that your obsessive interest — knitting — will be impacted by your choices. THEN go back to knitting color choices.

    • 8 October 2011 2:49 pm

      And here’s a good example of what I’m talking about re the variegated…

      mitten 1

  7. Jeff Spivack permalink
    7 October 2011 10:19 pm

    I remember those orange climbing pants…

    • Kathleen permalink*
      8 October 2011 8:30 am

      Oh dear. I think I had convinced myself no one else would. But they were memorable, weren’t they?

  8. Dovile permalink
    8 October 2011 5:30 am

    I don’t really have a problem when combining colors, but that’s probably because I’ve been drawing as a hobby since school and have long since figured out what colors match best.

    Usually, when I don’t know what colors to choose, I try to look for an example in nature. Let’s say you have a dark blue yarn, then you can try to copy the colors on a night sky (dark blue, black, some silver, maybe purple and white) or the ocean (dark blue, azure, white, some green), for green – grass and sky (my favorite – forest and spring greens with sky blue), or a rose (green plus red/rose/yellow, matches well with white), etc.

    For contrasts, I’d use the opposite colors on the color wheel.

    • Kathleen permalink*
      8 October 2011 8:29 am

      Dovile, your suggestion about looking at nature is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing it! I am going to do this from now on.
      Lately, I have taken to photographing color combinations I think are particularly impressive or interesting, so I can refer back to them later.

  9. 8 October 2011 7:30 am

    As a fellow US Citizen living in the UK, I have nothing but empathy for you. It took me three weeks to figure out how to lock an outside door (you have to turn the handle up?!?) and another two after that before I trusted myself to cross the street on my own and I still have the occasional close call because, while I _saw_ the on-coming car, my brain assured me that cars coming from that direction _must_ be on the other side of the street! The first time I went grocery shopping on my own I had to call an English friend to walk me up and down the aisles of a shop he’d never been in, describing what things would look like and what they’d likely be near. My first half-dozen trips all ended in tears and it can still be incredibly frustrating trying find something I’ve not looked for before.

    It does get easier.

    If you’re interested in resources:

    UK Yankee ( is a forum for USC in the UK and there are threads about everything from finding a tin of Libby’s pumpkin puree (Waitrose, if you’re lucky) to when and how much to tip (rarely and 10%) to understanding the local lingo.

    One of my favourite blogs is Separated by a Common Language ( by an American linguist living in Sussex who writes about differences in American and British English (with occasional comments from Canadians and Aussies).

    Good luck!

    • Kathleen permalink*
      8 October 2011 8:28 am

      Oh my goodness. Jennifer, this is so helpful. Thank you, thank you!

  10. lorraine permalink
    8 October 2011 12:34 pm

    i find color options to be so overwhelming..ive walked out of plenty of yarn shops because i couldnt make up my mind..i seem to always fall back on gray or light tan..some boring color..especially when knitting a large project like a sweater..or some horrible color because its on sale..(im notorious for doing that)
    my other problem with color is that i never pick colors that contrast enough..i always pick two colors that are the same value and wonder why the design doesnt pop the way i want it far as variegated yarns….i always thought the variations would overwhelm the pattern i was doing..( i have a penchant for ridiculously involved knits) I also was afraid of the bold look of them…like the idea of making an entire sweater out of it..never! 🙂 It took me a long time to shake my perfectionist tendencies when it came to knitting..when i started i desperately wanted all my knits to look store bought for some handknit had some diminished value (i blame society on that one)..and i never saw a store bought variegated slowly starting to embrace really into cakewalk yarns..their variegated stuff has a speckled texture that i like..
    side note- am i the only one that finds that prius commercial playing at the bottom of the post a bit reminds me of the scary kid shows from the 80’s

    • 8 October 2011 1:58 pm

      I was thinking just a couple days ago that I don’t recall seeing variegated yarns used much outside of handcrafting, I thought it might be that as a man I’m usually seeing the duller side of mass-produced knit fashion.

  11. 8 October 2011 1:51 pm

    I can’t help but think that replacing assumptive momentum with cognitive action must be a very good thing that I’d like to try. When something that always works suddenly doesn’t – yes it’s frustrating, and I empathize with you – but I don’t deny envying you for even the frustrating aspects of your jouney. When I think of how much of every day I float thru instead of experiencing, I feel just a little less alive. I think I’ll go kickstart my brain by working on some color theory!

  12. 23 October 2011 5:45 pm

    I want to read your first story.

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