Designing with Multi-colour Yarns

In 2001 while teaching in Canada at Muskoka National Park, I accidently discovered that it was possible to control the position of colour in a scarf I was knitting. I was using size 2.75mm needles and Artisan Lace Merino dyed in the Pansy colourway which goes from a strong yellow through red to navy. As the yellow was at the centre and the navy on the sides I named it Muskoka Sunset to celebrate the amazing sunsets we were experiencing in that inspiring location.

Needless to say I received many requests for the “secret” and you can learn how I achieved this in Controlling Colour Movement

Choosing the right stitch

Knitted vest in multicolour yarn
This vest in Koigu uses Daisy stitch to create smudges of colour

Later in that same visit I went on to buy two skeins of Koigu hand dyed wool which I used to make a vest. The colour sequence for this yarn was completely different so I chose a stitch from Barbara Walker’s “Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns” called ‘Daisy Stitch’. This stitch featured clusters of stitches which resulted in smudges of colour creating an effect that reminded me of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. I have found this and similar stitch combinations, especially those with multiple wraps, work well to create colour movement with multicolour yarns.

Detail of Daisy stitch pattern used in the knitted vest.
Detail of Daisy stitch pattern used in the knitted vest.

Designing for the colour

When working with yarns spun from dyed fibre where the colour changes will be far more random and of varying lengths, another technique which works well is to design individual sections which can be knitted together. An example of a design where this has been used is in Bracken Fern.

Evening Bush Walk scarf
The lace fern pattern in this scarf was knitted to highlight the changing colours in the yarn. In this case the yarn had been dyed before it was spun.

Experimenting with techniques

Entrelac samples showing needle size differences
Entrelac samples showing needle size differences

I have also experimented with entrelac and was surprised at how a change in needle size could give such very different results. I am sure there are many more ‘what if’s’ to explore and share.

Using plain colour to space

Spacing the multicoloured yarn with a plain colour also gives a pleasing effect and a jersey I knitted recently serendipitously allowed the colours to match over two rows. However, when it came to the armhole shaping it was necessary to waste some yarn to continue keeping the sequence so I decided to knit the sleeves in the plain colour only.

Intarsia lace

Intarsia enabled me to use a multi-coloured yarn for the ‘mossy path’ in the scarf Evening Bush Walk and the leaves and fern are in plain colours.

Evening Bush Walk knitted scarf in progress showing the different coloured yarns arranged for knitting separate sections.
Evening Bush Walk showing the different coloured yarns arranged for knitting separate sections.
End of lace knitted scarf in three colourways
Lace blocked at completion.

Alpine Sunset

This leads me to my latest really exciting challenge, ‘Alpine Sunset’!

Open skien of Wollmeise yarn bright space dyes colours

At Wool Feast in Christchurch in 2017 I spotted a skein of Rohrspatz Wollemeise. It was called Regenbogen and was a sequence of really strong colours from dark green to a bright yellow. I had the skein hanging on my pin board for almost a year before I finally knew what I wanted to make with it. I drew up a design which would be knitted sideways to make a lower border for a jacket.

Next came the translation of the drawing to a pattern I could knit. The first stage was to draw it onto a piece of graph paper and then work out how many stitches I would have to work with. I followed the procedure described above for the ‘Muskoka Sunset’ scarf and realised I would need to simplify the original concept to the very basic shapes. Then it was a case of trying various techniques with each of the elements to get the definition I needed, fit them into the correct colour and also keep the balance of the sizes of each element in relation to each other.

Sample of knitted border showing the multi colour being controlled.

On this occasion I used texture to define the design although I did use some lace techniques to achieve this by hiding the ‘holes’ by knitting into the backs of those stitches on the return rows.

I discovered a bonus for working out the amount of yarn I needed was that before the skein was wound I could count the number of ‘turns’ in the skein. One for each row! I also made a slip knot marker which I could slide along the yarn to where the row would end which helped to keep me on track and my tension consistent. The ‘bleeding’ of the colours enhanced the design as there were no hard edges.

I chose a dark blue Wollemeise called Moses for the body of the jacket which features the textured fern motif to represent the night sky.

Intriguing possibilities

I can see possibilities in using this technique with self dyed yarn by working out a design and knitting it in a plain base yarn for a pattern sequence, then painting it with a cold batch dye. It can the be unravelled to work out the areas for each colour and then wound and dyed to suit. The quantity can also be assessed from the gauge set in the sample pattern.

I am sure this is only the beginning of a wondrous  and exciting colour adventure. Enjoy!


The patterns discussed in this post are in the process of being developed for publication. If you would like be notified when they are available please contact us.

The pattern for Evening Bush Walk is being sold as a fundraiser and is available from the Christchurch Guild of Weavers and Spinners.

Controlling colour movement

When Margaret was visiting me In Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago she was talking about some new designs she was working on that use controlling the colour of space or dip dyed yarn as part of the pattern. It seems a good idea to revive her original post as the new projects build on the concept. And once I had tracked down the information it provoked my curiousity enough to try it out.

The legacy post from 2005 (Margaret)

When I was teaching in Canada and the U.S.A in April/May last year (2004) I had several requests for the “secret” of having colours in  scarves knitted from hand dyed yarn  so they were not random. Since I have been home they have multiplied so here it is!
(This doesn’t work with multiple wrap patterns)

  1. Take your  skien  and line it up with the colours where you want them.   The photo shows three options with the top one knitted.
  2. With a crochet thread/contrasting yarn make a chain with more stitches than you will need.
  3. Use your knitting needle to pick up the loops on the reverse of the chain.
  4. Before winding the ball mark the beginning and end of the first colour sequence you have chosen. Knit as many loops as fit in that sequence.  (Ignore any extra crochet stitches).  This is the number of stitches for your scarf.
  5. Adjust edge stitches/pattern repeats to fit your stitch number.  You now have
    your pattern  set for your unique gauge.
  6. Complete scarf leaving sufficient yarn after casting off so that you can unravel the chain placing scarf stitches on the needle and cast off with scarf yarn.

N.B. With hand dyed yarns every so often there will be places where the colour moves off track but that adds to the charm.

If you’d like to experiment in 2018 (Sonja)

How do I know if yarn is space or dip dyed ?

To fully understand this original post it is useful to know that Artisan Lace was one of the first hand dyed yarns on the market. Several of the colour ways were dip dyed to create the effect you can see in Margaret’s  image (if you have Mandli in Knitsch Sock it used the same dye process as Pansy in Artisan Lace) Commercially a similar effect called space dyeing is used where yarn is dyed in short controlled sections.

At this point of time its not particularly common to find New Zealand yarn indie-dyed in this way, and even if it has been it may not be obvious in the skien if a dyer has re-skeined (re-wound) it. The way to tell if a yarn has been dyed like this is to open it out as I have done in the following illustration. You can see the distinct blocks of colour along the skien.

None of these examples are as symmetrical as the example.

I had to go for a fairly deep stash dive to find some examples – and its interesting that most of the examples I found and can think of are from established indie dyers from those earlier days. Wollmeise still use this technique extensively, as does Sweet Georgia, Lorna’s Laces, and Hand Maiden Yarns. They usually knit up as variegated and the yarns most likely to pool.  Don’t be confused between this style and gradient or self striping yarns which use a much longer colour repeat.

So does it work?

While I knew it worked for Artisan Lace and had seen several samples, I was curious if it worked in other weights. Coincidentally I picked up a copy of this month’s (July 2018) The Knitter and there was an article by another knitter who had been playing with this idea.

I have a skein of Wollmeise Daisy which is a classic example of this technique – you can seem the clean blocks of colour and symmetry even in the skien. It was wound up for socks I was knitting but out of curiosity I pulled out the centre and laid it out in its repeat. I thought I would try an inch or so of Trellis Lace, one of Margaret’s simple scarf patterns, as a demonstration. If you are going to choose a project to try this make it simple as the main focus is the colour.

  1. Yarn showing colour sequenceOnce I established the skein repeat I played with it a little bit to get the sequence I liked. This colour way is symmetrical and I went with yellow-white-green-white-pink-white-green-white- yellow.
  2. I did a provisional crochet cast on for about 70 stitches on a  4mm  – if you are trying this go for a longer cast on than I did, maybe 80-85 in 4 ply. You don’t have to use all the stitches but is annoying if you run out. The provisional crochet cast on I used was this one from You Tube.
  3. You need to find the point where if you start knitting you will have a complete colour sequence and you also need to have allowed enough to come back and cast off your starting edge as per Margaret’s instructions. Once you have found that point start knitting about half way along the colour you want at the edge (mine was yellow)
  4. Knit across the colour sequence until you get to half way through the edge colour on the other side. By only using half the edge colour you are allowing for the reverse row.
  5. Turn and knit back – indie dyes are never totally perfect but you should find all the sequences lining up.

After three rows of garter stitch and one of pattern.

As I continued mine didn’t quite work and began to shift slightly out of line. This was because the pattern I chose had a 13 +2 repeat and when I added the extra 3 or 4 stitches I needed to meet that,  it threw the alignment off. Margaret pointed out to me that I could possibly fix this by altering my needle size to change the gauge. Alternatively a shorter repeat lace would have worked.

If you are keen to try this it’s worth a fiddle. It is one of those clever techniques which impresses 🙂


Apart from the original post there were two other resources I consulted.

On of the more useful books I have read about understanding hand dyed yarn and how dying methods knit up, is an older Interweave book Knitting Socks in Handpainted Yarn by Carol Sulcoski.  You should be able to get it from the library or it is also available as an ebook. The first few chapters are quite short but provide a good explanation of how the different dyeing techniques impact on colour flow in patterns.

For a techie version of how colour sequences change based on tension and stitch count this article on the YarnSub about working with multi coloured yarns has a fascinating interactive graphic, where her husband coded how the colour repeat would change based on stitch count and her gauge. Thanks to The Knitters Magazine Issue 126 for the article that sent me off to find this (and the techie side of me wants to see if I can create something similar as well)