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.

From the Unwind Shawl to Fern Foundations

Unwind knitted shawlette
Original design by Margaret Stove

The story of these shawls began at the 2013 Unwind Fibrecraft Retreat in Dunedin.  As Margaret had been largely focused on caring for her ill husband in the previous months it was the first time in some time that she felt she had the mental space to play with design.  Along with the care and affirmation she received from being in a community of  knitters, as anyone who has cared for someone who is ill knows – the freedom of not having to be constantly watchful allowed her to “unwind”

As she had left home she had grabbed some needles and a single skein of heavy lace weight yarn she had bought several months before at Skienz in Napier when she was there for Knit August Nights. She wasn’t sure what she was going to use it for – it was a symptom of how tired she was that she didn’t have anything to knit. Over the course of the weekend she began what in many ways started off as a knitting doodle probably partially inspired by some conversations about the complexity of Filmy Fern for less experienced knitters.

Using just the single skein of yarn she built out a small triangular shawlette pattern which was then knitted as a KAL by knitters who had attended.  As the lace fern pattern is quite modular the shawl size can be increased in several ways and it also works well in different weights of yarn – from an ethereal silk/merino blend lace weight to a soft and smooshy merino/cashmere blend double knit.

The results were shared at Unwind 2014 which sadly Margaret was unable to attend due to her husband’s recent death.

Next steps

White baby shawlLater in 2013 the considerable publicity for Filmy Fern following it’s use for New Zealand’s baby gift to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, led to some reflection about the potential for a simpler shawl pattern that would be a more accessible project for intermediate knitters. Margaret’s daughter, Sonja suggested that maybe the Unwind shawl could be adapted into a square baby shawl by mirroring the pattern mirror and introducing a plainer central panel.

Baby wrapped in shawl

While the first experiment yielded a beautiful shawl it was somewhat larger than expected as even in a commercial 3 ply  it was the size of a double bed. Consequently the pattern was re-knit in a standard 2 ply lace weight (approximately 900m to 100gm).

This shawl was gifted to Margaret’s granddaughter, Kayla for her first baby.

Fern Foundations

Square Lace Shawl
Original design by Margaret Stove

The shawl was  then test knit in a pure wool hand dyed lace weight yarn from Vintage Purls and entered in to a Creative Fibres exhibition as Fern Foundations in 2017.

Finding the pattern

If you would like to knit the original Unwind Shawl the pattern is available from Holland Road Yarn Company or on Ravelry.
The Ravelry project gallery provides a good range of examples of the shawl knitted in different weights.

The full size baby shawl is likely to be published in a future collection of patterns.