Stepping Outside My Color Safety Zone

We all have our safety colors—you know, the colors you find yourself wearing and knitting with over and over again. For me, they are on the cool side: mainly blues & greens with the occasional purple or chocolate brown (hey, just look at my blog page color scheme!). I am always immediately drawn to the colors in this range when presented with options, but sometimes I get tired of being so predictable and want to step out of the safety zone. The question is: how?

Lately we’ve gotten a lot of requests for tutorials on how to pick colors and how to pair multiple colors. While I don’t consider this a tutorial, I thought I would share with you my recent color picking process that resulted in me ordering yarn outside “the zone.”

How a store bought (gasp!) sweater helped

Considering my safety colors of blue and green, it’s probably no surprise that one of the colors that was least found in my yarn stash (until recently) was orange, being on the opposite side of the color wheel from blue, and thus the furthest away from my zone. As a kid, I absolutely loathed orange, especially burnt orange (perhaps it was bad memories of a 1970s burnt orange and brown couch?). Anyway, I’ve slowly been allowing orange back into my life. First it was the bright tropical oranges that I learned to appreciate when I lived in Alaska for 8 years and grew tired of the long, cold winters.

More recently I’ve dipped my toe into the burnt orange pool, thanks in part to a store bought sweater. I am very picky about clothes and have trouble finding clothes that fit right, so when I encountered a gorgeous and flattering cardigan on sale at Anthropologie a couple years ago, I snatched it up, despite the fact that it was a very warm caramel brown that bordered on burnt orange. If there had been any other color available short of hot magenta or acid yellow I would have avoided the caramel color, but it was the only color in my size. Once I got the sweater home, I was surprised at the fact that the color didn’t look horrible on me and that it actually fit into my blue, green and brown wardrobe.

Enter Adobo

Fast forward a year later or so later to our spring yarn color picking meeting where I fall completely in love with a color way outside my safety zone. I’m not sure if I picked it, or if it was someone else, but we chose a coppery color for Main Line called Adobo that I find simply gorgeous. It has more red than my caramel sweater, but I was reminded of the sweater all the same.

While placing an order recently (and working up to the $50 free shipping threshold), I found myself returning again and again to Adobo, even though I had no immediate knitting plans that involved using Main Line. I knew I just had to use it for something, so I decided that I’d make a hat with it. (I am extremely itch sensitive on my head and neck, so I figured Main Line would be a great hat solution for me.)

Bring in the reinforcements

While I adore the color, I couldn’t quite picture an entire hat out of it, since it’s so far removed from any of the other colors I wear regularly. I decided that I needed to bring in some of my safety colors to use with it.

Now, this is where the usual talk about color theory comes in, but I’m going to make it brief because color theory isn’t how I chose my colors in this case. Color theory says that since my starting color is a red-orange, the complementary color (the color directly across on the color wheel) is a blue-green. This sounds like a good match for me, since blue-green is one of my safety colors. Using color theory, I can postulate that Harbor would be a good pairing with Adobo, and they do look great together. For more on color theory, read up on it here. To learn how I really chose my colors, read on.

While color theory does work well, sometimes I find it too stiff and restrictive when used in its simplest form, and I am often not interested in brushing up on more advanced color theory (picking yarn colors should be fun after all). What I like to do when picking color matches for a particular color is to think about where that color occurs in nature, as I find that nature has some of the most beautiful and unexpected color combinations.

My first thought when I looked at Adobo was of a fox, so I pulled out “fox den” colors in the form of Cocoa and Oregano. This combination works pretty well, but the Cocoa isn’t quite saturated and deep enough to stand up next to the Adobo, and it also reminds me too much of the dreaded 1970s couch.

Going for a more modern look, I mused on Adobo alone again and this time I pictured a dark copper kettle. I also thought of the grey-green patina that oxidized copper gets, so I pulled out Steel and Cypress as possible matches. This combination also works well, and is more modern than the last one.

Ultimately I decided I wanted four colors for a striped hat, so I pulled back in Harbor and Oregano for consideration. Four of these five colors will win out, but I couldn’t decide by just looking at them, so I ordered all five. Now I have an alternate color for swatching and will likely be able to get more than one hat out of all this yarn. Bonus!

But how do I know what the colors really look like?

One obvious advantage that I have for picking colors is that I usually have the yarn at my disposal here at work, whereas you’re looking at a catalog or computer monitor. There’s no perfect solution, unfortunately, and I find that catalog colors vary almost as much as monitor colors do. My suggestion is always to buy a color card (the new summer yarn color cards are coming soon according to Diedre). If your project only uses one ball of each color though, you may as well just throw in a couple alternates like I’ve did. You can always return the unused yarn, use it in a later project or swap it with another knitter. Ordering alternates really does bring peace of mind and avoids having to order more yarn later if one of the chosen colors doesn’t work.

Keep an open mind

I hope by sharing my own color adventure you feel more confident to step outside your color safety zone. One more bit of advice I have (that I have to constantly remind myself) is to not box yourself in with definitive mental statements like “I hate orange”. By revising the statement to be “I hate this particular orange” or “I hate some shades of orange” you at least keep an open mind and don’t let a wonderful color pass you by.

PS: When I get my yarn and knit my hat, you can bet that I’ll be posting the results here.

Recommended Color Choosing Aides:

Color Book & Color Wheel
Yarn Color Cards
The Knitting Experience Book 3: Color
Magic Marble Teleidoscope <