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All Colors Are Different, but Some Colors Are More Different Than Others

Part II (tap here for Part I) begins my practical discussion of color theory as it applies to knitting. The first type of contrast I will explore is contrast of hue. Hue is another word for color. Use colors that are different to achieve contrast. Simple.

But not all colors are equally different. Consider the following color combinations.

Combination 1

You might recognize Combination 1 as the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. This combination might remind you of Ronald McDonald, sports teams, toys, or other kid-oriented items or environments. What are primary colors, and what makes them so contrasty?

Before I answer these questions, let me assure/warn you that this article does not include a scientific explanation of how colors work. If you are curious about this (wavelengths, pigments, rods and cones at the back of the eyeball, why the sky is blue), I recommend listening to the Stuff You Should Know podcast “How Color Works.”

Stained Glass and Propaganda

Primary colors are colors that share nothing. Red is just red; it has no yellow, blue, or any other color in it. The same goes for yellow and blue. Because they share nothing, the contrast among them is as high as contrast of hue can be. You might consider such contrast an eyesore (and you would not be alone in this opinion), but it demands attention. If you look for combinations of primary colors around you, you will find them used to great effect in stained glass windows (meant to convey a narrative from a distance) and propaganda (intended to capture attention and stir strong emotions).

If you are uninterested in wearing a handknit that evokes propaganda, consider this small shawl that uses primary colors:


Here is where the three colors I used fall on the color wheel.


(Can you believe there was a huge box of these colors on clearance at the New York Sheep and Wool Festival in 2015?)

In the Saturated Kerchief design, I’ve used gray, a neutral color, to create a visual break between the intensely contrasting primary colors. I’ll talk at length about neutral colors in subsequent parts of this series.

Combination 2

Combination 2 has less contrast. Because I’ve put together these combinations using Color-aid cards, I know that these colors, from top to bottom, are a shade of red-violet (red-violet with black added), red-orange, and yellow-green. The red-violet and red-orange share red, so although they are different colors, they are not as different as red and blue, or as different as red-orange and yellow-green. If the Saturated Kerchief pictured above hurts your eyes, imagine knitting it in this color combination. There is a lot of contrast among these three colors, but not as much as among the primary colors.

Combination 3

Combination 3 has even less contrast: from top to bottom, it is a blue-green tint (blue-green with white added), blue-violet, and a red tint (red with white added). Blue-green and blue-violet share blue, and blue-violet and red share a bit of red because violet is made from red and blue. Again, these are three different colors, but they overlap.

Combination 4

Combination 4 has the least contrast in the group. From top to bottom, it’s a red-cyan tint (red-cyan with white added), red-cyan, and a dark shade of orange (orange with black added). All these colors have red in them. Are they different? Yes. But they are less different than the other three combinations.

Any of these four combinations would make a lovely Saturated Kerchief, showcasing three distinct hues, some of which are more different than others. Is more contrast better? Not necessarily. But if you feel uninspired or indifferent toward a project, adding a color that is significantly different from the colors with which you are working will perk it up. If you are uncertain how different your colors are, use a color wheel. Place them on the edge of the wheel by the color to which they are most similar and see where they cluster. Then, seek out a color that is in a different section of the wheel—the farther away it is, the more contrast of hue it will provide.

Here are two more projects I designed to demonstrate contrast of hue. I hope they inspire you to be brave and choose colors that are more different!



Dots and Dashes:

In the MDK Shop
It's unnaturally mesmerizing to knit Spincycle Dyed in the Wool. It does beautiful things. It shifts right before your eyes. It's unpredictable and wild and addicting. And when you pair two shades in contrasting colorways, the drama doubles.
By Spincycle Yarns

About The Author

Ann Weaver lives in Baltimore, where she works as a freelance editor and writer and spends her free time volunteering and working to bring change to her community. You can follow Ann on Instagram and find her designs on Ravelry, where her username is weaverknits.


  • Thanks for that helpful post on contrast! I love experimenting with colour, so this article was right up my alley. I also love that you referenced Stuff You Should Know! It’s my favourite podcast; they do such a good job of conversing about such a wide range of subjects in a completely relatable way.

  • That was an excellent explanation of how contrast works. Thank you!

  • Lightbulb! Thank you! 🙂

  • great article, great explanation. thank you!

  • Great discussion! I’d like to recommend further reading, too: Margaret Livingstone’s book Vision and Art, subtitle The Biology of Seeing. Amazing stuff.

  • Ohhh! The Dots and Dashes scarf says it all. Love it, the pattern AND the colors. Thanks for the interesting information about color.

    • This makes my day.

  • Finally, a vocabulary for color! Thank you, Ann

  • Really enjoying this series. Color is such an important element of so much that I do and it evokes so much emotion. For me and others. So, now I’m going to try and play with it using the color-wheel. I’ve never done that.

  • Yes, thank you for this color theory series. Color pairing is a part of my knitting (and home decorating and wardrobe, etc) that I approach with trepidation. I’m always just going on intuition with a vague background noise of the color wheel in my mind. Having an artistic daughter has helped a little (once when she was young and we were looking at fabrics, she pointed out to me the difference between “muddy” colors and pure colors – lightbulb moment!). Anyway, this is a fascinating topic – so much to learn!

  • Thank you for the possibilities of Contrast. Who knew!

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