The Woolly Thistle Beginner Color Theory blog by Kelsey

Beginner Color Theory for Knitting by Kelsey

By Priscilla Rivera

Choosing colors is usually one of the first steps in a knitting project, following only selecting the pattern and choosing the yarn. But it can be an overwhelming prospect, especially when some yarns come in dozens or even hundreds of different colors. Using the principles of basic color theory, you can get a bit of direction in your color selection process, and hopefully narrow the field a bit to something a little more manageable.

My first recommendation is to get a color wheel. Sold at many craft and art stores, you can get a color wheel for under $10. It is invaluable in showing the relationships between colors, tones, shades, and tints that form the basis of color theory. In the September 10, 2021 Shopcast, I spend a few minutes showing how the color wheel works for picking out colors.

There are a few simple color relationships that result in color schemes that work well and, sometimes, are unexpected and exciting. The easiest is monochromatic. You might think of this as white-grey-black, but it also includes any range of very light to very dark in a single color like blue, yellow-green, or violet. Second easiest is analogous. This means taking colors that all sit next to each other on the color wheel. For example, blue, blue-green, and green will work together.

Then it gets a bit more complex. Complementary colors are familiar to many of us – they are colors that are directly across the color wheel from each other. Combinations like blue and yellow or green and red are well-known, but there are many others, like yellow-green with red-violet. Split complementary colors is taking the two colors on either side of a complementary color, like red-orange plus blue plus green, which are on either side of blue-green on the color wheel.

From there, you’re looking at color schemes of three or four colors. Triads are equal distances from each other on the color wheel – the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow is the most famous triad. Then rectangular tetrads and square tetrads combine pairs of complementary colors into groups of four. One example of a rectangular tetrad is violet, blue, yellow, and orange. An example of a square tetrad would be purple, red-orange, blue-green, and yellow. In both sets of tetrads, there are two pairs of complementary colors: purple + yellow, blue + orange, and red-orange + blue-green.

As if that’s not all enough, you can also combine them. The easiest would be to use shades and tints of a single color, say a range of blues, and then adding yellow as a complementary pop. The same can be done with split complementary colors.

Finally, especially for stranded colorwork, you want to make sure your colors have high enough contrast to show up next to each other. You can have two colors that work on the color wheel, but if they have the same shade, they will not show up well in colorwork. I check contrast by taking a photo with my phone and changing it to black and white – sometimes you’ll get surprised!

Kelsey Peterson is a knitter, eager student of yarn construction and sheep breeds, and employee of TWT. You can find her on Instagram as @kcrp.making and on Ravelry as yellowpaperfish.


  • Interesting to come upon Kelsey’s post on color and using the color wheel .I just attended a lecture on color and using a color wheel. The talk was given by a an Art Quilter. I never thought to use a color wheel for knitting especially for FairIsle, intarsia etc. I am off to the craft store to buy myself a color wheel

    Joan Brown
  • This is great info. I knew a little about the color wheel but you’ve taken it to a whole new level. Thank you. I think I’ll dig up my color wheel.

    Darlene Thom

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