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Color Theory 101: selecting yarns that go together

A lot of patterns going around at the moment feature stripes: two or three colors that go together perfectly.

You could follow the colors suggested in the pattern sample… but you want to try something a little different. But how in the world do you pick a colors that go together? Color theory. That’s how!

Picture the yarns on a color wheel

Most yarn lines contain a wide range of of colors. Here’s a look at the color palette for Cotton Candy from Be Sweet:

Cotton Candy yarn color chart from be sweet

Whoa! Overwhelming, right?

But don’t fret. To get started with selecting a pair of colors, imagine them organized around a color wheel:

Yarn color wheel

It’s not all of the yarns, of course! I just picked a representative for each color wedge!

Most yarn companies design their colors of yarn with compatibility in mind. This is good news! It means that most yarns from a single line are of similar tone and will work together nicely… it’s just up to you to pick your fave color combo!

Color Theory 101

Fortunately, there’s a name for the art of picking colors that go together: color theory. Oodles of brilliant artists and designers agree on some fundamental color groupings. Phew! That means we can use what they’ve figured out to help us pick our color pairings!

There are three color schemes that, if followed, will create knock-your-socks-off color combos: analogous, complementary and split complementary. For help picking an awesome pair (or triple) of color, stick with one of these schemes, and you can’t go wrong!

Analogous

Analogous colors are the ones that are next to each other on the color wheel:

Analogous color scheme on wheel

This scheme can work with any number of colors… pick two that are next to each other, three or four!

Complementary

For a color pair with a real ‘punch’, go with complementary colors: colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel:

complementary color schemes

I love using complementary colors. The difference in colors highlights the striping/pattern in your knitting/crochet!

Split Complementary

A complementary color scheme gives you two colors… so if you want three, you’ll need to use the Split Complementary scheme. Here’s how this one works: start with one color. Zip across the color wheel to it’s complementary color, and select the two colors next to it:

Split complementary

Are you ready to hop into color?

See… it’s not so bad? The color wheel is your friend!

By using one of these color schemes, you’ll be able to put together a beautiful color combo! (I know I’ve started eyeing the blue + pink + orange one!)

Thanks so much to Be Sweet for permitting use of the photo of their lovely yarn to use as examples!

58 COMMENTS

  1. Nancy SAYS...

    Thanks, Stacey, for simplying how to choose just the right colors. It makes sense to me now, especially the split complimentary, and now won’t seem as intimidating.

  2. Eugenia SAYS...

    Great post, Stacey! Now I know how to do it! It was all instinct before your post but that sometimes doesn’t work, hehehe

  3. Andie SAYS...

    Thanks so much for this post – very helpful! What other resources do you recommend for learning more about color theory as it relates to yarn choice? When I’ve tried to research this in the past I’ve had trouble finding something that makes sense with crochet/knitting.

  4. Another great post that is packed with very useful information. I am loving all the colorful projects that are so popular right now and this will be a great key in choosing colors from now on!

  5. debbie paul SAYS...

    Thanks so much! You have an awesome talent of making things make sense. You are a great teacher!
    In crochet softies the elephant pattern….shouldn’t the mouth pattern say double crochet instead of single?

    • @Debbie- You’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, almost *every* double crochet in the book turned into a single crochet :/ I have no idea how that happened!
      I’ve forwarded that onto my publisher, and it should appear in the errata, soon!
      Good catch!

  6. Pauline Elizabeth May Cowie SAYS...

    Stacey your so wonderful you think about everything and everyone’s needs your just a treasure. Luv the color wheel I had forgotten all about it from my art days thanks for switching the light bulb back on :O)

  7. Judy SAYS...

    Hi Stacy, I always love color compatibility advice! A refresher is always good, and it helps me pay attention to the colors I select, in so many things. About a million years ago, I went to beauty school and they taught us about colors. The one thing I haven’t forgotten is the base color, what every other color is built on. Those three primary colors influence every other color and it’s a beautiful thing! What would we do without color!!! I love it so!

  8. melliechicken SAYS...

    Love this!

  9. Justine SAYS...

    3 things I do for finding color combos:

    1. Ask my teen daughters. I show them my stash and they have come up with some great combos that I wouldn’t have thought to pair.

    2. Artwork. Some artists like Josef Albers and Mark Rothko are famous for exploring color combinations in their painting. Why not get advice from a genius??

    3. A knitwear designer, whom I’ll name because I know Stacey has worked with his patterns– Stephen West– did a really neat thing in his Rav forum a few months ago. He went around his town & took photos and then showed yarn combinations based on the colors in those photos. He encouraged people knitting his pattern to do the same. It was really interesting to see the images that he and others used for inspiration.

  10. I have always had problems with which colours to choose, I think this is honestly going to save my life.

  11. Thank you Stacey. This colour chari and explanation is so valuable on many levels, even for wearing clothes combinations as well as painting and floral combinations. Amazing.

  12. Connie SAYS...

    Awesome! I’m totally enjoying looking at the yarn cakes and colors πŸ˜‰

  13. Shah's Craft SAYS...

    thank you for your usefull info.

  14. Catherine Veleker SAYS...

    Thanks so much. My LYS is closing so there is a huge sale. My opportunity to get a wide color range in one brand to assure weight compatability in a granny project. Your tutorial is the perfect inspiration before I go there this morning. It always seems no matter how many colors I have, there is always always one more I wish I had.

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  16. Thank you so much! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Cheers!

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  19. Iin Wibsono SAYS...

    Thanks Stacey, that helps a lot in my projects.

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  21. Delight SAYS...

    Thank you… this is the hardest part for me. I want to make so many thing with multiple colors, but I am never sure if I it is going to work out. This makes it easier.

  22. Randi SAYS...

    I really like this concept, which is all new to me. I’ve always just used colors that I’ve seen other perople use, and have liked. What I’m wondering is, what do I do with the colors that aren’t on the color wheel, such as shades of browns and grays, or navy blue. For example, I really like a couple of shades of blue with khaki. It would be nice if there were a color wheel with a few more wedges to fill in between these colors. I don’t know, does that make sense?

    • I totally see what you’re saying! A neutrals color wheel!

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    • Thank you so much Barbara! πŸ™‚

  24. Georgina SAYS...

    Really useful!!! thanks a lot for sharing!

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  28. You did n excellent job of explaining this! I will be using this resource to help teach my girls in Guatemala this concept. Thanks!

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  32. I am a very beginner. firstly I found I need some yarn to get started. Well, Like all things I do I went overboard. I have a lot of yarn (about 500 skeins or so). And as you can imagine, it is kinda everywhere and I simply did not have a clue as to HOW to organize it. I also have a Handicap, no not my physical one,but, I am so NOT artistically oriented. I cant draw stick figures so, figuring out how to organize, let alone choose, colors?? So not happening, Til now. This has so simplified what I should do to organize my yarns and how to match them together for future projects. Thank you so very much. Is it alright if I share this with my group?? Thank again Sincerely

    Joe L

    • So happy to help! Share away πŸ™‚

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  34. Christy SAYS...

    Wow! I never heard of this method before – very creative. It’s such a simple way to coming up with color combinations in general. Oooo…a creative nugget just hit me on how to make this idea work outside of the digital world, too, which will sooo come in handy when I’m not able to get on halcyonyarn.com and theskeincolordials.com to use their yarn matching tools.

    At first, I was thinking to print out the color wheel, but that obviously wouldn’t work. No, instead you know how they have those color palettes cards? Well, use those instead. Yeah, you could just use them period, now that I think about it :. Not if you want to come up with your own combinations instead of cookie cutter ideas. So yes, cut them up and place them how you did the yarn in your photos, then put the method into play. I want to do this now, but I don’t have the cards – gosh.

    Well, I’m about to do some graphic work, so I’ll just use the digital color splash for now to put this into some practical use and see what is foretold before me lol. Thanks!!!

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  36. hohums SAYS...

    Cannot print out your color wheel theory 101 in english. Have tried to have translated to english even though can read english but prints in foreignn language

    • Hi there! I can assure you that all of the text is in English! It sounds to me like you’re having trouble with your printer.

  37. Robyn Baldwin SAYS...

    Your site is so much help.cant wait for my own book. Have borrowed Crocheted Stufies from library.am having a heap of fun.Thankyou.

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  39. Jay SAYS...

    Amazing tutorial Stacy! Well explained and makes it look easy. Thank you. I was always stumped with color choices. There have been times where I would have done couple of rows and then removed because the colors dint go well together. Can’t wait to try the wheel !!

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  41. Diana SAYS...

    What would a triangle method be called? For instance, l like lilac, pink and apple green together… it forms a triangle. I usually go by the “eyeball” method! LoL

    • I’m not sure that has it’s own name – but it’s definitely a variation on split complementary. πŸ™‚

    • Anonymous SAYS...

      This is called a Triad.

  42. Linda SAYS...

    I understand these concepts from art classes, however how does it work with all the color choices that are available out there now?

    • It doesn’t matter how many colors you’re choosing from – just arrange them in a color wheel and and you can use this classic combos.

  43. Brenda SAYS...

    Thank you for this post, it’s so helpful. I am doing a diagonal knit baby blanket and I ran out of my primary color. I was going to do 2 colors but now, I am going to be able to do 3.
    Thank you so much.

  44. Tammie Cousin SAYS...

    I would of never of thought about looking at the color choices and putting them together. I used to be really good at it and then over the years I had a really bad accident in 2008. So I have to refer back to color wheels and combinations and after you explained it and showed it on here it makes more since to me now. I thank you for that and I used to be able to draw really well etc and nowI am back to square one. Again thank you 😊

  45. Thank you for sharing this tutorial. I am usually just dividing/ choosing my colours depending on if they are ‘cool’ or ‘warm’ colours. Your guide will give me additional help. πŸ™‚

  46. I have a color wheel which I have found very useful, but I also suggest looking at clothing or even just print fabric in stores. When you see a color combination that appeals to you, head for the yarn and have fun finding those colors. Just keep in mind that you want the ply and weight of the yarns you choose to be compatible.

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