VKC: Planning colors for vintage stranded knitting

Hi everyone! Has it been long enough since I’ve been able to do a Vintage Knitting College post?? Good grief! I was expecting to have so much more time to devote to this, but with the condo selling/house buying, obviously life has gotten in the way. Thank you all for your wonderful comments on my last post, I can’t wait until we’ve moved and everything calms back down so I can get back to regular blogging! 🙂

So let’s talk a bit about what can either be the really fun part or the completely aggravating part of planning a colorwork project: selecting yarn and colors. But honestly there is so much personal preference involved that I’m just going to touch on a few things for you to think about.

Figuring out the original colors in a vintage pattern

When you start a stranded knitting project, it’s not as easy as “Do I want a red cardigan or a blue cardigan?” If you’re working with a chart that’s in black and white or a pattern with no chart at all (see my post on charts and vintage knitting), you’ll have to start off by coloring in a chart. But with what colors?

Colors in vintage patterns are sometimes pretty obvious. Bottle green, maroon, light blue, navy, yellow… easy. Linden green or cowslip… even if you don’t know what those colors look like, you can look them up. But what about ripple? Maybe a shade of blue, like ripples in the ocean? Who knows for sure.

If you don’t know a color name from the original pattern, you’re going to have to guess. Fill in the rest of the colors in your chart and use your best judgment on what the missing color could be.

Let’s take the pattern I’m knitting, Bestway #82, Classic Fair Isle Jumper. (Incidentally, I added to the Ravelry database here awhile back.) I created a color chart from the pattern, but let’s pretend I couldn’t figure out the color fawn. I picked a dark brown to fill in those squares on that part of the chart.

Compared side-by-side to a more appropriate lighter brown, you can see how the dark brown recedes against the red. You wouldn’t know for sure how it would look until you swatched of course, but it’s a pretty good approximation for how the colors will contrast against each other.

Tips for picking colors for vintage stranded knitting

  • Pick clear color combinations. You might have two shades of one color in a project (medium blue, navy blue), but don’t pick too many shades of a single color or things will get muddy. You can look to resources on color theory if you’d like, but your eye will also tell you what works and doesn’t.
  • Don’t use multiple colors that are too similar in value. Kelly green, brick red, steel blue, gold, pumpkin orange… nothing will pop out in a palette like that. Kind of like the example above with the brown against the red. Make sure to incorporate some lighter and darker colors for contrast. Use a darker blue, or a pale yellow, a brighter red or a dark piney green. In any given row, you’re looking for contrast between the two colors used. In many patterns from the 1940s, they used strong color contrasts which I personally really like. (You may not, and that’s okay too!)
  • Chart your colors before you ever pick up your knitting needles. It’s not a substitute for knitting a swatch, but a pre-cursor. It’s a fast and easy way to play with colors and narrow down combinations before you ever buy any yarn. If you need ideas, peruse vintage catalogs for color palettes you like. The cover of vintage sewing patterns can be nice for this, too.
  • Feel overwhelmed? Chart the original colors, then change one color at a time. If it’s too daunting to envision an entire new set of colors, just start small. Change pink to red, light blue to yellow. See if you like what you’ve changed. You’ll be on a roll soon enough and before you know it, you’ll have an entirely new chart and all you’ll have to do is pick yarn.

Tips for picking yarn for vintage stranded knitting

  •  If you’re trying for a more authentic vintage look, avoid heathered, kettle-dyed and variegated yarns. Look for solid colored yarn.
  • If you plan to steek your project, 100% wool is a must if you secure the steek by hand (hand-sewn or crochet). If you plan to secure your steek with a sewing machine, any yarn will work.
  • Lots of vintage stranded pullover patterns are short-sleeved. Stranded knitting is by nature thicker and warmer than regular knitting, so if you plan to keep the sleeves short and want to wear it in warmer months, consider using a cotton blend rather than 100% wool.

Now, all that being said, don’t feel like you have to be tied to replicating an authentic vintage look! Pick whatever yarn and color palette you’d like! While I generally try to pick colors and yarn that have a vintage feel, sometimes I just go where the wind takes me. I’ve used hand-dyed yarn for vintage patterns (I’m doing that with a separate vintage stranded project right now), and I’ve picked colors that might not have been that authentic to the era of the pattern. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What yarn and colors did I pick for this project?

When I first charted the pattern, this was my chart.

The original pattern used yellow, powder blue, mauve, fawn and green for the colorwork and dull blue for the ribbing. My chart was based on the original colors used in the pattern except I replaced mauve with red. (I hate mauve.) I selected St-Denis Boreale, a wooly fingering weight yarn which I also used in my Bestway #B2637 stranded cardigan. It’s a yarn I like a lot.

Now, you saw me knitting with this color scheme in my post on tension in stranded knitting. But you know what? Back in early December, I decided the colors weren’t really doing it for me. I think it’s because I opted for a dark brown for the ribbing, and I just didn’t like it the way I wanted to. So I cut the ribbing off to work it in another color, but by the time I went through all the trouble I just decided to scrap the whole thing and start over.

After trying not to have a heart attack over kissing 10 inches of knitting good-bye, I played around with the chart and came up with this instead.

I decided to bring the ribbing color into the colorwork section and reversed the light and dark sections in the top section. I swatched with a different yarn, liked what I saw and ran with that. Here are my swatches, which were both knit in the round on double-pointed needles, then cut. (If you do this, pay attention to gauge change. My gauge over a small diameter is always tighter than my gauge over a larger diameter.)

(Side note: notice the darker red in part of the swatch on the left? I duplicate stitched over a red I thought was too pink. It’s a good trick to employ if you’re unhappy with one color in your swatch. You can see that the pinky red was too close in value to the light brown.)

I’m now using Quince and Co. Finch, a tightly twisted fingering weight wool that I’m loving working with for the first time. One mistake I made was picking a lighter blue for the center stitches of the X O X pattern, so the green and the blue are too close in value. At the time I swatched I know I had some reason for not wanting to swap the lighter blue for the darker blue I can’t remember why now, since it was 2 months ago. Ha ha!

The other funny thing is since I’ve been so busy with the upcoming move, I also don’t remember what motivated me to pick a pumpkiny orange, which is typically not a color I wear. I wonder why I didn’t go with red? Oh well, sometimes it’s good to push yourself outside of your comfort zone… maybe that’s what I was trying for, or maybe I wanted to fill a wardrobe gap. Who knows, but I’m sticking with it now!

What’s next for colorwork?

I’m sorry to say that the next Vintage Knitting College post likely won’t happen until after our closings at the end of March and we’ve moved. I’ve barely had any time to do any actual knitting. Everything except about 2 inches of this sweater was knit weeks ago. 🙂

So this is the perfect time to open up the comments for questions: what issues related to planning out vintage stranded knitting projects would YOU like me to talk about?

Feel free to leave a question in the comments, and I’ll either do a Q&A post if there’s enough questions, or I’ll incorporate your questions into my next couple of VKC posts!

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