Are we there yet, Mom?
Well, no, but we're getting closer. We've considered the effects of color variation and color distribution on knitted fabric. The next question is, what kind of knitted fabric?
This lesson will deal only with single-colored fabrics--that is, things knit from one yarn, in one colorway. Combining multicolored yarns is a chapter unto itself.
It probably won't surprise anyone that complex stitches are harder to see than simple ones. It's true with solid-colored yarns; it's only going to be truer with multicolored ones.
And yes, as you might guess, the more attention the yarn demands, the less attention the pattern will get.
So a "busy" yarn--one with lots of variation in hue, in value, in saturation, or any combination thereof--requires simpler stitches than a subtler one.
But it's all on a continuum, and there's no way to quantify it. When people ask me if a specific skein will "work" for a specific pattern, sometimes I can give a simple "yes" or "no," but sometimes it's a matter of opinion--I might be satisfied with a pattern that's a little less distinct, but someone else might find the effect disappointing. One part of letting the yarn drive is learning to stay flexible: until you swatch, you won't know for sure whether you're going to like it; you have to buy the skein knowing that you may be forced to reconsider what you're going to do with it.
When I talk about stitch "complexity," here's what I mean: at one end of the range are stockinette and reverse-stockinette, flat surfaces with completely consistent texture. At the other end are patterns that repeat over a large number of stitches and/or rows--pictures of unicorns worked out in lace; cables that roam everywhere like vines.
The rule of inverse proportion--the more complicated the pattern is, the plainer the yarn should be, and vice versa--would tell us that the lace unicorn should be done in a solid color. Maybe even a commercially-dyed solid. But the most elaborate patterns often look even better when worked in a hand-dyed solid: the minute variations in tone seem to give the pattern added depth.
Similarly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, highly active yarns may seem to demand dead-plain stockinette. But we often find that they're shown to even better advantage with a very-simple-but-not-quite-plain texture: seed stitch, for instance, or something with an allover pattern of eyelets.
By way of example, let's apply all the lessons so far to a specific skein and a specific project.
Here's a skein of Nassau (50% cotton, 50% silk) from Great Adirondack Yarn Co., in the color called Painted Desert:
From the skein at the top, what can you tell? Not all that much--it's got green, and pink, and some other stuff; and I like it. If you think a bit more, you can say that the colors seem overall to be of medium-light value (somewhere in the middle of the gray scale, but toward the lighter end), but there are too many things you can't see when the skein's twisted up to draw any real conclusions.
Once you untwist the skein, as in the middle of the picture, you can see all the colors clearly. Now you know that the skein has more green than anything else, but it's also got lots of other colors: blue, lavendar, mauve, apricot, and a butter yellow. But, while the colors are clear rather than muddy, they're not all that bright. And they're extremely consistent: the yellow is a bit lighter (but it's the color that there's least of), but all the rest are very evenly matched. If you were to xerox the whole skein, you'd expect it nearly to disappear.
The open skein also reveals that the colors have been applied in narrow bands across both sides of the skein-loop. In other words, this skein can be made to "stack" if you want it to. And the skein itself has a circumference of about 45", so that's the total repeat of the colors.
Is there, by the way, any way to predict what number of stitches will cause a skein to stack or pool? In this example, can we tell how many stitches will use up 45" of Nassau? My first guess would be: about 50. That number comes from an old benchmark I was taught: for traditional worsted-weight yarn (say, 4.5 sts per inch), 1 stitch uses about 1" of yarn. Smaller yarns on smaller needles obviously use less; larger yarns at larger gauges, more. [Note: this is a matter of needle circumference, first and foremost: if you knit a fine yarn on large needles, the yardage requirement will be the same as it would for the bulky yarn that typically belongs on those needles.]
Does this mean that Wendy's yarn had a repeat of 160", or 13'? (I'm making a wild guess about the number of stitches and the yarn weight.) Not likely. But if it had a repeat of 53", which is plausible, she'd get the same effect--the colors would just repeat three times in the course of one knitted round, and still line up above one another on the next.
Next, a swatch of Nassau in plain stockinette:
It looks pretty good: the colors blend harmoniously, nothing disappears, nothing dominates. I wouldn't want to try some Tree of Life gansey pattern in it, but that's not what I had in mind, anyway.
Now try it with the stockinette punctuated by a row of eyelets (that is, [yo, k2tog] all the way across the row) every 6th row:
Is it me, or does it look even better this way? In retrospect, the plain swatch looks flat to me; here, the colors seem almost liquid, as if they're flowing around the fabric.
The finished product once again, just to complete the skein's biography:
Size 8 needle, about 4 sts per inch, 2 skeins total, about 34" at deepest point by 70" across the top.
Next time: a few more comparative examples of fabric and texture.