A Matter of Scale

I knitted a sweater using a pattern recently, which in the general run of knitting blogs is not a news flash, but for me it is, as an exception to my general preference to figure out and knit my own ideas. The pattern was Stephen West’s Reis, a very simple yoked pullover with proportions straight out of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Elizabeth’s Percentage System, whose visual interest comes from colored slipped stitch dots in the body and stranded pinstripes in the yoke. I thought it would be a particularly quick knit because it was so simple and I was using Wollmeise DK, a heavier yarn than I usually use, but that scheme backfired on me because the pattern was so simple and used so much stockinette that it was literally a snooze. I mean, the stockinette stupefied me into conking out on the couch when I tried to knit it in the evening. It ended up taking the usual amount of time I take for such sweaters, but I caught up on my sleep. Anyway, for those who find stockinette soothing rather than soporific, the pattern is a lovely knit, and I think it would be a great first sweater for beginning knitters who have recently gotten comfortable with knit and purl stitches.

The pattern is designed around using leftovers and odd skeins in insufficient quantities for a full project, and if I have anything, it’s leftovers and single skeins. When Wollmeise first started offering DK in multicolored variegations, they came in pairs of a multi and a coordinating solid, so I could only get the multis in onesies and twosies, which is not a “squee” (knitter jargon for SQ, which is knitter jargon for sweater quantity). But it provided me with a range of multis centered around the red end of the spectrum and a separate range of blue-spectrum multis. I’d been thinking about building gradients around these two color groups and playing them off against each other. The slipped-stitch purl bumps and narrow stranded stripes of the pattern could produce interesting color effects in the Wollmeise yarns, which change colors every 10 stitches or so. I started off with a pair of multis that had some overlap in their colors as well as some contrast, and it was fun to watch the color sequences of the two yarns blending into each other and diverging from each other based on their dye patterns. When I switched colors for the next segment, I chose a red-spectrum multi and a blue-spectrum multi that had colors in common with their predecessors, with the idea of building a gradient from one tier to the next.

Close-up of Wollmeise multis in slipped-stitch pattern
Note the interaction of the multis when viewed in close detail

But the fabric looked quite different when I walked away from the work and looked at it from a distance of a few feet, and different from that from across the room.

Contrasting multis seen from a few feet away
Contrasting multis seen from a few feet away

Distance emphasizes the differences between the multis and deemphasizes the details of the stitch pattern. What emerges from the pointillism of the dots is a faint blue spiraling stripe in the first color sequence and a more distinct blue spiraling stripe in the second.

By the time I got to the third sequence, the one with the high-contrast yellow-magenta multi and the chartreuse-dark green multi, I had abandoned the idea of constructing subtly changing gradients. From a distance, what jumps out is the spiraling stripes of yellow-orange and magenta on the body, with the light and dark greens barely registering. When I reversed the colors on the sleeves, the greens dominate.

Reis pullover pattern knitted in Wollmeise DK multis and solids

I knitted the 2-color pinstriped yoke from start to finish in a blue and aqua multi with little light-dark contrast, and paired it with solid red-spectrum colors that I changed every two to five rows, except at the back where I put in some short rows to shape the neckline and raise the back of the neck a bit. I was careful to avoid gradations in those red-related colors and chose each color for its degree of contrast with its predecessor. I noticed, and disregarded, how unappealing the combination of each color was with the blue main color yarn when cakes of each color sat next to the blue cake, because I knew that when all the colors came together in the narrow pinstripes, no single color would dominate the others. It doesn’t take a lot of distance for the vertical stripes of blue and red to blur into horizontal stripes of shades of purple. In other sweaters knitted from this pattern, the dots of the body contrast with the vertical lines of the yoke and the mixed patterns are the focus of the visual interest. In my version, the contrasting patterns can only be seen close up and the dominant impression is horizontal stripes of vivid color coming from the pooling of the multis, especially the ones used as background colors.

Horizontal stripes dominate overall impression of this pullover

This sweater illustrates some truths about how the brain perceives color: it’s a matter of scale. The way a color looks in relation to another color or colors depends a lot on the amount of space the color takes up next to the other color or colors. In this sweater, the dots have mostly gotten absorbed by the background color when viewed from a distance because they are small and the background color takes up more room. The contrast color shows up as streaks against the background when it is darker than the background color, as it does in the second tier in the body where the dark blue/green multi stands out against the lighter value of the red/rust/fuchsia background multi. When the colors are reversed in the second tier in the sleeves, the dominant color is the blue/green main color while the dots of the red/rust/fuchsia multi show up as reddish streaks in the green parts of the main color. Distance can also reveal things that can’t be seen close up, as in the fourth tier of the body. Look carefully, can you see the argyle pooling pattern of the background multi in the photo above, which shows the sweater as a whole? Can you see it in the close-up photo below?

Close-up of color sequences using variegated yarns
Close-up, the colors of the background multi in the top sequence look like shadowy blobs

In the fourth tier, where the yellow/orange/magenta multi is paired with a chartreuse/dark green multi, the background colors are dominant. In the body, what you see is narrow yellow and magenta spiraling stripes and in the sleeves it’s wide spirals of chartreuse blending into dark green. Same yarns, different effects, depending on which is the main color.

Side view shows color reversal between body and sleeves

The small scale of the slipped-stitch purl dots makes them appear and disappear depending on the eye’s proximity to the work. The small scale of the alternating colors of the yoke’s vertical stripes gives the red-related colors a unity they don’t have on a larger scale.

Close-up of Reis pullover yoke The colors have quite a different look when they are on the larger scale of yarn cakes grouped around the blue/aqua multi they alternate with in the stranded yoke.

Colors look different next to each other in cakes than they do when knitted up

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve been critiquing a summer top I made last year, whose colors I loved on the skein and close up, but which looks muddled from a distance.

Small scale pattern in contrasting multis

The pattern is built on four garter stitch ridges in a stacked stitch structure, knit top-down, and the dimensions of each repeat are about 2 inches wide and 1 inch high. There are places in the knitting where there is a lot of light-dark value contrast and places where the colors contrast very little. The colors and pattern are quite distinct when the eye is close to the knitting, but from across the room, it looks like this:

Distance blurs the lines of the stitch pattern and blends these complementary colors so that where the dark places meet, there’s a kind of chiaroscuro effect that covers the dark places and makes the eye strain to find the pattern. When you get closer to the work, the colors clarify from their brownish haze and emerge from the fog, shining like the Emerald City. I like the idea of having to work to see the pattern and design through the fog, but I can see why someone might ask what that fog was doing there in the first place. I could have avoided that if I had chosen a solid green, probably a mid to dark green, or used a different pattern in which the pink took up more space relative to the green, or a bigger pattern that gave both the pink parts and the green parts more space for the eye to distinguish each of them from a distance separately. I have no regrets, but I do have some general observations that these projects illustrate:

  1. Size matters. Small patterns will blend the colors together from the distance in a kind of an average. Whether that’s desirable or not is a design decision.
  2. Contrast matters. If you want your colors to be distinct from a distance, choose colors that unambiguously stand out from one another when you view your swatch from across the room. Or you could do a grayscale test to check the light-dark contrast in a black and white photo. (Personally I don’t like the way a lot of people use grayscale tests as the sole determining factor in their color decisions, because contrast isn’t all there is to color pairings.)
  3. If you want to pair multis together, either welcome the inevitable areas where the colors blend together in the pattern or use stitch patterns that are large enough for the two multis to coexist as distinct entities. I like ambiguity, so I welcome the blending.

Back view of pullover in Wollmeise multis

Small patterns combined in close-up
Dot, dot, dash
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