Colorwork Using Short Rows by Debbie West

Colorwork Using Short Rows by Debbie West

Stitch Anatomy Fall 2022

Short rows are literally incomplete rows of knitting. Instead of knitting from one selvedge edge to the other, the knitting is turned somewhere in the middle of the work such that one area of the knitting has more rows. The classic use of short rows is for turning sock heels and working shoulder shaping.

Short rows can be used for dramatic color effect as well as subtle variations that give depth and interest to a project, and designers have been wonderfully creative using short rows to accent, highlight, and “wow” with color. Short rows can be used to add lines of color, to frame and shape windows of color, as well as to geometrically shape areas of color. See Photos 1, 2, and 3.

Colorwork using short rows does not require stranding, twisting yarns, or slipping stitches as for more classic colorwork. Similar to intarsia, there can be lots of tails that need weaving in.

Photo 1: printed with permission by Maylin Tan
Photo 2: printed with permission by Marin Melchior
Photo 3: “Colorfun Scarf” printed with permission by Frank H. Jernigan

Any discussion of color must include some basics of color theory. (See the Bibliography for a more comprehensive discussion.) Color theory begins with the color wheel. The classic color wheel has yellow, red, and blue as the primary colors. However, our eyes see yellow, cyan, and magenta, so I will use this version of the color wheel. See Figure 1. Secondary colors are a combination of two of these primary colors to create three secondary colors: blue, green, and red. Mixing two adjacent colors creates the six tertiary colors for the standard 12-color color wheel. Color is referred to as hue.

Figure 1

Value is another component of color theory and is probably the most important. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. Our brain’s eye sees value first. Our eyes are drawn to lighter, brighter areas of color; and we recognize this as a contrast with darker areas of color. The actual color is registered second. Therefore, a high value difference is more dramatic, such as black/white, yellow/navy, etc. The best way to assess value is to take a black-and-white photo. If the value of two colors is close, the eye has a hard time differentiating between the colors and will see only one “blended” color. This “optical blending” is what causes colors to look muddy and patterns to be lost in stranded knitting. A ten percent difference in value, as noted on a value scale, is generally a safe value difference although it is subtle. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

Saturation is how pure the color is. Colors can be muted and softened by adding white (tint), or their complementary color on the color wheel, or darkened by adding black (shade) or gray (tone). These manipulations of color are done in the dye studio and give knitters the almost infinite color choices available today. A basic understanding of saturation allows us to choose colors wisely depending on the desired effect. Pure yellow and white often become one when used together. However, if you add gray or black to yellow, you get golds and olive greens, which can work quite nicely with white. Using white or lighter gray within, or to surround a motif, will dull it. Darker colors, including neutral grays, will make the motif brighter and can be quite dramatic. See Figure 3.

Figure 3

As a knitter, understanding how a color is created helps determine where on the color wheel a given color lands and then how best to combine colors. Color theory has many rules as to what is aesthetically pleasing to the average eye. Because of the interlacement of each stitch with its neighbor, some rules of color are less applicable in knitting. In the end, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to use colors in knitting. The objective is for the color motifs to show to effect and for the result to be pleasing to the wearer; and definitely what is pleasing to one person is not necessarily pleasing to the next person!

Using the color wheel as the base for color choice is a good place to start, especially if you have trouble putting colors together. This is a skill set that some people have innately; the rest of us actually can learn it. Here are some safe rules to get started:

  • Complement colors: Colors directly opposite on the color wheel will produce a high-contrast, bold combination. College football teams often take advantage of this theory for the choice of school colors. The little pops of color used in stranded knitting at the center line of a motif will often use a complement color.
  • Split Complement colors: A color is combined with one color from each side of its complement. The contrast is still bold, but now three colors are used. For example, cyan would be worked with the colors on either side of red—orange (red/yellow) and rose (red/magenta). The Burger King logo takes advantage of this using blue and its split complements red and yellow. There are many other “splits” such as tetrads and split-split complements. These combinations use the whole spectrum of the color wheel, and our mind’s eye finds this very pleasing.
  • Analogous colors: Classically, this is done using three colors next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous colors will make harmonious and subtle color combinations. Many beautiful Fair Isle sweaters utilize these combinations. Expanding on the concept of analogous colors is gradients, or the two-primary rule. (See Tien Chui, in Bibliography.) Colors blended between and including two primary colors will be harmonious and can be quite striking. For example, between cyan and yellow, colors such as green/cyan, green, and yellow/green would all look nice mixed with each other as well as the cyan and yellow.

Keeping some basic color theory in mind, consider how short rows can be used to augment a knitted design. Short rows can be used to flaunt colors, frame colors, and shape colors. In Figure 4, short rows are used to create horizontal lines of color that go just over half the width of the piece, creating color and texture in an otherwise plain swatch. In the first sample, Figure 4a uses split complement colors. Yellow/orange would be complementary to blue/cyan, and the colors on either side of blue/cyan are cyan and blue. German short rows were used and the turn has a bleb of color past the stripe. Figure 4b uses the two-primary rule: the colors include cyan (a primary), navy and burgundy which are both between the two primaries cyan and magenta. Wrap-and-turn short rows were utilized and no bleb of color is visible Which color combination is more appealing would be up to the knitter. The choice of short-row technique for a given pattern should be tested with a swatch, as demonstrated in this example. The German short row is not the best choice.

Figure 4: 4a on left; 4b on right

In Figure 5, short rows are used to make alternating wedges of color. This pattern can be quite fun with variegated yarns. In Figure 5a, fairly high-contrast complementary colors cyan and orange are used. By using analogous colors in Figure 5b, the affect is muted and much softer. When these two swatches are viewed in black and white (Figure 6), the high value contrast in 6a is more dramatic than in 6b. Comparing 6a and 6b with the value scale (Figure 2), 6a has about a 50% difference in value (1 for the dark and 5 for the light) and 6b is about 20% (2 for the dark and 4 for the light). These short rows were worked as wrap-and-turn short rows without picking up the wraps—an excellent choice for garter stitch.

Figure 5: 5a on left; 5b on right
Figure 6: 6a on left; 6b on right

Revisiting Figure 3, the swatches show one way to frame areas of color, almost like windows. This is another great way to use variegated yarns to advantage. The border colors are different, but the main colors are the same. These colors are analogous and sit right next to each other on the color wheel. Our eye separates them better because of the contrast “frame” color in between. When viewed in black and white (Figure 7), the values of these three colors are very close. The lighter gray background mutes the colors, so the value of the bottom tier is about 5, the middle and top tiers are both 8. These two colors would blend into one color without the background color between. With the darker background (7b), the colors are brighter, and their values are 6 for the bottom and 10 for the top two. The short rows in both 7a and 7b are German short rows. The German short rows are an excellent choice here.

Figure 7: 7a on left; 7b on right

Colorwork in knitting has a long and culturally significant history. Understanding color theory as it relates to knitting is a wonderful skill. Combining colorwork with short-row knitting, especially with variegated yarns, is a fun and easy way to manipulate color in knitting!


Bajus, Janine. The Joy of Color. Will Jane Press, 2016.
Bryan, Suzanne. “Stitch Anatomy: Short Rows – The Long Version.” Cast On, Feb.–Apr. 2015, pp. 9–13.
Chui, Tien. (Note: Membership, although free, is required.)
Feitelson, Ann. The Art of Fair Isle Knitting. Interweave Press, 1996.
Holladay, Arenda. “Technical Article: Short Rows.” Cast On, May–July 2008, pp. 54–57.
Menz, Deb. Color Works: the crafter’s guide to color. Interweave Press, 2004.
Storta, Heather. “On Your Way to the Masters: Short Rows.” Cast On, Winter 2019–2020.

Thanks to:
Melchior, Marin. “Butterfly Papillion.”
Jernigan, Frank. “Colorfun Scarf.” Cast On, Summer 2021.
Tan, Maylin. “Wingspan.”

Pattern Associated with Article — Short Row Cowls

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