Colour: mellow yellow

Oh dear – what a predictable title! And choosing yellow as the subject of a colour-themed post right now isn’t surprising, either.

My garden’s full of it:

I do like yellow. It cheers you up; it brightens the dullest days. But it’s an ambivalent colour. While it conveys cheerfulness, sunshine and hope, it can also be troubling – and I’m not going to be yellow about confronting its negative side… and that’s just one example of negativity.

As an actual colour, it’s been used to define and exclude: the most obvious example is probably that of the yellow star in the 20th century, but there are others, such as its use in quarantine flags.

As an expression, ‘yellow’ has often been racially offensive, describing both people from China and Japan and anyone with some black or Aboriginal ancestors, as well as alleged cowards. Many colours have negative connotations, of course, but poor old yellow seems to suffer more than most.

But I love it. For me, yellow means a buttercup held under the chin to tell if I like butter; massed daffodils on the grass verges in many British villages; gorse flowers brightening and warming everything around them, even a day of heavy snow.

It’s a warning, but a quieter one than red; it says ‘only park here between certain times’ or ‘turn right by the painted boulders’.

Yellow does stand out. In Imperial China, it was often a royal colour. The emperor wore it, but there is plenty of evidence that it wasn’t just restricted to the ruler, though it was definitely associated with the court and the ruling class; it wasn’t exclusively male, either. Some robes were entirely yellow, with a pattern formed by the way the silk was woven; some featured the powerful colour along with others, although the yellow dominated.

Qing Dynasty, dress of an empress; Palace Museum, Beijing

And yellow is often used as a highlight, an emphasis. Modern ikat cloth from Central Asia is astonishingly bright and the yellows can sometimes be quite harsh, but the use of bright yellow for highlights goes back way beyond the introduction of synthetic dyes.

Ikat velvet fabric from the V&A collection

Artificial dyes were in use by the late 19th century in places like Bokhara, even though strict laws were supposed to prevent their use – and the penalties could be severe. Nineteenth-century Bokhara was not the place to be for a quiet life, and the Emirs could come up with some quite inventive and usually fatal punishments.

Perhaps it was inevitable that dyers would persist with the synthetic yellows, though. Natural yellow dyes can be problematic, which has always struck me as surprising given how many wonderful yellows occur in nature. But while yellow is probably the easiest colour to achieve using natural dyes, it also fades very easily.

The worst offender is turmeric; anything dyed with it fades very quickly in the sun. In India it’s often used in combination with pomegranate skins – when the turmeric fades, the ochre from the pomegranate remains, and the tannins in the pomegranate delay the fading. Buddhist monks’ ‘saffron’ robes were traditionally dyed with turmeric, though now the dyes are often synthetic. Saffron, they weren’t.

Saffron is another old yellow dye, of course, as well as a food additive and medicinal plant. Where colours survive on very early fabrics, yellow is frequently present – along with red and blue – and it’s likely that saffron was one of the dyes used to get that yellow (weld was used later). There’s a fresco from Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini, which goes back to the Minoan Bronze Age. It shows girls picking saffron, and they’re wearing clothes which include yellow.

Of course, they might have been picking their saffron for other reasons than dyeing. Saffron has always had multiple uses, and they are one reason why it’s always been valuable. In turn, that’s why it’s often been adulterated. Today, you might be sold safflower instead; in the past fibres allegedly dyed with saffron could actually be coloured with pomegranate or other materials. One unfortunate man in 15th century Nuremburg was found guilty of such adulteration and was buried alive, accompanied by his fake yellow goods.

(One of the most significant alternative uses was medicinal: it’s associated with relieving menstrual problems in cultures ranging from rural Greece to China. Maybe that’s why, by extension, only women were supposed to wear yellow clothing in Classical Athens. And maybe its why yellow was also a woman’s colour in the Roman world, especially associated with the Vestal Virgins. Though weld was traditionally used to dye Roman cloth…)

Whatever its history and significance, yellow can be a difficult colour to wear. I’ve knitted in yellow fairly rarely, and never a whole garment, though I have a small yellow shawl I sometimes wear when I’m feeling brave.

Generally, though, I use yellow with other colours, and then it comes up surprisingly often. Sometimes it crops up as a highlight in a fair isle; sometimes it’s an element in a variegated yarn – as in Colinette’s lovely yarn, Giotto, which I used to knit a long scarf in a 2 x 2 basket stitch:

This was originally in garter stitch but I found it a bit boring, and I also felt it didn’t do the yarn justice, so I pulled the whole thing out and reknitted it. I also seized the opportunity to reduce the needle size dramatically, from the suggested 8mm to 5.5mm, which worked much better.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Colinette. Their patterns can be a nightmare, and I’ve ended up with indigo hands on more than one occasion. But not this one. In fact, my only complaint was that I had just two skeins. I should have bought more!


10 thoughts on “Colour: mellow yellow

  1. Knitsister

    Lovely post, it would have been just the thing for the last Module of the City and Guilds course I am doing. Had to write a lot of analysis about colours and your post would have come in very handy.
    Love all the photos too.
    Hugs from Ruthin xx

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks! I think I may be able to blame you for my colour obsession, mind you – I’ve always been interested, but that colour workshop you led gave my interest a real focus…

  2. josiekitten

    Really interesting to read all about yellow. It isn’t a colour I would particularly choose for myself for clothes, but it is a colour that always cheers me up! I’m glad you liked the trip down memory lane looking at those beach huts!

  3. del

    This reminds me — I’ve only knit with yellow once, and I don’t know why. I love yellow! To me, it’s so cheery and bright and fun.

    Note to self: buy more yellow yarn.

    That empress dress is amazing.

    1. kate Post author

      Isn’t it odd, this lack of yellow knitting? (Glad it’s not just me – I’ve even been told it really suits me, and I still don’t buy yellow yarn…)

  4. naperie

    Lovely post, thoughtful and informative as always.

    As for yellow.. I think it’s a difficult colour to wear on its own in our cool northern light. I used to think that about orange as well until I moved to the Midlands.. here the influence of the local football team means that orange/gold/ yellow is extremely popular not just for clothing but also everyday things.. vans, furnishings, houses… a real brightener in the grey winters.

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you… and you’ve made me think about orange as well (doubtless the subject of a future post). A while ago I knitted myself a lovely cardi in a delicious orange, but I’ve never worn it as it makes me feel uncomfortable. The more I think about it, the more I think that feeling may be a function of the light — it’s just too much, especially as I don’t have footie supporters to back me up. Perhaps I should try wearing it on a bright sunny day…

  5. Ashleigh Pie

    Thank you for commenting on my blog 🙂 I haven’t had much chance to think of a way to improve the turn out for our knitting group appart from putting up some signs… I’ll give it some more thought and I’m glad you mentioned the WI because I hadn’t thought of that 😉

    Yellow is such a spring colour, it always makes me think of daffodils.


    1. kate Post author

      No probs, us relatively remote knitting groupies must stick together (it must be very different in large towns / the south of England)…


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