Ever picked out a brilliant palette of yarns, only to have your beautiful colors weave up into dull, muddy handwoven cloth?
You’re not alone. Picking a palette that will stay bright when mixed is one of the big color challenges in weaving. Fortunately, the solution is pretty straightforward: Choose hues that mix gracefully, or pick a weave structure that creates big blocks of color.
Fix #1: Choose compatible colors.
Some colors blend into each other beautifully, others create drab results. You can predict which colors produce bright blends and which colors produce dull ones by looking at where they fall on the color wheel.
This is the color wheel for physical media – paints, inks, and yarns:
In general, colors that fall between two of the primary colors will mix into bright colors when woven. (The three primary colors are turquoise, magenta, and yellow, and are the largest triangles on the color wheel.) So mixing the colors between turquoise and magenta will result in vivid cloth:
So will colors that fall between yellow and magenta:
And colors that fall between yellow and turquoise:
Color combinations that fall into different segments (on opposite sides of a primary color) will mix into duller colors. The farther apart they are on the color wheel, the drabber the resulting color will be. Yellow green and orange, for example, are on opposite sides of yellow (a primary color), and will weave into pea-soup green:
This is not nearly as vivid as a mix of yellow and orange, which both fall into a single segment – between yellow and magenta.
As two colors get farther and farther apart on the color wheel, the shades produced by mixing those colors get duller and duller. So a mix of magenta and green, which are directly opposite each other on the color wheel, produces a very muted color when mixed.
How does this play out in weaving?
For plain weave, if you want the overall color to be bright, you’ll have to pick colors that fall in one of the segments outlined in the color wheel examples above – colors that fall between yellow and turquoise, magenta and turquoise, or yellow and magenta on the color wheel. Those colors will stay bright when mixed. (This is what I call the Two-Primary Rule: choose colors that fall between two primaries on the cyan-magenta-yellow color wheel.)
As an example, magenta and blue fall both fall into the magenta-to-turquoise segment of the color wheel. So they will blend into bright colors. When woven in plain weave, they produce a lively shade of purple, with specks of magenta and blue:
However, because magenta and green fall into different segments (and are opposites on the color wheel), these yarns blend into a much duller, brownish color when woven in plain weave:
So are you limited to closely related colors if you want bright colors in your handwoven cloth?
No! But to keep the colors bright, you will need to keep them from blending.
Fix #2: Use blocks of color.
Here are the green and magenta yarns again, but woven in 1/3 vs. 3/1 twill blocks this time.
The blocks create large chunks of mostly-green and mostly-magenta, keeping the colors much brighter and creating a vivid design. (More details on how and why this works in my blog post about using black for pizzazz.)
So that’s the secret. If you want bright colors when two colors are mixed on a small scale (plain weave or short floats), choose compatible colors – colors that fall between two primary colors on the color wheel. But if you want to use a more diverse palette, use stripes and weave structures that keep the colors separate, giving large blocks of color.
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