When you’re picking yarn colors for a handwoven project, how do you know whether the colors will work before you buy? It’s hard to know whether the colors will work together, especially if you’re buying online and all you’ve got is a photo. And mistakes can be expensive!

This blog post will teach you how to pick colors that will show off the patterns in your draft.

How bold your pattern looks depends almost entirely on how much black-and-white contrast there is within the pattern. (More about that in this blog post.)

You can never get more contrast in your pattern than you have in the original yarns. So if you want your pattern to show clearly, you need to start with yarns that have strong light-dark contrast.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge how light or dark a yarn is just by looking at it. Warm colors, like orange or yellow, appear lighter than colors with cool hues, like blue and purple. Bright colors, like electric blue or fire-engine red, appear lighter to the eye than dull colors like browns or grays – even if they are all about equally dark if viewed in black and white.

For example, in this photo, the orange yarn appears lighter than the other yarns, because it is a warm hue (orange) and also a very saturated color (bright orange):

three yarns, one orange, one dull blue, one dull purple

But looking at the photo in black and white, you can see that it is actually about the same darkness as the other yarns.

The same three yarns, but in black and white

How to tell if two yarns will make your handwoven pattern show clearly, when you’re in a yarn shop (or looking through your stash)

The best way to figure out whether two yarns have enough light/dark contrast to make a pattern show up clearly is by taking a black and white photo of the yarns. If you’re in a yarn shop, or working with yarns from your stash, that’s fairly straightforward. Take the yarns that you’re thinking of using, set them on the table, and snap a black and white photo with your cell phone.

Make sure you are using a black and white filter that does not distort the photo colors – some photo filters are designed to make scenes darker, or exaggerate contrast, or produce other visual effects. You want a photo filter that will only remove the color information, leaving a black and white photo. There are two easy ways to do this. On the iPhone, use the Camera app with the color filter set to Mono. On Android phones, install the BlackCam app and use the Classic filter to view your yarns in black and white.

Here’s a short video I filmed showing how to use the iPhone Camera app to take black and white photos of yarns:

How to tell if two yarns will make your handwoven pattern show clearly, if you’re shopping online

What if you’re shopping online and you don’t have access to the yarns? Just compare photos of the yarns. Simply download photos of the yarns to your computer and open up the photos of the yarns side by side. Then view the screen through your smartphone camera with the filter set to black and white.

You can also do this with stash yarns. Take a photo of a yarn from your stash. Upload it to your computer, open up the photo of the yarn next to the photos of the yarns you’re considering, and snap a black and white photo with your smartphone.

If you’ve got a stash yarn and you’re trying to pick a matching yarn from a vendor’s palette, here’s a quick way to select yarns.

Step One

Take a black and white photo of your stash yarn.

Step Two

Take a black and white photo of the yarn palette on the vendor’s website.

Step Three

Download both photos to your computer and open them up. Look at them side by side. Search through the black and white version of the yarn palette for yarns that have strong value (light/dark) contrast with your stash yarn. These are the yarns that will make your pattern show clearly. Make a note of where they are in the vendor’s yarn selection.

Step Four

Finally, look back at the colored version of the yarn palette and decide which of the colors go best with your stash yarn.

How it works – step by step

I shot a video showing the process. Here it is:

If you have a slow connection, or don’t like videos, here’s a written description of the process.

This is my stash yarn, the one I want to match. It’s Lunatic Fringe Yarn’s “Periwinkle” color.

I want to match it with another Lunatic Fringe color, so I’ll go to the Lunatic Fringe Yarns website. Here’s a screenshot of their website, showing the color palette of their Tubular Spectrum™ yarns.

Here’s a zoomed-in look at the yarn palette:

At first glance, I like the look of the light purple in top right. But will it give enough value (light/dark) contrast to make the pattern visible? I don’t know, so I’ll have to look at it in black and white. Let’s take a black and white photo of the yarn palette and compare it to my stash yarn.

black and white photo of palette
black and white photo of stash yarn

Hmm. The light purple (top right corner) plainly won’t work; it’s almost exactly the same shade of gray as my stash yarn. But the darker purple that’s second from the bottom and second from the left is darker, and looks like it would work. I’ll download the image of the full yarn and take a look. Just for fun, I’ll download an image of the light purple yarn, too.

Here’s a screenshot showing all three yarns in color:

And here are the three yarns in black and white:

the same three yarns, in black and white

Now I can see clearly that the light purple is too close in value to my stash yarn; they’re practically the same shade of gray in the black and white photo. The purple, on the other hand, is much darker, and will make the pattern show clearly.

And this is what happens when I test these yarn colors in the draft I want to use:

light purple with my stash yarn
darker purple with my stash yarn

Sure enough, the draft with two colors of the same darkness produces a subtle, nearly-invisible pattern. The draft with strong light/dark contrast between the colors produces a bold, clearly visible pattern.

If you want a subtle pattern, of course, do the reverse: pick a color you like, then choose one or more colors that look about equally dark in the black and white photo. Bold or subtle, it’s all about getting the results you want!

Happy weaving!

– Tien

If you want to know more about how to create crisp, clear designs in your handwoven cloth, subscribe to my newsletter and get my FREE e-book! It will help you design beautiful handwoven fabrics, with a pattern as bold or subtle as you want.

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  1. Just what the doctor ordered for this Textiler of advancing years to marry into designing of cloth, fabric, wall art pieces etc. in making informed use and integration of appropriate e technologies can only further knowledge, skills and aesthetic outcomes.
    The very foundation of everything we do and experience as fibre makers enhances our biological being with the medium being the massage and teaches us through the intelligence of the hands. To grow though experience in making textiles is to extend our cognitive existence. Thank you so much for sharing a way forward in this new millennium of human existence.

  2. I love the black and white tool you told us about in your class, Color courage for Weavers. I use it all the time and not just for yarns.
    I’ve been truant from the class the last week or so and am catching up.

  3. thanks for this! tubular spectrum is currently my favorite yarn, and your timing is perfect: there’s the sun going down and the white snow still deep and reflecting back at me. bring on some spring….

  4. Hello!

    I tried to sign up for the free color class per mentioned above but when I navigate to the link, it only allows the option of purchasing the membership for $24.99.

    I’d love to learn more about this course as I’m always hesitant on creating the right color palette in my weavings yet wanting bright and bold colors.

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