Choosing a color palette for a project – how exciting, and yet how daunting a task it can be! Pick the right colors and you get something gorgeous; pick the wrong ones, and you wind up with mud. Or so it seems.

Here are three questions that will help demystify choosing a palette. I teach more on this in my class Make Your Colors Sing, which will become available as a self-paced class later this spring. Registration is closed; I am now teaching at Handweaving Academy.

Question #1: Colors: Bright or dull?

The first question weavers often ask is “Will my warp and weft colors mix into bright or dull colors? A detailed explanation of color mixing is the subject of a three-part series that I’ve written up here (The Role of the Draft, Pattern Scale, and The Two-Primary Rule), but here’s a quick flowchart that will give you the answer.

Flowchart for color mixing

Question #2: Will my pattern show?

Your choice of colors will affect whether your patterning – woven or color striping – will show clearly or not. If your palette is all light or all dark or all medium colors, with very little variation in darkness, then your draft pattern or any striping won’t show clearly. It will be subtle, with very little sense of drama, like this:

Sample swatch made with light colored warp and weft, with a subtle pattern

If your warp and weft colors are very different in value (darkness), like this black and white warp, your pattern will show clearly and dramatically, like this:

Sample image made with dark weft and light warp, showing the pattern clearly

Question #3: If I want a more exciting piece, do I have a “zinger” color to pep things up?

Excitement and tension in a piece come from contrast – contrast in hue and value mostly. (Hue is a color’s location on the color wheel, and value is its darkness.) Colors that are more saturated – more intensely colored, cherry red vs. brick red, or sapphire blue vs. navy – also add energy to a piece.

So if you have a piece that is mostly dull colors, and you want a peppier look, then adding just a few threads of a brighter color will increase its energy, particularly if they are located opposite the color wheel. 

Or if you have a design that is mostly dark colors, adding a contrasting thread that is lighter will increase the contrast and thus the sense of drama/intensity in the cloth. (Of course, if your design is mostly light colors, adding a darker color will work as well – what’s important is the amount of contrast in the color palette.)

Here are some examples that illustrate how this works.

Here’s a color wheel that you can refer to throughout the example.

Cyan-Magenta-Yellow color wheel

Here’s our starting cloth: stripes of purple and blue-purple.

Draft with stripes of purple-blue and purple

If we want to pep it up just a little, we can add a few threads of medium-bright, medium-dark cyan to some of the stripes. 

Draft with stripes of purple, blue-purple, and cyan

Cyan doesn’t sit that far away on the color wheel from blue-purple and purple, so this doesn’t create a lot of contrast. The resulting fabric catches the eye more than the original one, but not dramatically so. 

(Nothing wrong with that, by the way! Each of these designs is perfectly fine, depending on what your design intent is. Each will work for a different purpose and will suit different tastes. Some people will prefer the more sedate designs, others the more eye-catching ones. And that is absolutely as it should be!)

If we want to pep things up more, we can move a bit further away on the color wheel, to add hue contrast, and/or make the zinger color a bit lighter, to add value contrast as well. Here the “zinger” color has been changed to green, which is a bit further on the color wheel. It is also a bit lighter. The result is a somewhat more dramatic fabric.

Draft with stripes of purple, blue-purple, and bright green

This is starting to feel more dramatic.

And if we move all the way to the opposite end of the color wheel, make the color very light, and crank the saturation up to the most brilliant, intense yellow you can get, the piece becomes very exciting indeed:

Draft with stripes of blue-purple, purple, and brilliant yellow

Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of these designs – each is suited to a different design purpose and a different set of tastes. But if you want a design with more drama and pep, then you’ll want to choose a palette that contains at least one “zinger” color – a color that is different in darkness from the other colors, that sits further away on the color wheel, and one that is more saturated (intense/brilliant) than the others. How different it needs to be depends on how much pep you want to add to the fabric.

And there you have it! Three questions to help you choose a palette.

Happy weaving,

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. Hi Tien, it’s nice to wake up to your email and to hear from you again. Your colour courses have helped me a lot. Are you planning any courses on using neutral colours? I’d love to do a course on using neutrals alone and in a design with other colours. Pat

    1. Hi Pat! Not teaching it solo, but I’m very seriously considering it for the Academy first semester, so watch for an announcement…

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