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Color Theory for Weavers - Part One

Color Theory for Weavers

Color is an important part of weaving, but it’s one that many weavers struggle with. Whether you’re weaving in plain weave, twill, or overshot, the color choices that you make before you even begin to wind your warp can have an impact later on—for better or worse.

Through talking with many of weavers and knitters (I work at Gist stockist, Handknit Yarn Studio), I’ve learned that there can be a lot of mystery surrounding color combinations and what’s good, bad, or pleasing. Many people want to know what the "secret" to color mixing is or what "their" color is. While understanding color theory can help you pick a color palette for your handwoven cloth, it’s not all there is to the story.

While it’s easy to think that colors aren’t subjective, there’s actually a lot of variation in how we experience them. Color appears differently to each individual, and may change depending on near infinite personal and environmental variables. I can’t tell you how many times someone has asked me to help them find a certain color, only to have their opinion of what "burgundy" is vary considerably from mine! And I think we’ve all bought yarn online only to have it arrive a different color than anticipated—computer monitors shift yarn colors too.

Many weavers have told me over the years that they’re not “good” at color, which is an attitude I strongly disagree with! We each have a complex relationship to color that’s been affected by our upbringing, culture, experiences, preferences, and training. Like a muscle, your sense of color can be exercised to gain strength and confidence. The more you experiment and and learn about color, the better you’ll be at choosing yarn colors and understanding what looks good to you.

This article is the first in a series that will look at the basics of color theory for weavers—sign up to our newsletter to receive articles two and three directly in your inbox.

 Color Theory for Weavers

Basic Color Theory for Weavers

First, let’s start with the basics: the color wheel. I dug out my old ‘Color Computer’ to provide a bit of guidance—published in 1972 by M. Grumbacher Inc., this color wheel is for “artists, illustrators, designers, architects, art directors, interior decorators [and] instructors,”—but it will work for weavers too!

In a standard color wheel, you’ll find 12 colors: Red, Red Orange, Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow, Yellow Green, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Blue Violet, Violet, and Red Violet (depending on the wheel you consult, they may use slightly different terms).

These colors can be broken down further. There are three primary colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue. If you mix two of the primary colors together, you create secondary colors: Green, Orange, or Violet.

Tertiary colors can then be created by combining a secondary color with a primary color: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, and Red-Violet. 

All of the colors you’ll find in Gist’s in-house weaving yarn lines can be slotted into one of these twelve basic pure hues. Understanding where a yarn color like Blush (Red) or Apricot (Yellow-Orange) fits on the color wheel can be very helpful when coming up with color combinations.

Beyond the Color Wheel

If categorizing colors was as simple as looking at the color wheel, we’d all be genius colorists—but there are more aspects of color to consider before sitting down at the loom.

Black and white aren’t on the color wheel—because they’re not colors, even though we use them in the same way. Adding black or while to any pure hue on the wheel will give you shades and tints.

  • Shades are created when you add black to a color, darkening them.
  • Tints are created when you add white to a color, lightening them.

Two other terms you might come across are:

  • Value: This refers to the lightness or darkness of a color—how close or far it is from black or white.
  • Saturation: How pure, or intense, a hue is.

Value is a tricky one to understand, but Array offers an excellent visual example of value in action. Below you’ll see a color image of the four shades of Meadow followed by the same image in black and white. When all of the color is stripped away, you can see that each cone is progressively lighter or darker in value than its neighbor—the base color hasn’t changed, but the value has.

Color Theory for Weavers

Color Theory for Weavers

One of my favorite tricks for determining value is to take a picture of the yarns with your smart phone and use the editor to make them black and white. Yarns with similar values will have no contrast in your finished handwoven cloth, and may make your project appear dull or muddy—when you look at a black and white photograph, you can clearly differentiate between the values.

Applying Color

Let’s apply our new knowledge to some Gist colors so you can get a sense of how this works in practice. I’m going to look at all the green hues across Gist’s in-house yarns.

I took the close-up photograph of each yarn from the website and made a chart categorizing them according to what section of the color wheel they belong. The three columns represent the three greens on the color wheel: Blue-Green, Green, and Yellow-Green. Each row represents a yarn line.

It’s no surprise that Array has the most comprehensive collection of greens. Forest is a strong blue-green while Meadow fills the true green slot. Lime is a bright yellow-green.

Beam offers two excellent greens. Jade is almost more blue than green, but I think we can feel confident putting it the blue-green slot. Pistachio is yellow-green.

Duet and Ode are the only lines with only one green each. Duet’s Pear (a personal favorite!) is a yellow-green, while Ode’s Basil fits in the green category—but the marled colors of Ode mean that it’s got a bit of a blue-green undertone.

Mallo rounds out Gist’s yarns with a green in each category: the intriguing blue-green of Frost, green of Fir, and yellow-green of Lichen.

Color Theory for Weavers

Color Homework

Next month we’ll continue to look at color in weaving and some of the ways that artists and makers create a color palette. Understanding some of these basic elements of color theory will help you feel more confident choosing warp and weft colors for your next weaving project.

First—to warm up our color muscles, here’s some homework for you. We’ll start with some easy questions to get you thinking about your likes and dislikes.

  • What color is the first you reach for? Don’t think about it too hard — just grab! I know I always reach for blue.
  • Where does this color fit on the color wheel? In my case, I prefer blues that lean on the true Blue and Blue-Green side of the spectrum.
  • What color causes you to recoil? For me, it’s orange!
  • Where does your least favorite color fit on the color wheel? Now that I’ve said orange, I’m going to backtrack a bit—I don’t mind Red-Orange so much, but I don’t love true Orange or Yellow-Orange.

Next, get on those walking shoes and go for a stroll somewhere with plenty of visual stimulation. As you’re moving, pick something in your field of vision and take a deep, long look at it, examining its color. If you live somewhere with snow at this time of year, you might be thinking that there isn’t much color around. But that’s not the case! Snow itself is an excellent case study, since while we think of snow as white, when you really look it can be blue, green, purple…there’s a greater depth of color than you think!

Training your eye to pick out these color subtleties is a fun game—and will exercise those muscles that will make it easier to choose color in future weaving projects.

Color Theory for Weavers

About Amanda Rataj

Amanda Rataj is an artist and weaver living and working in Hamilton, Ontario. She studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and has developed her contemporary craft practice through research-based projects, artist residencies, professional exhibitions, and lectures. Subscribe to her studio newsletter or follow her on Instagram to learn about new weaving patterns, exhibitions, projects, and more.

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