So far in this series of articles, we’ve discussed the first two pillars of understanding color mixing in handweaving: how to tell if a draft will blend colors or keep them separate, and what other factors, such as yarn size, viewing distance, and pattern scale, influence whether your yarn colors will blend together or stay separate.

But what color do you get if your yarn colors do mix? That’s the third pillar of color mixing in weaving, and is the subject of this article. 

If you want to predict what colors you’ll get and avoid muddy colors in your handweaving, you’ll want to read this article! It’s a long one, but worth reading through to the end.

(There’s a lot of color theory in this article; if you want to skip over all that and get to the practical part, finding out how to avoid muddy colors in your handwoven cloth, just click here.)

Understanding how to predict color mixes

All colors are a mix of three primary colors

All the colors we see in physical objects are a mixture of three primary colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. That’s because we have three kinds of light receptors in our eyes, each of which perceives one of those colors in physical objects.

(For more details on why, read the excellent book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Harvard neurobiology professor Margaret Livingstone.)

Mixing two primary colors produces a color between the two primaries on the color wheel

If you mix two “pure” (as saturated/brilliant as possible) primary colors, you get a color that falls between them on the color wheel, like this:

The cyan-magenta-yellow color wheel

Mixing lots of yellow with a little magenta produces orange; mixing yellow and magenta in equal quantities produces red; and mixing lots of magenta with a little yellow produces magenta-red.

(Why not the traditional red-blue-yellow color wheel? Again, it’s because our eye receptors aren’t set up to perceive those colors; they see cyan, magenta, and yellow. This is covered in many references on vision, including the one I mentioned above.)

What about duller colors?

“That’s all very well,” you might ask, “But where do duller colors come from?”

Duller colors come from mixing all three primaries together.

Mixing three primary colors in equal quantities produces gray

If you mix cyan, magenta, and yellow together in precisely equal quantities, you get gray. In theory. In practice, you almost never get an exactly neutral gray, because in real life other factors get in the way.

(For example, there is no such thing as a really “pure” primary in real life; dye mixing strengths vary; yarns vary in thickness and reflectivity; and a long, long list of other reasons.)

But you do get a very dull color, and we’re talking color theory here, so: in theory, you get gray. Let’s roll with that for now.

Mixing gray in with a color dulls the color

If you mix gray with a bright, saturated color, it dulls it down. So if you mix in gray with cherry red, you get brick red, and eventually, you get gray-red, and finally, you get gray. Like this:

Mixing gray in with a color dulls the color

Understanding color addition: Each color is really a mix of two primary colors plus some gray.

This reddish-brown, for example, is made up of 40% yellow, 40% magenta, and 20% cyan. (I know because this is an actual dyed yarn sample; I dyed it myself from those colors.)

Each color is a mix of two primary colors

Gray is one part yellow, one part magenta, and one part cyan, so this is really the same as saying the reddish-brown is one part yellow, one part magenta, and one part gray.

Colors are a mix of two primary colors plus gray

So this reddish-brown is really one part magenta, one part yellow (bright red) plus some gray, making it a dull red.

What this means, conceptually speaking, is that every color can be thought of as a mix of two primaries and gray. The two primaries that are dominant (the ones that make up the non-gray part) control the hue, which will fall somewhere between the two dominant primaries on the color wheel. The third primary creates gray, lowering the saturation and (potentially) darkening the color.

If this puzzles you, no problem! You don’t really need to know all this to enjoy color in your weaving. But if you enjoy color-geeking, now you know how the theory of how color mixing works in subtractive color (color in physical objects, as opposed to color on monitors or when mixing light).

There are limitations to this method of predicting color. It works best with colors that are fairly saturated (intensely colored). As gray makes up more and more of the mix, the results become more and more unpredictable. Mixing two complementary colors, colors that are opposites on the color wheel, will also produce unpredictable results. But now you understand the principle, so you have some idea of how color mixing works.

How to avoid muddy colors

Now let’s go to the most pressing question for most weavers: if warp and weft colors are mixing together, how do you avoid getting dull, muddy colors?

It turns out to be quite simple. 

The Two-Primary Rule

  1. Colors that fall between the same two primary colors on the color wheel will blend into equally bright colors.
  2. Colors that fall into different two-primary segments will blend into duller colors. The farther apart on the color wheel they are, the duller the color blend.

Put another way:

IF your draft blends warp and weft colors, AND IF you want your cloth color to stay bright, choose your warp and weft colors from the same two-primary segment shown in the wheel below. They will blend into a color that’s just as bright as the original colors were.

That is if you mix yellow and red, or purple and blue, or cyan and green, you’ll get an equally bright color.

If you mix colors from DIFFERENT segments, you’ll get a duller color. The further apart the colors are on the color wheel, the duller the mixed color will become.

Two-Primary Segments for Color Mixing

Examples

Green and red are in different segments, and quite far apart on the color wheel, so when you mix them together in plain weave, you get a very dull color:

green and red threads

Cyan and magenta, on the other hand, are in the same segment of the color wheel, so when woven together in plain weave, the colors remain bright.

swatch of cyan and magenta yarns woven in plain weave

The Two Primary Rule is important to remember, and it is particularly critical when working with solid colored warp and weft. That’s because if your warp is solid green and your weft is solid red, choosing the wrong draft could easily result in fabric that’s dull all over.

(If you’re working with many colors, you can sometimes break the Two-Primary Rule AND still have your cloth appear to be brightly colored. That’s because the human eye notices bright colors and ignores duller ones. So if 1/3 or more of your cloth is brightly colored, when people look at the cloth, they’ll see only the bright areas and will barely notice the duller spots.)

The Two Primary Rule is NOT a “should”

There is, of course, absolutely no law saying that your colors must be eye-poppingly bright. In fact, toning down your colors might produce a piece you like a lot more than one that’s full of super-bright colors.

So the Two-Primary Rule isn’t an absolute law, okay? It simply says that if you want bright colors, sticking within the same segment of the color wheel will produce brighter colors. It’s perfectly okay to decide that you don’t want those brighter colors.

All these rules only apply if your colors are mixing

Remember, not all drafts mix colors together. If your draft separates colors, as explained in this article, then you don’t have to worry about color mixing at all.

Happy weaving,


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  1. Thank you very much for your valuable advice. I made mistakes in the choice of colors which greatly diminishes the value of the woven pieces.

    I look forward to learning more from the book you donate.

    Please excuse my fluency in English, I am French-speaking; I live in Quebec, Canada

    Thank you
    Roger de L.

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