Sometimes creating handwoven fabrics feels like wrestling mischievous imps. A project that looks gorgeous in the initial sketch, or in a weaving software simulation, turns into a muddy mess when woven. A garment that looked great while you were sewing it blurs into shapelessness from across the room. Figuring out what happened can feel hopeless.

Many times, though, the problem is pretty simple: You’ve designed at the wrong scale. Your design is either too large or too small to look attractive when a viewer looks at the finished piece. So your colors blur together or become too bold, and your piece just doesn’t look right. And, if you viewed your sketches or draft the way most people do – close up – you probably didn’t notice there was a problem, because you were seeing the design at the incorrect size.

Here’s how to design a piece at the right scale, whether it’s meant to be seen from six inches or sixty feet away.

Scale determines what you see

The scale of a design controls how you see it. If a pattern is so small the eye has trouble perceiving it, the colors in the pattern will look like a single color. This effect is called optical mixing. (You can read more about optical mixing and its counterpart, simultaneous contrast, in this blog post.)

The Impressionists applied optical mixing beautifully in their paintings. Claude Monet’s painting Haystacks (Sunset) appears to use solid, or near-solid colors at a distance:

Claude Monet, Haystacks (Sunset)
Claude Monet, Haystacks (Sunset)

 

But when viewed close up, the apparently solid colors show themselves to be many tiny dots of color. Here is a close-up taken near the bottom left corner of the haystack.

 

Claude Monet, Haystacks (Sunset), closeup.
Claude Monet, Haystacks (Sunset), closeup.

Whether you see many small splotches of color or a landscape painting depends on how close you are standing. This painting looks radically different when the viewing distance (and thus the scale of the dots) changes.

Viewing distance affects scale

You can see a similar effect in these handwoven lavender sachets. These are woven using 60/2 silk as warp and rayon machine embroidery thread as weft. 

From a distance of several feet, each of the sachets appears to be a solid color with a design of diagonal squares:

handwoven sachets, viewed from a few feet away
handwoven sachets, viewed from a few feet away

 

 

But at a distance of a few inches, you can see the different colors interlacing in plain weave.

sachets viewed close up
sachets viewed close up

 

 

Designs that look good close up, where detail is readily perceived, often blur at a distance. Conversely, large-scale designs may look good at a distance, but seem overwhelming or garish when viewed nearby.

Yarn size changes the scale of your design

Yarn size plays a large factor in the size of a handwoven fabric design. Fine yarns will produce a smaller, more subtle design than thick yarns when woven using the same draft and colors.

For example the photo below shows two pieces of fabric, woven using the same draft. The image shows the swatches as they appear from three feet away. The top swatch is woven in 120/2 silk (30,000 yards per pound/15,000 m/g) in both warp and weft. The bottom swatch uses much thicker yarns, about 2,500 yards per pound/1,250 m/g.

celtic braid fabrics - same draft, different sizes of yarn
celtic braid fabrics – same draft, different sizes of yarn

The sample woven in fine yarns looks delicate and intricate; the sample in thick yarns looks bold, almost overwhelming.

However, when viewed from 10-15 feet away, the designs look quite different.

celtic braid fabrics - same draft, different sizes of yarn
celtic braid fabrics at 10 -15 ft.

At the smaller scale, optical mixing has blurred the black and white design into a nearly solid gray. In the bigger sample, however, the red and black patches color remain distinct, the pattern shows clearly, and the cloth looks great.

View your designs at their finished scale

Because scale has such a profound impact on color and design, it’s important to check your drafts at the right scale when designing handwoven cloth. For example, napkins are typically viewed from 2-3 feet away, either on the table while sitting down, or in your lap while eating. So when evaluating a draft for napkins, you’ll want to view the draft as the finished napkin would appear from three feet away. But when evaluating a wall hanging, you’ll want to consider how it looks from across the room.

One common mistake is to look at drafts at a size that makes it easy to “read” the threading and treadling, but which is larger than the finished fabric. While it is easier to design drafts close up, you’ll need to scale down to the size of your finished piece, at the distance from which people will see it.

celtic braid draft - close up
celtic braid draft – large scale

For example, here’s the draft used in the previous samples. The treadling, threading, and tie-up are clearly visible, making it a good scale for editing.

However, as we’ve seen, the finished fabric can look very different depending on the yarns and viewing distance. For the sample in finer yarns, viewed at three feet away, evaluating the design at this scale would be more appropriate:

Celtic braid - small scale
Celtic braid – small scale

And of course, if viewed from further away, the draft would need to be scaled down even further.

Evaluating the draft at the correct viewing size becomes even more critical when envisioning color combinations. For example, here is the same draft, in red and green, at a large scale.

Celtic Braid draft in red and green
Celtic Braid draft in red and green

At this scale, the red and green yarns appear visually distinct, and the piece is bright and energetic. To many people, it probably looks garish.

However, when viewed at a smaller scale, as the draft would look if woven in fine threads or seen from further away, the draft looks like this:

Celtic braid draft, small scale
Celtic braid draft, small scale

Now the bright colors have blended into mud!

To avoid unintentional mud, make sure you preview your design at the correct scale before warping your loom. Weaving software makes this easy, but if you don’t have software, you can take a photo or screenshot of your design, then zoom in and out while viewing your photo to enlarge or reduce the design.

Designing for Multiple Viewing Distances

Some pieces need to look good both close up and far away. For example, a tapestry might be viewed from across the room, or it might be inspected from nearby. A garment destined for a fashion show needs to look good on the catwalk, 30 feet away. But it also needs to look good when exhibited later, where it will be seen from a few feet away.

However, most handwoven garments are woven from relatively fine threads, using a draft with short repeats. This produces exquisitely detailed fabrics that look great close up. But at 30 feet away, small, detailed patterns blur or become invisible, and the garment looks boring. As a result, handwoven garments often don’t look good in fashion shows.

To solve this problem, you simply need to design at two scales – one for nearby viewers and one for people further away. My Kodachrome Jacket shows one way to do this. Here it is, photographed from about 10 feet away:

Kodachrome Jacket, viewed from 10 feet away
Kodachrome Jacket, viewed from 10 feet away

At this scale, the patches of color from the painted warps dominate the design. Because they stand out clearly from a distance, the jacket will look good even 30 feet away on a fashion-show catwalk.

Up close, however, the intricate handwoven design becomes visible:

Kodachrome jacket, closeup of fabric
Kodachrome jacket, fabric closeup

Because it is designed at both large and small scales, Kodachrome offers something to both distant and close-up viewers. That’s one reason it was featured on the cover of the September/October 2011 issue of Handwoven – a winner in Handwoven’s 2011 Garment Challenge.

Handwoven magazine

Summary

  • How good a handwoven project looks depends on the size of the design when viewed. As the piece gets further from the viewer, the design appears progressively smaller in scale. So consider viewing distance when designing.
  • If the design appears small enough, optical mixing will blur the colors into a single shade. Patterns that appear bold close up may blend into mud.
  • Because scale is so important, evaluate your designs at the size they will be in real life, at the planned viewing distance.
  • If your work needs to look good from multiple distances, include both small and large scale designs in the finished project, so it offers something to the viewer at any distance.

I hope you have found this post useful! If you would like to get notification of new blog posts and upcoming classes, please sign up for my newsletter (and my free e-book!) using the links below. And, of course, please feel free to share on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, by clicking on the buttons below this article.


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.

Happy weaving!

– Tien


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  1. Wow, this puts it all in perspective (pun intended!). Wish I had considered scale when choosing my overshot placemats – the trellis design is beautiful but I have to step away about three feet to really see the pattern pop. Color does make a difference though – I am weaving eight placemats for a class where we weave everyone’s color in our design then meet to gather our own placemats all done by others in our color. Each color I used changed the perspective of the design. The dark colors created a greater contrast on the white warp so the design looks sharp. The almost tone-on-tone light gold created such a different effect, beautiful, but you’d swear it was a different pattern! Thanks Tien, this was a great help.

  2. Thank you, Then!
    I am just beginning my exploration into weaving fabric for jackets and your explanation about designing on two levels makes so much sense. I will definitely be using your beautiful jacket as an example of considering both how a garment looks at a distance and close up.

  3. Thanks Tien! Even though I know in my head that scale is important, when I sit down to design at the computer, my mind sees what it wants to see. I think “that pixel size is the same as 10/2 cotton”. Wrong! It’s a good thing I’m learning to enjoy sampling.

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