Using yarns whose colors clash – meaning they have much stronger contrast than you’d like – can be a challenge when designing your own handwoven cloth. It’s easy for them to weave into fabric you dislike. But it’s not that hard to harmonize colors that don’t “go together”. This blog post will show you how to use “clashing” color combinations to make beautiful handwoven cloth.

Why do colors clash?

Everyone reacts differently to color contrasts. Some people find high-contrast color combinations lovely and bold; others feel they clash. In general, if you feel two (or more) colors clash, it’s because they contrast so strongly that they jar the eye when placed together. Usually this happens when the colors are far apart on the color wheel, and one color is much lighter/darker than the other. (Dull colors next to bright colors can also clash, but not as strongly.)

For example, if you don’t like strong contrast, you’ll likely find that this orange yarn clashes badly with a deep blue yarn:

That’s because the navy blue is much darker than the orange, and blue and orange are nearly opposite on the color wheel, as you can see in the color wheel below:

However, when the blue and orange are nearly the same lightness/darkness, they look much more harmonious, as you can see in these two yarns:

And when very light colors are paired with very dark colors of the same hue, they don’t clash either – as you can see in this photo of three purple yarns:

So in general, two colors clash when they are far apart on the color wheel and one is much lighter or darker from the other. (It is also possible for a bright/dull color combination to clash, but usually not as strongly.)

Fixing clashing colors when designing handwoven fabric

Once you understand why colors clash, the solution becomes clear. You can smooth the transition between the colors by adding a third color in between, one that harmonizes with both colors. Or you can blend both shades with a color that reduces the contrast between them.

Using a “buffer” color to unify a design

The easiest way to fix clashing colors in your handwoven cloth is to pick a color that is compatible with each of the two jarring colors, and insert it between the contrasting shades. Neutral colors – black, gray, and white – are often used as buffers, because (being neutral) they don’t clash with any other colors. However, colors that fall between the warriors on the color wheel, and in lightness/darkness, can work as well.

For example, this yellow-green and blue-purple jar the eye when placed together, because they are far apart on the color wheel, and one is much lighter than the other:

However, inserting turquoise to separate the two colors results in a far more harmonious design, because it falls between the lime green and the purple, both on the color wheel and in lightness/darkness.

Blending colors to reduce contrast

A second option for creating beautiful handwoven cloth from clashing colors  is to reduce the contrast in the colors by mixing them with a third, carefully-chosen weft color. Plain weave is best for this, as it creates the smallest dots of color and thus mixes the colors together more thoroughly when seen at a distance. (More about optical mixing in my blog post “How to use black to give your handwoven fabrics pizzazz“.) But any structure with short floats can work too.

To pick a weft color, you need to consider how much of each color is present and what will blend best with each. In general, you’ll get more harmonious results if you choose a weft color that is similar in darkness to whichever color makes up most of the warp. It’s also helpful to choose a color that is close on the color wheel, or which is similar in brightness/dullness.

Here the clashing purple and yellow warp stripes are unified by a green weft, which falls between purple and yellow in darkness, and on the color wheel.

A real-life example

To see how this plays out in real life, let’s look at an example. These three yarns are from my stash.

The lemon yellow is the troublemaker in this bunch. It is so light and bright that it contrasts strongly – clashes – with the blue and (to a lesser degree) the olive green. If placed next to either color in pure form, it will jar the eye, as you can see in the card wrap below:

There are two possible solutions. The first is to add a transitional color between the yellow and the other colors, as we did with the lime green/purple combination. It needs to be midway between the yellow and the blue in darkness, and not clash with any of the three colors. Gray, being a neutral, is a safe choice. Here is a yarn wrap with light gray as a “buffer” between colors:

This reduces the contrast, but also loses the vitality of the original version.

Let’s look at the other method, blending both colors with a third color. Here’s a yarn wrap showing stripes of yellow, olive, and blue:

Since the blue and olive make up most of the design, we need to start by finding a weft that will blend harmoniously with both. The most important part is to choose a color that is similar in darkness to the blue and olive. It’s also helpful to choose colors that fall between blue, olive, and yellow on the color wheel.

Let’s look at darkness first. Neutral colors – black, gray, and white – are the easiest blending colors to use, because they mix well with all color families. But how light/dark the neutral color is also makes a difference. Here’s a color gamp woven with the yellow/blue/olive warp and various shades of black,gray, and white:

blue, yellow, olive, and gray yarn wrap, demonstrating how to create beautiful handwoven cloth using clashing colors

As you can see, the darker grays blend better than the other colors because they are almost exactly as dark as the blue and olive, so there isn’t much contrast between them. But they darken the yellow, making it more compatible with the blue and olive.

As you move higher or lower in the gamp, the contrast between the warp and the weft becomes much higher, giving a spotty-looking, less unified fabric.

Next, let’s look at colors that fall between blue and yellow on the color wheel.

handwoven cloth sample, demonstrating how to create beautiful handwoven cloth using clashing colors
While most of the greens work reasonably well, the top four give noticeably more even results than the other colors. That is because they are just about as dark as the blue and olive, so they blend harmoniously with those two colors. And, of course, they darken the yellow and shift it towards green, which reduces the contrast between the yellow and the blue/olive.

If you blend with colors that don’t fall between the two clashing colors on the color wheel, the results look less unified. But colors that are about as light/dark as the dominant color still look more harmonious. Here’s a color gamp woven with a wide array of colors, shown in color on one side and black and white on the other:

handwoven cloth sample, demonstrating how to create beautiful handwoven cloth using clashing colors

Because the blue and olive make up most of the piece, and blue is the color that clashes most strongly with yellow, using a weft that is about as dark as the blue produces the smoothest-looking results. For wefts of similar darkness, the blues and greens are most compatible, but good results can be had with other colors, such as the reds in the middle and the browns near the bottom.

Conclusion

The best way to use clashing colors when designing handwoven cloth is to add a third color, one that harmonizes with the other two. While you’ll need to experiment, usually this color falls between the two clashing shades, both on the color wheel and in lightness/darkness.

Once you’ve selected your third color, you can use it to harmonize your clashing colors. One way to do this is by adding stripes of a third color to separate the warring colors. Another way to design beautiful handwoven cloth using clashing colors is to use the third color as weft, blending it with both colors in plain weave or another structure to reduce the contrast between the two. (If you go this route, you will get the best results by choosing a color that is of similar lightness/darkness to the most-used warp color.)

I hope this blog post has given you some ideas of how to tone down clashing colors! One of the biggest barriers to stash-busting is how to use colors that “don’t go together”; I hope this post enables you to overcome that, and use whatever colors you like.


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. (If you’re already subscribed, just register again – you won’t get double the email, I promise!)

Happy weaving!

– Tien


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    1. Hi Erica,

      This is a very interesting question…What kinds of colors look ugly to you? Which ones do you find hardest to use? I could definitely write about this in a future blog post…

      Tien

      Reply

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. As a graphic designer I’m used to work with colors in 2D, on paper. I find it very difficult to pick the right colors for my weavings. I love ‘sea’ colors, blue, greens, pastels. I’m not so fond of using orange and brown because they are not my kind of colors. How can I use ‘my’ colors ? As they are pastels, all look dull.

    Reply

    1. Hi Ilse! I talk a little about this problem in this blog post: https://www.warpandweave.com/why-bright-colors-weave-into-dull-projects-and-how-to-fix-it/

      But basically the way to fix it is to add a few dark and medium colors to the mix. You don’t need to use a whole lot of the dark and medium colors, just enough to give some contrast to the weaving. The problem is that pastels are all about equally light, so the eye can’t tell them apart at a distance, and the cloth looks bland. (Because we have way more black/white receptors in our eyes than color receptors, we see black/white differences much more clearly than differences in color.) Adding some darker colors will help pep up the weaving.

      Another approach is to add just a tiny bit of an opposing color – yellow-orange-red and the darker shades of those colors (olive green, brown, brick red)- maybe a thread or two as accent, or a small area of pickup. That adds color contrast (and thus excitement) too. But if you’re not fond of those colors, try adding some darker shades of blue/green first.

      The basic principle is that the more contrast there is in a woven piece, the more exciting it will look. Contrast in value (light/dark) is most important, followed by contrast in hue (color family), and finally contrast in saturation (bright/dull). So if you think your piece looks dull, add something that will increase the contrast.

      I hope this helps! (I will also try to write more about this in a future blog post, I think it’s a great question. Thanks for asking it!)

      Tien

      Reply

  2. You have a huge fan here. I have always struggled with color. Nothing looks like the image in my head and as a new weaver, it’s become even more complicated. An earlier blog really helped me rethink my last project – honeycomb pillow covers – and while they’re not finished yet, I am very happy with the colors. This post is tremendously valuable. Thank you for making sense of it for me.

    Reply

  3. Tien.. please define ugly, clashing etc. My favorite colors are cyan and orange.. or blue violet and orange. Here you say they clash.. I do not believe, if used properly, they clash but can enhance each other. For me there is no ugly, there is no clashing, there is no mud.. and all colors can go together IFF you do them with lots of planning. Yes.. all colors can be made to work.. the secret is how you do it!

    Reply

    1. Hi Nancy,

      I’d define “clashing colors” as “colors that are too high-contrast for my tastes”. Everyone has a different level of appreciation for high-contrast color combinations, so colors that may appear to clash to one person may not appear to clash to someone else. (I myself am pretty fond of blue and orange.)

      However, colors with extremely high contrast (in the ways I mentioned) will strike a lot more people as “clashing” (i.e., too high-contrast for their tastes). And many people don’t know how to use those high-contrast colors to get the harmonious results they want. So this post is about how to harmonize high-contrast colors.

      I generally agree that there is no intrinsic right and wrong to color combinations…they just produce different effects. The real question is whether your chosen color combination gives you the effect that you want. You don’t need to harmonize clashing colors – but since a lot of people want to and but have difficulty with it, I wrote this blog post to show how to do it.

      I hope that makes sense?

      Tien

      Reply

    1. Yes, this would work for a painted warp. For a warp wound with variegated yarns (e.g. hand-painted skeins), it’s a little more complicated because the colors will blend where they’re placed next to each other, especially in fine yarns. That will naturally tone them down, possibly a lot.

      Reply

  4. Quilter friends use this formula…2 lights, 2 darks and a zinger. It allows for contrast, also using ‘Safe’ colors yet having that spark. Looking at flowers there’s always a bit of orange or yellow someplace. When we step away from our ‘safe’ colors and add the contrasting color…even with just a few scattered warp threads…our work will come alive. Thank you Tien for this explanation. I’ve heard this term called ‘optical mixing’….from a distance it is one color, up close clearly a mix. Colors rock!

    Reply

  5. Thank you for all of your insight on color Tien
    I am just beginning as a weaver on an Ashford RH600. I just completed a clasped warp and found the colors muted so was looking for help in getting a better result. You have given me food for thought on achieving a brighter end result
    Please keep the blogs coming.

    Reply

  6. I’m trying to move into weaving fabrics for designing clothing. I have no formal training with colour, designing, or creatiing clothing for sale (I do sew for myself.) so I’ve been looking online for information. Your blogs have been very informative and helpful for getting to the next level. I look forward to reading them all, and taking a class.
    I’d like to locate sites like yours that give the new learner clear start to finish directions with pictures and alternatives for cutout/layout. They should include multiple fabric widths and clothing styles. One book I have is a place to start, as is rummaging through tens years of Handwoven. And so I keep searching. Thanks for a wonderful article.

    Reply

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