I attended the SPESA seminar “Why Color Goes Wrong” by Charles Stewart of Tumbling Colors. This was an educational 45 minute session that could have been twice as long without running out of material.
“Color” is the interaction of light with an object and an observer. Due to the observer, color is necessarily something perceived and subjective. There is a lot of science (much of it from the CIE standards body) to establish standard illuminants (lights) and standard observers. Dye houses and high-end dye clients use devices like spectrophotometers to make the observations mechanically and reproduceably, but spectrophotometers don’t buy apparel or home furnishings. So it all comes back to human observation at some point.
There is no magic in dyeing. There are no gremlins. If something goes wrong, there is always a technical explanation (although it may take quite some time to figure out). Operator influence is the #1 contributing factor when applying color to fabric. There must be a proper balance of:
- machine (water, temperature, action)
- colorants (dyes, chemicals)
- substrate (fabric)
- procedure (time, pH, temperature)
For DEs, the biggest issue for getting repeatable color is substrate.
You get matching color by using material that comes from one line at one mill. You don’t get matching color by buying a roll at a time, months apart, from any source in your Rolodex. Sure, you may be buying 100% cotton, 4oz. broadcloth with 68×68 thread count each time. But the cotton may be from different variants of the cotton plant. The plants might have grown in different soil or with different weather conditions. The mills may have carded the raw fiber or spun the yarn differently. Any number of mill processing steps such as yarn lubrication, chemical sizing, optical brighteners, rinses and tentering may be different. And any one of those things can affect how dyes are taken up by fabric.
Fabric surface texture also affects perceived color. Napped or brushed fabric is perceived much lighter in color than typical fabrics with identical colorants due to specular effects from the loose fibers. You may need distinctly different “real” colors to achieve a perceived color match between a plain weave or knit and a velvet trim.
A “dyeing” is a recipe that covers colorants, procedure, and some aspects of machine. When you work with a good dye house, you don’t just get colored yardage. The dye house is also creating and recording a dyeing, which can be reproduced later, or by another dye house. Dye houses speak the “same language” of spectral data files and dyeings across the world, so it should be possible to work with a local house during sample development and have a larger facility elsewhere process larger amounts of material for production. If you submit the same fabric, professional houses using the same dyeing should produce very similar results.
I asked about Pantone (or similar) color specifications. Charles Stewart was envious of color standard companies’ success at marketing their products, but says they are absolutely not essential in developing a dyeing (I found that surprising). This is probably due to his very strong emphasis on customer service; the numbers are irrelevant if it doesn’t look like the color you want.
How do you work with a dye house to develop a dyeing? This is an interactive process, which you may expect to take at least a couple of iterations even when things go smoothly. From the dye house perspective, what you ask for and what you really want can be very far apart. They show you a sample, you tell them why it’s not what you wanted. Repeat until you are happy.
Communicating “why it’s not what I want” is the hardest part of this process. Unless you have a spectrophotometer, you can’t express things quantitatively. You can easily say “more red” or “less blue”, but how much more or less? This is hard to do face-to-face, very difficult over the telephone, and nearly impossible by email or post. Color standards (books of paint chips or fabric samples) can help here. Even if the standard doesn’t have the color you want, it gives you and the dye house a rich common vocabulary to help steer the iterative definition of your perfect color.
You can make this process more effective by getting the color density, or lightness/darkness, right first. Painters call this “value”; color scientists call this “L”. A dye house easily can adjust hue without changing the lightness/darkness. In contrast, trying to change the density while holding the same hue is hard.
You also need to be aware of the need to develop a reproduceable dyeing. The objective is not to take a single swatch and “tweak” it repeatedly so it looks good. You will never be able to reproduce that series of ad-hoc processes on fresh material.
Tumbling Colors is a useful DE resource in their own right. They are a small run and color development house with no minimums. You can do 1 yard or 1 T-shirt. They take a garment dyeing approach to everything. Yardage is processed in 5 to 10 yard cuts. Up to 200 T-shirts can be processed as a load. If you need larger quantities processed, they can communicate dyeings to larger facilities. Tumbling Colors also develops “wash” recipes, so if your material needs a combined color/wash treatment, they can handle that.