Getting Color Right

tumbling_colorsI 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.

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  1. Eric H. says:

    Cool – I have always wanted to buy a spectrophotometer and now I have a justification.

    More seriously, the number of factors that go into judging color are phenomenal. I have read that what you have eaten recently will affect your perception, but certainly the lighting you are working under is important. That means color temperature, intensity, angle of incidence, and the color temperature varies slightly from one bulb to the next and over the lifetime of a bulb.

    There are standard reference sources you can use (for example, Gretag Macbeth charts) and color management software you can use to correct your camera/monitor/printer so that you can use a relatively inexpensive camera to record and judge color. While these might not produce NIST-traceable measurements, you could at least use them to tell your source “more red” or “less blue” if you’re trying to match something.

  2. sahara says:

    Wow! This is an excellent post, as usual! I have to send this to some production friends who are tearing their hair out.

    When I worked at Ralph there were a lot of arguments between the out-of-control designers and sales about the difference in the “light” in China, and how the factories can never “get it right”. I always thought this statement a bit specious; maybe the light in China IS different (the light in India is, and in NYC it’s diffused by pollution), but there’s science for this, right?

    Nah. In the end, they just took the fabric or sample outside, looked at it (“I don’t trust their spec whatever machines, I’ve been doing this for years”) and made their decision. This is one reason why it takes so long for clothes to get made (sigh).

  3. Tricia says:

    I loved reading this post. What a headache, I am so glad I am working with organic ColorGrown fabrics. We expect them to be slightly different each time. When washed they take on a different hue, that is part of the beauty!

  4. hjung says:

    when I was in apprenticeship I worked at a spectrometer, too. Someone “got” some swatches of the fashion color at a fashion fair. And we measured and dyed, looked, and dyed, and measured, and looked. Overnight our big IBM calculated a new recipe (it was 1963!!). Swatches from all kind of fiber were dyed. But the last test was the human eye. We did that till we had the color’s recipe and were under the first in the market. But – it was so very boring!

  5. Mary Allen says:

    Personally it is not what you eat that makes a difference, Eric, it is the amount of vodka one drinks that makes the colors more perceptible, and others more receptive to your decisions…..GREAT ARTICLE!

  6. Grace says:

    I’m married to a spectroscopist. He and his lab mates just call them spectrometers. Mentioning the photons is kinda showboating, so they don’t do it.

  7. jennifer says:

    i really enjoyed this article. now i can ask my dyehouse to ‘increase the L’- that means deepen the hue, right? It is amazing how different people’s eyes read color- and so umm, interesting, frustrating to work across different media and try to control (HA!) the color looking like what you have to sell. i sell clothing to people all over mostly via phone and internet- and they don’t realize that computer screens all show color differently (unless calibrated, even then…)color copies, forget it…real fabric swatches are good- when will we have virtual fabric color-feeling available online so we don’t have to waste so much time and paper sending them out? and i console myself: keep it small, do everything the old fashioned way, swatches are good. and the trust our customers have in us designers that even if they can’t quite see it, WE have chosen and developed good colors that they will love.

  8. Tricia says:

    I am married to a guy who has the worst case of color blindness.
    I can’t even ask him to pass me the red one, now I know all about photopic and scotopic, I think hes’s better off in his own little world!

  9. Stuart Friedberg says:

    Jennifer, unless you want to get into technical color models with them, you are probably better off just asking them to make it darker.

    One of the main color models is Lab, where L is value, a is red/green and b is yellow/blue. L runs from 0 black to 100 white. a and b run positive (red and yellow, respectively) and negative (green and blue). There’s a closely related model called L*a*b*. In these models, extremes of L dominate a and b. That is, white and black both “wash out” color. As you move into middle values, there is “more room” for hue to have an effect.

    If you wonder why there are two hue parameters and why one of them is yellow versus blue, it’s to model the human color perceptual system. Yes, we have receptors for three color bands (roughly red, green and blue), but that’s not how our brains work. The Lab model tries to capture that.

  10. Elaine says:

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    I went to the TUMbling Colors website, but can’t read most of the text. For some reason it’s evidently hiding behind those colored balls and fades quickly away when you click on another link. I guess it’s clever, but I’m not feeling amused.

  11. kpotenti says:

    I work for a women’s wear designer that dyes everything in house. From this I’ve learned that there are so many variables to achieving the same color time and time again. I highly recommend dyeing fabric just as an experiment so you can get an idea of what it takes to achieve the identical colors. You can buy the RIT dye at Michael’s or online. Remember to keep in mind what kind of thread you’re using (poly thread often doesn’t dye). Plus, it’s fun!

  12. Denise says:

    I attended this session too and really learned a lot from it. I did find it interesting that dyeing really did boil down to–no pun intended–people’s perceptions and likes and dislikes.

  13. greetings all…my apologies for poor performace of the website. it has had minimal technical support for the past year. buyer beware when dealing with the energetic new web deisgners…they are full of wonderful ideas, not too good with customer service. we are actively seeking assistance to repair and upgrade the site. in the meantime, PLEASE diresct all questions, comments, concerns, gripes, etc directly to me at

  14. Jenny says:

    I was very disappointed by Charles at Tumbling Colors. I contacted him to see if he could do what is commonly called “low impact dye,” used by most organic clothing manufacturers. I explained what it was according to the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) and the parameters of the Oeko-Tex Standard 100. He snapped at me and accused me of green washing! Is it green washing to not want to use toxic mordants, heavy metals, phthalates, bisphenol A, formaldehyde and other cancer causing agents in your dye?! Why when there is another way? Charles took my question personal as though I was challenging his dogma as a chemist. He defended his practices. Well guess what, for thousands of years humans dyed fabric without cancer causing agents. Needless to say I found another facility.

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