WeaveZine: an online magazine for handweavers—Archives

Color: The "WOW!" Factor

Main Image

Each time you sit at your loom, there's the desire and expectation that the end result be sensational—a piece you're proud to show off at the next guild meeting, or enter in a exhibit or fashion show.

Often, though, it looks great, but you're left with the nagging feeling that it needs something, some element that would automatically elicit a "WOW!"

What is that elusive something? Maybe it has to do with color. Perhaps a subtle nudge is needed, or even a jolt.

Look at the colors in your yarn stash. Are they predictable? Do you have an abundant variety of one color, and find that other colors on the 12-hue color wheel aren't represented at all? It's easy to fall into a color rut and stick with your favorite. It's safe; you know how to use it. But take a short journey directly across the color wheel from your favorite, and enter the world of complementary colors.


Home-made color wheelComplementary colors lie opposite each other on the 12-hue color wheel and provide the most extreme example of contrast between two colors.

A color that is complementary to your favorite can add the jolt you're looking for. You may not like your favorite color's complement, but don't automatically dismiss it.

Physiologically, your eye seeks the complement to your favorite color. Try this experiment:  stare at a solid field of your favorite color—preferably against a light background—for several seconds. Then close your eyes. What do you see? Its complement in the same shape on a dark background!

A complementary pair of colors contains all three of the primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. For example, yellow is a primary color; its complement, violet, is a mixture of red and blue. Primary red's complement is green, a mixture of blue and yellow.

Each pair will have one hue that is lighter or warmer, and one that is darker or cooler. The lighter or warmer of the two will seem to advance to your eye; the darker or cooler one will recede. In a woven piece, if you want to balance the two visually, you likely will want to use more of the darker color than the lighter. If you want a more precise, mathematical method of balancing the two complements, use Johannes Itten's "Contrast of Extension" numerical values described in my previous article, Woven Ratios.


red and green sampleHow do you use complements in your weaving to get that jolt of contrast?

This is where it gets tricky. You have to decide how much of each color to use, and how to place them in  your design.  You can use two solid colors of yarn—one for each complement—as shown in this red and green sample woven on a dark background.

(Note: notice how the red seems to come forward while the green appears to recede.)



red-violet and yellow-green sampleYou might want to try blending several yarn colors to approximate the two complements, as in this red-violet and yellow-green sample.

Notice in each of these samples that the complementary colors sit next to each other, for the most part, and are not closely interwoven in the cloth.  The more complementary colors are interwoven, the more you risk a muddied or shimmering appearance. 

Itten sums up the effect of complementary colors quite nicely, "They incite each other to maximum vividness when adjacent; and they annihilate each other, to gray-black, when mixed—like fire and water." Translated into weaving, this can be interpreted as, "Complementary thread colors incite each other to maximum vividness when warp-faced, weft-faced, or floating next to each other; and they risk ruining each other when interwoven, particularly in plain weave with fine threads."

When I design a woven piece, I often use a spot or line of a complementary color strategically placed in the cloth. I use enough of the complement to add interest, but not dominate the main color. Often a pure color can be the "WOW!" factor when added to a lighter or darker version of its complement.

Log cabin samples


Another approach, if you seek a more subtle nudge, is to use a common dictionary definition of complement—something that completes or makes perfect. If you don't want to use your favorite color's "official" complementary color, you can choose one close to it on the color wheel. The farther away you go on the wheel from your favorite, the more contrast you will achieve.

Tessellation by Barbara Walker DetailConsider a special trio of colors equidistant from each other (i.e,, forming an equilateral triangle on the color wheel) known as a triad.  

Or try a split-complementary color harmony composed of one hue plus the two on either side of its complement.

A simpler and less specific way to use this concept is to choose two colors you like and one farther away from them on the color wheel for contrast.

"Tessellation" (left) is close to a triad: blue-green, red-violet, and orange. The orange line adds that special something.



split-complementary sample


When I discuss color in my workshops, I issue three challenges to my students:

  • First and easiest: When using your favorite color in a piece, add a color which contrasts with it. Try its complementary color.
  • Second and a little tougher: Choose colors for a piece which are quite different from the ones you normally use.
  • Third and way out of the comfort zone: Think of the color you consider the ugliest of all. Use it as a prominent color in a piece, and make it work for you.


In the sample below, can you guess which is my "ugly" color?

Ladders scarf


The more you experiment, the more confident you will become in using color. It takes a lot of practice, but in time successful use of color becomes instinctive. You will receive many compliments on your complements, and inside you'll say to yourself, "WOW!"




Barbara Walker is an HGA master weaver and fiber artist. She loves teaching workshops in warp patterning, color-and-weave, stripes, name block drafting and ply-splitting.  She creates a learning atmosphere of gentle encouragement and good humor, with novel approaches to design.  You can see some of her work on the gallery pages of her website.  Barbara's home studio overlooks the Willamette Valley in Salem, Oregon. 



Photo credit: Except where noted, all photos are by Barbara Walker.

Cloth Samples : Kathryn Turner, Janet Worthington, and Barbara Walker are members of Cross Country Weavers, a nationwide, invitational sample exchange group. The theme for their 2003 samples was "Complementary Colors."