Color palettes: using yarn wraps for color sampling

I’ve become a fan of yarn wraps. The kind of yarn wrap where you wind some yarn around a stiff card to look at the color combinations, not the kind that might keep you warm during a polar vortex in Chicago.

I’ve been playing with color a lot lately partly because I just taught a retreat about color in tapestry and partly because I’m in the middle of designing a new large-format tapestry. I think there are two basic ways people approach color choice and design in tapestry weaving. They either design the piece including color choices and then dye or purchase the yarns to match those color needs or they spread out all the colors they have and use those choices as they design.

I am a member of the “design first, find yarn later” club.

Because I dye my own yarn and can make almost any color I want, I usually design a piece and get a general idea of the colors and then I do some sample dyeing in mason jars. From there I can start combining colors, make some yarn wraps, and do a quick woven sample to see if I like what I came up with. Only after doing that will I dye the larger amounts of yarn needed for a big tapestry. This method means that I have a lot of extra yarn flying around my studio. If you weave enough to get wholesale yarn prices, it pays to have some extra yarn. There is nothing worse than running out at the top of a huge tapestry. Ask me how I know.

Other people find a commercial yarn they like and stick with it. Many commercial yarns don’t have a wide range of colors* so sometimes this leads to making the design from the colors that are available. Though this seems more limiting than the way I do it, I definitely think it has advantages. I can spend weeks fussing with colors because there are too many options. If you have 15 colors to choose from, you’re going to learn to use them effectively and probably you’ll start weaving before I will! Budget or storage space may restrict how many options you have in number of colors, but in tapestry, that might lead to a simpler and more effective design.

Whether you design a piece first and then acquire the colors or you design from the yarn you have available, some color sampling is useful.

I’m not going to get deep into color theory in this post, but there are endless books on the subject. I recommend these two to start with:

Having some understanding of value and color harmonies is necessary for good design. Other color concepts can be learned as you practice.

Rebecca Mezoff, tapestry yarn sorting

I thought you might be interested to see some of my thinking as I work with a new design. The tapestry is about the human experience of time. Returning to some of the imagery I worked with during my residency at Petrified Forest National Park, it contains some rock-like forms in a teal to purple gradation which also changes value. These particular yarns were ones I dyed for a piece I never wove.

The foreground of the piece will contain these rock stacks. The background will include a very subtle gradation along with some other forms. I already have the teal-purple gradation in large enough quantities and two colorways for this 6 foot square piece. But I don’t have the background colors in anything like the amount I need. Fortunately a quick check in the garage yielded one last 40 pound box of Harrisville Koehler Singles, so the dye pots will be going sometime this month.

The design question is how to work with the teal-purple gradations I want to use (one more saturated than the other) along with their value shift and two supporting colorways for the background. I had already done some cartoon sketching with colored pencils to make certain the dyed yarns would work. They seem good.

To answer the questions about the background, I turned to yarn wrapping and my knowledge of color harmonies and color theory.

I keep samples of all my yarn with the dye formulas. I had a few ideas of colors I might want to use again, so I pulled out the binder full of samples and started leafing through it.

Rebecca Mezoff, making color decisions for a new tapestry

One particular favorite is a rusty salmon color that I used in Emergence VII and I happened to have a few balls of this color on my shelf.

Once I was ready to start comparing the colors, I made some yarn wraps to get an idea of how they would work together and if the background options would give the piece the sense of depth and light that I wanted against the foreground image.

I started by making wraps of the colors I want to use for the foreground rock forms. Theoretically I would be willing to change even these, but there are about 100 colors represented here and I would really like to use them for this piece. Call it a “sunk costs” decision if you will, but I’ll do what I can to use these as the basis for the other color choices. There are two colorways. One is more saturated than the other. The hues are the same.

The three cards nearest the top of the image are the shaded colors. They have black added to the same formulas of the cards at the bottom of the photograph. The differences seem subtle in the photograph which isn’t picking up the nuance of the yarn gradation (a good reason to use actual yarn to compare colors!). The four cards at the bottom represent one light to dark gradation with higher saturation and the lone card at the bottom is a branch in the colorway I’ll use to give weight to the bottom of the piece.

Rebecca Mezoff, yarn wrap comparisons for tapestry design

From here, I need to find those background colors. Working with color harmonies, I know that I want a piece that feels like it has energy and I always look at compliments or split compliments to help me here first.** In this case, the colors across the colorwheel are very solidly orange. Orange is not at all a color I love to work with especially in this amount, so I quickly decided to look at a color closer to red-orange from my Emergence VII piece. You can see that color to the right in the photo below. Swinging to the other side of the colorwheel, I tried some greens I had and quickly decided it wasn’t what I wanted.

Below are all the colors thus far.

Rebecca Mezoff, yarn wrap examples for a tapestry design

The green is out for me and I am not happy with the value of the salmon. It is quite dark. I only have small sample amounts of this yarn left from that old tapestry. Here is the whole colorway.

Rebecca Mezoff, designing for tapestry with color

Though I could do a lot with value in the above set of colors, I’m still not loving it. I had the same formula without the brown/black toner I used for the above salmon colors on another card.

Rebecca Mezoff, designing for tapestry with yarn wraps

This is closer to what I had in mind, but I still don’t think it is right. I think some browner versions of these salmon colors might be a possible direction… just a form of orange?

From here I’ll go back to my color harmonies and yarn samples and try a few other possibilities. If needed, I’ll pull out some colored paper samples to give me a better idea and then I believe I’ll be doing at least one round of dye sampling in mason jars. I’ll be working on this more tomorrow and I’ll let you know how it goes! #studiofridays

I reorganized all that yarn on my studio shelves in the order I’ll need it for weaving this tapestry. Blue tape tags are my friend. It is a lot of yarn.

Rebecca Mezoff studio, yarn shelves stuffed and waiting for a new tapestry to begin

How do you make a yarn wrap?

Rebecca Mezoff, Yarn wrap back

You need something sturdy to wrap the yarn around preferably in white or gray so the color of the card doesn’t affect how you see the yarn colors. I have been making my cards out of butterboard which is a thick board similar mat board but it is softer, easier to cut, and less expensive. If you have scraps of mat board, that is an excellent choice also. You can find those at art supply shops, frame shops, or some craft stores. I have used index cards folded in half but index cards have gotten really thin and flimsy. At the recent color retreat, I brought wooden tongue depressors which are 1 inch wide. I found them at Michaels in the kid’s crafting aisle.

I use a rotary cutter and Olfa mat along with a metal ruler. An exacto knife would probably also work. Make sure to protect the surface under the board you’re cutting! These tools are often found in the quilting section of fabric or craft stores. I also find quilting squares to be a fantastic design tool. Of course you could cut many possible materials with regular scissors.

I like my cards to be about 1.5 x 5 inches.

I simply use little pieces of masking tape to hold each piece of yarn down and then when I have the whole card wrapped I’ll put a long piece over the whole back. I leave room to write what the yarns are.

Rebecca Mezoff, Using quilting tools to make yarn wrap cards

How do you choose colors for a tapestry? Are there any particular things that help you? Tell us in the comments!

*Exceptions to this are Weavers Bazaar, Paternayan, Appleton crewel, and Australian Tapestry Workshop yarn. Those yarn lines have huge palettes.

**A complimentary and split-complimentary harmony would look like this on a color wheel.

Complimentary colors

Split-complimentary colors