Robyn Spady – Unexpected Lessons in Color

I started weaving in 1969.  As I reflect on over 40 years of weaving, there are moments where small lessons in color and design have been critical to my evolution as a fiber artist.  In the current issue of Handwoven, I got to flex my artistic muscles by combining seven colors from the Pantone Spring 2011 color palette into a set of dish towels.  It reminded me of some critical moments over the past four decades that made a big impact me.  Some have been traditional color lessons, such as studying von Goethe’s theory of color proportion, originally published over 200 years ago.  Other lessons were more informal such as the I.Magnin sales clerk that told me lavender is a great neutral color.  Here are a few more that have had a profound influence on my use of color.

Head colds are an inconvenience.  They’re not very serious, but the impact for a brief period of time can be huge; however, one head cold many years ago (in hindsight) turned out to be a pretty darn good thing.  The head cold hit me fast and without warning.  I remember sitting in my living room feeling lousy and sniffling.  Anyone who knows me well knows I don’t remain still for long, but in this case I didn’t have the energy to weave or do much else.   

I desperately wanted to do something to keep my Nyquil-induced foggy mind occupied.  A box full of embroidery floss in a multitude of colors became my inspiration, along with an empty Cheerios cereal box.  I cut the cereal box into pieces the size of a business card (2” x 3”) and started making thread wraps with the embroidery floss.

As I wrapped the cereal box cards with embroidery floss, I started experimenting more and more with color combinations.  Would lime-green work with red?  Yes, it would.  But, it was a matter of proportion.  How about yellow-orange with purple?  Yes, that worked too as long as I managed the proportions of the colors with each other.  My head cold had become a blessing in disguise and I embraced the potential of thread wrapping with more enthusiasm and frequently use them in planning projects.

Years after the head cold thread wrapping color lessons, I had another color experience that changed my life.  Nearly a decade ago, I was selling my handwoven work through a boutique in Seattle.  One day I went in to drop off some items.  While I was there, I was chatting with the owners of the boutique about what was selling well and what customers were looking for.  They asked me if I would do more of my work in orange.  I said Of course!  I’d be happy to do more of my work in orange!  As I was pushing the door open when I left, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  Orange???!!!  The last thing I wanted to do was develop an inventory of items that looked like a Halloween display, but I also needed to make the owners of the boutique happy.

Back in my studio I mulled over the orange situation.  I looked over the yarns I had available and there was a variety of shades of orange.  Initial experiments with orange didn’t produce anything that I was happy with.  Then I tried something radical (well, radical for me at the time).  I decided to weave with a blended weft made from strands of orange and combine them with colors that were definitely not orange.  My first blended weft used four strands of 20/2 mercerized cotton:  tangerine orange, red-orange, turquoise blue, and purple.  The two oranges gave a definite orange look to the fabric, but the turquoise blue and purple helped temper it and avoid a cloth that screamed Halloween!  I was happy and the owners of the boutique were thrilled with the results.

Blended wefts, like blended warps, are a very effective way to work with color.  Working with multiple shades of the same color can enrich the depth of color.  Combining different colors can help balance bold, shocking, or even ugly colors.  Plus, it’s a great way for extending modest amounts of color when there isn’t enough of a single color for a project.

Exploring color took on a new dimension while I was surfing the web over a year ago.  I stumbled across the website Colour Lovers.  There are currently over 1.5 million color palettes available for review.  Some are lackluster, while others are sublime.  But, no matter what, it’s fascinating to wander through the color palettes others have developed.  One of my favorite color palettes is titled Don’t be coy (By the way, there are currently three color palettes with this name, I’m referring to the one with bubble gum pink in it).  None of the five colors in this color palette would intrigue me if I saw them as cones of yarn sitting on a shelf.  However, I love the combination and proportions when combined together.  I’ve explored color palettes developed by others and have even made a few myself.  It’s a fun and easy way to explore color, although I caution you . . . time goes quickly and before you know it, hours have passed.

The longer I weave, the more I find there is to learn.  The best lessons have been from unexpected moments in my life and they blend together to generate new ideas.  I never know what color lesson may be around the corner, but I look forward to the adventure regardless of when or where it may occur.


Editor's note: Robyn is a popular teacher and frequent contributor to Handwoven. She holds  HGA's Certificate of Excellence (COE) in Handweaving.  Her area of specialized study for the COE  was "Loom-controlled Stitched Double Cloth." Visit Robyn's website here.


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