Colour Mixing it Up

January 15, 2015

It is the long summer holidays here. And amidst the camping, BBQing, swimming and wilting in the heat, there is Summer School. The Summer School of which I speak is held every year at the Handweavers and Spinners Guild of Victoria. For a very modest sum, Guild experts hold workshops on weaving, dyeing and spinning.

IMG_20150108_170536I try to go to one workshop every year. This year I enrolled in Colour Mixing with Helen Bernisconi. Helen is primarily a rug weaver and dyes commercial carpet yarn for her work. She argues that in order to dye a range of colours, you do not need to buy seventy different shades, rather, learn to mix predictably from a set of primaries. So this colour mixing workshop focused on creating colours based within a trichromatic range using primary colours and black.  

IMG_5793And here is the first complexity. Which blue, which red and which yellow to use? A long time ago, I bought a very useful book by Michael Wilcox called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green (1987). Of course, artists and dyers will know all about this but I had never considered colours much until I read this book.  Anyway, the basic point of the book is that are no true primary colours but rather versions of the primaries that leaned to another colour direction which you can see very clearly illustrated in the diagram below.

IMG_5796By combining primaries than leaned toward each other you get a clearer colour and by combining those leaning in opposite ways you get a murkier, sadder colour.

Our workshop used two sets of primaries (acid dyes in powder form from Gaywool, an Australian company based in Tasmania) mixed up into liquid stock solutions. Our A-range of colours included Nylosan Flavine, a greenish vivid yellow, Optilan Fast Red, an orange leaning red and Nylosan Turquoise, a green leaning blue.  The B-range included Lanasyn Yelow F, a warm yellow, Nylosan Rhodamine, a fuscia red and Lanasyn Blue, a cobalt blue. They pretty much fit the distinctions you can see on the first primaries diagram above.

IMG_20150111_111714Essentially, with the trichromatic method, you are dyeing in a triangle, where the points are pure dyes of the primaries and the outsides are graduating ratios of two primaries and the middle of the triangle are graduating ratios of three primaries. A total of 10ml of dye was added to each bagged yarn sample. The amount of dye by ratio was in 2ml increments. Therefore, the pure yellow at the t0p of the triangle was 10ml of yellow. The colour to the top left was made with 8ml yellow and 2ml red. The colour to the right was made with 8ml yellow and 2ml blue.

20150108_132159It is complicated to explain. It was complicated on the day. Different primaries being mixed in different amounts by different people in very close proximity. My mission was the A-range. And it was accomplished, using a horrifying number of small ziplock bags which held the dye solution, vinegar, water and yarn.

20150108_140925The yarn I dyed at the workshop was a millspun Corridale yarn from Jarob Farm near Avoca, in Victoria. I had planned for my own handspun but realised a week prior to the workshop that this was actually not possible anymore.  Fortunately, despite bushfires and heatwaves and very short notice, Jarob Farm saved me from myself.

All the dye baggies were then simmered till the water inside the bags was clear indicating all the dye had been taken up.

I still don’t really understand colour but I have a better sense of it now I think.  Having done the workshop, I feel at least I have a method by which I could begin to create a colour range. This could be expanded by including half strength dyeing on white, and overdyeing on greys.

This type of predictive dyeing method coupled with a local yarn base and the KnitSonik system of generating colourwork motifs from your own personal environment would create a truly local textile response. The innovative KnitSonik system developed by Felicity Ford uses colour and shape analysis of source materials such as photographs of objects, buildings and landscapes to translate everyday things into a charted motif that can be knitted. It relies on a comprehensive yarn colour range which can be matched with great specificity to the source material. In the book, Felicity exclusively uses Jamieson and Smith yarns.

IMG_5800A colour range of yarn that reflects my place is what is missing for me to truly embrace the genius of the KnitSonik system. I feel like an Antipodean imposter expressing my icons and landscapes in Jamieson and Smith (as lovely as they are), yarns grown and dyed in the Shetland Islands of UK.

Lacking a local version of the wondrous range of Jamieson and Smith, after this workshop, I could theoretically dye my own range (it sounds easy if you say it fast). With my own yarn palette at my fingertips, my journey to the Yarn Side would be indeed be complete. Alas, I can see this would be the work of a lifetime, so perhaps I won’t start that tomorrow.


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  1. Fascinating post.

    I know exactly where you’re coming from though regarding the gap between your evident and infectious enthusiasm for dyeing and the onerous time it takes to achieve perfection.

    However your samples were gorgeous, and I’m very envious of the simplicity of that triangle.

  2. Rebecca, I feel like you! I have taken a few color workshops and still don’t know what I’m doing AND am surprised if the yarn/wool comes out like I had envisioned it. I am to the point where I purchase powdered dye stuffs (Jacquard Acid Dyes) in the colors I want (when they are on sale). The only acid in the dyes is the vinegar you add to the dye bath. I think it’s a lot like other things–some people have color Karma and some don’t. I’m in the “don’t” category!!

  3. OH YES, must ‘say it fast’…..made me laugh because I do my ‘best’
    innovative work lying in bed about to go to sleep 🙂
    What a wonderful colour experience with your ‘horrifying number of baggies’….I know exactly what you are saying!! I was surprised to learn you could simmer the bags. Perhaps Knitsonic will inspire you on a local level if you just let it. Great post, thank you.

  4. But it sounds as though you’ve started already with the spark of idea and learning some of the skills. I’m sure the things you’ve learnt will simmer away and over time produce colourful adventures. It would have been a wonderful workshop.

  5. Oh the colour conundrum! I’m continually challenged with colour mixing in my oil painting. Just thinking about ‘liquid’ colour mixing for dying yarn sends my head into a spin! That workshop sounds like a great way to jump in and meet the challenge head on – love your work! ( Also love the sound of that book – I’ll have to sneak a peek sometime…)

  6. A yarn palette that reflects your personal surrounds is a noble quest; I say go for it, even as soon as tomorrow!

    Those summer classes always seem brilliant, I must manage to book myself in one year. It always seems to sneak up with me

  7. This is very interesting. I am so impressed by each step you take forward towards your goals/dreams.

    My mom does quite a bit of dyeing of wool for the rugs she hooks, and she is quite a gardener, but I have not yet learned these things from her. I don’t know if I’ll be taking up dyeing anytime soon, given that I can never achieve half of what I want to.. but I am enchanted by the idea and by your idea of capturing the colours of your own landscape. This is a thought very close to my heart. When I am in Italy I often ask myself if I could live there in terms of colour, with the specific thought crossing my mind being that I would have trouble with all of the yellows and creams to the detriment of the various whites, greens and blues that are most familiar to me! Funny, isn’t it? Great job and thank you for the informative post. As always, it was well-written and engaging. At some point I must get the KnitSonik book as concept is fascinating.

  8. I love your little triangle! I have to say, I find dyeing to be a messy, frustrating affair more often than not. I’ve only done it a few times, but the need for a leap of faith and just loving what comes out that seems to permeate the endeavor isn’t really for me. Usually I have a clear vision of what I want in mind, and no idea how to get there, and the experimentation required to figure it out doesn’t feel fun to me. Bee Mice Elf has an excellent blog series that makes it all seem easy, though, and inspires me to try again.

  9. It’s wonderful to read a post from a scientific knitter and the comments here make the experience doubly thoughtful.

    Now I really want to read through KnitSonic. To be connected to the landscape you are in at the moment is not an easy task. Cal m silly, but I think this quest was made for you. I look forward the posts on your progress in 2015. (Hey! No pressure, eh?)

  10. Fascinating post! I love how your work embodies all things local … local fiber, hand dyed and handspun … heavenly 🙂 Textiles is truly an amazing and exciting journey of a lifetime.

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