A Little Colour Guide for Fashion Designers

The colours can be scientifically described, however, this description can’t fully communicate the sensation or emotional effect of a colour. So often we name the colour based on our familiar and shared knowledge of the world – after animals (elephant grey or canary yellow); flowers and vegetables (lilac, mushroom, tomato red), sweets and spices (saffron yellow, toffee); minerals and jewels (pearl, coral, jade) and so on. 

pantone colour book

This associative use of colour is helpful to remember colour shades and to name the palette, but it is not sufficient to indicate to a specialist the exact tone that is required for a match. In order to do this, a number of standardized commercial colour-matching systems have been developed.

munsell colour tree

The most widely used in fashion and textiles are the Munsell Colour System and the Pantone Professional Colour System. The Pantone method precisely calibrates a six-digit number to indicate the location of the colour on the colour wheel (first two digits) and compares its value to the black and white (second two digits) and its intensity (final two digits). The Pantone system is included in many computer design software packages. Using the system, it is possible to ask a printer or dyer to reproduce your artwork to an exact specification.

pastel and solid colours

Colour terms

Below are some common terms used by the dye and fashion industry to differentiate and combine colours.

Tone A ‘greyed’ colour

Deep Rich, dark

Concentrated Intense, saturated colour.

Pastel A colour tinted with whit

colour study

Warm colours Associated with fire, sunlight, passion (red, yellow, orange…)

Cool colours Associated with sky, sea, ice, peace (blues, violet, pastels…)

Neutrals Colors based on the tertiaries (beige, grey, brown, khaki, olive…)

Subdued colours Colours shaded up or down by addition of white, black, grey or complementary colour (yellow with a touch of violet creates dark gold)

subdued  colours

Monochromes The gamut, or scale, of shades using  a single hue from black to white

Ground colour The dominant background hue, shade or tone

Accent colour Colour used in a small proportion but which has a strong visual attraction

Harmonies Two or more colours that look balanced and pleasing together

Contrasts Colours that strongly emphasize their differences when placed next to each other; often they are directly opposing hues on the colour wheel (blue and orange)

contrast colours

Complements Almost opposing colour hues; they are more harmonious pairings than contrasts as they use a warm tone with a cool one

Analogous colours Tints and tones that are close neighbours on the colour wheel

Subtractive colours Colour mixed using pigments and dyes

Additive colours Colours mixed using light or light absorption

Optical mixes Iridescent colours that occur when two different colours are knitted or woven together, usually as warp and weft, so that, viewed from different angles, the fabric appears to change colour subtly. Optical mixes are used in jersey marls, cotton chambré and shot silks.

colour effects

Fugitive colours Colours that wash out or bleed (ie, is not fast)

Simultaneous contrast Effect occuring when the intensity of a colour appears to change based on the value of its background, or within a set of colours; often seen in stripes and prints and also in contrasts between skin tones and clothing

Warm and Cool Colours


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