Colour and Planning the Advent Calendar

You may have purchased the BarberBlackSheep Spinner’s Advent Calendar recently.

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This is a new venture for me and hopefully one that you’ll enjoy over the whole of December and after as you open and spin the fibres I’ve dyed for you each day.

I thought I’d write this post explaining the background to how and why I put together the 24 colours hidden inside the envelopes. Whilst I’m sure you’re wanting it to remain a secret until you open each little packet from day to day (if you’re able to exercise enough self control!) I know that people have different reasons for purchasing this and thus will have different ideas for using it. I wondered if a little background info might help you make your decisions before you get stuck into spinning. I’m not going to include actual photos of the fibres so as not to spoil the surprise for you; however later in this post there will be black and white pictures of the fibres I used as colour inspiration to work from whilst creating the dye recipes. So if you really don’t want to know anything at all maybe it’s best to stop reading now! Or be ready to skim past the pictures at top speed :0)

I know some people simply wanted this for the sheer fun of being able to open a little surprise each day to count down the days till Christmas. Perhaps you’ll be opening it first thing each day or maybe you’ll be waiting till you relax in the evening after work with a cup of tea, a glass of wine or even a small nip of sloe gin which seems to be very popular with us spinners!

You might want to spin it into little skeins each day for colour work or stripes. Perhaps you’ll save them for spinning once they’re all open. Perhaps you have no plans for what you’ll do with them until you see them. Maybe you’ll save them for blending and carding with other fibres to make them go further and create your own batts – a little like the Build a Batt Box I do. Maybe you’ll go with random and spin them end to end as you open them each day and N-ply it or 2 ply it on itself for a barber pole yarn. Perhaps you already have a larger project in mind and these 10g pieces of fibre will form part of a sweater or hat or be woven up or felted…

Because I know from the feedback in my Ravelry group that some of you will be doing the above things, I knew when I dyed them I had to think about what I was doing rather than just splashing colours around because I liked them. Hand dyeing on a small scale for indie dyers always carries an element of randomness anyway. If you mix your own stocks from commercial dyes there are so many different things that can alter the shade or tone. Even if you write down recipes and weigh and measure your dye powders, acid, water and dye stocks as well as the dry base fibres nothing is ever completely repeatable. This is part of the joy and appeal of small scale dyeing.

Some dye colours fix at different temperatures which when they’re complex shades made up of several stocks means that they can split – which can in turn lead to interesting graduations of colour on your fibre or make your tear your hair out if that’s not what you planned! Different fibres suck up dye at various rates; some don’t really like to suck up water or dye at all, others it fixes to the fibre almost as soon as it hits it and this means variation in saturation as well as the splitting. Some dye shades might look spot on perfect on your test paper or in solution but once applied to fibre and heat set can change in shade. The base tone of the fibre also changes how the colour looks to the eye, a grey or brown undertone saddens colours giving a muted effect, lustrous fibres or blends with silk in reflect back light and shed colour that falls on our eyes and makes them seem paler or richer or shimmery.

So I knew that no matter how carefully I planned I still had to leave room of chance and be flexible. Nevertheless, 24 different shades is a tall order and I wanted both the colours and fibres to be sufficiently different that you didn’t feel you’d seen it before or spin too many of the same things one after the other.

I spent some time looking for colour inspiration that gave me enough shades in the one picture to work with. At this point actual colour palettes are more helpful than photographs and I found one that was particularly pleasing to my eye although I had a lot of images to draw from (I stash away visual inspiration when I find it the way a squirrel hoards acorns! And just as often as the squirrel I forget where I put them!)

Once I’d decided the colours I was going to go with I really needed actual samples to work with. Flat plates of colour are useful as a starting point whether in a picture, on a computer screen or as a stroke of paint on white paper or splashes of ink or dye but really you need physical colour to work with and manipulate. This is something I guess I share with my industrial designer brother; he never embarks on a project no matter how small without first building a model and so in the same vein I need wisps of fibre or textiles before committing an idea to reality. Without dyeing up samples first (I simply hadn’t left myself enough time for this depth of prep) I turned to commercially dyed merino which is available in a really huge range of shades and can be blended further by hand if needed. So the photos that follow use these commercial fibres NOT the actual Advent Calendar ones.

Colour is about more than the spectrum of light that our human eyes and brain interprets when it sees an object. Many scientists and artists have formulated theories around colour over the centuries and as I am not an academic I don’t profess any depth of knowledge about the scientific use of colour. I work more by instinct and gut feeling. Never the less there are some basic “rules” that come into play whether I’m thinking about it or not. Most people are aware of the colour wheel.

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At its most basic we have the primary colours of red, yellow and blue and the secondary colours which are a combination of two of the primary colours. This gives us purple, orange and green. Blending a primary colour with the secondary next to it on the colour wheel gives us the 6 tertiary shades.

Adding black and/or white gives us tints, tones and shades.

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Colours next to each other on the colour wheel are known as analogous. They’re harmonious as they blend into one another creating subtle shifts and restful colour schemes. But like other harmonious things in life, however beautiful sometimes they lack that spark and edge that creates energy and vitality.

Colours opposite each other are known as complementary colours. They don’t at first glance appear to “go” with their opposite but used together in thoughtful quantities they “bring out” the opposite shade and make them more vibrant and zingy – just like people really! But just like mixing very different people together, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing and mixing complementary shades too much can lead to muddy colours and it all going horribly wrong.

Most people love rainbows – that gorgeous harmonious run of colour along the visible spectrum of light that we can only see when split by a prism. I spent a lot of time as a child grouping colourful things into rainbows. The pencils in my huge tin of colours. Buttons in my mother’s button box. Ribbons and threads in my sewing kit. Paints in the paintbox and again on my artistic endeavours on paper. I like harmony and seek peace both in my life and my art. I’ve had to train myself to search for a reasonable amount of conflict to sharpen the harmony and make it more alive, more earthy and real.

At this point I should say if you’re inclined to save your fibres for spinning at the end of December or you just want to spin each skein each day, you can create one heck of a stonkingly awesome rainbow out of your Advent Calendar. I know this because I couldn’t help myself arranging the armfuls of dyed tops into a massive rainbow around my living room as they dried…

But going back to those who might want to spin randomly each day as they open the packet. I didn’t want to artificially create a rainbow for you – it would be too predictable after a few days as you saw where it headed and besides, not everybody wants rainbows! I didn’t want to leave it to chance completely either, just as you can hit lucky with colours that are very happy to be together you can also get some very hostile combinations that really don’t want to play nice at all. If you like playing russian roulette though you can still do this by ignoring the numbers on the packets and just doing a lucky dip and picking out one – any one – to spin from. May the spinning force be with you…

Using colour together isn’t just about colour. Avid colour work fans will already know that colours that you think might complement each other or be harmonious don’t in fact work when placed together, they blend in too much and either create a gradient or just get lost in a muddy overall effect. It’s important to have enough contrast to make the surrounding colours sing by choosing ones that have different depths. The simplest way to do this is to take a photograph of them and convert it to black and white. Now obviously I can’t show you the original sample colours but here is the B&W version.

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The colours were laid out in the original form I chose, quite harmonious and probably still the version I’d personally choose for myself. To give a balance of depth throughout December though I then grouped the shades in their depth of shade groups.

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And here you can see quite clearly that some shades are light, some mid tone, some slightly darker and some very saturated. I then chose to spread these out evenly across my 4 rows. I also picked colours I felt would work next to each other, either analogous or complementary (but you can’t see that bit yet!)

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I then double checked by taking a tiny piece of each and arranging it in linear form too as though it were yarn.

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I also bore in mind Goethe’s theory of colour notation. I won’t go into it here – this post is already very long! But basically it’s a theory that assigns numbers and ratios to colours and thus the proportions of which you should use to balance each other.

Once I’d decided on the hues I was wanting to use I had to decide which fibres to use them on. I’d already created the wool blends specially for this and ordered them. So I played around with them so as to give a variety to spin from day to day and assigned each a shade to be dyed in. And then I headed out to the dye workshop!!

Basically the planning worked (you’ll be pleased to hear!). The idea is that you can use the colours in any way you want, harmonious, complementary, gradient, rainbow. But I wanted to give enough random and controlled contrast for the end-to-end spinners too. Hopefully the above hasn’t given too much away but provided enough background for those who want to plan their spinning as well.

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