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embroidery basics: choosing colors

Today we tackle a big topic. A topic that you could spend a semester studying, and still wonder about. Choosing colors. Many patterns seem to call out for specific hues (for skin, fruit, leaves, etc.), but that doesn't mean that your colors will be naturally chosen for you. There are over 500 DMC floss colors, which makes for a somewhat overwhelming number of options. And not to add any pressure, but color can make or break your work.
Choosing colors
Choosing colors is a science. There are a lot of technical terms for colors and all of the variations of them, but I'll try and keep those to a minimum. We'll start with a color wheel.
Color wheel
This isn't the most accurate, because I was working with floss that I had on hand, but you get the idea. A color wheel can be simple or more detailed, but essentially it takes the colors of the rainbow, puts them in a circle, flowing into each other.

These colors naturally have hues that work well together, and you can find them by how they fall on the color wheel. These are the safest color schemes.
Mono Good
Here's a monochromatic color grouping. I took a basic purple, then grabbed lighter and darker versions of purple.
A complementary color scheme...wait. Olive! Not that kind of complimentary! Where was I? Oh. A complementary color scheme is two colors that are directly across from each other on the color wheel.
Analogous is when you choose three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. In this case, it's yellow-orange, yellow, and yellow-green.
-Analogous and Complimentary
You can also combine these, and add in a complementary color to go with your analogous colors. Either of these purples work work well!

And then there's triadic. These are three colors that are an equal distance from each other on the color wheel. Red, yellow and blue are the best example of this.
The fun part comes when you start making variations on these basics. For example, what if, instead of using the truest version of a color, you use a lighter or darker one? What you see here is red, yellow, and blue, but in different strengths of each color.
Color temperature
Another aspect of choosing colors that can make a big difference is color temperature. It is easy see blues as "cool" and oranges as "warm", but within each color there are warms and cools. Can you see them in these purples?

Keeping all of your colors warm or all cool can really help keep your color scheme looking pretty. Look at what happens with the purple monochromatic colors when I add a cool lavender in with the warm shades:
Mono Bad
It just doesn't work. There are ways to break this rule, but keeping color temperature in mind can make things easier.

Choosing colors is not a science. A color wheel and the types of color schemes are a great place to start, but ultimately, you need to feel the colors. (Is that helpful? Probably not. But there it is.)
Complimentary Plus
This grouping of of colors started with the complementary colors above, but then I went with my gut and added in a few more shades. They don't really fit within the color theory "rules", but it works.

Now, after all of this technical talk and working hard to choose colors, I'm going to tell you how to cheat.

Use colors that people have already found and put together.

Yep, it's that simple. There are all kinds of websites that feature amazing colors. My newest favorite is Design Seeds, but I also like Color Collective, and Creature Comforts. These sites take images and pull out the colors for you to easily see and match. And you can do the same thing with images.

Alternately, there are sites like Kuler that allow you to play with groupings of colors. I've even started a pinboard specifically for lovely colors! Now all you have to do is find floss that matches your colors!

Now, here's your homework: Go to your local craft store and start playing with the floss. Grab some colors, a bunch of color, and try them next to each other. Try some more. This may make the people who work there a little crazy though, so don't blame me if they yell at you, and please don't tell them that I sent you!

Seriously though, putting colors together and changing them out can take a little time, but you can get the feel of it and eventually you'll have some favorites that are your go-to colors.

Do you have any favorite floss colors or color schemes? Share them in the comments!

Download the PDF of this Embroidery Basics post here.

Next time: Strands, Stabbing Vs. Sewing, and Starting Out.


  1. This is AWESOME; thanks! I agonize over color choices, sometimes it paralyzes my project until I'm forced to just pick a color and live with it. This will be my "go-to" now. :)

  2. I am really enjoying Thursdays with you, Mollie! As a beginner, your guides are really helping me out. Thank you!

  3. Design Seeds looks awesome!

  4. Mollie,
    A BIG thanks.....even in my wildest imagination didnt think color selection to be an intellectual exercise.

    Will be fun to observe Mother Nature's color selection with this knowledge.....thanks again for this tutorial

  5. Yay, color! This rocks, Mollie. :)

  6. I've been following along and am wondering if you still plan on doing more, I'd love to hear about the different types of stitches and what they are used for.

  7. Absolutely, Tania! There will be a new post in the series tomorrow.

  8. Oh my gosh. I'm working on something right now that will fit into this idea of color schemes perfectly. Just wait. I'll try to remember to let you know when its finished.


  9. Great links to some (other) beautiful pages! Thanks - hopefully I'll crack the colour-choosing stage of my sampler designing a bit sooner now. I love some of your pics on Pinterest too. One of them is in the running for the base palette for my sampler :-)

  10. Hi! What are the floss numbers in your very last photo? Thanks!

    1. I wish I remembered! It was quite a few years ago.

  11. I know you posted this a while ago, but a cool tool for experimenting is
    adobe's KULER...



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