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  • Feature Story

Colorful Quandaries

t-shirts, towels, and a mirror reflects the different shades of color

January 16, 2018

Maybe it’s a dozen towels bought at the January white sale. The color looks a little off, but is it your imagination or real? You consult your partner, your friend, even your teenager. The consensus is that a couple of towels are slightly different than the others.

How does this happen?

Shade variance, a variation or change in color that affects fabric and fashion, can be a major source of customer complaints making color matching extremely important in the design and production process.

Dyeing is a balance of many variables with achieving a suitable shade dependent upon factors such as fabric selection, dye class (acid, basic, disperse, etc.) and the dyeing process. Add to it the complexities of controls, logistics and the possibility of human error, and it’s guaranteed there will be variants when dyeing fabric.

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“127 different things have to go perfectly correct to match a shade,” says Andrew Fraser, director of color for UL’s Consumer Testing Laboratory in Bentonville, Ark. “It comes down to economics,” he continues, “manufacturers have to produce a product that matches the color and passes the technical requirements in the most economical ways possible.”

Shade variance is most common when mixing a new batch of dyes to create or recreate a given color. Shade variation can occur side to side, up and down or anywhere in between. Shade variances can also affect the manufacturer’s pocketbook as sections of fabric may be discarded to avoid variations in the shade. Less fabric to work with equals wasted material and a reduction in the finished product.

Fortunately, implementing standard practices into the dye process can help mitigate shade variance. Standards include providing a certified color sample on the reference fabric with the fabric presented in a grey folder. The fabric sample should not be touched nor should it be exposed to excess light. Best practices include keeping samples in a filing cabinet, zippered notebook or acid-free storage box.

But, sometimes color is in the eye of the beholder and not a true variance of fabric.

“Color is a perception by an observer of light which has been modified by an object,” explains Fraser.

Anything can affect one's perception of color-the type of light, the background it's being observed in or even the physical makeup of a person’s visual cortex.

“Since we’re all different, color is subjective,” concludes Fraser.

To help determine color identity in the lab, Fraser administers the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test to his team of color analysts bi-annually. The tests help see if a person perceives colors correctly. A superior rating of 16 or less is preferred by Fraser.

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Which brings us back full-circle to the seemingly off colored towels. Was it the process or human perception? Could be both, but for the consumer, does it really matter? The less variances in shade, the better the outcome for the manufacturer.