Optical Color Blending – Why Some Fractals Work

Help!  My fractal yarns are always muddy!

Recently, I’ve heard several comments about fractal yarns looking muddy.  A fractal yarn is a yarn where the top is divided down the middle, length-wise. One half is spun directly, without any changes. The second half is further divided into smaller sections and spun end to end. Finally, the two yarns are plied together.

This can create a subtle striping pattern with stripes which are less harsh than a self-striping yarn and all the colors of the top are carried throughout the yarn for a more balanced-looking yarn.

While this technique can be used to great effect, it can also fall victim to optical blending.

What is optical blending?

Let’s delve into some color theory.  On a color wheel, when you blend opposites, you get a grey or brown.  Red + Green = Brown.  Orange + Blue = Brown.  Purple + Yellow = Brown.

Sometimes these colors can look nice next to each other, but in yarn, optical blending can occur and cause your beautiful, bright colors to be muted (or muddied) toward brown.

Optical blending is a trick of your eyes and your brain.  When we place small dots of different colors next to each other, the human eye can’t process and differentiate between those colors.  Instead, it combines those colors to save our brain the processing power of identifying each spec of color.

Example Time

Here is an example of two tops spun as fractal yarns.

The left yarn was spun from a top that was primarily blue and yellow.  Blue and yellow are both primary colors, and when blended, make green.  So this particular yarn has subtle stripes of all these colors.

On the right is a yarn spun from a top that had even portions of pink, green, purple and yellow.  The pink and green are roughly opposite on the color wheel.  The purple and yellow are roughly opposite on the color wheel.  When those colors barber pole around each other (and even more so if you were to knit a swatch) optical blending happens. If you look at this yarn closely, you can see those individual colors, but as you back away from it, those colors start to muddy together.


I find both of these yarns appealing for different reasons.  Sometimes muddy colors may be desirable.  Before you start spinning, look at the colors in your top.  Imagine how they might blend together.  Then decide if that yarn wants to be a gradient, a fractal, or something else.  A little color theory can help you make the conscious choice rather than letting your fiber dictate the yarn you make.





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