colourful feathers and a chart showing colour wavelengths

Colour – Is Pantone A Saviour Or Pandora’s Box

Colour is one of my favourite things. I love mixing and matching products. I get excited when I put an order together and LOVE the combination of petersham I see on my bench. However, colour in the hat world can be challenging.

What Is Colour?

Scientifically, colour is another property or attribute like mass, volume, or velocity. It’s the segment of the electromagnetic spectrum (light) that humans can see and is easily measured. We can name light in this spectrum. For example, light with a wavelength of 500nm might be called ‘cyan’, 650nm is ‘red’. However, colours don’t need a name to be quantified.

How Do We See Colour?

Researchers say the average human can distinguish around one million colours. To us, colour is the interpretation of the light we see. That is to say, our eyes send signals to our brain, which it interprets as a colour. A few factors limit our ability to interpret colour. One is the sensitivity of the ‘cone’ cells (which let us see in colour). We only see in colour if there is enough light for the cones to sense. Rod cells are more sensitive to light but can’t distinguish between wavelengths of light. They allow sight in low light, but only in black and white. Then there is our brain. It’s too complex to describe here, but our brain isn’t like the readout of an instrument but an interpreter of the readout. These factors combined mean we aren’t accurate judges of colour.

The Difference Between Colours

We can use a spectrometer to measure light given off by an object. The measurement defines the colour is represented by a wavelength in nanometres (nm). Light at wavelenght 500nm looks like box #2 below. If we alter that wavelength to 501nm (#1), we can’t distinguish it from #2, but it’s different. 502nm (#3) is a distinguishable change in colour.

Most people can see the difference between numbers 2 and 3 above. But they are right next to one another. when we see colours in isolation, we may not do as well. To demonstrate, scroll down to ‘Colour Companies’ and see if you can still pick which one it is. (The answer is at the bottom of the article.) Maybe you got it right. That could be because there were only a couple of choices. If you want to test yourself better, take a look at #2 then go here. Without looking back here, adjust the slider until you are confident you are seeing the same colour as #2 above. To see how close you are, you’ll need to convert the HEX number (below the picker) to a wavelength by pasting it here. Was it close to 500nm? Did you do as well?

It doesn’t matter either way; some people are better at it than others for various reasons. While fun, picking a colour like that doesn’t benefit most people. More valuable to us in the millinery industry is communicating that colour to others. For that, we could name that colour. We can call light at wavelength 500nm ‘cyan’. What about 502nm? Is it still ‘cyan’, or do we need another name? Do we all agree?

Naming Colours

Languages worldwide have between two and twelve(ish) simple colour names (e.g. navy and cobalt can be simplified to blue). English has eleven: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, grey, brown, orange and purple. It’s even been found that cultures tend to develop colour names in a specific order! If you’re interested to learn more, you could start here, but I have more important things to say, so I won’t go down that road.

As children, we learn that a specific range of wavelengths we call blue and another we call red. However, knowing the difference between burgundy and bordeaux is not a life-and-death matter. It’s not even a social faux pas to get it wrong, so we don’t grow up with highly tuned colour-naming vocabulary. If we did, there would be no need for this blog post. That’s not to say that some people don’t. If you’re a designer, maybe you have upwards of 100 colour names.

The problem is, if I asked five people to show me teal, I’d likely get five different answers. Why? Firstly, we see an interpretation of what’s coming into our eyes, not a measurement. Our brains are incredible at filling in and averaging to give us a picture of what ‘should’ be there, not necessarily what is. Secondly, naming subtle colour differences is not a priority in life. Also, colour names don’t have a strict set of parameters. So, what I call chartreuse, someone else might call lime, and who’s to say I’m wrong? The point is colour names are highly subjective.

Colour Companies

How many names would we need to define all the colours we can see? Well, from above, the answer is around one million. Then, of course, we would also have to agree on those names. It’s just not a feasible scenario or a good use of energy.

Even so, in some instances the effort is worthwhile, and some companies have made it their business to define and name colours. The most famous is Pantone, which creates colour-matching systems for industries requiring standardised colours. For example, Cadbury uses the same purple colour on all its packaging, advertising, signage etc. It wouldn’t be possible without a standard to work to. Companies like Pantone have come up with systems to define colours reliably.

But there are still significant limitations to these colour systems. Defined colours number in the thousands, far short the one million I mentioned. Colour systems, definitions and names change over time, meaning constant updates. For it to be useful, all involved parties must invest in their system.

what colour is this square?
What Pantone colour is this? Well, it’s not one, but it’s close to 3265 C.

So if Pantone defines ‘teal’ in its system and I have a different opinion, am I wrong? No. Pantone is a private company, not the arbiter of truth on colour. It merely provides one way I can communicate a specific colour to another person with much greater accuracy. But it’s only more accurate because both parties have bought into the system. So if you tell me you want Pantone ‘Reflex Blue’, I’m no wiser about the specific colour you want because I don’t have the system. I can look it up online, but as you’ll read below, that’s not very accurate.

The Digital Age And Colour

Let’s assume for a minute that everyone agreed that Pantone is God regarding colour. We have the internet now. Why don’t we send the Pantone colour from a Google search? Then everyone has the colours defined.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Computer monitors, phones, tablets and all other screens present the same input differently. It’s not just an excuse a website owner gives if they send the wrong colour. For example, here is an image of four monitors (all the same make and model) displaying the same image. However, you can see they are different. I won’t go into why, but if you wean to know, this is the article I got the image from.

4 computer monitors showing a colour image

Cameras and screenshots add even more complexity to the equation. Below I have taken an image of this ball of wool with my DSLR and my phone. I have not edited them apart from cropping them the same size. You can see the significant difference just from the camera I used.

balls of wool showing different colours from different cameras

Now if you take editing into account, the difference can be even more pronounced. For example, below is the same image edited differently.

balls of wool showing different colours from different editing

Sometimes people send me a web address for a dress they are making a hat for when they want something dyed to match. Not only do I see it differently from the milliner, but often, editorial images are edited or taken to make them look more appealing, not to get the colour accurate. It’s not necessarily deception, but a dress/hat looks totally different when shot in a studio with bright light against a white backdrop than on a beach at sunset with the light behind it.

Below is the same colour capeline from my shop and a client’s finished hat. I wouldn’t say the finished hat is anywhere near deceptive in colour, nor is my product image, but they are significantly different.

pink hats photographed differently resulting in different colours

When Is Accurate Colour Matching Important?

In millinery, I say, rarely. As a milliner, you are often the ‘expert’ in the relationship. Many clients need guidance on what hat they should wear. Everyone wants their hat to look good, but is ‘matchy matchy’ the best option? Could a tonal relative be better? What about a contrast? Many times a client may say ‘match’ when they mean ‘harmonise’.

I have dyed materials to match something and got it wrong, but the client is over the moon with the ‘accurate’ result. Did I need to go to all the effort, or would a close cousin of the colour have been sufficient? I think we can shoot ourselves in the foot when being too quick to say yes regarding colour matching. If you point out that materials are limited, and you can’t get them in every hue, customers may be more amenable to choosing something readily available. It may be a few shades out, but it still works beautifully.

Communicating Colours Accurately

Even though it’s easy to quantify colour with instruments, few people have them. Naming and recalling colours is difficult. Screens and cameras are unreliable. So what are we to do?

When a client wants an accurate colour match.

Firstly, I dispense with colour names other than to give a general idea of the colour. If a client says ‘teal’, I can guess they mean somewhere between blue and green, probably darker than lighter. Anything more is a guess. The most accurate way to get a match is with something physical (like Pantone swatches). I won’t waste my money buying a set when there are other easy options. When a client wants and accurate colour match or custom dye, I sue the following:

  1. Fabric sample – The best way by far is to have/see the actual item you’re dealing with. This could be a swatch from the same fabric or the whole garment/item.
  2. Thread – Gutermann thread is sold throughout Australia and much of the developed world. A client in New Zealand can tell me the dress matches number 453 thread, and I can buy the same here to see the colour myself without the item. It’s less accurate, because it involves two interpretations of the colour. But it a whole lot more accurate than giving a colour name or a photo.
  3. Paint samples – paints come in hundreds of colours, and paint shops usually have them sitting on a rack for free. If you match your item to a paint sample and tell me the brand and colour, I can get the same here.


Colour can be complicated. As with everything in my shop, if you’re not sure it’s better to ask. It takes the confusion out of it. As two minute phone call can save you a lot of worry.

P.S. Here’s the answer to the colour matching question above. The mystery square was the same as #3, 502nm.