Color Matching: Achieving Consistency



When we purchase products, whether textiles or electronics or gardening tools, part of the appeal is a pleasing appearance. If the items come in a set or have multiple components, they should coordinate, whether it’s in their use of materials, finishes, shapes or colors.

For most products, materials are generally chosen for their physical properties, whether that’s strength, durability, or performance under certain conditions. However, color is an attribute that can be added in several ways, whether through an exterior paint or coating, or a colorant that is integrated into the material through dyes or pigments.

Due to the different chemical, textural, structural properties of materials, they often require different formulations of colorants, which can make achieving color consistency tricky. Luckily for all of us, there are experts in the field of color science who work with brands, retailers, and manufacturers on their color management programs and procedures. Here, three of them share some insights into how color consistency can be achieved.


What is essential to getting consistent color in products whether you are designing or making them? Ann Laidlaw, of ACL Color Consulting LLC, says that companies “need robust, well-documented procedures, supported by training and compliance throughout the supply chain.”

Doug Bynum, EVP of Natific AG, further breaks this down to “feasible digital color standards, the required QC software package, a properly calibrated spectrophotometer, a sample conditioner, and a spectrophotometer diagnostic software and tile set.” He adds that these elements should be combined with “clearly specified equipment settings, measurement techniques, light sources, and tolerances for shade approval.”


Color is somewhat subjective, as each of us humans sees color in a slightly, or sometimes radically, different way. Our perception of color can also differ with age, fatigue, or health, which means that even a person with excellent color differentiation, may see colors differently depending on the day or other factors.

Spectrophotometers are used to cut out some of the subjectivity. Spectrophotometers are instruments used to measure color accurately and consistently. The spectral curve captured by this instrument can then be easily communicated and the object color under multiple light sources may be calculated by each user.

Sean Thornton, President of HiTEX Inc. remarks that, “There is extremely high confidence, and it’s a proven science, that you can digitally communicate color commercially between vendors and be assured that as long as everyone is operating the equipment per the guidelines and specifications.”

Laidlaw remarks that it’s this, “communication between specifiers and suppliers that is imperative for successful color management.”


Another essential element to manage is the appearance of color of materials under different lighting sources. Due to the different types of lighting used in retail stores, our homes and other environments, the wavelengths that lights reflect can make two materials look the same color under one type of lighting, and look radically different under another. This phenomenon is known as metamerism.

Laidlaw says that, “Matching colors on different substrates is always challenging, because different fibers require different dyes and different processes. Therefore, metameric matches—or fabrics dyed with different dyes, and intended to match—are a necessity for matching components within a garment and for matching pieces within a group.” To manage metameric products, users may check the color appearance in a light box containing different light sources.

Bynum states that, “Dyestuff selection is critical,” adding that “Metamerism between the different dye classes for different fiber types such as polyester, nylon, or cotton dictate that the metamerism be controlled closely to ensure color coordination in a variety of light sources.”

In recent years, LED (light emitting diode) lights have become ubiquitous but also are available in many different varieties.  Laidlaw says that, “the introduction of LED sources into the mix of possible light sources in retail or other settings adds to the sensitivity of metameric matches.” However, she adds that, “If retailers and their suppliers approve matches under multiple sources that are very different from each other (for example, A/incandescent along with D65 and U35 /tri-phosphor fluorescent), then the differently-dyed items are likely to match under other sources as well, including LED lamps that may not be specified or known.” There is a lot of continuing discussion in the industry surrounding LEDs and how to best account for them within color management programs.

Bynum makes an interesting comment about the advancement of capabilities of other instruments, such as smartphones, “Color Sensor, or node technology, continues to evolve and has been adopted primarily in the design area. Additional work is ongoing and I expect new technology developments that might extend their use to field QC and perhaps multi-colored articles in the future.” However, he adds that, “currently there are limitations in the available light sources and software complexity required to meet most brands’ quality assurance requirements.”


There are a number of apparel companies highlighted by these experts as having “best in class” color management programs such as Wal-mart, JC Penney, Target, and Under Armour.

Thornton says that a big benefit to a well-executed program is “eliminating 95% of physical samples, as long as the company is proactive and requires digital submits.  Even that is starting to go away as certified suppliers are being allowed to go to production without physical submits provided they have a good track record.”

However, there are some common pitfalls to be aware of, such as proper instrument settings and calibration, optically brightened yarns, fluorescent dyes in recipes where the official color standard is non-fluorescent, and some highly textured fabrics, according to Byrum. Matching of multi-colored prints continues to be a challenge as well.

Despite the challenges of lighting, a wide variety of materials, and a global supply chain, “The textile industry is still one of the leaders in digital color management as far as acceptance by the industry and in the maturity of most of the participants in the industry,” says Bynum

For those interested in learning more about color management, AATCC offers a highly-popular annual hands-on Color Management Workshop.

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