How I use colour theory for my embroidery designs

I’ve taken a few art classes over the years that have helped me learn the basics of colour theory. Having focused on maths and science in school, I find it a fascinating subject to now get into!

Plus, I like using some simple colour theory principles to guide me when I’m deciding on a colour palette for an embroidery design.

There are so many colours to choose from! So I find having some rules and pointers for narrowing things down very helpful.

The colour wheel

You may already be familiar with the colour wheel, a helpful tool for visualising the relationships between colours. In case not, let’s do a quick summary.

There are 3 colours from which all other colours can be made – red, yellow and blue. These colours are the primary colours.

Colour wheel with the primary colours red, yellow and blue highlighted.

By mixing 2 primary colours together, we get the secondary colours:

  • Red and blue make purple
  • Blue and yellow make green
  • Yellow and red make orange
Colour wheel with the secondary colours orange, purple and green highlighted.

Then if we mix together a primary and secondary colour, we get tertiary colours. For example blue and green make blue-green, yellow and orange make yellow-orange etc.

Colour wheel with the tertiary colours highlighted.

Now that we have our colour wheel, we can use it along with some colour theory to pick colours that will work well together in our embroidery.

Using colour theory to choose my embroidery colour palette

Since there are whole books and in depth courses on colour theory, keep in mind that I’m just scratching the surface here!

These are the rules that I use most often to help me create palettes of colours that work well together.


Perhaps the easiest palette to figure out, monochromatic means you pick one colour and then use different shades of that colour in your design.

I’ve learnt that while it can often be tempting to stay in the mid tone range, using a wide range of shade and tone really helps to bring your design to life.

I used a monochromatic colour palette of 3 shades of blue in my walrus design.

Walrus embroidery in shades of blue.


A harmonious palette is made up of colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel.

Since these colours sit next to each other, they easily flow into each other, hence the harmonious name.

I used a harmonious colour palette for my penguins bauble design with different blue mixes.

Penguins embroidery design using a harmonious colour scheme.

Complementary colours

Complementary colours are pairs of colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel.

They create strong contrasts when placed next to each other and tend to make each other look more vibrant. So complementary colours can be used to create striking effects.

When I was working on my reach for the stars design, I knew I wanted to use navy blue fabric for the background. So to make her dress stand out, even on the side in shadow, I used orange since it’s the complementary colour of blue.

Reach for the stars embroidery using a complementary colour scheme.


A triadic colour palette uses 3 colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel.

I was a bit unsure about this one at first! Fearing that my colours would clash. But it’s actually a great way of creating a vibrant palette by using contrasting colours.

For my Royal School of Needlework Jacobean crewelwork, we could use 2 main colour families and then a 3rd accent colour. I picked greens and a yellow-orange-brown as my main families to reflect the natural colours of my subjects. Then I used the triadic colour scheme to pick purple as my accent colour.

Jacobean crewelwork embroidery using a triadic colour scheme.

Using colour theory for your embroidery

I hope this overview has given you some ideas for how you could use colour theory when choosing threads for your next embroidery.

Even if you don’t want to create your own designs from scratch, having a bit of knowledge about how colour works gives you more flexibility if you ever want to tweak a pattern.

For example, if you want to use different colours, you can use colour theory to help you pick threads that will create the effect you’re after.

I also find it fascinating to use my knowledge of colour theory to look at embroideries and art in general from a different perspective.

If you’re keen to learn a bit more, I like this BBC bitesize lesson on colour. There are examples of paintings that have used the different types of colour schemes as well as a quick quiz if like me you enjoy that kind of thing!

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4 thoughts on “How I use colour theory for my embroidery designs

  1. Very helpful! I knew the color wheel was helpful but didn’t have any kind of grasp on how to actually put it to work. Thank you!

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