Learning the DMC Colour Families

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

If you’re getting started in cross stitch pattern design and like using DMC thread, a great way to learn the relationship between the different colour families, is to stitch up your own colour swatches.

The swatches don’t take long to stitch and they are actually a lot of fun (and very relaxing) to create. Having the swatches on-hand while designing, will help you select thread colours that look nice together plus give a more realistic appearance to your subject.

Back to Basics: the colour wheel

To fully understand how those swatches can help you we need to have a quick review of the colour wheel.

The colour wheel is a diagram used in the visual arts to represent the colours of the visible spectrum and their relationships to one another. The colours are arranged systematically inside a circle, with each hue falling into one of three categories: primary, secondary, or intermediate. In fields such as painting, fashion, film, and design, artists use the colour wheel to assemble colour schemes and visualize how colours appear beside one another.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Now let’s look at how that relates to the DMC threads we use in our designs.

What are the DMC colour families?

The thread we use in our cross stitch patterns is official known as DMC 117 Mouline Six-Stranded Embroidery Cotton and has around 500 different colours. DMC sorts each of those colours into one of twenty different colour families, which represent their placement on the colour wheel.

Looking at some of the colour families alongside the colour wheel (above), can you see how families 1-3 fall inside the red-orange and the red-violet range?

Now let’s imagine you are designing a pattern that features red fruits: tomatoes and bell peppers. You might use your swatches to match the actual fruit colour to the DMC thread family and sub-group. Can you see ing the image below, that our bell peppers (aka capsicums) will look best stitched in the range of colours 3801-914?

red bell peppers and the DMC colour families

Project Tips

Rather than stitching the 20 colour families as one giant sampler, I recommend creating 20 x individual swatches. That way you can easily move them about and compare them to other thread families, or place them against real objects like fruit and flowers.

I’ve only stitched the first five families so far but I’ve already started using them in my design projects. It’s so much easier (and more accurate) to grab the swatches then hunt through the floss boxes for individual skeins.

The swatches will also help you identify slight nuances between similar colours. These bell peppers and tomatoes (below) are a great example because the tomatoes are actually in the red-orange range (353-817) while the bell peppers are true reds (3801-816). Something you may not notice without the colour swatches on-hand.

Constructing your colour swatches

Stitching up your swatches is super-easy and I did not stitch these from a pattern. Here’s what to do:

  1. Grab the official list of floss colours families from the DMC website or use the fantastic spreadsheet on Lord Libidan’s blog.
  2. Now stitch small colour blocks (10 stitches x 4 rows) leaving two rows between the blocks.
  3. Use plain white Aida cloth in the size you usually design on (eg, 14 count). That way you’ll be seeing the threads exactly how they will appear in a finished piece.
  4. Once you’ve finished the colour blocks, stitch a border in black (25 stitches wide).
  5. Copy the numbering and spacing from my photos in this blog.

It’s a fantastic exercise, learning how each individual thread tone looks when actually stitched.

DMC colour family #3 swatch

I stitched my colour swatches on white Aida cloth and used DMC 310 (black) for the border and backstitched thread numbers.

If you look closely in the photo you can see where I have machine sewed (white seam) some backing fabric to the rear.

To create a nice fringed border, I unravelled 1-2 rows of Aida around the outside.

DMC colour family swatches

Image Sources

  • Colour wheel: Canva
  • DMC colour card: DMC international website
  • Fabric swatches: property of Melinda J. Irvine.

Our Muladhara pattern was one of the first times we used our colour swatches while designing. We wanted to make sure we nuanced the colours perfectly to create a visual representation of root chakra energy.

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