How to Choose Color Standards for Your Product

Amy Patrick has worked in various Computer Aided Textile design (CAD) and Color positions in the apparel, textile and bedding industries for almost 20 years. She has also taught textile CAD classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Amy is currently a freelance designer and open to freelance inquires.

Many consumers don’t realize there are jobs dedicated to making sure the color of a product matches to a standard. Common color standard systems used in design and manufacturing include Pantone, CSI and ScotDic. For this article, I am going to focus on Pantone, as it is the most used system on a global scale.

Pantone Becoming The Standard

Pantone started off as color standards for the graphic design industry in the 1960s. Around 1995, Pantone introduced cotton swatches for their already existing textile color reference. I was working at a Seattle based retailer in the late 90s, and I remember starting to use these swatches around 1999. Before Pantone, we would use various trend service colors, which would often be paper or yarn standards. Before that, the design and merchandising teams would purchase spools of thread, chop up a garment or purchase yardage of a color they liked at a fabric store. If you have ever tried to send chunks of thread to a factory for color standards, it wasn’t easy!

Understanding The System

pantone color system

You are probably thinking, “Great – I now know a brief history of Pantone/Color Standards. But which ones should I be using?” Well, that depends on what products you are producing. If you are producing textiles, ideally you should be using the cotton textile books or swatches (now called TCX). If the TCX books are cost prohibitive, you can also use the paper version of the cotton color system (called TPX and TPG. TPG is a new paper system that manufactures the chips without lead chromates, hence a Green system.).

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Note that because TCX and TPX/TPG are created with completely different dyes and inks, there may not be an exact match between a TCX and a TPX/TPG standard. You should physically check the color standards before approving a factory to use the other system.

If you don’t have access to TCX, TPX or TPG to match to textiles, the Uncoated (U) Pantone Solid Matching color references are also acceptable. The reason to use the Uncoated is because textiles are usually not shiny. If you are using shiny or coated fabrics, Coated (C) Pantone Solid references are also acceptable, as they show how the color will look with shine.

By the way, PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. PMS term is used in graphic design when referencing this system. In apparel and textiles, people say Pantone and reference TCX or TPX/TPG.

Note I am not a graphic designer, but I do know that the Process Pantone system is for when your printer uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (K) inks to create any color. This system is ideally used for paper printing and not used in textiles.

Color Inspection in Manufacturing

Choosing colors to design with is the fun part! But how do you apply color to manufacturing?

First, check to see what color matching system your factory prefers and which ones they have access to (i.e., they may prefer to match to Pantone TCX, but also have TPX/TPG or U/C books). If your factory has these books, you can reference the color codes in your design specification sheets, instead of mailing them physical standards.

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Once you get your samples back, now what do you do? You need to make sure your sample matches back to the color standard you referenced. Note that office lighting and window lighting is not a reliable light source for color approval. Window lighting can vary from time and location! The sun light at your window is not going to be the same at 9am and 3pm. Nor is the factory window that is in a completely different location.

Checking your samples back to your color standards is ideally best in an industry standard light box. This color inspection light box is different than a graphic design or photography light box that you place images on top of. A color inspection light box has 3+ color sources to view with. You place your sample and the color standard inside the box and compare them under the different light sources.

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D65 is similar to an incandescent bulb and is also referred to ‘Daylight’. CWF (Cool White Florescent) is also used in comparison to ‘Store Lighting’. There is also a Ultra Violet (UV) setting to make sure your colors don’t (or do) glow in the dark.

Why are the insides of light boxes a matte gray color? This matte gray is a specific color and texture that will not affect the color you are viewing (i.e., white can reflect color, and black can absorb light and color. So get that white paper/foam core out of the light box!

However, industry light boxes can start around $1,000, so most small designers and manufacturers cannot afford them. It is best to ask your factory what conditions they use to inspect color. Keep in mind without a light box, the factory is color matching to the best of their ability. And you will have to approve color or make comments knowing there will be variables. Yes, it is ideal for your trim to be an exact match to the fabric, but sometimes you need to choose the best one and make sure it’s not an obvious mismatch. Your customers may love your product so much they won’t even notice the color is 5% off! And then you can spend more time creating palettes and designing, which is what it’s all about!

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