Spoonflower, color palettes, and open source

dark combination of Spoonflower colors

light combination of Spoonflower colors

At some point back in 2000-2001 I made the decision, for reasons both practical and philosophical, to stop using Microsoft’s Windows, along with a lot of other proprietary software. Everything I do these days – the morecloth site, my personal computing, the soon-to-be-launched site I’m building for online textile design – everything runs on free open-source software. This policy has worked well for me. The only only glitch I’ve encountered so far has come from the fact that fabric-printing services, all of which seem to depend on mysterious black-box configurations of unnamed software and hardware, tend to release clues about their secret processes only in proprietary Adobe Photoshop formats.

Of the four low-cost custom fabric printers I’ve looked at (Spoonflower, FabricOnDemand, KarmaKraft, and EyeCandey aka candeyshop.com), Spoonflower has been the most forthcoming with information. Last year Spoonflower published a downloadable file (in Photoshop .aco format) containing 523 colors (well, actually, 505 colors, since some turn out to be duplicates, at least when expressed in 24-bit truecolor RGB format) – let’s just say a downloadable file containing a big general-purpose selection of Spoonflower-safe colors. By “Spoonflower-safe (my term, not theirs) I mean that, if I understand things correctly, none of these 523 (or 505 or whatever) colors is “out of gamut” for Spoonflower’s printers. In other words, all of these colors can be printed, singly or in combination with each other without triggering the dreaded “remap colors” function that seems to reside deep in the bowels of all commercial printing systems.

I say “dreaded” because this “remap colors” function is undisclosed (at least to us end-user customers) and therefore unpredictable. The function doesn’t just remap the out-of-gamut colors to in-gamut colors; it remaps some or all of the in-gamut colors as well. In short, it tries to help us clueless customers out – and, no doubt, in many cases succeeds – while telling us, in effect, not to bother our pretty little heads about all that in-gamut / out-of-gamut stuff. Not my preferred way of doing business. In fact, as I’ve been getting ready to offer design-and-layout services to people wanting custom-printed fabric, my biggest worry has been color predictability – i.e., preparing files in such a way as to dodge the unwanted help of unknown color remapping functions.

Yesterday I finally set to work on Spoonflower’s Photoshop-formatted file of safe colors. (I hadn’t realized earlier that it could, in fact, be auto-translated into a format usable by gimp-2.4, the free open-source program I use in place of Photoshop.) Once I had the Spoonflower palette file in a format I could use, I still had to make some adjustments; I had to split the palette up into smaller ones, since indexed-color images require palettes of 256 or fewer colors. But now, with that detail taken care of, I have the means, so it seems, to auto-generate a large number of color schemes in Spoonflower-safe colors. (You can see a sampling of 252 such color schemes in the two images above.) I’ll be printing swatches to test things out and, if all goes well, uploading some color scheme files here that others may find useful.

(To see the Spoonflower-safe palette and a couple of smaller palettes that I extracted from it click on the following link.)

dark Spoonflower-safe colors

representative sample of Spoonflower-safe colors

Spoonflower-safe colors


  1. Interesting! I am in the process of having a color chart of my own devising printed by Spoonflower–it will then need more editing and printing again before it is usable by most everyone. I do not understand if I am supposed to be able to use the “editor” you show above or what. Is it at Spoonflower or something on one’s own computer? The colors appear to be limited and, in the first images, not organized in any way. I’m not complaining, just letting you know that I do not understand, and I would very much like to. I am sending this url to a friend who may understand your information and is also interested in fabric printing color charts.

    Posted by Jane Walker

    Link | October 9th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

  2. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for your comment and your work. I’d love to see your color chart once it’s ready for general use.

    Sorry I didn’t get around to explaining those “Palette Editor” pictures. They’re just screenshots of “palettes” that I was working with in gimp, a Photoshop-like program that I use on my home computer. (Palettes in gimp are pretty much the same thing as swatches in Photoshop.) The “Palette Editor” picture at the bottom shows all the colors included in the file called “Spoonflower_colors.aco” that I downloaded from Spoonflower. Each of the two smaller “Palette Editor” pictures shows a subset of the colors in the larger one. The colors in a gimp palette (and, I believe, a Photoshop swatch as well) can be easily sorted in many ways – by value, saturation, hue, green value, blue value, etc.

    Posted by catherine

    Link | October 9th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

  3. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for the details! I have a better idea of how it works, now. I think my confusion was due to the fact that I don’t use the color palette in Photoshop–too restrictive for the way I work–so I didn’t realize what you were illustrating.

    I had a 1500+ color “web color” chart printed by Spoonflower, and even that did not have enough colors for me (many came out as repeat colors), so I am working on one that will have no repeats and more colors. My friend has offered to see if she can make it useful to people with various image software, not only Photoshop. It’s a big job–it took me a week to put almost 3000 color blocks on a chart, and I hope to end up with a chart of about 2000 different colors organized by the hues and shades that they print as, not necessarily how they appear on the computer. This chart may only be useful to people who can deal with the colors not looking on the computer like the final printed results. I’m making it because I need it myself for my own fabric designing. Most of my designs are intricate with many gradations of colors.

    I am obviously approaching the printing-on-fabric color issue from a non-computer oriented angle…

    Posted by Jane Walker

    Link | October 9th, 2009 at 7:57 pm

  4. Jane’s reference to palettes in the natural sense (i.e., as a possibly very large collection of colors printed on a physical medium from which an artist / designer chooses when creating new work), got me thinking about software palettes, their limitations, and why I’m interested in them.

    Software palettes seem to me to have two main uses:

    1. They can serve as a source of colors to choose from when creating a new design – though, of course, there’s no guaranteed relationship between a color as seen on a computer monitor and that same color as it appears when printed. (Such relationships can only be determined by testing on the printing setup in question.)

    2. Software palettes can also be used to reduce and constrain the colors in a pre-existing image. For example, an image whose colors are specified in Truecolor 24-bit RGB format (a format that allows over 16 million colors in a single image) can be converted into an “indexed color” image, i.e. an image containing only a small subset (at most 256) of the 16-million-plus Truecolor possibilities.

    Why perform such drastic color reduction? Sometimes for aesthetic reasons (a kind of “less is more” approach to color in a particular situation). And sometimes – and this is the case I’m concerned with here – for printing predictability. If a certain colors (e.g., those in the Spoonflower-provided palette/swatch) are known to print predictably in all combinations with each other on Spoonflower’s equipment, then it may make sense sometimes to convert a given image to an “indexed color” format using just those predictable colors.

    Posted by catherine

    Link | October 10th, 2009 at 2:50 pm

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