Life and Times in Color: Nell Znamierowski

Nell Znamierowski (1931-2021) had an instinctive color sense that guided her and inspired others.

Linda Ligon May 31, 2021 - 6 min read

We were recently saddened to learn that Nell Znamierowski passed away on April 29, 2021. To honor and remember her, here is an article about her amazing life as a fiber artist, first published in the eMag, Colorways Spring, 2012. I highly reccommend watching the video interview, if only to catch a glimpse of Nell's lovely spirit and sense of humor.
– Susan

What do students at the Fashion Institute of Technology, two yarn companies, and Monsanto have in common? All of them have relied on the free-spirited and instinctive color sense of Nell Znamierowski to inspire and expand their color choices.

Breaking Out of the Drab Decades

When Nell Znamierowski began her studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1950s, the world of color was in a state of change. Fashion colors in the 1940s had tended toward gray, navy, black, brown, and burgundy, brightened with white, ivory, blush, cream, and so forth. Perhaps a daring red from time to time. Color harmonies were careful and limited.

But in the 1950s, color started to break loose. The exuberant palettes of Scandinavian and Finnish designers were getting attention in New York, Josef Albers was teaching a new and vibrant approach to color theory at Yale, and Dorothy Liebes was weaving peacock hues (with peacock feathers!) on the West Coast. Nell spent a year in Finland on a Fulbright Scholarship, where she was captivated by the depth of color and freedom from conventional rules in rya rugs and Finnish design in general. It spoke to her natural tendencies.


Palette Evolution

At the time, chemical companies were clamoring for color consultants. Nell went to work for Monsanto, where she developed palettes for synthetic carpet yarn. Her project included producing shows of one-of-a-kind rugs, with license to create contemporary, eye-catching, vibrant works of art that showcased the spectacular yarn colors. The shows traveled to several major cities, spreading her joyous approach to color.

Nell continued to broaden her color sensibilities with foreign travel. She spent extended periods in Greece, where she developed the first color line for then Greece-based Tahki Yarns (now Tahki-Stacy Charles Inc). In this role, her knowledge bridged the worlds of color and handweaving, which was just beginning to reemerge as a popular craft.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Nell found that her students were willing to embrace a no-holds-barred approach to color in their work. In the era of Woodstock, eclectic hippie wardrobes, and exotic travel, there were no boundaries.

Nell’s mantra as a teacher and an artist has always been to sample, experiment, and play. This meant pushing her students to create endless color wraps; it meant setting up sample warps and then pulling threads out of them, replacing them with other threads—just to see what would happen. For Nell, sampling was the joy of weaving. Making an actual project—yardage, scarf, or whatever—was a byproduct. “I always thought that there were machines that could do that part,” she says with a twinkle. “Magic happens in the sampling.”

Making Color Work

For someone with such a joyful, unfettered approach to color, Nell does have some guiding principles. Combining yarns that are “tone perfect”—that is, very close in value—results in a richer effect than using just a single color. Using analagous colors (those close together on the color wheel) can result in deeply rich, harmonious effects. Adding an accent yarn that is complementary in hue but similar in value can create surprise and excitement. Look at just a few of the yarn-wrapping exercises that we snatched from the hundreds in her stash and you will see her color sense at play.

Also important to Nell’s work is the changing nature of color. As Josef Albers taught, the color of a yarn on the cone is not the same as the yarn as a single strand, or in the company of other yarns, or in different environments, or up close, or from a distance. When evaluating the colors in a sampler, Nell cuts a mask through which to view the individual blocks of color so they will not be influenced by the colors next to them. “The biggest mistake is to be too timid, to not be willing to experiment and play,” she says.

Rich, Complex, and Colorful

Color consulting for Harrisville Designs in the 1980s drew from all parts of Nell’s experience. Not only was she to design a full palette (that is, several shades of blue, of green, of violet, of neutrals, and so forth), but each yarn was composed of several hues of fiber spun together. Some were very subtle, while some had a more obviously heathered look. A hallmark of the palette was how well many of the colors worked together because they shared subtle color elements.

Asked what is her favorite color, Nell’s surprising response is gray—a flat gray, nice and rich, medium to dark. But of course it has to be a good complex gray, not a simple plain one. Of course, there’s purple, and there’s red—she surrounds herself with those—and the perfect greens to set off those reds, and some gold—pinks and oranges, too—you need those. It’s really a silly question, when you think about it, for a woman whose whole life has been about color.