What is ultra-portable textile color measurement?

By Ken Butts



Ultra-portable devices can be important tools for textile color measurement. Small, inexpensive, and relatively accurate, these instruments meet specific industry challenges. I recently discussed ultra-portables in a presentation to the AATCC Coloration Challenges symposium. Here are some key points from that event.


Objective color evaluation matters


For 40 years, businesses have understood that objective instrumental color evaluation improves efficiency in the overall color development process. In production, objective color evaluation ensures accountability at a reasonable cost, helps identify problem materials or colors quickly, and helps transition companies from visual sample evaluation to precision color management.


Accurate textile color measurement also helps designers to be more efficient. They don’t have to develop new colors where standards already exist, don’t have to buy as many samples to compare colors, and can efficiently match components such as thread and zippers.


Why ultra-portable?


It’s a challenge to blend objective color selection methods with selection based on personal aesthetic and inspiration. Yet color measurement that’s available at the point of color selection can support both the goals of the business and the designer’s creativity.


Spectrophotometers, the instruments often used to control color quality of fabric in production, are highly complex and not truly portable. Even if it’s not as accurate as a spectrophotometer, a low-cost instrument equipped with mobile apps and small enough to carry in a pocket or purse may be ideal in certain circumstances.


For example, with an ultra-portable device a designer could easily measure colors at a fashion show or in a competitor’s store — and then determine whether the color is in their own library or available from a color standards provider.


Optical design of ultra-portable devices


A number of ultra-portable instruments have been released in the last couple of years, sometimes branded with the logo of the companies that adopt them. While designs vary, most devices include:


  • LED illumination
  • A method of filtering and consolidating light
  • A sensor


Here’s a typical design.



Similar to colorimeters, these devices produce color responses for a specific light source that can then be used to calculate results such as CIE L*a*b* values.


Features and performance


Color look-up is currently the primary application for ultra-portable color measuring devices. Essentially:


  • User makes a measurement
  • System returns one or more matching colors from one or more databases
  • Result are displayed on the device, a mobile app, or both


In addition to displaying color matches, the mobile app may allow the user to build palettes and share information with others.


The prices and capabilities of ultra-portable devices vary considerably. Most manufacturers publish technical data for their devices, indicating dimensions, weight, and colorimetric performance, as well as usability features such as Bluetooth enablement, standalone mode, and the availability of mobile applications. The ability of an instrument to measure and find a known color standard from its stored sample library is a key measure of performance, with the best performing instruments – including the Datacolor ColorReaderPRO – able to find the correct sample 94% of the time.


Other use cases


In addition to providing quick and easy color matching for designers, ultra-portable devices offer benefits for others in the industry.


  • Trim and accessory manufacturers can take advantage of more efficient color search for customers
  • Color standard providers can use branded mobile apps and devices as sales and marketing tools
  • Future developments might make ultra-portables useful for performing basic textile color quality control functions, cataloguing warehouse inventory, and other tasks


If you’d like to discuss ultra-portable instruments in greater depth, please contact me directly or subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates.


Ken Butts Global Key Account Team Manager, has an extensive background in textiles with over 30 years supporting the trade. Ken leads the worldwide specifiers team – a unit designed to work closely with brands, retailers, customers, and prospects to understand and overcome the inherent challenges of the textile industry.