Choosing fabrics for a quilt is something that many people would like to do, but lack confidence for. They are not sure why the colours that looked good in the shop don’t seem to give the result they hoped for.

Personal taste

I would encourage you to make your own choices, and not just to do the same as someone else. Colour is very individual; the same design done in alternative colour schemes can look very different, and express our personality.

Solitaire block in modern colourway
Solitaire block in traditional colourway

Which of these do you prefer?

Don’t worry if you like both (or even neither!) – a combination that one person loves may not be to the taste of another. I hope that you can recognise that a colour choice works, even if it’s not what you would want in your own home.

Value

High contrast shows up the Magic Cross very clearly

So, where do you start choosing fabrics? In this blog, I am going to concentrate on identifying the value of a fabric (how dark or light it is). This is actually far more important than the colour, and is the key to effective fabric choices for traditional style patchwork. All of this guidance is available as a free download as either a full version or a summary version; the link will also be at the end.

For me, successful quilts are those which show the design clearly. If it’s supposed to be a star, I want to see the star! So, there needs to be enough contrast between the star fabric and the background as shown on this Magic Star block.

So, for a two colour design, you could choose any of these combinations:

  • Dark/Light
  • Dark/Medium
  • Medium/Light

Remember that this could be a dark design against a light background, or a light feature on a darker background as I have here.

As long as there is sufficient contrast between the fabrics used in the different parts of the design, then it will work – no matter what the colours! For example, both of these little blocks just use red patterned fabrics – but there is enough contrast:

Fabrics that are too similar in value will not show the design clearly enough:

Compare these to the samples above.

The stronger colour contrast works better.

So, when you look at a possible selection of fabrics, try to decide whether each is Light, Medium or Dark. If this is easy, split the categories down a bit further, and include Very Dark, Medium Dark etc. If you struggle with this, try using a “ruby beholder” – a piece of red glass or plastic to look through.

 Photocopying the fabric, or converting a coloured photo to grayscale on the computer using photo-editing software can help too.

By removing the impact of the colour, this allows you to concentrate simply on the value.

In more complex designs, you will need more than two fabrics – and wherever they meet, they need to contrast enough to show up:

One of the blocks from Provencal Sampler

For a three colour design, you could choose any combinations of value: e.g.

  • Dark/Medium/Light
  • Dark/Medium Dark/Light
  • Medium/Medium Light/Light

The three fabrics in this Yankee Puzzle block all contrast against each other. It is from my Provencal Sampler pattern, which has fifteen blocks of increasing difficulty. All use just three fabrics, so this would be a good project to practice on. The download pattern, which has 21 pages of detailed instructions, is available in the Shop.

A block which uses four fabric values is the Friendship Star shown later – I have a skill builder pattern for a quillow in this design which might be of interest to you too.

Lay possible fabrics next to each other

So, how do you check whether fabrics will work together, once you have identified the value of each (remember, that’s the degree of darkness or lightness)?

Lay the proposed fabrics against one another. Step back, and screw your eyes up a little (or take your usual glasses off!).

Can you clearly see the difference between them? If so, then go ahead and use them!

If not, then read ahead to find how to avoid disappointment.

Pitfalls

Be aware that the fabrics that are instantly most attractive in the shops are often those which have a definite pattern in several colours, and are neither particularly dark nor particularly light. This is so that they look good on their own.

 

Will these similar fabrics work together?

Don’t make the mistake of just choosing these Medium, busy fabrics though – several of this type of fabric together just makes an confusing mess, and doesn’t show up your patchwork design clearly.

For example, I had these four fabrics all in gentle tones of soft green-blue.

I used them to make a Friendship Star block.

Do you think it works?

The result is very bland, and the carefully pieced star hardly shows up at all!

You need to include other fabrics which are darker and/or lighter as well, to show up against your Medium fabric.

Look at these other three Friendship Star blocks – can you see how one of the fabrics from the original selection has now been combined with others which provide a better contrast?

This one is my favourite – it uses classic fabrics to give a cool, calm and sophisticated result.

The second is more modern and vibrant.

Its a bit busy for me, but some of you will prefer it.

Both of these colourways have a big difference between the darkest and lightest fabrics to give a strong impact.

Do you prefer a lighter look overall?

This can be achieved with fabric choices which still have enough difference between Light & Dark, but where the value contrast is less extreme.

This third Friendship Star is light and fresh, but even the flowery fabric in the corners still shows clearly against the very pale mint green, as does the feature star.

Try to develop an observant eye when looking at fabric, making a note of the style and value that you are looking for, as this will stop you wasting money when shopping! Personally, I hardly ever buy pre-packaged ranges such as Fat Quarter bundles or charm packs, as they usually contain too many Medium values, and don’t include the sort of contrasting fabrics that I want.

I have found a selection of blue/green fabrics from my stash to show you what I mean – if you have a collection of fabrics, why not pick a colour that you have a lot of, and pull out all of those fabrics to try this out for yourself? By the way. this is a great way to spend an hour at your local quilt group, if you ask everyone to bring the same coloured fabric to compare.

Selection of fabrics all in the blue-green colour range

You may discover that you have hardly any fabrics in your stash that are very dark or very light, as they look rather boring in the shop by themselves. How many of the fabrics in my stash would you have walked straight past?

Very light fabrics are easily overlooked

Try to get into the habit of buying much darker and much lighter fabrics as well as the attractive Medium values – they may not look as exciting on the bolt, but will show up your feature fabric to better advantage.

However, your local quilt shop may not have many of these on their shelves! They only stock what people usually buy, so ask them to widen their range if you don’t see what you want. Don’t forget the neutrals either – beige, cream, grey, taupe. These have recently been popularised by “Modern” quilters, as alternative backgrounds to white.

Practice describing colours according to several headings – can you find fabrics in my pictures which fit with the following descriptions?

Colour

Don’t limit yourself to blue/green. What sort of blue/green?

  • Sea green, powder blue, bottle green, navy blue, turquoise, aqua, eau de nil, petrol blue, peacock, grey-green, sky blue?

How would you describe the design style of these fabrics?

Design

  • Stripe, check, floral, geometric, flowing, angular, pictorial

Scale

  • Large print, small print, plain, mushy blend

Internal contrast

  • Tone-on-tone, busy, multi-coloured

Mood

  • Bright, loud, muted, pastel, clear, muddy, soft, sombre, rich, faded

Value

  • Dark, medium, light, pale

Try laying out your fabrics sorted from the lightest through to the darkest. It can be quite revealing – particularly for those highly patterned fabrics!

Selecting fabrics

For a particular patchwork block, work out how many different values are needed for your chosen design, and then select fabrics to fit these values.

Lay them against each other to try them out.

Then try others. Keep trying until you find the ones that work best – a good quilt shop should allow you the time to experiment and think before you buy, even if it does mean twenty bolts of fabric spread out across their table………

Remember that a fabric that behaves as a Dark in one colour scheme could be a Light in another against much darker fabric.

Darting Blue Birds – in alternate blocks the values are reversed

Or, you can reverse the colour scheme given on a pattern, so that the Light becomes Dark and vice versa. This “counterchange” design uses both the ideas.

The key is contrast. Different value is the most important thing, but complementary colours of similar value will also show up against each other, and a plain fabric is a good choice to show up against a busy pattern.

All the downloadable patterns for sale in my section of the Shop have the fabric requirements listed in terms of value (e.g. Very Dark, medium Dark, Medium Light & Light), rather than colour. This enables you to select fabrics to your own taste that will produce a unique and successful result.

Scrap Quilts

The greatest need for an awareness of value and contrast is in scrap quilts. Here, instead of just one fabric having a certain value, several, or many different fabrics are selected which have the same value.

This is a scrappy windmill quilt that I made using a variety of stripy fabrics – all of which were chosen to show up against the dark green background fabric. Most are Light values, with some bright Mediums as well.

Stripy Windmills

So, for a two-value design, instead of just one Dark and one Light fabric (as on the Mosaic block shown on the left), you need many different Dark and many different Light fabrics – as in the same design on the right.

The right hand block  shows value choice right at the limits of successful value – it is just possible to distinguish the star design, but only just.

This is where you need to avoid Medium value fabrics – the design won’t show up well enough.

You need to sort out your fabrics, and collect together those which are sufficiently similar in value to “do the same job”. For example, these are all “not-too-busy, Medium fabrics”.

 Then collect together a pile of fabrics which “do a different job”, such as these “Light, calm fabrics” below. I could combine both of these sets of fabrics into a “two value” scrap quilt  – although I think I would need to take out the fabric at the right-hand end below, and possibly the one second in from the left, as the value is too similar to the darker fabrics above. Look at both pictures together – can you see a clear difference?

The classic design which uses a selection of scraps of fabric is Log Cabin. I have placed all the blocks the same way round on my Christmas Card Hanger, but there are many different quilt designs that can be achieved by arranging the blocks in different ways – all of which depend on the difference between the dark and light sides of each block.

Christmas Card Hanger

The fabric in each block is slightly different, but the overall effect is consistent because dark fabrics are always used on two sides, and Light fabrics on the other two sides.

Another scrap classic is Dresden Plate.

To the left is a sample that I made a few years ago – but I can see now that one or two of the “petal” fabrics I chose are really too light. They don’t show up well enough against the background.

When I decided to make this Celebration Card Hanger for my parent’s Golden Wedding Anniversary, I chose the selection of yellow and gold fabrics very carefully – they all had to be dark enough to show up against the cream background; not an easy task with a fundamentally pale colour like yellow!

On the other side, I wanted to use a selection of white, cream and pale gold fabrics in a reverse colourway, and searched hard for a deep old gold fabric for the background, so that it would have sufficient contrast in value against the partial Dresden Plate “butterflies”.

It took months to collect enough suitable fabrics!

“Butterfly” side of Celebration card Hanger
Thunderstorm measures 2m high, making a dramatic impact

When it was complete, of course I had a large selection of yellow, cream and white scraps of fabric left over.

These came in when I was asked to create a quilt for the “In the Spotlight” competition in 2007 at the Festival of Quilts, representing Region 14 of the Quilters’ Guild.

The theme was “August”, and after a lot of head scratching, I decided to make “Thunderstorm”

My design required carefully placing the fabrics by value:

  • going from deep yellow through to white up the zig-zag,
  • going from deep yellow to white going down the fragmented patterns at the edges.

To achieve such careful grading of colours required laying it all out on a sheet on the living room floor, and swapping round the many different small units that I had made until it looked right.

My family got very fed up of walking round it…………..

The close-up below shows many of the sixty or so different fabrics which went into this project:

Of course, many scrap quilts don’t use such carefully planned colour placement.

This cheerful scrap quilt was made by Harriet Yeatman in the late nineteenth century

Even this apparently random selection does not include every possible colour. When you make scrap quilts, rather than a complete mixture, I would suggest that you too try to decide on a family of colours and a common mood – this will give a more coherent feel to the design.

I would love to see some of your successful colour choices – why not post some pictures on the UKQU Facebook Group?

A free download of the key points of this blog can be found in the Shop; there is either a full version or a shorter summary version which would be cheaper to print. And, if you are finding my style interesting, you could “follow me” to make sure that you don’t miss the next one – to do this, click on the little red person sign to the right of my name underneath this blog.

Responses

  1. Heather Stern

    I have only just seen this blog Carolyn, it’s a really helpful guide. I enjoy the challenge of finding the right fabric mix and your detailed explanation has enlightened me as to why some of my experiments don’t work! Thank you for an excelllent read.

  2. Alison Ball

    This is so helpful Carolyn, it’s something I struggle with sometimes, especially when buying fabric. I end up with lots of beatiful unusual prints in gorgeous bright colours, then when I sit down to make something I find I have to get online and buy some plains. Thanks for writing such a comprehensive blog post on the topic .

      1. Carolyn Gibbs Post author

        Hope it proves a useful reference for you. Why not post the results of your next test fabric shop on the Facebook group so we can all see the “colour and contrast?