For over 13 years I was the owner of a quilt shop near London called Green Mountain Quilts. A lot of my days in the shop were spent helping people to select the fabrics to make their quilts. While looking at the fabric selections I would often urge them to consider the relative values, light to dark, of the fabrics in relation to each other.

So why is this important? Let me show you a small table runner I made to illustrate this point. There are three Swamp Patch blocks in the runner, each made from the same 5 fabrics used in different places within the blocks:

I’ve pinned swatches of the fabrics used graded from light to dark values next to the table runner. The darkest of the fabrics is the dark green swatch at the top of the row, and this fabric has been placed in a different position within each block. The bottom block looks a bit  like a Shoofly block. The central block looks fairly dark and rich, and the top block looks a lot like an Ohio Star. The reason the blocks look so different from each other is because as humans we are programmed from prehistoric times to notice the darker colours and patterns before we notice the other lighter and medium colours appearing next to them. Darker objects are the ones closest to us, while other colours which are lighter appear further away. Here is a photo my brother Matt took at Big Bend National Park which illustrates this point:

Note that the plants in the foreground of the photo (therefore closest to us) are darkest in value, while the rest of the mountains in the background fade away the closer they get to the horizon. As cavemen and women we would have noticed darker objects first because they were the closest to us, and therefore represented a potential danger. We are still programmed that way today. So as a quilter, if you want to emphasize a certain area of your work ,like the points in the Ohio Star block, that it where you should use your darkest fabric, because it will be noticed and will define the pattern.

One easy way to tell the relative value of a fabric is to take photos of it with other fabrics you are considering using on your phone or Ipad. Here is a photo to some of the Nosegay baby quilt I recently made and the fabrics I auditioned for it:

I wanted the white floral and yellows as my light value fabrics, the dark green as the dark value fabric, and the other fabrics as medium value fabrics which contrasted with all to make the flowers. In the first selection notice that I initially auditioned a darker purple fabric which would have overpowered the pattern. In the second selection I’ve substituted a lighter choice, which I ultimately used in the quilt. If I had used the darker purple the flowers would look more cross like.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Deidre Amsden, the author of Colourwash Quilts, who uses value in fabrics to make her quilts sing. She uses no solid fabrics, preferring prints that contain at least three colours, separating them into light, medium, and dark values, and using those values to create the patterns in her amazing quilts. Here is a picture of a Split Nine Patch block I made using those same value decisions, and the quilt I made with those blocks:

You can see from the block that the dark values of the floral fabrics used have been placed in the centre of the block and the dark side of the half-square triangles, the medium values in the three squares on the dark side of the block, and the light values in the three squares and making up the light side in those two dark/light half-square triangles.

Think value, and make gorgeous quilts, I say! You can even get more sneaky using value if you wish. Here is a quilt I call Playing with Triangles, where I have used two toned half-square triangles, with the pattern defined by the subtle contrast of values of the two halves of the block:

So what do you think? Ready to start playing yet?



  1. Eve Nicholls

    Lovely ways of illustrating the points. I hear from quilt shop workers that quilters tend to make a beeline for the medium value fabrics, and not use enough of the darks and lights, or the neutrals, so it’s good to be aware of that tendency.

    Tips I’ve heard include taking a photo of the fabrics and changing it to greyscale in an image editor, so that you can see the values better. I’ve never actually got around to that, but I find that taking a photo helps a lot on its own. You get a different perspective, and it frames it. Plus you can share it online and ask people’s opinions, of course. If you have a design wall, pinning the fabrics up (they tend to need a pin when you’re putting up a larger amount, especially if you’ve had to fold it up smaller) really helps. So much of this is about learning to look at it differently.

  2. Maggie Attfield

    This article explains clearly, briefly, and with visual examples exactly what quilters strive to achieve. So often I hear people say, “ I don’t like that fabric”, but this shows that every fabric has a place: the skill is finding it. Thank you-I found it very helpful indeed.