Choosing fabrics for quilts can be a fun process, but so many times quilters are frustrated by this experience. Looking around at all the fabulous fabric in a quilt shop can be a daunting challenge. It becomes even more daunting when the shop organizes fabrics by color instead of collection. How do you find just the right red? or Blue? Certain prints catch the eye, but do they go together with anything else? Will these look good in a quilt? Maybe you need a particular color, but when you get it home it just doesn't look right, and you don't know why. So today, let's talk about how to choose colors and fabrics so you are confident your quilts will turn out the way you want.
You do need to know just a bit of color theory. You probably already know that red, blue and yellow are primary colors because they can be combined to make the other colors. Red and blue give you purple, as blue and yellow make green. Colors forming an equilateral triangle on the color wheel like red, yellow and blue are called triadic, and will go together well. Purple, orange and green are also triadic. Choosing complementary colors which are opposite each other on the wheel, like magenta and lime, will usually go together. Analogous colors are next to each other within a base color like yellow-green, yellow and yellow-orange. These are nice in a single color focus quilt, or a two tone with scrappy bits of analogous color with a background white or black. The pure colors are called hues. The intensity of color is called saturation. Warm colors are on the red-yellow side, while cool colors tend to the blue side.
A few more definitions will help understand the difference within a color range. A tone is a color hue that appears to have grey added to it to mute the color. A tint is a pastel color, one that appears to have white added to it. It is great to understand the concepts, but you may feel it doesn't help much in the fabric store. Why is that? Because there is more to color than just color.
In order to match colors and fabrics well, you need to be able to see the colors within a color, or be able to see its true hue. For example, have you ever tried to match a purple in the store? Hold it up against one fabric and it looks reddish, take it to another fabric and it looks more blue. Often a color will change based on what color it is next to. So let's look at some examples, beginning with this pretty floral print with an Asian feel. The large flower is a blue-purple hue. However, when a reddish purple is put next to it, the flower looks a bit more red. You can tell though, this purple just doesn't look right.
Can you see that the purple print has too much red for the Asian print? It is also a saturated color while the print is more of a tint, or pastel. Although it pulls out a bit of a reddish purple in the large flower, they just do not match. Can you see the bluish hue in the purple flower in the left print? This is what I mean when I say to look for the colors within a color. This one below is a better match, more harmonious with the print in tone and hue. I did not change the color or manipulate the image in any way. The difference is purely from the colors placed next to the print.
Now, lets add a few more fabrics, pulling out colors from the first print. This is a great way to match colors in the store. Simply choose a print you love and pull your other fabric colors from that print. In this example, the values of lights and darks are also already chosen, just match a pretty green to the medium green and a dark navy to that color. Note also that there is a large print, a small print, a tone on tone blender, and a linear design on the navy. This variety in scale is another way to make sure your fabrics work together well.
Most of the fabric manufacturers will have entire lines of fabrics that go together well, with colors that match across prints. Consider this line with red, purple, gold and off-white. There are different values in the colors, but the purples and reds all match in hue. Value is the quality of light or dark, and here some are lighter and some are darker. In the picture below, how many fabrics would you say are light, how many are medium and how many are dark?
Most quilts look best with a variety of values, so how can you tell if a fabric reads light, medium or dark? The best way is to take a picture of the fabrics, and then turn the color down to make the picture black and white. You'll see immediately that there are only two (maybe three) real darks in the line, four lights, and the rest of these fabrics are a medium value.
Some colors when put together will give a certain feel, such as seasonal colors. Now, consider this group, do you think they work well together?
Sure they do, they are an autumn palette all from the same line so the colors are an exact match. Plus there is a variety of scale of prints, both large and small. Can you tell if they will do well in a quilt for value? Once again, turn the color down and look at them in black and white.
There is a range of light to dark values and a range of colors, so these will do well together in a quilt. What if you like these colors but you want a color palette for everyday and not a season? Simply add some blue, as it will take the colors to more of a scrappy feel. To go even more scrappy and less autumn, replace the rust color background fabric with a gold, pulled from the blue or red background print.
Using the color wheel is a good way to find a fabric that will have that 'pop' of color to brighten up otherwise neutral fabrics such as these below. The soft aqua goes well with the navy and ecru, but a quilt with just these four fabrics will be a bit boring.
Adding a bit of punch will elevate the quilt design and add movement as the eye is drawn to the accent. Just look what happens when we add a bit of red. The red is triadic from the blue on the color wheel, so it is a good choice for contrast. The red color pops and makes the whole collection more interesting.
Looking at the values for this group, there are two lights, two mediums and a dark, a nice variety of values. So, you can feel confident that these will work together well. Adding a bit of yellow might be a nice pop of color too, as it is also triadic from the blue.
Consider these two prints, both autumn in feel with leaf prints, but they don't go together. The print on the left is muted and doesn't have any orange color, while the orange on the right is clear and bright in hue. The left side print also tends to the cool side of the color wheel, while the orange has a definite warm feel.
It would be better to match the orange with a print that is closer to it in hue and temperature, meaning clear color with a similar saturation and a warmer undertone like this one below.
So what would go well with the first print? Since we know that the print is muted in tone, look for muted colors to put with it. Placing a few muted reds around the focus print, which do you like? Can you say why you like or don't like them?
In the photo above, the ones on the left and upper right go really well. The red and green colors are a match in hue and intensity, the value is good, and the prints are a different scale. The one in the lower right has a blue flower that really jumps out, or shouts 'look at me' too much. The eye goes right to that, and diminishes the focus print.
When selecting fabrics from a single manufacturer's line, look for a variety in print scale and value for the best movement within your design. In the line shown below, there are a number of yellow prints, lighter blues and a green that will all be a medium value. Using the larger print with the dark blue background (fourth from the left) as the focus print, which prints from this line would you choose to go with it?
There is more than one answer here, and it is your choices that make the quilt your own. For that dark background print, I would choose the blue/white in the middle, the light green, one of the yellow prints, and one of the dark navy blues for balance.
Now look at this line of orange and green fabrics. What can you tell about them from what you have learned so far?
Orange and green are triadic colors, so these fabrics work together. The scales of the prints have some variety. They are all clear hues, and saturated colors. The one dark color showing on the lower right would be a good choice for a dark. They are likely all mediums in value, and finding a light may be a challenge. A bright white will probably work well, but audition it in the store if you can. If you don't have the ability to take a picture in the quilt shop and turn down the color, consider using a fabric value viewer. These are sheets of translucent red plastic that will show value by neutralizing the color.
One more note about color, manufacturers tend to change their palettes every year. Lines with a large number of fabrics in multiple colors and prints are great to get a variety for a single project. But, the lovely muted fern green in this year's prints will be gone when the bolt is sold. Next year you might see a clear grass green, then the year after more of a pastel sage green.
Bottom line, when you see a print you love, get some additional prints to go with it right then. Even if the additional fabrics come from different manufacturer lines, the colors tend to be close within the same time period. Also, get a yard of background every time you buy fabrics, as colors of white tend to change too. Some years the whites will have a warm yellow cast, other times you'll see more cool bluish tones. A clear bright white may not look good with a muted print that needs a warmer soft cream, and once again it is easier to match when purchased together.
In summary, keep the main points on color in mind as you shop. Choose a focus print to pull colors from, and match the hue and tone of your focus fabric. Create contrast with a variety of values and print size. Buy some background white or ecru to complement the prints at the same time.
I hope you feel more confident in choosing colors and prints. Happy Quilting!
I’d love to invite you to visit my blog, From My Carolina Home, for more fun projects, quilt alongs and mystery quilts! My blog is a variety of subjects, quilting and sewing, tablescapes and recipes, book reviews and hand stitching, crafting and mountain living.