I love color! Because I'm a graphic designer and quilter, color plays a huge role in both my work and home lives, so it goes without saying that one of my favorite parts of the quilting process is choosing fabric for a quilt. I know I’m not alone — every quilter I know can't resist a trip to the fabric store to get a yard of this or that. It's part of the hobby, frankly. As I’ve become a more experienced quilter, I’ve come to enjoy this process more and more.
But it wasn’t always that way. When I was a quilting newbie, choosing fabrics intimidated me, so like most quilters, I started with precut quilting fabrics. Premade quilt squares and fat quarter bundles from the same fabric collection proved a great way to start, though, because they provide contrast yet look good together. But I had problems when I started making fabric choices myself.
So why did I run into trouble when choosing fabrics myself from my local quilt shop? My quilts just didn’t turn out how I imagined they would. The fabric choices I made looked good in theory, even on the color wheel, but they didn't do so well in practice. Eventually, I had to learn what to look for when picking quilt fabric for a project.
Fortunately, these quilt design mistakes I made can help you avoid similar issues when working on your own fabric selections. Here are a few of the things I learned during my quilting journey to help you save time and money when you're wondering how to choose fabric for a quilt.
Things to Look for in Quilting Fabrics
Coming to quilting from graphic design was a big help (and sometimes a great hindrance) to my progress as a quilter. Surprisingly enough, the two share quite a few principles and require a keen eye to understand how diverse quilting elements may or may not work together within quilt patterns. The most important shared principles for our purposes today, though, are contrast, cohesion, and consistency.
Quilts rely on the contrast between elements to define the quilt pattern. Much of the time, using different colors gets the job done. You can, however, establish visual contrast in any number of ways. For example, two fabrics that share a color can contrast when their patterns differ, and to a lesser degree, fabric texture can also provide contrast.
Using a color wheel to choose quilting fabrics with contrast helps immensely. For example, green and red, blue and orange, and yellow and violet sit opposite each other on the color wheel yet pair together wonderfully thanks to high-contrast hues that don't clash. Other combinations with attractive contrast include yellow-green and red-violet, blue-green and red-orange, and yellow-orange and blue-violet.
An easy way to achieve maximum contrast with color, is as simple as black and white. Black fabrics contrast with virtually any light hue and add drama to your quilt design, while white fabrics perform the same services for darker and vibrant shades. Pairing black and white together also works well, creating a quilt that meshes well with most decor while offering bold contrast.
The contrast between the two shades emphasizes this quilt pattern.
Texas on a String is one of my favorite examples of a quilt that uses contrasting colors. The vibrant colors here create an eight-pointed star, even though the quilt blocks are closer to a log cabin. Because the rest of the quilt blocks have tinting in lighter shades, though, the star becomes more prominent.
Aside from a few modern quilts — mostly freehand ones — quilts need to look like a cohesive whole. Most of the time, the quilt blocks and overall quilt pattern do the heavy lifting here, but those elements require more careful consideration when you're creating themed pieces. Color also aids cohesion — both in standard and themed quilt designs — if you select balanced hues and the right fabrics.
A color wheel can also help with cohesion by helping you select lighter and darker shade variations that complement your core color palette. For example, cool blue hues such as azure, cerulean, and aquamarine all exist within the same color family, but each one features just enough variation to beautify projects while keeping them cohesive.
Cohesion also matters if you plan on making a themed design. For example, if you're making a nautical-themed quilt, you need to understand which colors complement a sea-and-shore quilt design, such as light brown or gray shades that bring to mind driftwood or cool blue and green hues that mimic the look of the ocean. Also, quilt blocks with sailboats and lighthouses give these themes cohesion, as do stitched seashells and fish on a beachy beige backdrop.
Tula Pink’s Homemade Scrap Crazy quilt is a great example of a quilt with colors that provide cohesion. Even though it’s a crazy quilt and no block appears the same, the light pastel colors unify the work. The vibrant violet border also does some heavy lifting here, contrasting with the rest of the quilt top for an eye-catching appearance and bringing out the best in the lavender-hued quilt blocks.
Consistency is the final element you should consider when selecting quilt fabric. Quilts need some consistency for a pulled-together design. Patterns, again, do most of the work here, but your fabric selection generally has a huge effect on the final product. Consistency in this regard can also help you develop cohesion in your quilting project.
To maintain consistency, it helps to choose a focus fabric on which to match up other quilt blocks. For example, let's say you want to create a floral quilt pattern featuring several different kinds of flowers. Though each flower is a different size, you keep your quilt design consistent by using the same fabric for each flower or for the borders and binding.
Floral Menagerie is a really good example of how consistency improves your work. Every quilt block is different: different sizes, different colors , and different patterns. The fabric selection does a lot of the heavy lifting, and the design works due to the consistency of the fabric (and the color) across the quilt. The contrast between the white background and colorful quilt blocks also helps.
Choosing Fabric for Quilts
Now that we have some of the underlying concepts down, let’s get to probably the best part of being a quilter — fabric! Keep in mind that the quilt pattern you choose typically has some bearing on your fabric choices. This means you need fabric selections with similar complementary or contrasting properties to the original quilt design, though not, of course, identical. For example, if the quilt pattern has bold binding or bright edging around individual squares, you should probably mimic this in your own design.
When I was a beginning quilter, I decided the best way to create a beautiful quilt was to match my colors exactly between my fabrics. When I was finished, though, I saw my mistake — matching colors just aren’t that interesting. They’re too consistent. Different shades, tints, and tones draw the eye far better and come together beautifully.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from a quilting instructor is to focus fabrics on coordinating colors rather than matching them. Use different shades of complementary or tertiary colors when you want to craft aesthetically pleasing quilt designs.
And here’s a secret — you can access an amazing array of online tools that help you pick out colors. My favorite is Coolor’s if I’m trying to devise a color scheme by myself, but Adobe Color also works great due to a feature that allows you to take the colors from a digital picture, which can aid in drawing out the different colors of a pattern.
Additionally, we have a whole blog post on color theory that details the relationship between colors. The key to selecting quilt fabric is to understand how those relationships work. For example, if you need your fabric to contrast, then selecting two complementary colors makes the magic happen — and they typically still have a relationship and look good together.
The indigo and gold color palette in this quilt provides contrast, while the aqua highlights work to impart depth and dimension.
Selecting all warm colors, even if they're different, also delivers a similar sense of consistency. For example, fabric choices in forest green, rust, gold, and slate blue convey feelings of fall and give your quilting designs an autumnal feel.
Likewise, using monochromatic fabric selections aids in emphasizing and deemphasizing aspects of your quilt pattern while maintaining cohesion and consistency. For instance, black, white and gray bring a modern vibe to your quilt pattern and pair effortlessly with almost any color palette you wish to use.
Solid colors also come to the rescue when you're using larger prints in bolder or saturated hues. By using sashing or binding in solid colors to neutralize other elements in your quilt patterns, you improve the contrast and help wilder patterns pop by breaking them up just enough to shift focus to the overall quilt design.
In addition to color, a fabric’s pattern can affect how the fabric fits into a quilt. For instance, a different colorway of fabric can provide contrast, cohesion, and consistency if applied correctly. With that in mind, mixing basic colors and patterns proves a tried-and-true method for keeping your quilt interesting and helping you create a well-balanced design.
Also, it's important to understand the quilting fabric scale. Basically, fabric scale refers to the subjective "size" of the pattern. For instance, this fabric has large-scale prints, while this fabric has a small print scale. If your quilt pattern uses a lot of small pieces, a larger print doesn't work at all since it doesn't show up, no matter how much fussy cutting you do.
This quilt features a lot of different patterns and pattern scales. Because the quilt features so many similar colors, it's imperative the patterns have high contrast.
Fabric selections with polka dots pair well with solid colors and patterns from subdued to bold. Choosing fabrics with a combination of polka dot sizes and even colors accentuates solid-colored borders and blocking, with larger designs balancing out big chunks of color within quilt patterns and smaller options working well both in quilt blocks and border designs.
Of course, solid colors deserve some consideration of their own as well when choosing fabrics with different scales. You can also pick what I call near-basics, such as Moda Fabric’s Grunge fabric collection, which has very subtle patterns up close but look like a solid color from a distance. Remember, a good mix of patterns in different scales helps you achieve a nice balance and ensures your finished quilt looks great.
The majority of quilts use cotton quilting fabric for a reason — it’s sturdy, comfortable, and reasonably inexpensive. That doesn’t mean, however, that texture can’t be a factor when selecting fabric for your quilt. Fabrics with different textures also look different and lend a different sort of contrast to your project.
One of the quilts I remember the best from my childhood was a throw quilt featuring several blocks made of polyester from one of my dad’s suits. I wouldn’t especially recommend doing that, but it did make a difference in how the quilt looked and felt and even stuck in my memory. That's the beauty of contrasting textures — they make a big impression that lasts.
When you want to imbue textural appeal into your quilting designs, consider off-beat options. For example, old T-shirts from visits to various vacation hot spots or past-their-prime concert tees pair well with thicker fabrics when you wish to create themed quilt patterns. You can also create patchwork quilt designs by using multiple fabric types to capture a trendy farmhouse look.
Some Batiks with small pattern scale and monochromatic colors tend to present differently textured fabric. This difference makes them a great middle-ground for textural experimentation while ensuring comfortable, strong quilting fabric.
Some color combinations only share a relationship because of some historical or social context. For instance, red, white, and blue really don’t share a relationship aside from red and blue being primary colors, but when you use them together, you create a patriotic quilt without even trying.
These deeply ingrained relationships mean it pays to consider any cultural, historical or other thematic relationships colors may have. Many times, these color combinations share a relationship — for instance, most university colors are complementary or tertiary.
On the bright side, color combinations with specific meanings give you a nice place to start if that's the look you want to achieve. For instance, if you want to make a quilt for your college-aged nephew, you might make fabric choices that match his university colors.
Likewise, if you want to make something to showcase holiday hues, a quilt pattern is the perfect place to do so. For Christmas, starting with a red, green and gold color palette narrows down your fabric selection so you don't get bogged down in planning. Also, using red, white and pink fabric choices adds a loving feeling ideal for display on Valentine's Day.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Fabrics
If you’re a beginning quilter, I definitely recommend sticking to the precut fabric. Fat quarter bundles, jelly rolls, and charm packs are always designed to work well together, and there's no shame in taking advantage of that convenience when you're learning — or even when you're experienced, for that matter! Most manufacturers offer curated fabric collections that pair seamlessly together to take the hard work out of choosing fabrics for your quilting designs.
By starting with curated fabric collections, you can spend some time figuring out how quilt patterns work with the different fabrics. Then, when you have some experience under your belt, you can start selecting your own fabric. It helps to take notes as you go on color combinations you like in the fabric collections you like and even begin squirreling back designs that speak to you at the fabric store. You never know when inspiration might strike, and keeping elements on hand that spark your creativity can boost your motivation.
One more thing: While we all love visiting our local quilting shop to buy all the fabric we can possibly justify buying, online quilt shops have become more popular. If you’re buying quilting fabric online, I very much recommend you look at the pattern on different screens, if possible, because a screen’s color mode can tint or change the colors you see in fabric. This is especially true on cheaper monitors, so a high-resolution cell phone screen usually offers more color accuracy.
Another option is to use Adobe Color to pull the colors from the fabric. Since the problem is with your screen and not an image, printing out your color swatches should give you a much better idea of what the color looks like, and you can use it to buy more quilting fabric!