I love color! Color plays a huge role in my work life, because I’m a graphic designer, and my home life, because I’m a quilter. It goes without saying that selecting quilting fabric is amongst my favorite parts of the quilting process. Part of the reason is because color is such a huge part of the process.
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, selecting fabric intimidated me. Like all quilters, I started with precut quilting fabrics. These are a great way to start: they provide contrast, but look good together.
I ran into trouble when I started fabrics myself. My quilts just didn’t turn out how I imagined they would. Eventually, I had to learn what to look for when picking out fabric for a project.
So, to save you both time and money. Here's a few of the things I learned about selecting fabrics during my quilting journey.
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. The most important for our purposes today, though, are contrast, cohesion and consistency.
Quilts rely on the contrast between elements to define the pattern. Much of the time, we do this by using different colors. Contrast, however, can be established any number of ways, though. For example, two fabrics that share a color can contrast when their patterns differ. To a lesser degree, texture can also provide contrast.
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 blocks are closer to a log cabin. Because the rest of the blocks are tinted in lighter shades, the star becomes more prominent.
Aside from a few modern quilts—mostly freehand ones—quilts need to be a cohesive whole. Most of the time, the blocks and overall pattern do the heavy lifting here. Color can also provide a lot of cohesion, though, if you select the correct fabrics.
Tula Pink’s Homemade Scrap Crazy quilt is a great example of a quilt whose colors 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.
Consistency is the final element you should consider when selecting fabric. Quilts need some consistency to look “right.” Patterns, again, do this but your fabric selection can have a huge effect on the final product. Consistency can also help you develop cohesion.
Floral Menagerie is a really good example of consistency. Every block in the quilt is different: different sizes, different colors, different patterns. The fabric selection does a lot of the heavy lifting: because the fabric (and the color) is consistent across the quilt, the design works. The contrast between the white background and colorful blocks also helps.
Selecting Your Fabric
Now that we have some of the underlying concepts down, let’s get onto probably the best part of being a quilter: fabric!
We have a whole blog post on color theory that details the relationship between colors. The key to selecting fabric for your quilt is to understand how those relationships work. For example, if you need your fabric to contrast, then selecting two complimentary colors will do so--and they’ll still have a relationship and look good together.
Selecting all warm colors, even if they are different, will also provide the same consistency. Monochromatic fabric selections are great for emphasizing and deemphasizing aspects of your quilt while maintaining cohesion and consistency.
When I was a beginning quilter, I decided that the best way to create a beautiful quilt was to match my colors exactly between my fabric. 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 are far, far more interesting and come together beautifully.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from a quilting instructor is to focus on coordinating your colors rather than matching them. Use different shades of complimentary or tertiary colors.
And here’s a secret: there are amazing online tools that can help you pick out colors. My favorite is Coolor’s if I’m trying to devise a color scheme by myself. Adobe Color is great, also, because it has a feature that will allow you to draw the colors from a digital picture, which can draw out the different colors of a pattern.
In addition to color, a fabric’s pattern can affect how the fabric fits into a quilt. For instance, a different colorway of a fabric can provide contrast, cohesion and consistency if applied correctly. Mixing basic colors and patterns is a tried and true method for keeping your quilt interesting.
What’s more important to understand is fabric scale. Basically, fabric scale refers to the subjective “size” of the pattern. For instance, this fabric has a large scale. While this fabric has a much smaller scale. If your quilt pattern uses a lot of small pieces, a large scale pattern won’t work at all, since you won’t be able to see it no matter how much fussy cutting you do.
Of course, there’s also solid colors to consider as well. There’s also what I call near-basics, like Moda Fabric’s Grunge line, which has a very subtle pattern up close but looks like a solid color from a distance.
A good mix of patterns and pattern scales is important to get your quilt looking great!
The majority of quilts use cotton quilting fabric for a reason: it’s sturdy, comfortable and reasonably inexpensive. That doesn’t mean that texture can’t also be a factor when selecting your fabric. Fabrics that have different textures, like t-shirts for example, also look different.
One of the quilts I remember from my childhood the best was a throw quilt which had 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.
Some Batiks with small pattern scale and monochromatic colors tend to present and differently textured fabric, so they’re a great middle ground to experiment with using texture while ensuring that the fabric is comfortable and strong.
There are some color combinations that 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. However, when you use them together you’ll create a patriotic quilt without even meaning to.
So, it pays to consider any cultural, historical or other thematic relationships colors may have. Many times, these color combinations will share a relationship. Most university colors are complimentary or tertiary, for instance.
If you’re a beginner, I definitely recommend sticking to precut fabric. Fat quarter bundles, jelly rolls and charm packs are always designed to work well together. Spend some time figuring out how the pattern of the quilt works with the different fabric. When you have some experience under your belt, you’ll be ready to select your own fabric.
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.
A screen’s color mode can tint or change the colors you see in a fabric. This is especially true on cheaper monitors. A high-resolution cell phone screen will be a lot more accurate here.
Another option is to use Adobe Color to pull the colors from fabric. Since the problem is with your screen and not an image, if you print out your color swatches you should get a much better idea what the color looks like (and you can use it to buy more fabric!)