I choose colors based on the design of the blocks I’m making and also the quilt’s secondary design. If I choose a color in a quilt block that does not mesh well, the block or secondary design can be lost. You need the right contrast between colors to enhance a design. When I talk with quilters in class, picking out fabric tends to strike fear into some of them when starting a project. So, I am here to take away some of that fear with a few tips. First, let’s cover some basic color theory.
Color Theory – Shade, Tint and Tone
This is by no means a comprehensive lesson on color theory, just some basics. If you are interested in delving deeper into this topic, there are quite a few web sites and books that go into more detail.
Contrast is achieved by considering the value (tint or shade) of the each color you choose. Tint is when white is added to a color to make it lighter and shade is when black is added to a color to make it darker. For example,
pink is a tint of red where maroon is a shade of red.
Knowing the difference between shade, tone and tint and how that effects the contrast between your fabrics can go a long way in helping you choose fabrics.
- Shade is taking the pure color, for instance blue, and adding black to it to make it darker, for a dark blue.
- Tint is taking the pure blue and adding white to make it lighter, making a light blue.
- Tone is adding grey to a pure color to make it less intense. Most colors around us in the world are tones of pure color.
Another way contrast can be achieved is by combining “warm” and “cool” colors or have blocks that alternate between warm and cool colors throughout a quilt.
Where the 20″ line on my cutting board dissects the color wheel, is considered the dividing line between warm colors on the left and cool colors on the right. Colors close to the dividing line can be used as either.
The color wheel can also help with contrast. Notice the closer that colors are together, the less contrast. The most contrast is achieve with colors that are farther away from each other. So don’t be afraid to use a color wheel when choosing fabrics!
Choosing Fabric Color Tips
Tip#1: Decide in advance how many different colors you want to use in your quilt. This will save you time in the quilt shop. The time to decide is before you get there. When you are in the store, pull out the chosen bolts and stack them on a counter or table, view how they look together.
If you are “auditioning” already cut fabrics at home, you can do the same thing. This is how I do it:
I fan out the fabrics I plan to use together in the quilt and stand back. If a fabric jumps out at me by not coordinating… basically standing out “like a sore thumb”, I’ll remove it from the stack and place another fabric there to see if it works better. I repeat this as much as I need to until I like the combination.
Tip #2: If you are in a fabric store and have picked out one fabric you really like, here’s another way to find coordinating fabrics. Check the selvedge on the fabric!
On most fabrics, you will find a series of “dots” or other marks with the colors that were used in printing the fabric. Use these colors to find bolts of fabric that will coordinate nicely with your already chosen piece.
Tip #3: Use the “stacking up fabric” method from above to determine how your fabrics contrast. Let’s look at some examples.
If you choose colors all very close in shade or tint, there will not be much contrast:
A block made from this stack of fabric will be really pretty, but the design will be subtle because they are so close in shade. But, look what happens when I replace a few fabrics:
I replaced the dark green with a lighter green (a tint) and I replaced the dark blue with a lighter blue (also a tint). Now, the design of the block will be more noticeable.
Finally, look what happens when I substitute a few warm colors for the cool ones:
So that’s my little tutorial on color theory with some tips thrown in for good measure. Hopefully this will help you on your next fabric buying trip.
Leave me a comment below on this topic or ask any questions you may have. I will choose a person in the comments to receive a copy of the current Quiltmaker issue with my quilt on the cover! This scrap quilt is a great pattern for you to practice your color choosing skills.
The winner will be drawn on Monday, December 14th. **We have a winner! Congrats, Donna Hanneman!**
Mary Jo Ruehlow says
Thanks that was very helpful . I never thought about the colored dots on fabric!
Carrie Mayer says
Choosing fabrics is my least favorite part of the process. I need to learn to utilize your tips and my color wheel to overcome that fear 😳. Thanks for the info!
Donna Hanneman says
Thanks for the information! It reminds me to be “mindful” of what colors I choose!
This is good information. Thanks. The quilt on the cover is wonderful.
Donna Schulz says
Your tips are always so well thought our & the photos are great examples. I knew the colored dots were there but never really used them. Will try that. Thanks.
Thanks for the color theory information. Very helpful.
Thank you so much for the very helpful information. I will definitely use it.
Beverly Wood says
When auditioning fabrics do you pick your border 1st or after picking all your fabrics?
My border fabric is usually matches one of the fabrics in the quilt itself. If you want your border fabric to be the focus, then you can pick that one first and choose colors that match that for your blocks.
Carol L says
Like the idea of using the dots on the selvage. Thanks.