Picking fabrics for a new project has become one of my favorite parts of the whole quilting process, but it took me a while to get to the point where I felt confident and really enjoyed choosing fabric for a quilt. I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.
I well-remember the feeling of being petrified that I would pick colors and fabrics that would look awful together – an especially daunting thought when we all know well the effort (and expense!) that goes into a finished quilt. No one wants to feel frustrated by regrets – especially after investing so much time (and money!) into a quilt.
So I thought I’d share a few helpful tips that I have learned that have made a difference for me.
Start with a Designer Curated Fabric Collection
When you’re just getting started or still not feeling very confident, start with a pre-curated fabric collection. That’s what they’re for! Curated fabric collections from the manufacturers are a huge time saver because they contain a variety of colors and prints that are pre-coordinated with lots of built in contrast in color and scale.
Generally (but not always) you’ve got prints in different shapes (i.e. dots, stripes, florals) and scales (larger, medium, and small) and the colors are coordinated to play well together. There’s no such thing as breaking rules when using a fabric collection – they’re a great way to ensure a coordinated color palette with built-in contrast.
But if you’re ready to branch out on your own or start pulling from your stash here are some tips.
When choosing fabrics think about color and scale
First think about what can we learn from fabric collections: they contain well coordinated colors and prints in a variety of scales.
If that still feels overwhelming, a good jumping-off option is to use a single print for inspiration
Find a focus fabric and choose your color scheme based on that fabric. When making a baby quilt for my sister a few years ago, she really liked this jungle print by Alexander Henry, so we used that as the jumping off point for the rest of the fabrics. We pulled fat quarters off the shelves of a local quilt shop just based on the colors of the focus fabric. If you look at the finished quilt, notice that the colors aren’t all the exact same shade of green, brown, etc. We used different shades, but stayed with the same tone (as in olive greens, light blues, warm browns, etc). For example: even though we’re using green, it would have looked off to throw in a cool, mint green.
I try to keep my colors the same vibrancy, such as warm or cool colors. Really clear, bright hues or dusty, muted hues.
Pick different shades of the same color
Here are a couple examples from a recent patchwork quilt for my son. Look at the greens – they are all part of the same color family, but they are a variety of shades. Mostly they are a lime-y green (because that is what I had most of in my stash) but I also threw in some darker shades to make it more interesting.
Here’s a close up of the blues we used – we pulled a range from lighter turquoise-y blues to navy blues. This will give your quilt a lot more visual interest. Fabrics colors that are too matchy-matchy (i.e. all the blues or greens are the same shade) will make your quilt feel flat. A range of shades will give much more depth and contrast.
One more fun tip – add a “Zinger” fabric
Something that is just a little bit “off” or unexpected. This is a tame example, and it’s a little hard to tell in the pictures, but if you see the blue print with the arrow by it, that is a zinger in this quilt. I had a fat quarter of that blue in my stash for a while. It came in a fat quarter bundle and didn’t really match any of my other blues. I almost got rid of it and then I decided to cut it up for this quilt. Those patches make the quilt so much for interesting because the shade of blue is just a little out there – not as tame or predictable as the aquas and the navies.
Here’s the result of those variety of prints. The color palette of this quilt is relatively simple: blues and greens plus a little bit of white and gray. But it’s the variety of shades of those colors that make the quilt interesting and the colors pop.
Obviously, there is a lot more depth to choosing colors. For more advanced advice such as color theory, here are some great posts: if you want to go even more in-depth check out Jeni Baker’s Art of Choosing/Color Theory series. Vanessa Christensen’s Color Theory books also offer some great guidance and visual inspiration.
Here’s another collection to use as an example. Above is Deena Rutter’s collection Knock on Wood divided by color. Notice that it’s a narrow color palette (basically only 3 colors), but there are different shades of the colors to provide some contrast.
Now let’s talk about Scale (or Size)
Think about the different sizes of the prints in your quilt. For example, there are lots of gorgeous large scale prints available now. They are so fun to work with and can give added interest to your quilt. But if every print you use is a large scale (size) print, your quilt will look out of control. There’s no place for your eye to rest and all of those beautiful big prints look messy.
What we need is contrast. A variety of scales (sizes) can help provide balance and contrast. Let’s look at the collection again and see the variety of scales:
Here is the same collection divided by scale of design. On the left we have small scale design moving to large scale designs on the right. Once again, there is a variety of small, medium and large scale designs. Combining the three will also bring contrast and balance to the overall design.
Small prints are sometimes called “blenders” because their repeats are closer together and they can almost read as solids. They aren’t solid, but if you step back and squint your eyes they look like a solid color. These prints provide the contrast for the busier large and medium size prints to really show them off. They provide a place for your eye to rest. You can use actual solids – which is a great option, but keep in mind that the design becomes more flat. With a small print ‘solid’ you get more ‘visual texture’ or interest to the quilt.
Here’s another example from a quilt I made this spring. This is the color palette I chose: browns, oranges, and blues, and I pulled a variety of prints and shades from my stash.
Let’s look at just the oranges. (First, notice the variety of shades of orange.) Here they are divided by scale – smaller on the left to larger on the right.
Here’s what the oranges would look like if we only used busy, medium and large scale prints. There’s some contrast, but for the most part the pile looks overwhelming – there’s no place for the eye to rest and there’s no contrast.
Here is what the pile looks like when we add some solids and small-scale prints. Notice that there is more contrast between the busier prints. The solids and smaller-scale prints help show-off the bigger, busier prints.
Use a solid to “Neutralize”
Another way to use and show-off bigger, busier prints and saturated colors is to use some kind of sashing or solid to “neutralize” them – or just to give your eye place to rest and provide some visual contrast in between them. This can help the large, vibrant prints really pop. Even these really narrow white sashing strips are just enough to break up the prints and colors in this quilt and feature them individually.
Add a variety of Textures
Another form of contrast is texture. This pile of fabrics is all in very similar colors/tones. But the thing that makes it interesting is the variety of textures included, such as the woven and the linen fabrics. There are also a few different scales of prints.
Employing contrast in design, is totally personal. It doesn’t mean it has to be saturated, high-color contrast. Sometimes minimal contrast can make something more subtly interesting. It is fun to play with and be aware of the contrast in our quilts to make them visually engaging.
So there are a few thoughts on choosing fabric to think about and adapt. Or not. These are things that I think about and use but remember, you are the boss of your own quilt. Use colors and fabrics that speak to you.
If you’re still feeling timid and looking for help, ask! In my opinion, it’s even more effective if it’s from a real live person – especially when they can play with color options with you. (I frequently get asked to help online and it’s so tricky not being able to really see what people are working with or how to play with and mix things up.)
Ask a Shop for Help
One of the best places to ask for help is at a local shop. Just keep in mind, when asking for help, give them a place to start. I know from working in a quilt shop how overwhelming it felt when someone would walk in and say, “I want to make this quilt, but don’t know what fabric to use…” I had no idea what their color or style preferences were. When that happened I would always say, “Walk around the shop and pick out 2 or 3 bolts that ‘speak to you’ and then I’ll help you choose fabrics that would go with them,” just to give me a sense of their preferences.
Last of all, don’t worry and have fun
It’s okay to not get it right, right away. Creativity – quilting included – is a process and a journey. The more we explore and try new things the more we’ll find our own sense of expression via color, fabric choices and style. If you don’t love a finished product – give it to someone else who will. The important thing is to learn from the practicing and process, and hopefully even start to enjoy those things.