Choosing Fabric for a Quilt

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.

Choosing Fabric for a Quilt

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.

Sweet Orchard Fabric collection

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.

Sweet Orchard Pinks

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.

Color Wall Britex Fabrics

Color: Color combinations are infinite. I love looking for color inspiration in photographs, nature, and online from places like Pinterest or Design Seeds.

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.

How to choose fabric colors

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.

Use a zinger fabric when choosing fabric for a quilt

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.

Tips for choosing fabric for a patchwork quilt

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.

Knock on Wood by color Riley Blake

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:

Knock on Wood fabric by scale

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.

Browns blues oranges

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.

Tips for using scale to choose fabric for a quilt

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.

Medium scale prints

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.

Mix of scale fabric prints

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.

Tips for using textured prints in quilts

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.)

Suppose Quilt Shop - Preston Idaho-001

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.

Choosing fabric for a project

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.

I hope that these tips will help build your confidence choosing fabric for your next quilt!

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  • Reply
    September 1, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Excellent topic! I still struggle with color choice

  • Reply
    Sandra Nachlinger
    September 1, 2016 at 10:14 am

    Very helpful. I’m bookmarking this post!

  • Reply
    Virginia J
    September 1, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Wonderful post Amy! All the choices can be so intimidating this helps so much – thank you 🙂

  • Reply
    Kim B.
    September 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    This is a fantastic post Amy! I have bookmarked it and definitely will be referring to it. I’m right there — so worried about going wrong with the expense of the fabric I’ve bought and using it poorly — that I’m a bit paralyzed.

    Loved this note in particular: “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.”

    Thank you for all those photographs – the illustrations of scale were excellent!

  • Reply
    Peta - She Quilts A Lot
    September 1, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Awesome post Amy, thanks so much for sharing your skills and knowledge. X

  • Reply
    September 1, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Thank you! This was informative. Clearly, a lot of work went into preparing this post. It’s appreciated!

  • Reply
    Karen Seitz
    September 1, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    I spy Suppose Quilt Shop! And I really miss seeing the horse in the photo of your son’s quilt — lol! Great information in this post. I know it will help lots of us feel more color and print confident.

  • Reply
    Judith Blinkenberg
    September 1, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I try but it’s still not comfortable. Buying the whole line in precuts pigeon holes me, but I sure feel better. I just have so much fabric and it’s ALL precuts and fat quarters. Hope someday I will be able to choose like you do.

  • Reply
    September 2, 2016 at 6:10 am

    Amy, this is my biggest struggle.
    Picking fabric gives me anxiety for a few reasons. I have a lot of fabric, some of it I adore.
    I am afraid if I use it, it might not be the “right fabric” and then I cut up the fabric that I love so much and could have used it or a better project.
    I know that is silly.
    I need to use fabric and not save it.
    Another reason I have anxiety is that I do not know that I have fabrics that will go well so I think I need more fabric.
    I know this is a common problem. I know I need to just let go and get going.
    Some of the fabrics that I love so much, I am saving for pieced backings. I like pieced backings and using large pieces combined with others looks good. That way I use my favorite large pieces without cutting them up and then regretting the look.
    Yes, these are complicated things but I am very grateful for all of the help and encouragement you offer.

  • Reply
    September 2, 2016 at 6:15 am

    Add a little risk:

    When you think you’re done, leave the stack out for a week as you walk by. Then swap one of the “safe” ones out for a “zinger,” an unexpected, risky (but related) fabric that will SING in the midst of your well-thought-out plan!

    Another option: force yourself to buy one “UGLY” and build a quilt around it, making it beautiful in the process. Or do an UGLY swap at your guild or group of friends. My UGLY fabric (reminded me of vomit) generated a powerful quilt.

    • Reply
      Amy Smart
      September 2, 2016 at 1:44 pm

      GREAT advice. I love zingers in quilts. It makes them so much more exciting. I’m going to update the post with that tip. Thanks!!

  • Reply
    Michelle @ From Bolt to Beauty
    September 2, 2016 at 8:31 am

    Great minds think alike! I just publish a post on the same subject. I especially like your points about pre-curated bundles, vibrancy, and the effects of sashing. Well done!

  • Reply
    Lara B.
    September 2, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Great post Amy, with lots of helpful advice – thanks! The photos are all so gorgeous. I mostly operate in choosing fabrics by eye and then letting the pile sit somewhere I’ll see it often a few days before beginning a project. Often I tweak it before getting started.

  • Reply
    September 2, 2016 at 11:34 am

    Thank you so much for breaking this topic down a bit!
    I’m semi new and every time I walk into the fabric store I am hit with …I don’t know what to buy syndrome.. and THAT is rare!! haha
    I will remember these things and look at your links too!
    Your quilts are beautiful!!!
    Thanks again!

  • Reply
    September 2, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Such a great post! Well written and excellent info. Saved!

  • Reply
    September 5, 2016 at 11:14 am

    I loved your advice in this post. I have been sewkng and quilting for 30 years on and off and still struggle with picking out colors. My best work tends to be last minute projects from my scrap bins..

  • Reply
    September 8, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    My favorite part of quilting is also fabric shopping and then laying the quilt out once I have my fabric cut. From that point the quilt cones alive. I always go with my gut and let the colors and patterns speak to me. I enjoyed your article!

  • Reply
    Rachel Lannister
    January 25, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    I found your tip about choosing a “zinger” fabric to be a really interesting idea. My mother has been thinking about putting a quilt together for my sister’s new baby, and didn’t know what fabrics to choose. A “zinger” color could really help the quilt standout and be a piece that the family remembers for years to come. Thanks for the ideas.

  • Reply
    January 28, 2018 at 3:45 am

    Thank you. I am the person who goes to buy fabric but get stuck for hours trying to work out my design then leave with nothing. So thankyou. Less time agonising and more time creating.

  • Reply
    Rachel Milgroom
    January 28, 2018 at 7:12 am

    Great post! Thanks so much. I love the advice about giving away a quilt whose end result I am not thrilled with – I did that recently and the recipients LOVE it.

  • Reply
    Pat Ballard
    January 29, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you, Amy. This article was very informative.

  • Reply
    Angela McGrath
    May 8, 2018 at 6:01 pm

    Thank you Amy. I struggle with color choice sometimes, but I am getting better. My mother on the other hand is EXCELLENT at it. When I struggle I go see her. But I like your article and the Design Seeds site was awesome. I’ve sometimes used the paint books at the hardware stores as inspiration too. Some of the paint companies put out little pamphlets with coordinating colors for rooms and it helps.

  • Reply
    Roxy Waterhouse
    August 15, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks so for the extensive overview of quilt sample selection Amy. The is truly becoming a lost art, as I am just beginning to pick off where my GREAT grandmother left off. I have 70 year old quilts that I would like to rehab.

  • Reply
    September 15, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    Question, can you use white in a quilt when most of the quilts uses light beige

    • Reply
      September 16, 2019 at 2:23 pm

      Just to clarify, are you talking about putting white and beige in the same quilt or replacing beige with white? If the question is can you use white in a quilt -absolutely! I do it all of the time. If the question is can you mix the two, it’s totally up to you. It just depends on the look that you want. You can do whatever you want because you are the boss of your own quilt. 😉

  • Reply
    November 3, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    Thank You Amy for all your tips. As a newish quilter, I also struggle with decisions of color, pattern and confidence in the actual doing of it. I so appreciate your tips!

  • Reply
    February 23, 2020 at 11:08 am

    One of my favorite things about quilting is the wonderful community of people who are willing to share their experience and knowledge. Thank you Amy, I feel like I’ve just attended a Master Class!

  • Reply
    February 25, 2020 at 1:33 am

    Amy, thank you so much for this great article. I’ve always felt intimidated when choosing colours, but now I shall be brave and dive into my stash!

  • Reply
    August 1, 2020 at 7:46 pm

    Great post and simple, informative advise. Thank you so much for your “class!”

  • Reply
    August 25, 2020 at 11:44 am

    Thanks you for this! Do you have any thoughts/suggestions on picking a pattern and then the fabric or the fabric and then finding a pattern. I usually find fabrics I love and then try to figure out a pattern that is good but it’s a struggle sometimes.

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