Nitpicking Neutrals

As promised, I want to talk about colors a little more this week.  When I first started quilting, this was the part that terrified me about the whole process.  Despite having a fairly heavy art background, this… the choosing the fabrics and committing to them…this was the part that scared the bejesus out of me.  With paint, pencils, or pastels you could alter the color or paint over them.  Waaalllllaaa – the wrong choice goes away.  But with fabric?  Nothing short of quality time with a seam ripper would make it vanish.

Plus a lot of fabric had patterns on them with other colors involved, and that muddied the water even more for me.

I was that quilter who made every quilt from a kit or was the champion of the three-color quilt (one neutral and two primaries or complementaries – what could be easier?).  Better yet, I’d find a quilt store with great customer service and lasso the sales person into picking the colors for me.  This went on for a while until my quilting mentor told me to “Grow up and up your big girl panties on and pick your own colors.”


Having the art background, I was very familiar with the color wheel and all the monochromatic/tertiary/primary color combinations out there.  The only thing that made me get over my pickingmyownfabric issues was just jumping in and doing it.

Did  I like all my first choices?


Did I make mistakes?


How many seam rippers did I go through?

Seriously.  I lost count.


But this process got me over that hump of thinking that this was just too hard.  I want to talk about focus fabrics and colors and tools, but this week, I want to talk about the colors that aren’t on the color wheel, and that’s the neutrals.


If you’re a grammar person, think of neutrals as the comma in quilting.  If you’re a music person, think of neutrals as the rest.  If you’re a math person, think of neutrals as the equal mark.  If you’re a science person, they’re the carbon in the experiment.  If you’re biology, they’re the oxygen in life.  They allow the eyes a chance to rest between blocks and colors and they are as necessary in quilts as the thread that holds them together.

By definition, in this field, they fall into these colors:


White – This includes all whites, including white-on-whites.  A couple of important things to remember here.  If you use white with soft pastels, it can give your quilt a very soft, almost washed-out look.  If that’s the look you’re going for (such as perhaps in a baby quilt), then white is a good option.  If you use white with jewel tones or batik, it almost makes the quilt glow.  But be aware that there are differences in whites.  If you’re using white in your quilt, purchase enough of the same color from the same maker on the same bolt for your quilt.  There is a huge difference in Kona snow and Kona white just ask me and I can tell you how I know.  And if you’re thinking about doing hand applique or hand quilting with white-on-whites, look carefully at the pattern.  Some of the white-on-whites have a kind of rubbery feel to the pattern.  It’s great for machine work, but can wreak havoc on your fingertips with hand work.


Black – Like the whites, there are differences.  Make sure you’re using the same color from the same maker from the same bolt, because there are differences.  Amish black is richer and darker than midnight black.  Black is a wonderful neutral to use with some batiks and all jewel tones – like the white, it will make them seem to glow.  Pastel – not so much.


Tans/Beiges/Ecrus – Believe it or not, there are differences between these three.  Beiges are the lightest, Ecrus are in the middle, and Tans are the darkest.  The same song and dance goes with these neutrals as in blacks and whites – buy the same color from the same maker from the same bolt.  It is truly amazing how much these can vary from dye lot to dye lot.  Neutrals are truly the neutral ground in piecing a quilt top.  They work well with pastels and batiks and jewel tones.


Gray – Let me introduce you to my favorite neutral out there,  the grays.  I love grays.  They play well with jewels and batiks, but can over power pastels if the gray trends towards the middle ground.  The light grays play well with pastels, the middle grays play well with jewels, and the dark grays play well with all colors.

I had never really thought about gray as a neutral until beginning the Country Inn Quilt by Barb Adams and Alma Allen.  This quilt is heavy applique and the blocks are huge.  I was working on this quilt with a group of my friends and all of them had opted for the lighter version with lots of small prints and reds.

I wasn’t even going there.  I wanted something different – something dramatic.  So
I opted for grays in the background and overdyed batiks for the flowers.  So far the results have been highly satisfactory.


Any of these colors – white, black, tan, ecru, beige, and gray – are necessary in a quilt.  Your eyes need a place to rest.  Have you ever looked a quilt and just felt unsettled or rushed?  I feel this way when I look at the 1718 Coverlet.


Don’t get me wrong – that’s a wonderful quilt and it’s just amazing – but as you look at it, there’s no place to rest your eyes.  Your eyes can’t travel over it at an easy pace.  As a matter of fact, it’s hard to take in because you don’t know where to look first.  It gives you a feeling of unrest.  That’s because there are no commas or rests or equal marks or carbon – there are no places for your eyes and soul to just stop and comprehend what you’ve just looked at.  There is no significant use of neutrals in the 1718 Coverlet.

Neutrals usually are used to an extent in your quilts blocks, but they’re also used in sashing and borders and setting triangles.  Take a look at my quilt that I made as a history challenge.



While the neutral does have a tiny blue and red print in them, they frame the center of the quilt and allow the eyes to travel over the important parts of the quilt at an easy pace.  They let the eyes rest and the soul sigh in peace.  And on a personal note, I rarely use solid neutrals.  Almost all of them have a subtle print to them, whether it’s tone-on-tone or a few, small, scattered designs of colors complementary to the quilt.  I like this subtle movement.  It adds a little pizazz to the quilt that the viewer doesn’t expect.


Choosing the correct neutral for your quilt is just as important as choosing the correct focus fabric.  You don’t want it to muddy your colors. Watch for understated undertones in your neutrals – a tan can have a pinkish cast to it.  Some whites can “go gray” when placed next to blues.  Always be sure to make your neutral part of the casting call:  lay it out with the rest of your fabrics to audition.  Picking the wrong neutral can alter the entire dialogue of what you want your quilt to say.


And have fun.  Remember, it’s quilting, not rocket science or brain surgery.  If you make a mistake, learn from it, move on, and the next quilt will be even better.  Progress is better than perfection.


Meanwhile, back at Casa de Fields, guess what arrived this week?!


That’s right!  My long arm!  Or at least part of it.  The head, ruler table, android, and accessories are here!  The frame should be arriving shortly.  I haven’t definitely named her.  I’m leaning towards Betsey (as in Ross) or Elizabeth (as in Bennet).


I’m not sure if there will be a blog next week.  I solemnly promise I will try.  I’m in NACQJ classes all day on Monday and Tuesday.  That means my “real job” will own my soul Wednesday, Thursday, and maybe even Friday.



Love and Stitches,


Sherri and Sam


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