Living in a Material World

Today we’re talking everyone’s favorite topic…fabric.

I’ve written some pretty exhaustive blogs on fabric…whether or not to prewash it, how to chose it, where to buy it.  In short, this “Material Girl” has hit the inventory at the LQS, Big Box Store, and On-line Shops pretty hard and in much detail.  However, since this is the Year of Quilting with Excellence, and we’ve had a real emphasis on the basics, I’m revisiting this top to talk about color choices, scale, and volume.

The easiest way to begin to pick out fabric for a quilt is to find a focus fabric and plan everything around it.  This is the easiest way, but not the only way.  As you live your journey as a quilter, you may find you change this up a little.  Sometimes you will find a solid color fabric that your drawn to and plan your quilt around it.  Solids are not always considered a focus fabric in the quilting world, so this is a little different.  At other times, you may find a fabric you’re completely in love with, but not have enough of it to use in the quilt.  You can pull colors from this fabric to construct your quilt out of, and not use an inch of that much-loved material.  In short, there is more than one way to plan a quilt and none of them are wrong.  But if you’re just beginning to quilt (or are still getting your “quilting legs”), having a focus fabric is a great way to begin.

To start, let’s define what focus fabric is:  It’s (generally) a multi-print fabric that has several colors in it.

Focus Fabrics

It’s from those colors you pull your supporting fabrics and plan your quilt.  In the past, the focus fabric was primarily used in the sashing and borders as a way to pull the quilt together.  While that’s still generally encouraged – especially for beginning quilters– I urge everyone to also sprinkle that focus fabric in blocks.  If you’ve quilted a while, you’re pretty comfortable at finding a focus fabric that appeals to you.  However, if you still have “newbie” status, take a look at fabric collections.

fabric family

These are generally all placed together either in brick-and-mortar stores or on websites.  Most of the time these will contain one or two fabrics that can be used as a focus fabric, as well as all the supporting fabrics you need.  This is a great way to begin to learn what makes a good focus fabric and how to find additional material to go with that to construct a quilt.  Kits and precut selections are also wonderful choices to use to get your feet wet in fabric selection.

For those of you that have taken my beginning design class, you may remember that you really only need five fabrics to make almost any quilt. And for those of you who haven’t taken my beginning design class, there it is – the critical information you need.  Five fabrics – that is all.  You need a focus fabric, a neutral, two tertiary or analogous colored fabrics, and a complementary colored fabric.

Since we’ve already defined what a focus fabric is, let’s define the other four categories of colors.

Technically, neutral fabrics are those falling into the color realms of white, black, ecru, beige, tan, or gray.

The neutral fabric is kind of like the mortar that holds bricks or cinder blocks together.  Neutral fabrics don’t really get a lot of attention, but they’re the glue of the quilt.  They make the quilt flow and ebb and allow a resting place for the eyes as they travel over the quilt.  Quilts without these tend to make me a little edgy because I have no idea where to look first.  It is interesting to note at this point, that the definition of neutrals (white, black, tan, ecru, beige, or gray) is changing a bit.  Several quilt designers have opted for other solids as the neutral if it enhances the quilt better.  For instance, I recently completed a quilt that pink was the neutral.  And the pink wasn’t a light shade that trended more toward white, either.  It was a true pink.  If a different color works better than a “traditional” neutral, don’t be afraid to use it.

Tertiary or analogous colors are those colors that are side by side on a color wheel, such as yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange.


 Complimentary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.  


Within these fabrics (especially if you’re working with material out of one collection), there will probably be several different scales (size of designs on the material).  Generally, these tend to be a large-scale print, a medium-scale print, a small-scale print, a geometric or stripe, random dots (or something resembling random dots) and solids.  Rule of thumb, for variety and interest, you want to choose one large scale print (often this is the focus fabric) and let the supporting fabric be the medium- and small-scale print, geometric/stripe, and solid prints.  Sometimes two large-sale prints in one quilt look too much like they’re fighting each other for your attention.

Now is also a great time to mention the use of low-volume fabric.  Low-volume refers to the color value of a piece of material.  These are generally light-colored fabrics with a secondary design in a different color (so we’re not talking about white-on-white prints, etc.) but the secondary design has lots of space between the designs.

low volume fabric

These low-volumes can make wonderful background fabric for applique designs or can even serve as your neutral.  The trick is to make sure they’re placed near a bright secondary fabric to make sure they don’t look washed out.  These fabrics are used in a lot of modern quilts and are really fun fabrics to work with.  I think they especially work well with half and quarter-square triangles.

The last thought I want to leave you with today is this:  Don’t be afraid to choose your own fabrics.  Starting with kits, pre-cuts, block-of-the-month clubs, and fabric lines is a great place to begin to learn what material will work together to make a great quilt.  But don’t stay there.  Take what you’ve learned and then try out your own fabric sense.  You won’t shoot 100 percent right out of the gate, but over time you will develop your own fabric preferences and your quilts will take on your creative vibe, not some other designers.  And the ability to choose your own fabric will help you wisely purchase for your own stash and use it up.


Next week, a little more about fabric…


Until then, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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