More than Just Dollars and Cents


This week we’re continuing our discussion on fabric, and now I would like to discuss fabric value with you.  There are a couple of ways fabric value can be defined.

The first definition, and honestly this was probably the one that immediately popped into you head, is money – the value of your fabric.


This type of value is important. For me fabric is a lot like shoes – you get what you pay for.  You buy cheap fabric, and your quilt may not look as well as you’d like it to.  While I do not ever promote breaking your budget when purchasing fabric, it is a good idea to purchase good fabric.  It doesn’t have to cost $20 a yard to be quality fabric.  However, there are few aspects of the material you may want to examine before it finds its way on the cutting table and your debit/credit card takes a hit.

The primary question you want answered is what is the thread count?  If you’re like me, most of the time when thread count is mentioned, you’re thinking sheets.  And for sheets, the higher the thread count, the better the sheets.  Sometimes the thread count advertised on sheets is 1,000 – meaning there’s a 1,000 threads per square inch.  Quality quilting fabric is not quite that extreme.  If you examine a square inch of quilting fabric, you will notice there are threads running vertically and horizontally.  The best quilting fabric will have approximately 70 threads per square inch.  This fabric will be easy to needle but will hold up to wear.  Anything lower than 60 threads per square inch may fray, fall apart as you’re constructing your quilt, and stretch off grain.

Here’s where the price difference comes into play.  Fabric that’s sold at Big Box Stores tends to have a lower thread count than fabric that is sold in the LQS or on quilting fabric websites.  That’s why the Big Box Fabric is the less expensive option.  I’m not saying all their fabric is lower quality, but I am saying be careful if you’re purchasing the fabric for a quilt that is show-bound or destined to be a family heirloom.  You may want to save your pennies and then splurge at a quilt shop, either brick-and-mortar or on-line.

On the other hand, sometimes that Big Box Fabric is perfect for a quilt.  If you’re making a quilt for child, and that quilt is destined to be literally played with until it’s in pieces, go for the less expensive fabric.  As a matter of fact, you may want to make two of these kinds of play quilts, so when one is loved-up, there will be another waiting in the wings to take its place.

Big Box Fabric is also perfect for beginner quilters.  Do you remember making your first quilt?  If yours was anything like mine, that first quilt top took some serious abuse.  First quilts have seams ripped out, blocks taken apart and resewn, tips of points cut off, and lots of mismatched corners. That first quilt is not a thing of beauty, but it is a critical learning tool.  It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend hundreds of dollars on that first quilt.

And there are some quilts I make that don’t merit expensive quilting fabric.  If it’s a lap quilt to wrap up in while I read or watch TV, you’re going to find fabric left over from Hancock’s mixed in with fabric from remaining bolts I purchased from Dragonfly before it closed. Those quilts are not heirlooms nor are they show-bound.  Those quilts are made to be used, cuddled with Sam in, and more often than not, they will be baptized with coffee and wine.  It would make no sense to construct them out of high-end fabric.

But there’s another aspect of value that comes into play with fabric, and that’s the color value.  Value in this aspect means how light or dark a fabric is in relation to the surrounding material. An understanding of contrast (color value) is an important quilt making skill that helps quilters decide how to arrange patches of fabric to either blend or create divisions with each other.

Color Value Chart

There’s an easy way to get started being comfortable with color value.  Grab some different color swatches – they can be charm squares, squares from your stash, or even paint chips (as long as they’re cut apart and separated from their color family).  Try to arrange these from the lightest to the darkest.  Step back and look at them.  Can you see the color value subtly shift from lightest to darkest?  If there are colors that stand out in this flow, re-arrange the swatches and try again.  This is harder that it sounds, and it takes a while to get the organization correct.  It’s easy to do this kind of sorting when you’re working with swatches from one color family.  Throw in multi-colored swatches and the process gets a lot more complex.  This is because another characteristic is thrown in the mix:  color warmth.  Color warmth changes the contrast or value.

color wheel with warmth

Let’s look at this a bit closer.  On most standard color wheels, there is a line that separates the colors.  Those on the right of the line are the cool colors (blues, greens, blue-greens etc.) and those on the left are the warm colors (red, yellows, oranges).  Cool colors tend to recede, and warm colors seem to “pop.”  To show you how this works, let’s take a look at the same quilt block in different colors.

Warm BlockMixed Block 2Mixed Block 1Cool Block

It’s easy to see that the block made of all cool colors tends to recede back into the white background.  Likewise, the block made from all warm colors tends to push forward from the background.  In the blocks made from warm and cool colors, the reds and yellows catch your eye before the blues and greens because while the cool colors are receding, the warm colors are “popping” off that background big time.

With solids, it’s easy to determine if the fabric falls into the cool category or the warm category.  However, if the fabric is a multi-color print, such as a focus fabric, things get a bit more dicey.  Certain places on the material may definitely read warm and others may tend to lean towards the cool palette.  So how can you determine if the fabric is warm or cool? There are a couple of ways, and we’ll get to those in a minute, but if the warm and cool colors are pretty evenly distributed, and you need the focus fabric to read cool, place it near blues, greens, or blue-greens.  If you want it to read warm, place it near reds, yellows, and oranges.

At this point let me also say something about a couple of colors on the color wheel that can be wonderful to work with but can cause some issues – purples and lime-greens.

purple and lime green

Purple is made from red and blue, both warm and cool colors.  Lime-green is comprised green and yellow, again both warm and cool colors.  If you place either near a warm color, they will read warm.  If you place either near a cool color, they’re going to tend to run cool.  If you’re using either color in the quilt, be careful about placement.  If you need them to be consistent as a warm or a cool, the immediately adjacent material is very important.

In most quilts, you want a balance between warm and cool colors.  There are exceptions to this, but most quilt designs are made with a mix of color values in mind – both warm and cool, and contrast values. Contrast values are lights, mediums, and darks.  Sometimes (and this is more often in older quilt patterns), you’re instructed to purchase so yards of dark, so many of mediums, and so many of lights.  The “light” yardage can be pretty easy to figure out – whites, beiges, ecrus, tans, and pastels.  However, the medium yardage and the dark yardage can get pretty murky.  And if you purchase too many mediums, thinking you’ve gotten darks, your quilt will look kind of muddy – too many fabrics of the same contrast value.

So, let’s discuss how to avoid a muddy mess and make our color selections pop.  First, there’s what I call the squint test.  Layout all your fabric and take several large steps backwards and squint at your choices.  Sometimes this is all it takes to see if you have too many fabrics of the same color value or which color doesn’t really go well with the other material.  Eliminate, add, step back, and squint again.  I have to admit this technique takes some time to get really good at, but keep practicing. It gets easier the more you do it.

Another idea you may want to entertain is taking a trip to your local hardware store and purchasing a peephole – the little magnifying glass that let’s you see who’s at your front door.  When the fabric is viewed through the peephole, it looks far away, so you may be able to pick the contrast up easier than squinting at it.  The plus side to this is that the peephole is small enough to throw in your sewing bag or purse, so when you’re fabric shopping, you can pull the peephole out and use it.

Another tool that is small enough to keep with you in your bag is this:

Color evaluator

This is a color evaluator.  When you look at your fabric through this red filter, all of the material will show up in tones of gray – light grays, medium grays, and dark grays.  This is helpful when you’re making sure you have enough medium and dark fabrics.  And this is a great tool to have, but there are two that I like even more, and both are probably already in your home.

The first tool works if you’re pulling from fabric that’s already in your sewing room – and that tool is your printer/copier.  Cut 2-inch squares from each of the fabrics you’re auditioning for your quilt.  Glue or tape these onto a piece of copy paper and make a black and white copy of your swatches.  The black and white copy will immediately let you know if the fabric you thought was a dark is really a dark or a medium.  I’ve used this method for years and it’s almost fool-proof.

The second tool is your mobile phone.  I cannot imagine there is a phone on the market now that does not take pictures.  And I bet your cell phone goes everywhere you do.  So, use this to your advantage.  Line up your fabrics either in your sewing room, on your computer screen (if shopping on line) or at your LQS.  If you’re shopping on your phone, screen shot the fabric and save it to your photos.  Go to your photo app, open the picture you want, and edit the picture to black and white (on the iPhone 8, this is the silvertone setting).  From there it will be easy to see the contrast value of the fabric.



This careful placement of color and contrast values can make a quilt soar far above normal.  The easiest quilt to see this in is Storm at Sea.  The placement of darks to lights to mediums make this quilt seem to move while it’s standing still.  Tumbling Blocks quilts also use color and contrast value to their advantage to give a 3-D effect.

The best advice I can give you when planning color and contrast values is this:  Study quilts.  Look at them carefully.  Notice that when you put a medium fabric next to a white, it’s going to appear as a dark.  If you put that same medium near a dark or another medium, it will appear as a medium.  The placement of fabrics on a quilt top is just as important as the fabrics you pick out for your quilt.  And the placement can radically change the appearance of your quilt.  Notice the three tops below:


These are the same quilt pattern, but I’ve changed the placement of the color and contrast values in each.  A different look is achieved in each placement.

It’s hard to believe it’s November already and we’re quickly winding down 2018.  In many, many ways, this year has tried my soul more than any year since 2005, when my father passed away.  I find myself mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausted.  Quilting – that pull of needle and thread – and quilters – my BFFs – have comforted my soul and spirit more than anything.  If you’re my quilting friend, thank you for your prayers and words of encouragement.


We’ve got a few blogs left that will cover bias tape, bindings, and a few other odds and ends before we say good-bye to the year of Quilting with Excellence.  I’m excited about 2019 and what I have planned for my blog and for us.


Until next week, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam



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