The Muddying of the Fabric Franchise

I wrote a couple of blogs about Thinking Outside the Quilting Box.  These were published a few weeks ago and at that time I promised to revisit a concept I mentioned in the second of those blogs.  The concept concerns what I call the “muddying” of the fabric world. 

Color is so important.  Just think how vital it is in everyday life.  Red means stop.  Yellow, you yield.  Green means go.  Black clouds indicate a storm.  Color concepts are ingrained in us as a child.  We learn to mix colors and what colors look good on us.  We learn what colors evoke happiness in our soul and what colors aren’t appealing to us at all.  What we learn pretty quickly is that all of the colors are important.  There are none we can live without.

I think color sensitivity is even greater in people that are artists – painters, sculpture artists, musicians, – I think any artist tends to be more in tune with colors and the emotions they can generate.  Quilters are no different.  We contemplate colors with a great degree of seriousness in our quilts.  We appreciate all of them, even the ones we’re not crazy about.  I’m not a fan of brown, but I can tell you in all honesty, I have a half a shelf full of brown material because I need it in blocks and especially in applique.

When I began quilting in the mid-eighties, a trip to the fabric store for fabric was a little different experience than it is now.  There was lots of fabric, and if the fabric store had a quilting department, it was often arranged in colors, but that was about it.  Yes, you had companies that produced quilting fabric, but it was rarely, if ever, introduced in what we call “families.”  A fabric family is a group of quilt fabrics released together.  They all harmonize.  Generally, there are one to two solids or small prints that can read as a solid, a medium-sized print or two, and one or two fabrics that are larger print and/or can read as a focus fabric. 

These are usually gorgeous fabric and I’ll be the first to admit a yard or three will find its way in my shopping cart and come home with me.  For beginning quilters, it makes choosing their fabrics super-easy.  And there’s nothing wrong with this, other than the fact it can negate the color-quality of your quilt.  In a nutshell, a quilt – any quilt – should be constructed of a light (neutral) fabric, two or three medium fabrics, a focus fabric, and at least one dark fabric.  Below are some good examples of these fabrics:

The focus fabric is on the bottom right. The light pink on the upper right will serve as the neutral (or “light”) fabric. The blue and flamingo pink are the medium fabrics and the green in the top left corner is my dark. None of these fabrics were sold in a “family.” They were randomly chosen from my stash.

My problem with a lot of the current fabric families is that there are no true darks.  They’re all medium-tone fabrics.  For instance, a few weeks ago I purchased this material from a fabric family.  I absolutely love these fabrics.  They’re the Pantone colors of the year.  I’m using them in a beginning quilt class I will start teaching at the end of April. 

However, they are all mediums.  Do you know how I know that?  Let’s take that picture and flip it to black and white.

Even the darkest fabric that I plan on using for the borders, is still somewhat of a medium due to the print. Once I transposed the colored picture of the material to a black and white image, all the fabric read gray, which means they are all medium-tone fabrics. 

That’s where this “Muddying of the Fabric World” begins.  If you use all mediums in your quilt, there is no sparkle.  The darks and the lights give a quilt the pizazz it needs to shine.  But in most fabric families, while there is a definite light, there is no definite dark.  When a quilter uses all medium-toned fabrics in a quilt, there is no clear color value distinction and when that occurs, it’s called “muddying.” 

You need to avoid this, if possible.  I plan on using the fabrics above in my beginners quilt class. Since it is a “newbie” quilt class, I’m not so concerned with color value (that will be introduced in the next class), as I am about my students learning how to keep a consistent ¼-inch seam, learning how to use a rotary cutter, and becoming comfortable with their sewing machine.  Pretty fabric attracts new devotees, and that’s what I’m after in the beginning.  So, when I pulled from my stash to make a rail fence quilt, I chose the prettiest fabric I had.  And truly, if you’re making a cuddle quilt or something along those lines, you may choose just to pick fabrics that you have on hand or the ones that make you happy.

But overall, any quilter should at least understand how to avoid a “muddy” quilt.  The trick is to have a true light or neutral and at least one true dark.  The light or neutral fabric is pretty easy, but time has changed the definition of this word.  Thirty years ago, when I first put needle to fabric, the “light” fabric in a quilt was truly a light fabric – tan, ecru, beige, white, light gray, or any other color that fell within these boundaries.  As years passed, this definition grew and expanded to encompass pinks, yellows, blues, and lavenders.  It also includes low-volume fabric – this is material that has small black print on a white background, with the print having lots of space between each other (see picture below).  The primary concept to remember is keep the light/neutral color-volume constant.  This means in a non-scrappy quilt, to keep it the same fabric or at least the same color-volume.  In scrappy quilts, it is still the same concept – you may use a lot of different lights, but make sure they’re have the same color volume.  In other words, don’t throw in a medium brown and try to make it play the role of a light.  It won’t work.  It will stick out like a sinner in church.

Examples of low-volume fabric

The same concept holds true with a dark fabric – keep the color volume consistent.  But with darks, a quilter can run into trouble choosing a true dark.  If you’re not careful, a medium-volume fabric will be chosen as the dark.  That won’t work well.  To avoid this, let’s go back to our black and white picture to get a good picture of what a real dark looks like. 

The medium-volume fabrics show up as grays.  The darks are almost black.  For me, the easiest way to make sure I have mediums, lights, and darks is to take a picture with my iPhone and then edit the picture to turn it into a black and white image.  From there it’s easy to see if I have a real dark instead of a medium.  Or you can use a pink fabric filter as shown below (when you look through this, all fabrics will show up as light grays, medium grays, or blacks)

Fabric Filter

However, if you’re ever at a fabric store or somewhere else and you don’t have your phone or one of those pink filters with you, there’s still a concept that can help you chose the correct volume fabrics.

Let me introduce to my Barbie Fabric Concept. 

Introduced to this doll in the 1960’s, I loved Barbie dolls.  I had lots of them, and while I adored the doll, I loved the clothes even more.  Ever the fashion icon, Barbie won many hearts over with her classic pink, white, and black outfits – her trademark colors.  And those colors are where by Barbie Fabric Concept comes into play.  Keep those three classic colors in mind:

And substitute your fabric for each color.

For instance, for the white…if your neutral would work as a white in the color concept, your good to go.

If your mediums would substitute well for a pink, then there’s your true medium.

And if your dark would fit in well for a black, you’ve chosen well.

In closing, I would like to encourage you with another concept of mine:  Shop the entire store (or website).  Lights, mediums, and darks can be found all through a fabric store, quilt shop, or website.  You don’t have to stick to one fabric family.  White staying within one fabric family makes your quilt life easier, it does take the adventure out of fabric hunting.  However, if you do decide to use all of one family (and we have all done that – including yours truly), make sure your dark is a true dark.

Until next week, Quilt with Passion!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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