Prints and Solids…Which Works Best

My favorite part of making a quilt is picking out my fabric.  Now let me make a quilting confession:  I couldn’t always say this.  It wasn’t until after I had quilted several years that my fear of choosing the wrong fabric began to fade.  Sometimes I still wonder if I have made the right choice, but between the years of 1986 until 2019, I think I’ve gotten better at the process, although there still is room for improvement – there always is.

This week I would like to share with you what I’ve learned to make me more comfortable with the process.  I once was a beginner and I understand the (often) overwhelming confusion when you enter a quilt or fabric store – especially a large one.  The first time I shopped at Hancock’s of Paducah (one of THE motherships of quilting), I literally had to back out, take a deep breath, and then go back in. The colors were a complete cacophony and I didn’t know where in the world to begin.  I was used to nice, neat little quilt shops that arranged their selection by designer and then by color.  Hancock’s of Paducah had aisles and aisles of fabric which equated to aisles dedicated to one designer, with all of that designer’s material arranged by families and within these families, arranged by color.   Instead of a few hundred square feet to look through, there were thousands of square feet to peruse and then there was the warehouse with all of the clearance items.  Oy-vey.  I was never so glad to have a shopping list and swatches in my life.

I realize that this is not usually the scenario for fabric shoppers.  In fact, if you’re lucky enough to have a brick-and-mortar quilt or fabric store near you that’s still in existence, you’re not going to be perusing bolts and bolts of fabric.  More than likely, you may be purchasing most of your fabric on-line.  So how do you begin to pick your fabric?  How do you know when to choose a solid colored fabric or a print?  Do the “rules” change from applique to piecing?

Let’s take that last question first – do you make different fabric choices if you’re appliqueing rather than piecing?  Generally, no.  The same rules apply.  If anything, you can go a little more rogue with applique by choosing fabrics that fit the image you want to portray rather than dealing with all-cotton piecing fabrics.  In other words, if you want to use something like sparkly lame’ for an appliqued wedding dress, you can do that.  While a non-cotton fabric will work with either machine or hand applique (just make sure you prep the fabric correctly), generally speaking, it would not work well with piecing. 

Let’s take an overview of fabric first and bear in mind we’re discussing color, hue, and print with this blog – what works best where.  This is not a color theory post – color theory requires a book, not a blog. 

The first place that’s really the easiest to begin (especially if you’re a beginner) is with a pre-chosen stack of fabric – like a pack of fat quarters or layer cakes – that are bundled together and for sale as one unit. 

Fat Quarters
Layer Cake

I realize there are other precuts available (jelly rolls, cinnamon rolls, etc.) but for most quilt tops, the fat quarters or layer cakes seem to be the most versatile.  The only fabric you generally have to add to either of these is a neutral, and that’s not too hard to pick out.  If you’re wondering how many pre-cuts a quilt top takes, I have a blog on that – just give it a Google.    The great thing about precuts is they’re huge time savers and wonderful teachers.  They save time because all of the fabric, except for the neutral, is already chosen.   They’re also great teachers because they can show you what fabrics go together.  This gives you a good overview of color theory.  The only drawback here (and I’ve mentioned this before in another blog), is that generally there is no true dark.  However, these are awesome beginning points and just because there may be no real dark involved in the fat quarter or layer cake doesn’t mean they should be discounted.  If you’re a beginner, use these to get you started.  If you’ve got some quilting miles under your belt, you can pick your true dark when you chose your neutral. 

Pieces of the layer cake that show varying scale or print.

There is another terrific reason for choosing precuts besides learning about colors, and that reason is scale.  Usually the fabric involved with precuts will also have varying-sized prints in them, and this is really the issue I want to talk about in detail – print fabric verses solid fabric and when to use both or either. Fat quarters and layer cakes will have prints that are so small they can read as solid fabric, as well as medium-sized and large prints (which you need to use with care – more on that later).  With precuts not only do the colors play well together, but scale of the prints also play well together.  So, choosing precuts just about assures nearly every fabric selection will look wonderful in your quilt.

However….if you’ve been around the quilting block a few times, you are probably like me and have curated a somewhat prolific (if not impressive) fabric stash, and that’s the first place you go to pick out fabric for your quilt.  This can be a little daunting but it’s also really exciting. There are very few things that make me happier than pulling all the fabric from my stash to make a quilt and not have to spend any additional money, except for perhaps the backing (and that’s because I like the wide quilt backing material). 

One of the first places I go for inspiration is Pinterest.  Sure, I have lots of quilt pictures stored on my phone but finding them may require significant search time.  With Pinterest, they’re neatly filed away, sorted by category, and it just takes seconds to find them.  I can study color and scale in those quilts and get a good idea about what type of fabrics I need to pull from my stash. 

Another way I begin picking my fabrics is to pull one piece of material that I really like and begin choosing fabrics around that fabric.  Take this print:

This is a new purchase from  I am a sucker for fall-colored fabrics and when this showed up in my email box, and it was on sale, a few yards were called for.  I can pull lots of colors ideas from this print:  green, orange, yellow, and a medium white.  There’s even some of my very favorite color here – purple.  I can always use this fabric as a jumping off point to begin to pick my colors.  As a matter of fact, this is the way I begin at least 95 percent of my quilts.  A fabric that serves as a basis for the rest of the color selection of a quilt is called focus fabric.  And if there is any questions about what colors you need, take a look at the selvage of your fabric.

See these dots?  This is the manufacturer’s way of letting you know what colors were used when printing the material.  All of these colors will work well in your quilt. 

The important concept to keep in mind as you’re choosing your material is that you want the colors to be the same vibrancy as in your focus fabric.  You don’t want them “grayed down” or “lightened up.”  For instance, while I could use a green as a supporting color in this quilt, a mint green wouldn’t work.  The green in my focus fabric is more of an yellow-green – something a light green isn’t. 

Like wise the purple in this fabric has red undertones.  I wouldn’t want a lavender or deep purple.  Those just wouldn’t work, even though they’re in the same color family. 

You’ll want to pull a variety of colors that have the same vibrancy – from lighter to darker.  Don’t try to be too matchy-matchy (all of the same color greens or same color yellows).  If you do this, your quilt looks flat.  In addition, I also try to find a “zinger” fabric – something that is just a little off or unexpected.  I try to find a “zinger” for every quilt, but this doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes there just isn’t one in my stash or one in the store or one on-line that I can find. 

This would be my “zinger” fabric in the layer cake.

Now let’s talk scale.  You not only want some great colors in your quilt, you also want fabrics with varying scale as well as solids.  Let me park it right here and talk about why scale is important and why your quilt needs prints.  Without prints, your entire quilt will look flat.  And by that, I mean there’s no ebb and flow, no motion, nothing to direct your eye where to move…it’s like looking at a sink full of water with no bubbles.  It’s like eating a soft pretzel with no mustard.  It’s like a hot dog with no chili.  It’s like pulled pork with no good, ol’ Lexington, North Carolina barbeque sauce.

In other words….it’s boring.

While I readily admit that there are a very few quilts that lend themselves towards solids (think Amish quilts here), most of the time – for both applique and piecing – prints are needed to add movement and depth to a quilt.  While some solids could and should be used in a quilt, their use should be limited.

If you study fabric collections, you will notice the size of the prints vary.  There will be some like this:

This print is so small, it can actually “read” as a solid (it may appear to be a solid when looking at the quilt from several feet back).  Sometimes these small prints are the same color family as the background, and sometimes they are another color, so the print has a little more “zip” to it. 

They’re are also called “blenders” if the print is in the same color family as the background.  These are great to use in in any size unit of a quilt block.

Blender Fabric

And there are some medium sized prints. 

These prints, whether they are the same color as the background or an opposing color, are obvious to the eye.  These give definite motion to the quilt.  You do have to be a little careful that the block unit they’re used for is big enough so the print can be seen.

And then there are these: 

These are large prints and if you’re thinking at this point that most large prints would be focus fabrics, you’re right.  There are some tone-on-tone large print fabrics that are wonderful for applique backgrounds or can serve as a neutral for your quilt.

It is important to have a variety of prints in your quilt – small to large.  If you choose all small prints, your quilt will “read” solid and look flat.  But if you choose all medium or large…

It looks too busy.  If I just used these fabrics in a quilt, there would be nowhere for my eyes to rest and the quilt wouldn’t “breathe.”  You need some small prints as well as the medium prints. 

Now, let me throw in some words of caution here and a general “rule” I follow.  First, I am a firm believer that if at all possible, it’s good to sprinkle that focus fabric throughout your quilt, not just keep it for the borders.  If you do this, make sure that the patches you use it in are big enough to support the print.  For instance, with the fall focus fabric above, I wouldn’t want to use it in probably anything less than a 3-inch square or a 5 ½-half-square triangle.  Why?  I would lose too much of the print.  It wouldn’t show up.  And if you have a beautiful print fabric, you really want it to shine. 

Now for my general “rule” (and please remember there are no hard and fast rules about quilting other than you have a good time).  I try to designate my solid fabric for the smallest units in my quilt and I try to make that solid fabric one of the most vibrant in my quilt.  Again, take a look at the focus fabric above.  I really want to find a solid purple to go with this fabric.  It would be vibrant and hold its own against the black background and other prints.  In addition, if the solid fabric is used in the smallest patches, there are no worries about losing the integrity of the print in the unit. 

I know I have talked colors and tints and hues in other blogs, but I think this is the first time I’ve addressed the importance of scale to any degree.  And while solids will always be important, prints are the fabrics that add character to the quilt.


And now I have some sad news to share.  After three years of serving as my long arm, Loretta is no longer with us.  She developed mother board issues and had to be shipped back to Sewing Machines Plus in California a few weeks ago for repairs.  While she survived the trip to SMP just fine, she crashed and burned on the way home.  Fed Ex was not kind to my girl.

After some harried phone calls with my tech at SMP, I was asked to once again ship her back to them for repairs.  Last week I got the phone call that she was beyond repair and they were replacing her with a King Quilter Special Edition.  My new long arm head arrived  Saturday, and I’ve spent the last several days getting LeAnn up and running (which is another story for another blog… oy-vey).  I’ve still got to put on the last encoder (the X-axis encoder has been a pain in the tookus), and I’m waiting on the correct laser to be shipped to me.  Stay tuned…I’m looking forward to working with LeAnn.  I’ve got three quilt tops waiting in the wings….

Until Next Week, Quilt with Passion,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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