Colors and Quilts

Today….has been something. 

I have been a blessed momma for more than 30 years.  My kids both attended in-state colleges.  Then they both took jobs that kept them in North Carolina, with each, at various times, working for our family company. 

They also are my neighbors.  My daughter and her family live next door.  My son and his wife lived two houses up the street.  Until today.  Today my son and his wife left for a house and new jobs in Florida.  I’m not taking this well.  I drive past their old house everyday – sometimes twice a day.  It’s weird and sad, but at the same time, I’m excited for them the excitement is stuck between crying bouts and sniffles.  I know neither one of them really likes cold weather, and while North Carolina is nowhere near as cold as places such as North Dakota, we do have our moments of frigid air and layers of ice.  Their new home is right outside of St. Augustine and near Disney, Universal, and the beach.  No ice, but sometimes it gets cold enough the iguanas will fall out of the trees.  So, there is that…we don’t have falling iguanas in North Carolina. 

Setting aside this traumatic event, I’d like to focus on color this week.  I’ve talked about how to use color in your quilts several years ago, but want to hit on the subject again.  Fabric color is one of the ever shifting and ever-changing fields in any textile art.  One year the colors will be bright and clear, then in two or so more years they may change to a duller appearance.  Pantone ushers in its colors of the year (2021’s are gray and yellow), and Moda also has its own color of the year (a beautiful robin’s egg blue for 2021).  If you’re thinking about repainting your house, paint manufacturers also have their annual color sections.  Color surrounds us, comforts us, evokes strong emotions, can cause hunger, and calms us.  Chances are, if you have a favorite color, it’s on something within arm’s distance of you right now. 

Choosing fabrics is one of the first steps a quilter undertakes – no matter if you’ve quilted one day or 50 years.  You may pull from your stash, shop on-line or in person, or use a mix of old and new fabrics.  It’s also can be one of the most daunting parts of quilting.  How can you be certain your colors sing in harmony instead of being hopelessly off key?  How do you know if you’ve chosen enough fabrics, or if it’s okay to keep your selection to two or three colors?  I want to discuss this, but I also want to show you how to make sure the colors you’ve selected really work well together.  Most quilters share a fairly common process in choosing their fabrics, but I want to explain how it works and why a color wheel is not my favorite color tool. 

If you’re new to quilting, it’s easy to look at all the fabric on websites or in a store and become overwhelmed.  For your first quilt or two, you may want to use kits or have someone (such as a seasoned quilter) help you make your choices.  You may want to copy fabric for fabric a quilt designer you really like.  None of this is wrong.  As a matter of fact, it’s a great way to get some color experience under your belt.  But it’s not good to continue to do this year after year.  You should want to feel comfortable branching out on your own, making your own color decisions.  As a matter of fact, altering colors or even changing the palette completely is one way to dramatically change the look of a quilt.  So, if you’re not comfortable doing the math and altering the block itself, become comfortable in modifying the color scheme.  It doesn’t have to be a complicated process.  Take a look at this quilt:

Now see what happens when you reverse the color scheme.

The block construction remained the same.  But switching up the neutral and the focus fabric placement makes a dramatic change.

To begin to understand color (as a quilter, not a scientist), we need to define some terms and then characterize the different color schematics.  Four words which get tossed around quite a bit when discussing color are tint, hue, shade, and tone.  Hue is the purest form of a colors —  not only the colors which are not made from two other colors (such as red or blue) but also those made by blending two colors (such as green or purple). 

Tints are made by adding a small amount of white to a hue – such as pink.  We add a bit of white to red and it becomes pink.  We add white to purple and it becomes lavender.  Tints tend to move towards the pastel end of the color spectrum.

Tones are produced by adding pure gray to a hue or tint.  For instance, when you add gray to pink a mauve is produced.  When you add gray to blue, the range can go from a dusty blue to a dark blue.  If you’re wondering what tones look like, take a look outside.  Most of the colors in nature are tones – not hues. 

Shades created by adding pure black to a hue.  This action darkens and densifies the color.  When we add black to red, we get maroon.  When black is added to any color, it significantly darkens it, to the point some hues actually appear almost black themselves (such as Navy blue). 

Within these terms, there are two more to consider – saturation and value.  Saturation occurs when the hue is at its purest – it’s bright, vivid, and rich.  There is also low saturation, and this occurs when you produce tones.  Value refers a color’s lightness or darkness.  It’s worth remembering that the term “color” encompasses hues, tones, shades, and tints.  Hue is the color in its purest form.  While most people (including quilters), use the two terms interchangeably, there is a difference.

Within this vocabulary you can find ten general color schematics for quilts.  I’ve given some general details about these below.

  •  Triadic — Generally, when I teach beginning quilting, I encourage my students who have never sewn or done any type of independent art project to pick three fabrics and a neutral.  These three colors are called a triadic color scheme and normally in this layout the colors are red, blue and yellow or orange, purple, and green.  Those are the basic triadic color palettes.  This can vary – especially with fabric.  However, I’ve found if you’re a beginning quilter or you want to pick fabric quickly and get started on a quilt, the triadic works really well.  You can get wonderful visuals out of the three colors and for a new quilter, it doesn’t become overwhelming – especially when you consider the average quilt pattern employs five to six different fabrics plus a neutral.  That’s a lot for a beginner. 
  • Monochromatic – If you’re fluent in Latin prefixes, you realize the prefix –mono means one.  And that’s what this color scheme is – one hue.  Let’s say we’re constructing a monochromatic quilt from red.  Red is a hue.  However, we can bend that red by adding tints, tones, and shades.  So, the fabric we could use in a monochromatic quilt could run the gamut from red to pink to maroon.
  • Analogous – This color scheme uses three adjacent colors on the color wheel plus a neutral such as white or black.  Let’s work with red again.  If you find red on a color wheel, you’ll note two colors next to red are red-orange and orange.  The red-orange and orange would be used with the red for analogous color schematic. 
  • Complementary – Complementary colors are directly across from each other on the color wheel.  Modern color theory states the complementary colors are red-cyan, green-magenta, and blue-yellow.  Traditional color theory holds the complementary colors are red-green, yellow-purple, and blue-orange.  In our quilting world, it’s any color which is a straight-line zone across from another.  I work with analogous colors when developing a complementary color scheme.  To me, using only two complementary colors can be a little visually harsh, so I take two analogous colors and each of their complementary colors.  This seems to work well, and I always seem to end up with a pleasing combination this way.  For instance, let’s say I choose the colors indigo and violet.  Indigo’s complementary color is yellow, and violet’s is yellow-orange.  Those four colors would make a visually pleasing quilt.
  • Rainbow – At first thought, it’s easy to imagine this could possibly be a scrap quilt – but it’s not.  It’s a quilt made from colors of the rainbow: Red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo, and violet. 
  • Warm and Cool – Warm colors are red, yellow, orange, and any combination of them.  Cool colors are green, blue, purple and any combination of those.  Warm colors evoke  feeings of positivity, warmth, and sunshine while cool colors support feelings of relaxation and calm.  With quilts, you can use both warm and cool colors or only one of each category.  Years ago when I started quilting, we were told a balanced quilt had some warm-colored fabrics and some cool-colored fabrics.  We no longer hold to this “rule.”  I’ve seen great quilts made from all warm colors and my favorite quilts tend to be comprised primarily of cool.  If you’re using both warm and cool colors in your quilt, keep in mind that the cool colors will “recede” – the warm colors will dominate. There are some colors which can be either warm or cool, depending where it’s placed in a quilt.  If your quilt has lime green, purple, white or gray, those colors will “heat up” if placed near a warm color and likewise “cool down” if placed near a blue.  That’s just something to keep in mind as you lay out your quilt.
  • Light and Dark – If you want to get truly technical with this definition, a light is a tint (a hue which has had white added, such as pink) and a dark is a shade (a hue which has had black added, such as maroon).  So yes, theoretically, any quilt made solely from a tint and a shade has a light and dark color scheme.  However, with quilts we tend to first think of this schematic in its most extreme form – black and white.  With any light or dark pairing, the shapes in the blocks are the emphasis and the look leans toward simplistic and uncluttered. 
  • Neutral –– Natural colors: the seashore and shells; barks and stems; wood; dried grasses; crinkly leaves; skin-tones; rocks and soil. Grays like the sky sometimes and clouds, or concrete, and silvery steel. Creams, ivories, bone, and every shade of brown are all neutral colors. Neutrals can be light or dark. They are non-competitive, and help other colors. This is why they work so well as backgrounds. Neutrals are peaceful and offer support, so in general they are always welcome.  I find natural color schemes calming and soothing – whether they are in my quilt or my home.
  • Traditional — A traditional quilt color scheme depends less on color than value. It is traditional to choose three colors for quilting: one that is dominant, one that is subordinate, and one as an accent. The dominant and subordinate colors play off each other, and the accent provides a pop.  The best example of this is a Log Cabin Block.  The center square is always the accent.  Historically, this has been red, but now it can be nearly any color.  Take a look at my guild’s 2021 raffle quilt.  This is a log cabin, but the center is a wonderfully, deeply saturated raspberry.  The accent serves both as a “pop” of an unexpected color to catch the eye, but also as the constant:  all of the logs may be different, but the centers are all the same.  The darker logs are the dominate (no matter how many darks are used), and the lighter logs are the subordinate (no matter how many lights are used). 
  •   Scrap – It’s always a valid choice to use no color scheme at all and simply use the first piece of scrap fabric you pull from your box or bin.  I’m a little too OCD to be entirely comfortable with this process (even my scrap quilts look a little too planned), but people like Bonnie Hunter and Augusta Cole really make it easy for you to learn. I have found that if you use white in your sashing or setting, it does help calm things down a little and makes everything work together.   

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying one more time – all quilts need lights, mediums, and a dark.  Without this range of values, the quilt looks “muddy” – there’s nothing to catch your eye or really draw your line of vision across the quilt.  There’s a super-easy way to determine if you do have a good range of values.  Line your fabrics up and take a picture with your phone. 

Then go into your photo editing selection and turn the black and white filter on.  This produces a black and white picture of all your fabrics. 

In this black and white photo, it will be obvious to see if you have lights, mediums (these will look gray), and a dark, or if your fabrics are all mediums.  To me it does seem that fabric manufacturers are producing primarily mediums now, so you may think you truly have a dark until you use the black and white filter – only to discover they’re all mediums.  Also remember with most precuts, there is no true dark included.  You may have to add a dark if you use those in your quilt. 

I also like to use a “zinger” fabric when possible.  This can be an unusual fabric or a deeply saturated solid (which I prefer).  I scatter this in small doses across my quilt top.  Zingers really do add a little “sparkle” – they’re something completely unexpected but are truly visually pleasing. 

Okay, we’re nearly at the end of this blog and I promised to explain why a color wheel is not my favorite color tool.  I used a color wheel for years until I discovered this:

Yes, this is bulkier than a wheel.  However, it does so, so, so much more than any color wheel I’ve ever owned (and I have owned a lot a few).  First, let’s look at the front of one of the pages:

We’re working with my favorite color, purple – called violet in this tool.  First, to the right, you see six color wheels with the monochromatic, complementary, analogous, split-complementary, and triadic colors isolated for violet.  There is no second guessing involved – they’re right there.  Along the left side, about midway down, there is the pure hue of violet and it’s marked pure.  Then above it is the tints and below it are the shades and tones.  On the back

Are bigger samples of all the colors from the front.  Printed on these samples are the colors are a series of numbers and letters, which are not used by most quilters.  But for the moment, let’s return back to the front of the card with the six color wheels.  Each of the cards is numbered, and the violet card is number 13 (shown on the front, in the right-hand corner).

Let’s look closely at the triadic color scheme. 

The card tells us that besides the violet from card 13, we also need an orange from card 21 and a green from card 5.

This is great information to have at your fingertips, and if you’re a beginning quilter, just having something to help direct your fabric choices is amazing.  However, if you’re like me and have been around the quilt block a few times, I don’t need as much help choosing colors as I do figuring out if the colors I’ve chosen are the right ones.  Here’s where that handy-dandy 3-1 tool really shines.  Take a look at this gorgeous piece of fabric I just purchased from Pineapple Fabrics/Keepsake Quilting:

The pinks and greens are the dominate colors with small pops of purple and blue.  If I decide to find a zinger fabric for this quilt, I’d try to find an orange – there’s small amounts of this color in the fabric and if I can find a deeply saturated orange, it will really add some zip to the top. 

However, let’s concentrate on the green – and the reason I chose green is because green is a funny color.  It’s actually a challenge to find the right green because there are soooooooooo many yards of different green fabric manufactured.  The  first thing I need to do is lay the front side of the green cards against the material. 

There are six green cards in the tool:  chartreuse, spring green, yellow-green, green, blue-green, and aqua-green.  Which these greens are used in the fabric?  When you spread all five cards out against the material, you can see the darker green in the spring green card matches the closest. 

While the chartreuse card is a dead ringer for the lighter green, the darker greens on this card get too muddy to be a good match. 

This tells me if I want some green fabric to use as my mediums, I could safely use any of the greens on the backside of the spring green card to begin to pick out my mediums and even possibly my darks.  This steers me clear of gravitating toward any other green in the fabric store – saving me time and possibly money if I buy the wrong green.  This works so much better and more efficiently than a color wheel.  You can isolate your colors and BOOM!  There goes the guess work. 

There’s a couple of bonus factors with the 3-in-1 Color Tool.  First it has these in the back:

These are value filters.  When you look through these to view your fabric, it’s has the same effect as if you took a picture on your phone and then viewed it through the black and white filter.  The second bonus is it comes with a pouch, so I can toss it in my quilt bag or purse, and it won’t be damaged.  And it’s still small enough it’s not too bulky.    There is a newer version of the Tool and it has all of these features, plus a couple of cards with cut-outs for small circles, squares, triangles so you can preview how your fabric will look cut in these units.  And for those of you who simply have to have a color wheel, the 3-in-1 now comes in wheel form.  I don’t have one and have never used it, so I can’t verify how much easier or harder they are to use than a standard color wheel. 

I hope this very brief study of color theory has help taken at least some of the guess work out of choosing fabrics and colors.  I’ve been quilting about 35 years now, and picking out my fabric still daunts me at times. It’s one of those things I can second guess myself on until the last stitch is sewn in the binding.  I’ve gotten better and I will be honest and tell you that you become more successful at it the longer you quilt.  There are books, longer blogs, videos, and classes which really get into a deeper dive than what I’ve given you here today.  Let me encourage you to look into those and be brave:  Choose your own fabrics.

Until next week, Keep On Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

6 replies on “Colors and Quilts”

It will take some time, but you’ll feel better. The most important thing is that they’re happy. I’ve been on the fence about that 3 in 1 tool; you’ve convinced me to get it.

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