Try a color lesson that sorts your stash too (+ WOW sale)


Quilt-color interpretations
Quilt-color interpretations: tomato red, sky blue, forest green, peach, and royal purple

Have you ever experienced a color disaster in your quilts? Do you have trouble narrowing down your color choices? Do you wait for an “aha!” moment…that never comes? Or perhaps you’re a quilter who uses only kits and coordinated fabric bundles because you’re nervous—or even terrified—that you might fail a color challenge.

If you’ve decided that how to pick fabric for a quilt is a magic trick you can’t master, you’re not alone.

The good news is that color choices don’t have to be intuitive, instinctive, or inborn. There is a step-by-step way to choose color for quilts! How to pick fabric for a quilt becomes simple and straightforward when you understand how colors work together—and when you’re armed with a few color lessons.

Color for the Terrified QuilterIn their book Color for the Terrified Quilter, designers and teachers Sharon Pederson and Ionne McCauley offer practical techniques for making color choices that sparkle  (save 40% on the book now). With lighthearted writing, gorgeous examples, and lots of ideas to try, Sharon and Ionne make sense out of all the nuances of color.

Below is an introduction to working with color, plus a simple exercise from Color for the Terrified Quilter that will calm your color terrors, boost your color confidence—and best of all, organize your stash at the same time! Sit down with your stacks and give it a try.


Color wheelLearning about color theory may seem intimidating, but we’ve taken it upon ourselves to simplify the process. We’ve made understanding color easy and fun for even the most terrified among you. While we avoid most technical terminology, we do advocate the use of a color wheel. It is the standard tool of artists, designers, and many quilters when it comes to choosing colors. Just think of it as another highly useful notion in your sewing room. The diagram (right) is the standard 12-step color wheel. Each of the 12 colors is considered a “family.”

Each piece of fabric:

  • Has a color family to which it belongs.
  • Has a value, which is relative.
  • Has an intensity, which is also relative.
  • Belongs to either the warm side or the cool side of the color wheel.

Confusion arises because all these elements exist in every piece of fabric. By familiarizing yourself with these elements, you will be able to identify which characteristic needs attention if your color scheme isn’t working. No matter how many color families you incorporate into one project, you still need to group all the fabrics into lights, mediums, and darks, because value does the work of creating an effective appearance.

Three color families
Three chosen color families

Sorted color families
The three color families sorted into lights, mediums, and darks

COLOR EXERCISE: Creating Color Families

You will need a 12-step color wheel for this exercise (see above). Familiarize yourself with the names and relative positions of the color families. You may want to get together with a quilting buddy or two for this exercise.

Multicolored fabricsKnowing that the color wheel we are using has 12 colors on it, think of each color as a family unit. Each color family consists of many family members—lights, mediums, darks, clear ones, and dull ones. Train yourself to think of the whole family instead of just one or two fabrics. Think of each piece of colored fabric as a member of that unit.

Now you will need your fabrics, leaving aside for the moment the multicolored ones. We will get to them later. Multicolored fabrics are those that represent more than one color family (such as the fabrics shown at left).

When Ionne teaches this color exercise in class, she usually asks students to choose five or six colors and to find as many different fabrics of each color as they can, making sure they have lights, mediums, and darks. To make the exercise manageable in a classroom, students use pieces no larger than a fat quarter. If your pieces are large, just fold them into manageable sizes. The more fabrics you have to choose from, the better.

Unsorted fabrics
Unsorted fabrics

Green color familyStarting with your favorite color family—let’s choose green as an example—place all members of the green family in a pile (see right). Next to it, place all the fabrics you can find that are blue-green, and then next to that, blue, and so on. You should be putting lights, mediums, and darks into the piles. You can even put in those that are a bit grayed or dusty looking.

Arrange your piles into a color wheel, blending from darks at the outer edge to lights at the interior. While you’re sorting, your fabric color wheel might start to look something like this:

Fabrics sorted into a color wheel
Fabrics sorted into a color wheel

You may notice two things right away. One is that you will have gaps in your color families, and the other one is that your colors won’t exactly match the color wheel. Don’t worry about this—think of the wheel as a guide only.

You will find that some fabrics seem to fall somewhere between two of the steps on the color wheel. For instance, you may have a blue-green fabric that is between blue-green and blue (a little more blue than blue-green). At this point you have to decide which family you want this fabric to belong to.

Trust your eye here. Use the color wheel to get started but try to resist matching the fabric to the paint chip at the edge of the wheel. Instead, think about the color of the fabric in relation to the colored fabric next to it. Take your time. If you cannot figure out what color a particular fabric is, try the process of elimination. See where it doesn’t fit on the color wheel, and then narrow it down some more until you find where it fits. The hard ones will be the grayed or muddy ones.

From this exercise you have learned that there are many variations in the 12 color steps; in other words, there are many family members within each family unit. For example, moss green, avocado, and chartreuse are all just variations of yellow-green. Salmon, coral, peach, melon, and terra cotta are all members of the red-orange family. It can be confusing because we have so many different names for colors. No matter what the color is called, it will fit somewhere on the color wheel.

Now your sorted fabrics can be put into bins or on shelves according to color families.

Sharon and Ionne share many more hands-on techniques in Color for the Terrified Quilter, including advice on:

“Color is the star—value does the work.”

Value--fabrics arranged from light to dark
Fabrics arranged from light to dark

Example of medium value
One fabric stands out because it is brighter, but when you pull it out and lay it across the others, you can see that it is medium.

“Color has intensity—meaning clearness or dullness. We call this the ‘in-your-face’ factor.”

Fabric intensity
Swatches on the top are grayed, duller versions of their partners on the bottom.

Warm and Cool Colors
“Warm colors tend to advance, whereas cool colors appear to recede. If you want to emphasize one element of your design, choose a warm color for that area.”

Warm and cool fabrics
Combinations of warm and cool colors

You’ll also find step-by-step instructions for building your own quilt-color schemes in 11 projects, which range from simple to more complex. Chapters feature quilter-friendly color formulas, like:

  • Family Gathering quiltOne-Color Family
  • The Next-Door Neighbors
  • The Family across the Road
  • A Fork in the Road
  • The Triplets
  • The Family Reunion

Save 40% on Color for the Terrified Quilter this week only.

How do you choose colors for your quilts—do you have any tips to share? Or have you always allowed your local quilt shop to do the honors? Share your colorful story in the comments!

22 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I will have to get this book!

    —Marilyn Grubbs on October 16, 2012
  • So you have been reading my mind again, almost all the foibles about picking the right color live in my head. I have the fantasy divine intervention will pull all the colors together for a masterpiece-oops hasn’t happened yet. As always, I’m a work in progress!

    —carol on October 16, 2012
  • My stash is filled with blues and greens. So when I start a new project, I pick my main fabric, plan the quilt, and then shop for the warm colors that will make the whole quilt glow.

    —Lynne on October 16, 2012
  • My stash is filled with every color imaginable and I select colors based on the recipient’s favorite color or home decorating color scheme. If th e

    Lynnita Shipman on October 16, 2012
  • My problem isn’t so much with colour as it is with Uglies. Gifts from friends, part of a fabric bundle, or the result of a swap, they sneak into my stash and I can’t bring myself to use them!

    Then I took a lesson in applique where the blocks were laid out amid scrappy sashing and surrounded by a wide scrappy border.
    We were encouraged to bring in our scraps, and include as many Uglies as we could find. The result was spectacular! It turned into a lesson in using colour and discovering that it’s not about the pattern on each piece of fabric but the value of the colours.

    Just recently I made a scrappy quilt and decided to ‘use up’ an Ugly as the binding. I just couldn’t do it! So I chopped that binding up and mixed it in with other left over bindings I’d put by. The result is a stunning scrappy binding that looks fabulous and completely blends the Ugly!

    —Kayt on October 16, 2012
  • I LOVE working with color. It has such energy. I usually start with the piece of fabric with the most colors in it, and then pull my other colors from there. It drives me nuts to go to a shop, find 4 of 5 fabrics I need, and then I have to drive all over to find the last one. Or they have the color, but the style doesn’t go with everything else, and you should take it anyway. I’ve gotten more picky about these things over the years, but it is worth the effort.

    I’ve even learned to work with some of the colors I don’t really like, but someone else did, so I made the effort. The only one I haven’t completed yet is to work with off white, ecru through the deeper tans. I can use them to set other colors or specific fabrics off, but never a completely neutral quilt.

    —Claudia on October 16, 2012
  • I use what I love! That way, even if the quilt doesn’t quite live up to what I hoped it would be, it’s still full of fabrics I love. I also tell myself that each quilt is only the first one I’m making of this pattern…that way I have mental room to push my color choices.

    Beth Strand on October 16, 2012
  • Once I have a pile of fabrics I want to use, I ask my mother. She has a great sense of color (I do not).

    —MarciaW on October 16, 2012
  • Color has always been an issue with me. My artistic mother has purchased a color wheel for my use, but the whole color concept is usually left to my husband. I guess he can see more colors then I can because his hand-selected quilts get higher praises then mine do. For now, I leave it to all the experts in my life (mom, my husband, and my new local favorite quilt shop owner, Karen). However, some day I would like to get a handle on this since my experts aren’t often around when I want to begin a new project (like tonight).

    —Colette DeGroot on October 16, 2012
  • I love playing with the different fabrics to see what I can come up with. I usually pick about 2 or 3 fabrics and then stack them on a table or a counter and start looking for colors to go with them. When they are stacked together I start picking and choosing and rearranging them. I also find that it is better to look at fabrics in natural light so once I choose my fabrics I try to get close to a window that way I’m sure that they all blend together.

    —Linda on October 17, 2012
  • Looking at the fabric choices in natural light is a great tip. I like to buy fabric that I like then make a quilt that reflects the person who will receive it. I had no purple, light, medium or dark, until I made a quilt for my Granddaughter……….purple was her favorite color. Now it is one of mine and I use it in some way in almost every quilt I make.
    As to the Uglies……… them. I buy something I like and then cannot make it work at all in the body of a quilt so it becomes a binding or maybe I will use it in a string quilt or maybe I will have to start strips for a rug.

    —Nancy on October 17, 2012
  • When I’m at a fabric store and perhaps picking out fabrics for my next quilt, I line them up in my buggy and stand 10 feet away. That bright flower print, I love, now may look dull next to the red print and so on. When I want to see the "true" color of the fabric, I ask the salesperson to walk outside with me, and in the bright sunlight, I can see what the fabric truly looks like. What I thought was black fabric, it’s actally a dark navy blue.
    Some of our fabrics look pretty on the bolt racks, but if you open them up, from selvage to selvage, hold them at eye level, you can see they are thin and you can read a newspaper through them. If I can see movement behind the opened fabric, I know it will never hold up in every day quilt usage, and I don’t buy. I want my quilts of today, to be seen and used in the next generation.
    The advertised book is a great way to determine fabric colors in your quilt and well worth the money. I have a smaller condensed version called, "Color for Quilters, that doesn’t go into this much detail.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on October 17, 2012
  • The season helps me with color choose. I group all the same colors in my stash. I like to use a focus fabric, then find fabric to work with it. The pattern may also help me choose the fabric. When you sew on budget, you may have to use what you have or wait. I may be a person that plays it safe by using only three fabric colors. Value really does make a different, that why if I can find a good batik it can make the quilt pop even in scrape quilt.

    —Linda C on October 20, 2012
  • Oh my! I love color! That may be why I have a large stash. All I can say is step out of the box and try a new color. We all seem to buy the same color or shade. Take a friend and let her pick out some FQ’s. She may pick out some new colors for you. Have fun and enjoy a new adventure.

    —Sonia Webers on October 22, 2012
  • After I’ve chosen a focus fabric, I try to match the color dots printed on the selvage. Then I select fabric in those colors that have texture–dots, lines, floral prints, geometric prints, then blenders and/or neutrals to rest the eye across the quilt.

    —Mary Douglass on May 21, 2013
  • I always get burned on the uglies, grays and dusty’s. This is a great lesson for me and this book is going to be my GoTo for sorting, simplifying and working out my schemes in the future.

    —Melanie V on May 13, 2014
  • I am kind of wild in my color choices. I hate matchy, matchy. So I tend to just wing it!

    —Cheryl V. on May 13, 2014
  • Yall niggas hiring

    —Dashaunte on June 6, 2014
  • Including a variety of each colour’s so-called family members would be useful. In addition, it would be useful to explain what colour colours that are almost white are, as well as the intricate differences between brown and yellow, colours next to one another on the colour wheel, and other such colours that sometimes look very similar.

    —Tio on November 3, 2014
  • My wife travels the country teaching quilting-scrap in particular. she does very well. I am a working artist, and I do well, so She believes that we can get together and teach. obviously she can teach quilting, so now she wants me to teach her classes about color. but how can i teach a room full of fabric cutters the subtle concepts of color. you have a lot of great concepts, you have me beaten by a mile…so…i will look at fabric and color in a different way…i may or may go our on the road with my wife…see what happens.

    Sounds like a winning team, Bob – we say go for it. 🙂 Thanks for your comment and good luck! –Jenny

    —bob on April 16, 2016
  • Color matching has intimidated me for a long time. I have studied and am getting much better. I like to snap photos of fabric combinations. I find this So helpful. Now the next hurdle is what to do with this great combination! I get stopped trying to decide a pattern and which color to put where!

    —Maryann on August 21, 2016
  • gotta have that book!!

    —Berit Dalby on February 15, 2017

Leave a comment

*Indicates required field