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!

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