How to find quilt values? Trust Ruby

Have you ever—quite by accident—made a “muddy” quilt? Ask most experienced quilters the question and you’ll likely find more than a few confessions. It’s typically the same story. I fell in love with the fabrics; I was crazy about the colors. But when it all came together, the result was…blah. It happens to all kinds of creatives: painters, photographers, and yes, quilters too. The problem? Typically, the muddies all point to a lack of variety when it comes to value.

One of the challenges of successfully using quilt values is to understand what the word value means. Indeed, many beginning quilters need a few tries before they truly “value” the concept of value! Although discerning value in color can sometimes be a struggle, the idea behind quilt values can easily be explained visually:

quilt values
Quilt values. Can you determine which are light, medium-light, medium, medium-dark, and dark?

Merriam-Webster defines value as “the relative lightness or darkness of a color.” For quilters, it’s the contrast in quilt value that’s key to creating a sharp, clear design—the opposite of muddy. And believe it or not, the best way to find contrast is to take the colors out of fabrics. Once the colors are gone, only fabric values remain.

There are all kinds of homegrown methods for temporarily “removing” colors from fabrics. Looking at quilts through doorway peepholes, peeking at blocks from the wrong end of binoculars, seeing values through a reflection in a window, dimming the lights, and good-old fashioned squinting are just a few ways in which quilters have gotten creative so they can see values. But two savvy quilters invented an even easier way to make the colors go away—the Ruby Beholder tool.

Ruby Beholder tool
The Ruby Beholder by Pat Magaret and Donna Slusser

Watercolor Quilts and Watercolor ImpressionsFunny story about the Ruby Beholder—it wasn’t meant to be a crossover tool. It was initially created as a handy, one-use tool to accompany two books, Watercolor Quilts and Watercolor Impressions (back in the early 1990s, these bestselling books were reprinted 25 times combined!). Authors Pat Magaret and Donna Slusser designed a simple, transparent rectangle in ruby red. Why red? Because when you look at fabrics through rose-colored glasses, as it were, you see only values—the fabric colors magically disappear.

Flash forward to the 2010s. Painters, photographers, and of course quilters swear by the Ruby Beholder to help them determine values. Recently, director of sales and marketing, Karen, and marketing graphic designer, Sarah, created a quick video demonstrating how the Ruby Beholder tool works. Take a look:


Watch the video “The Ruby Beholder Tool: Easily Find Value in Colors

See how you can easily sort fabrics for a project using the Ruby Beholder tool to get just the right contrast between fabrics before you sew? No more muddy quilts!

Ruby Beholder tool

The tool also doubles as a handy template. See the tool’s cut-out square above, on the left? The square helps you select and isolate special motifs or colors. You can use the cutout end to mark and cut squares for quilt designs that feature small novelty prints, fussy-cut motifs, and more.

Ruby Beholder tool

Bye-bye, muddies!


How do you determine values when you make your quilts—or are you just learning about the value of value? Tell us your story in the comments!


19 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I find the value the old fashion way – I squint my eyes of take off my glasses (can’t see more than 8″ away for detail). Fun and I always have it with me!

    —Cindy Wienstroer on June 11, 2013
  • When I was a little girl, my mother’s best friend, who happened to live next door made quilts. Whenever she started to pick out fabric for her next quilt, she would put on these heart shaped rosed colored glasses. She said it helped her see better. She always had such a cheery disposition that it all made sense to me. it wasn’t until I was much older did I realize what she was doing, which made better sense to what she was actually doing.

    Rebecca on June 11, 2013
  • I guess I’m just learning about value,I haven’t made a muddy quilt -yet. I have a pair of 3D glasses on my table,and wonder if they could be usefull to detirmine value-just the red side?

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Yep, that’ll work!
    ~Cornelia

    —ELIZABETH CROSS on June 11, 2013
  • I use my camera to see the values. If I am making a scrappy quilt and want to be sure not to have too much light, dark or a particular color in any areas, the digital camera lets me know. I have the choice of printing the photo or not. I can also use the camera to show rearranged blocks for different lay-outs.

    Barbara Winkler on June 11, 2013
  • I will lay the fabric on my scanner in a fan, out of the fabric and then print the picture I’ve scanned of my fabric.

    —SueAnn Wirick on June 11, 2013
  • Wow! Thank you so much for the quick video of the Ruby Beholder. I’ve bought so many (useless) gadgets over the years that I’ve never really ‘looked’ at the Ruby Beholder before I’m sorry to say I thought it was another waste of quilting resources. When you demonstrated the three colours becoming one value it really connected in my head.

    I love to make scrappy quilts and will now add this useful tool to my sewing basket. I think it will become invaluable 😀

    —Kayt on June 11, 2013
  • If I’m at home and pulling fabrics from my stash I take a digital picture in black and white. It makes it much easier to see the values.

    —Susan on June 11, 2013
  • I’m not exactly sure what I am doing to determine value. I spend a lot of time looking at the fabric up close and from a distance. Then I lay the fabric down on a table and look at it again and again. My quilts so far have not come out muddy and I’m grateful.

    —Grace on June 11, 2013
  • I have a tool like the ruby beholder, however, I have not used it yet. My favorite way to see the values of several fabrics is to select the gray scale setting on my camera and take a picture of the chosen fabrics, grouped together. The values readily show up and then I can make my choices.

    —Diane Wright on June 11, 2013
  • To determine color value; I take small swatches of the fabrics I’ve selected and scan them on my computer scanner with the color mode set to grayscale.

    Place the swatches on the scanner glass. Lay a sheet of white printer paper on top or attach the swatches to the paper with a glue stick and write the names of the fabric below the fabric pieces. Set the color mode to ‘grayscale’ then scan and print

    The colors disappear and the values remain.

    Pat Burns

    —Pat Burns on June 12, 2013
  • Once I choose my fabrics I take a photo and then print it out in black and white. That way I can see the scale of values without the distraction of color.

    —Jenny Forbes on June 12, 2013
  • I thought I HAD to have a Ruby, bought one when I first started out. NEVER could see what I was suppose to see, even had well known teachers try to show me-didnt work for my eyesight which is not bad-lol. So I lay 3 fabrics on my scanner and scan them in b/w-shows me reallllll well
    what the quilt values are.

    —carol on June 12, 2013
  • I check out fabric values by using one of two methods:

    I stack bolts or layers of fabric next to each other and stand back at least 10 feet and check out the overall "view" OR

    I take strips of my fabric to the local print shop and photocopy everything in black and white for an accurate reading. One thing, I’ve learned, as a Photographer, is black and white photos show every little flaw detail in anything.

    Keep smiling,

    Lynnita Shipman on June 12, 2013
  • Just learning about the importance of values. I made a queen size quilt out of five different fabrics, only to realize that three of them are the same value.While it is not totally "muddy", I notice that it could be better. Live and learn! And thanks for your info on values.

    —Sharon Z. on June 13, 2013
  • I bought one of these ‘gadgets’ years ago. It is not large enough to use very easily, plus it promptly broke in half and left an extremely sharp edge, so in the garbage it went. This was one ‘tool’ that wasn’t worth purchasing. I use my digital camera on the black/white setting. Much faster, easier, and you can get a picture of your entire span of fabrics in one picture. Whereas with the ‘ruby’ gadget it is so small you can barely see two or three fabrics at a time. Nope, save your money and pass this one up. Concept is good, but needs to be revamped to be worth buying.

    —Cindy on June 13, 2013
  • I HUMBLY confess to being great at choosing fabrics. Hey, when you got it, flaunt it!

    I use a ruby beholder to double check values of my fabric choices, and and emerald filter to check the values of red fabrics. Very few of chosen fabrics have to be culled out.

    One of my friends kindly commented that the rest of my quilt making skills were mediocre, so it must follow that my color skills come from by being an IDIOT SAVANT at choosing colors. Ouch!

    One less Christmas card to send out this year….

    —Crazy Cuban on June 16, 2013
  • I don’t have a clue about values in quilt colors. A lady in guild had a piece of one of the Ruby Beholder and showed it to us. She couldn’t remember the name or where she got it. (she makes lots and lots of gorgeous quilts) I really want one. I like the idea of using the digital camera or scanner set to black & white. Until my Ruby Beholder gets here I will use that. Martingale you are the best…keep up the good work!!

    —Susan Paxton on June 21, 2013
  • I learned the value of the Ruby Beholder about 15 years ago when I made my first watercolor quilt. And continue to use it for scrap style quilts that I love to put together. This is one tool I consider a must have and keep it near by always. Thanks for the great tutorial.

    Debbie Clarke on June 18, 2014
  • If possible i take a small piece of each fabric and make a black and white copy on a copy machine. This helps me with value. The ruby beholder came later for me.

    —Dana on October 13, 2015

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