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How to Pick Fabrics for Quilts: Color Theory for Quilters


We all know that a quilt is so much more than a blanket. Sure, a quilt keeps you warm like a blanket does. But a quilt is also a physical representation of effort, love, and intention. Each handmade quilt is a celebration of patience and skill. A beautiful finished quilt is the result of a lengthy process:

  1. Pick a pattern

  2. Select fabrics, thread, and batting

  3. Cut fabric into pieces 

  4. Arrange pieces aesthetically

  5. Sew pieces together into blocks, strips, etc.

  6. Iron, iron, iron

  7. Arrange pieced blocks into full quilt

  8. Sew blocks together

  9. Baste the quilt sandwich

  10. Quilting- by hand, on domestic machine, or longarm machine

  11. Binding

A non-quilter may not realize the extent of the work that goes into a quilt, but anyone can appreciate a visually stunning work of art. If you aim to create quilts to impress, then you’ll benefit from an understanding of color theory.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is the study of how colors interact and how they can be combined to create pleasing visual effects. It helps artists and designers in all fields understand how to choose and combine colors in their work to achieve certain effects. 

You may already have a strong sense of color theory, even if you haven’t encountered the formal concept. Understanding the basic terms of color theory can give you a better language to use when thinking about your fabric color choices. 

Color Theory Terms and Definitions

  1. Hue: The pure color, such as red, blue, or yellow.

  2. Saturation: The intensity or purity of a color.

  3. Value: The lightness or darkness of a color.

  4. Complementary Colors: Colors opposite each other on the color wheel, which create contrast when used together.

    Color wheel

  5. Analogous Colors: Colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, which harmonize well together.

  6. Warm and Cool Colors: Warm colors (like red, orange, and yellow) evoke warmth and energy, while cool colors (like blue, green, and purple) evoke calmness and tranquility.

  7. Color Harmony: The pleasing arrangement of colors in a composition, achieved through careful selection and arrangement based on color relationships.

While these definitions in words are a fine place to start, it’s best to consider color theory while looking at visual examples. At The Quilt Crossing, we love to recommend the Essential Color Card Deck

The deck includes 200 cards that illustrate relationships between colors and how varying hues, shades, and tones creates different looks. The deck is a flexible resource, letting you use it however it works best for you. Here’s how we like to use the deck. 

How to Use the Essential Color Card Deck to Pick Quilt Colors

  1. Pick your favorite color. For example, let’s say you’re loving a dark spring green color right now. 

  2. Sort through the cards to find your color. If you don’t see your exact match on the solid color front of the card, look on the back of each card for the variations on the color. (See sample brown card image.)

    Sample color card

  3. Once you’re on the back, you’re now looking 24 colors that are closely related to your favorite. 

  4. Think about the mood and atmosphere you want to convey with your quilt. Do you want it to be vibrant and energetic, calm and soothing, or somewhere in between?

  5. It’s time to play! Spread the cards out on the table in front of you. Pick up cards and set them next to your starting color. What looks good? Experiment with different color combinations by arranging the color cards together and observing how they interact. Create different groupings. Stop when you have a handful of combinations that you like. 

  6. Now it’s time to take a break and step away from the colors so you can come back in a day or so with fresh eyes. If you can spare the table space, leave the cards spread out as they are. Or use your phone to take pictures of the color combinations. 

  7. When you return to your color combinations, one may stand out right away. Or you might quickly see exactly what you want to change. 

  8. Once you have a set of colors you love, take your cards (or a photo of your cards) to the quilt shop. Ask the shop staff to help you find fabrics that match your custom color palette. 

Once you have your yardage and your pattern, you’re on your way to creating an entirely unique quilt that exactly expresses your intent. Congratulations! 

At The Quilt Crossing, community and creativity meet every day. Located in Boise, Idaho, we’re your source for quilt fabric, sewing machines, and ongoing education. Are you ready to start on your custom color quilt? Visit the store, email us, or call us (208-376-0087). We’re here to help you along your quilt journey!