Choosing fabrics to make a quilt can be a challenge, especially for beginners so here are some ideas to make the process easier.
Using a Fabric Collection
Quilting cottons are usually designed in collections: a capsule selection of co-coordinating prints in a pre-chosen colour palette and including a mix of scales and patterns. Many quilters buy quilting fabric in fat quarters; a pre-cut piece of fabric usually measuring 18” x 22”/46cm x 56cm, and it’s possible to buy a whole or part of a fabric collection in a fat quarter bundle. The photo below shows the ‘Penny Arcade’ collection by Kimberly Kight for Cotton + Steel. There are 18 prints in all with a strong design theme and a nostalgic style.
I then separated the array of prints and colours to show how the collection divides into light/dark/mid tints and shades. Tints are colour + white, shades are colour + black. The patterns range from simple organic shapes to detailed illustration and there are no solid fabrics. You could use all the fabrics in a designer’s fabric collection or just some of them.
In the next picture, you can see how the same fabrics are separated to show how the collection divides into light/dark/mid tints and shades.
Mix a Fabric Collection with Solids
This is a great entry level method of choosing fabrics for a project and a little more economical as solid fabrics tend to be cheaper than designer prints. I’ve used a fat eighth bundle; a selection from Denyse Schmidt’s ‘Eastham’ range for Free Spirit, and mixed it with larger cuts of solid fabrics, in a dark, light and mid tone. A tone is a colour mixed with white and black. With this selection, the prints will be small bursts of colour in each block and the solid fabrics will provide the background and contrast.
Mixing a Fabric Collection With Your Stash
Using a bundle of prints from a single designer fabric collection is a safe way to make a colour-coordinated quilt but it can look a little predictable and another option is to use a fabric collection as a starting point; maybe you only have a small stack from a single collection, and then add other fabrics of your choice. Quilting cottons usually have a printed selvedge running along the left vertical edge of the fabric showing the separate colours used in each print. This can help when matching other fabrics either from your stash or at your local quilt shop. It is harder to match accurately online but an email to the shop owner could help. You should also find that in a bricks and mortar quilting shop, staff are happy to help you put a group of fabrics together and they could come up with some surprising ideas.
Apply Basic Principles of Colour, Pattern and Scale
If you would rather use fabrics you already own and mix different prints and colours together yourself, it helps to apply some basic principles when putting a fabric selection together.
- Mix prints with solids. This is a very general principle. Quilts made entirely with solids can have huge visual impact, as can quilts constructed with patterns and no solids. If you like the effect of solids, creating the drama of your quilt with colour alone can be a challenge. If you are relatively new to quilting, mixing a variety of prints with a few solids, or lots of solids with a few prints is a quick way to create a fabric selection for a project.
- Mix graphic and/or geometric prints with softer more scattered patterns like florals.
- Use conversational, novelty or focus prints sparingly as they can have a strong impact.
- Mix scale. A range of small, medium and large scale prints creates a dynamic effect.
- Mix direction and orientation of prints. For example, many 1930s reproduction floral prints are scattered or tossed so that the print works in every direction. This will contrast with one-way or two-way prints, especially if they have a geometric quality like a gingham or narrow stripe.
All these principles are based on contrast or difference and it is these that bring interest, humour, style and quirk to a quilt.
In the photograph below, I pulled 16 different prints from my stash based on a pastel primary colour inspired selection – yellow, pink and blue. I’ve included light, dark and mid tones and shades, a variety of prints including conversational (large drawn florals with rabbits), geometric (plaids, grids, triangles, dots) small and large florals, graphic patterns (hearts, text/ruler print) and prints with different directions (one-way, two-way, tossed).
I did notice that it was quite a busy set of prints and the addition of solids can help to provide somewhere to rest the eyes with all that pattern, and create stronger definition and contrast in blocks than pattern alone. So I added a few solids, some as substitutions and some as extras. There are now 17 different fabrics. This process could continue through several rounds of adding and taking away until you are happy with your selection.
Using a Black and White Camera Filter
You may prefer to go off in a completely different direction- maybe a ‘low volume’ quilt where the fabrics are light/pastel colours with prints and patterns that have a ‘quiet’ feel so the end effect will be muted and gentle rather than relying on contrast. A good way to check the contrast levels of different fabrics is to use a camera phone or digital camera and take a black and white filter using either Instagram or a photo-editing app or an option on your camera. You can then see the comparative lightness and darkness in the colours and prints. This is especially useful when working with mid range colours which appear to contrast, but when seen in black and white, the tonal quality can be very similar and contrast would be hard to achieve.
Ultimately, it’s your quilt so choose what you like and don’t get too hung up on colour rules like ‘red and green should never be seen’ or even with my suggestions. They are just starting points to get you beyond the blank canvas stage and once you have your first stack of fabrics, it can then change and develop and become personal to you. The finished fabrics could be totally different to your initial selection! I like a scrappy look to my quilts so it’s possible that during a project I might run out of one of one of my original fabrics so I’ll add another with a similar colour and print, or even something totally different and it will be that unplanned element that lifts and elevates the quilt into something special. I’m very flexible in my approach. If a scrappy look is not for you, a very limited colour palette can produce a dynamic and dramatic quilt, e.g. red and white, although I would recommend testing the colour fastness of your fabrics first as strong colours can bleed, even with modern quilting cottons. There are suggestions here about prewashing and colour fast testing.
Simple Sampler Quilt Quantities
If you would like to make a free sampler quilt (shown above) using our quilting series by Kerry the fabrics requirements are below. Find the full series of posts on our techniques page by clicking the simple sampler tag.
To make a lap size quilt (minimum size 36” x 48” /92cm x 122cm, no sashing, no borders, 12 blocks and a 3×4 layout):
A minimum of 12 fat quarters would comfortably make a lap size quilt with fabric to spare and I find at least 12 different prints will provide sufficient variety. Additional fabric will be required for sashing and borders, especially if you want these to be solids or all the same fabric.
Backing fabric: minimum of 1 metre.
Binding fabric: 0.5 metre
To make a throw or single size quilt (minimum size 48” x 72” 122cm x 183cm, no sashing, no borders, 24 blocks and a 4×6 block layout):
A bundle of 18 – 20 fat quarters would comfortably make a throw/small single size quilt with fabric to spare and this could include some half metre cuts instead of fat quarters. Additional fabric will be required for sashing and borders, especially if you want these to be solids or all the same fabric.
Backing fabric: 3 metres (based on two 150cm lengths of fabric 110cm wide, joined together.
Binding fabric: 0.5 metre based on the minimum throw size. For a larger throw, 0.75 metre.
If you would like to make a standard size quilt and add more borders and sashing, this collection of quilt size charts on Pinterest is helpful.