Color Wheel of Fabric

Color Value: The Essential Quilt Design Element

Color value black and white fabric color wheel

I’m going to make what you might think is an odd suggestion. Design your next quilt in black and white. Don’t worry about the colors. Get the layout right without color before choosing colors. Why?

Color Value – The secret to Choosing Color

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand more about color and what makes it so important when designing a quilt. And, if I’m honest, how to make my own designs better.

I’ve been reading several books about color, but I want to share something from The Quilter’s Color Club by Christine E. Barnes. She introduced me to a quote I’d never heard. She says she was “startled and excited by its truth”.

Value just might explain why some quilts are beautiful while others are simply stunning.

Value does all the work, but color takes all the credit.

– Author Unknown

Color Wheel of Fabric

Love those Colors!

How many times have you looked at a quilt and said, “Oh, I just love those colors!” And I’m not suggesting that you didn’t like the actual colors, but could it be that what you really meant was that you loved how the colors and overall pattern worked together?

When you like the way colors enhance a pattern, it is most likely due to the values of those colors. Yes, I’m referring to light, medium, and dark fabrics. It is why so many quilt patterns direct you to use a particular combination of light, medium, and dark fabrics.

If you get the color value right, the actual color choice can be practically anything. How many of you just rolled your eyes and thought, “I hate trying to decide which fabrics are light, medium, and dark”? I have a cure for that.

Knowing that the color value can make a real difference is what leads me to say that we should design in black and white and then choose the colors.

Design for Value only

Block showing Value 2
Block showing Value

Let’s experiment with a block pattern in light, medium, and dark only as shown above.

When looking at the block on the left, I see the four dark triangles.

The first thing I see when I look at the block on the right is a pinwheel. Most likely that is because the dark color is what I notice first.

Now let’s use those two blocks in a couple of quilt layouts. As you can see below, you get two entirely different looks just because we moved the value around.

Pinwheels are prominent in the one on the left, but diamonds are the most obvious in the quilt on the right. Which layout do you like best?

Black and white quilt 1
Black and white quilt 2

Time for a Little Color

So, that’s great you say, but I want a colorful quilt. How am I supposed to decide which colors are light, medium, and dark? I never seem to get it exactly right.

Use your phone. Lay the fabrics you want to use side by side. Take a photo with your phone. Then, edit the photo. Apply a black and white filter and suddenly you are a value expert!

And don’t be surprised if the values you assigned to the fabrics at first glance are not what your black and white picture reveals. It happens to me every time.

Is it any wonder that designing with the naked eye as it relates to color, might not be giving you the best design possible? You just proved that to yourself if the color values you assigned didn’t match the black and white photo.

This little trick even works with online images. Just snap a photo of a fabric image on your computer and edit it to black and white. Try it with the fabric images below!

What About Fabric collections?

So, you might think all of this works best when using solid fabrics. Not the case. However, using solids will give you a lot of color options. You get to choose the exact colors (tone, tint, shade) and make choices based not only on value but all color relationships.

I know that some quilters don’t like to use solid fabrics though. They say that solids show mistakes more readily.

Good news, you can use the camera trick with printed fabrics too.

If you start with a fabric collection, the designer has made all the color value decisions for you. And if you love the colors in the collection, then you need only decide which fabrics are in the value range you need.

Every collection includes light, medium, and dark fabrics. Collections also include small, medium, and large scale prints. Considering scale will also enhance your designs, but that’s for another post.

Take a Picture

Your job is to determine which prints are light, medium, or dark. That is most easily done by using your phone as described earlier. For now, I’ll say that I chose a fabric of each value. If you take a picture of the images below and edit it to black and white, you’ll see the color values.

The images below are from the Albion Collection by Amy Smart for Riley Blake Designs coming out later this year.

C14595 BLUE 72dpi
C14593 BLUE 72dpi
C14590 CREAM 72dpi

I chose blues, but the collection includes yellows, greens, and pinks as well. Remember, I mentioned that if you got the value right, you could use any color.

Now, what happens if I color my quilt images above based only on the value of the fabrics? I don’t need to worry that any of the colors are going to clash because I’m using only fabrics from the same collection.

So what do you think? I’m still a fan of the pinwheels on the left.

Albion for Value Quilt 2
Albion for Value Quilt

Scrappy Quilts

I make a lot of scrappy quilts in which the colors are mixed up all over the quilt. I like using pre-cuts because I can showcase an entire fabric collection in one quilt. And I rarely stress over which fabrics to use in a block.

However, I do use the camera trick to help me get the color values spread throughout the quilt as evenly as possible before sewing it together.

Get the Best Look with Color Value

So, the next time you design a quilt or simply follow the color value recommendations in a pattern take a little extra time to get the value right.

I know I’m going to be taking photos of my pre-cuts from now on to help with fabric selection in each block in my design.

Oh, and next time you’re at a quilt show, take a black and white photo of the quilts you find stunning to see if color value played a part.