Use These Simple Tips to Choose Fabrics for Quilts

Color Keys on Fabric Selvages
Janet Wickell

Walking into a quilt shop or shopping for fabrics online can be do we make logical choices from all of those bolts (or photos) of fabric? Seasoned quilters are accustomed to the experience, but beginning quilters often find it difficult to begin choosing fabrics for a quilt.

One thing you'll discover as you create more quilts...fabrics needn't 'match.' But at first, working within a controlled color palette can get you off to an easy start, and fabric manufacturers offer a few helpful methods to simplify search and selection.

Find Color Ideas in Fabric Selvages

Find a multi-colored fabric you love, and if you're at a fabric store or quilt shop, take a look at its selvage edges.

Selvages are the tightly bound edges that run along the fabric's lengthwise grain, and they often provide useful information. See all of those little dots stamped on selvages in the photo? They're the colors used within each fabric. The dots help you compare and select fabrics, especially when you browse fabrics that weren't all produced by the same manufacturer.

Selvages often include other details, too, such as the name of the textile company, the fabric designer, and the name of the design group. Those details might help you locate fabric later. Pin a trimmed selvage to leftover yardage rather than tossing the edge into the trash.

Selvage edges aren't typically included in our patchwork, but some quilters have made stunning quilts by collecting interesting selvage edges and sewing them together. Take a look at a selvage quilt blog to see examples of several stunning blocks and quilts.

Choose Quilting Fabrics From a Coordinated Group

Many quilting fabrics are produced in coordinating groups, and most manufacturers also provide 'blender,' fabrics that are often tone on tones in a wide range of colors that work with their own fabrics and fabrics from other manufacturers.

Coordinated fabrics can be a good starting point for a quilt, but keep a few things in mind when making selections.

  • Does the collection offer a variety of print scales? How will the print scales work with the size of patches in your pattern? Large, multi-color prints may look very different from patch-to-patch when cut into small pieces.
  • Does the collection include contrasting fabrics, or do they all blend together? It's sometimes necessary to pull in one or more light or dark fabrics to improve contrast when working with a collection.
  • Manufacturers sell collections in pre-cut bundles, too, but you may still encounter issues with print size and low contrast.
  • Quilt shops sometimes bundle or arrange fabrics in groups they feel work nicely when combined. Quilt shop staff members are always happy to offer suggestions.
  • It's a little more difficult to see true colors when ordering online. Talk to a customer service representative if you have questions.

More Fabric Advice for Beginning Quilters

  • All fabric is an investment. Buy 100-percent quilting cotton of good quality. You'll spend lots of time making a quilt and you want the finished piece to be durable. Poor quality fabrics will shorten the life of your projects.
  • Your first inclination might be to purchase lots of fabrics in your favorite colors. There's nothing wrong with focusing on your favorites but try not to narrow your selections so much that other colors are missing from your collection.
  • Be careful not to focus entirely on a specific type of fabric, such as florals. Include many styles if you want to diversify your stash.
  • Be sure to pick up fabrics of all color values, from deeply colored cotton to the very lightest shades. When used together the differences will add definition to the design elements in your quilts.
  • Consider color warmth, too. Choose a range of colors from cool to hot.
  • Buy plenty of tone-on-tone fabrics—fabrics that appear to be solid from a distance, but are actually subtle prints in different shades or values of the same color. Tone-on-tone fabrics are wonderful replacements for solids since they add both color and visual texture.
  • Try to include all sorts of shapes in your printed quilting fabrics, from angular geometrics to circles and arcs.
  • Buy prints of varying scales, from teeny-tiny upwards.
  • Examine your stash periodically. Ask yourself what's missing? List gaps in your coverage and try to find fill-ins each time you shop. Update your list as needed.
  • Branch out. Buy colors you don't necessarily like—at some point you will need them, even if only in small amounts.

Which Quilt Pattern Should I Choose First?

Beginning quilters are usually happiest with their first quilts when they choose patterns that are easy to sew. If you aren't comfortable when selection quilting fabrics, keep it simple by choosing a pattern that doesn't require lots of different fabrics.

If you're a beginning quilter, do learn some of the basics before you buy fabric and begin sewing.

Sometimes quilters don't like their first quilts, and that usually occurs because they are aware of every little 'mistake.' Don't obsess over mechanical perfection. Have fun and sew with love...that's true perfection.