Use Contrast to Change the Appearance of a Quilt

  • 01 of 04

    Forget about Color, It's Contrast That Can Make Or Break a Quilt

    How to Work with Color Value (Contrast)
    Working with Contrast in Quilts. Janet Wickell

    It's easy to change a quilt's appearance entirely by altering the contrast among its fabrics.

    Although technically called color value, contrast is simply a term that refers to how light or dark a fabric or another material is in relation to the surrounding fabrics. An understanding of contrast (color value) is an important quilt making skill that helps quilters decide how to arrange patches of fabric to either blend or create divisions with each other.

    Experiment with Contrast

    One of the best ways to get comfortable with contrast is to experiment with quilting fabrics placed on a design wall. A piece of flannel works just fine, because it grips fabrics, but so does a piece of batting, or a slab of thick foam insulation.

    1. Gather a group of fabric swatches of different colors.
    2. Place swatches side by side on the wall, starting with the lightest fabric and moving across the wall, adding darker pieces.
    3. Step back. Does the line of fabrics blend subtly from light to dark or are there fabrics that pop out to interrupt the flow? Re-sort the fabrics and check again.

    You didn't do anything 'wrong' if the organization still isn't quite right. It's easy to sort fabrics when they're all basically the same color, but throw in multi-color fabrics and sorting becomes more of a challenge, in part because you're adding another characteristic that changes contrast -- color warmth.

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  • 02 of 04

    How Color Warmth Affects Contrast in Quilts

    Compare Color Warmth in Quilts
    Compare Color Warmth in Quilts. Janet Wickell

    What is Color Warmth?

    Look at a standard color wheel and imagine a line running vertically down its center.

    • Colors to the left, blues and greens, are regarded as cool colors.
    • Reds and yellows, to the right, are warm colors.
    • Cool colors tend to recede in a design while warm colors pop into view.

    Examples of Color Warmth in the Drawings

    • Top L: two cool colors -- the darker color comes forward
    • Top R: two medium-light colors -- the warm orange-yellow comes forward
    • Bottom L: two cool darks blend together
    • Bottom R: two dark colors -- warm red comes forward

    Contrast in Printed Fabrics 

    When you work with quilting fabrics, it won't take you long to discover that it's sometimes hard to judge the contrast of florals and other prints because contrast changes throughout the surface of the fabric.

    Cut a piece of fabric in one spot and you might get a very light example -- cut in another area and you could get a dark. Keep that characteristic in mind as you choose fabrics for your quilts.

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  • 03 of 04

    How to Preview Color Value in Quilting Fabrics

    Preview Quilting Fabric Contrast
    Preview Quilting Fabric Contrast. Janet Wickell

    Easy Ways to Preview Contrast

    • Use a computer drawing program to create a mock-up outline of the quilt. Save the "blank" document. Fill in areas with light to dark shades of grey, using the "save as" command to keep your blank document intact. Reopen the blank document and create another variation.
    • View fabrics through a filter that removes color (Buy Color Evaluator from Filters are helpful, but they can provide skewed results because different filter colors display warm and cool fabrics in varying ways.
    • Use a scanner or copier to make black and white photocopies of fabrics, then sort them for color value. It's easier to judge value when you remove the influence of color.
    • View fabrics from a distance. Buy a peephole at the hardware store--the little magnifying glass you look through to see who's knocking at your door. Turn it around and look through it backwards to get a "far away" view of your fabrics or blocks.
    • Find a book that focuses on color tips for quilters.
    • Pay attention to quilts at shows and online. What value arrangements do you like or dislike?


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  • 04 of 04

    Alter Contrast to Change a Quilt's Appearance

    Compare Contrast Differences in Quilts
    Compare Contrast Differences in Quilts. Janet Wickell

    Change the color value/contrast of fabrics in your quilt blocks and you'll see an immediate difference in the quilt's layout. Quilts in the online quilt show are excellent examples of how different a quilt looks when color and contrast are varied. 

    Remember that the fabrics you choose determine the starting points of dark and light. For example, put medium blue next to a white patch and it's a dark. Sew the same medium blue fabric alongside a black patch and it can become a medium. a medium.

    Use Contrast to Create Optical Illusions

    Understanding how contrast and colors work with each other also helps quilters create optical illusions.

    • Gloria Hansen's quilt, Squared, has a central area that looks like it extends well above the rest of the quilt.
    • Karen Combs is another quilter who likes to use color and contrast to create optical illusions in her quilts.
    • Look at a storm at sea quilt by B. J. Reed. Careful placement of light and dark fabrics makes the design almost appear to move.

    Practice is the key to success -- keep working on it and you'll feel confident about your fabric selections in no time.


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