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Recipe for a quilt fabric palette

Updated on March 27, 2016
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Quilter, author, tutor, and columnist, Jan T Urquhart Baillie has been sharing her passion for quilting for more than 30 years.

Choosing fabric for your patchwork quilt

Having trouble deciding what patchwork fabric to buy?

Can't decide which one goes with what to make your first quilt?

Let me give you some tips on how to get the palette right for your patchwork quilts.

Margaret's Uncle John loves his scrap quilt in his favourite greens
Margaret's Uncle John loves his scrap quilt in his favourite greens

What 'mood' should the quilt have?

Formal or modern? Bright or subdued?

As a focus fabric dictates the "mood" of the finished quilt, then the accent fabrics will be in the same style of prints to keep the chosen mood.

So, if your favourite fabric is a beautiful elegant floral, the accent fabrics should be complimentary in impact and feel.

If your focus fabric is modern and bright, then choose accents to coordinate with a bright theme.

If the quilt is for a special person, then choose a fabric with that person's interests in mind, such as golf or cats.

Perhaps choose his/her favourite colours.

Formal colour scheme
Formal colour scheme

Do you like the effect of co-ordinated quilts

or do you prefer scrap quilts?

Co-ordinated or controlled quilts have an 'elegance' about them and tend to be more formal.

Scrap quilts are more relaxed and can be more fun for kids quilts.

They also lend themselves to 'themes' - cats, dogs, bright colours, etcetera.

Margaret's leaves quilt
Margaret's leaves quilt

Scrap quilts

Made with many different fabrics.

They can be different coloured fabrics or all the same colour.

When making this style of quilt you need to have enough different scraps so you don’t get the same fabrics side by side.

If you are just starting out, then your fabric ‘stash’ will be small, so ask your friends for some of their scraps to supplement your pile.

Another way to increase your fabric choices for a scrap quilt like the one you see here is to buy a packet of what are called Charm Squares.

These are usually around fifty 5 inch or 7 inch squares in a packet, all different. Sometimes they are presented in packs with a common theme such as cars, or cats or sewing items..

Jan T's quilt fabric palette recipe

Ingredients — you and your new confidence

Method — know the mood or theme you want

Baking — takes time, even days

Finish — you have a great fabric palette in your new quilt

Ingredients - in no special order

  • Know the room, or the person, that the quilt is for (for colour scheme)
  • Quilt design (optional)
  • Quilt block pattern
  • Fabrics: light, medium and dark in value
  • Confidence
  • Self assurance
  • Innate sense of colour (yes you do have this!)
  • Yardage needed

Step 1


Start with your quilt pattern

Mix and match fabrics until you are happy with the result.

Do not over match.

Be sure to include some values that are lighter and some that are darker.

Stir all together into a wonderful quilt fabric palette.

Rows and rows of fabrics
Rows and rows of fabrics

Take your time

Choosing can be a daunting task for the beginner

Allow yourself an hour at least to purchase fabric.

When you go into a patchwork shop, you are confronted by rows and rows of fabrics.

How do you get the confidence to choose your own colour scheme for a quilt?

Quilt fabric that says: Buy me!

That's where to start

You may see a fabric that jumps out at you in the shop and you say, "I'm going to make a quilt out of that!" or "I want some of that!"

This is where you start — your focus or favourite fabric.

The reason you like a certain fabric is usually because it has a pleasing combination of colours which appeal to you.

Then you look at the way the fabric designer has used colours in the print to harmonise with each other. There may be several colours in total, but you only need to pull out a few to use in your quilt.

Take your clues from your original choice

How contrasting are the accent colours?

Background or accent?

Look at the pattern for your quilt and work out where you will put your favourite fabric.

Is it going to be the background or is it the feature?

This will determine how strong your accent fabrics need to be in the design.

Shop around

No need to buy it all at the first shop

Sometimes you may need to go to different shops to get just the right combination.

Don’t settle — perhaps a few from this shop and a few from that shop will give you the perfect set of fabrics.

Some fabrics will blend too much with the ones they are to be stitched to, and care should be taken to select good contrasting accents.

One of your colour choices could be just out a little but it will affect the way you look at the quilt.

Step 2

Start with the focus fabric - Your 'buy me' fabric

Fabric that starts this palette
Fabric that starts this palette
Ursula's floral fabric had tiny bits of yellow
Ursula's floral fabric had tiny bits of yellow

How much of each colour

Is in the feature fabric?

The amount (proportion) of each accent colour is another clue for you.

If the fabric has lots of red and only a little orange, then try to use more red than orange for your accent colours, as that is one of the things that attracted you to the fabric in the first place.

The small amount of yellow in this fabric led to a tiny yellow piping on the binding of Ursula's quilt

Add some fabrics to the focus fabric

Add some fabrics to the palette
Add some fabrics to the palette

Try different fabrics - to change the feel of the palette

A different set of co-ordinated quilt fabrics
A different set of co-ordinated quilt fabrics

Fabric stories, or fabrics designed to go together

Some shops will have the bolts sorted into colours, others will display 'stories' (a group of fabrics designed to go together).

They might be displayed in themes; conversation prints together; large florals together. There is nothing stopping you from choosing one of the prints from 'a story' and using fabrics from outside that range with it.

Fabrics have no value contrast
Fabrics have no value contrast

You need some lights and some darks

In these fabrics, the colours contrast, but there is no contrast of value.

Some darks, and some lights are needed.

Kathryn's Butterfliez
Kathryn's Butterfliez

Be self-assured and confident

You can do this!

Please don't let the shop assistant influence you in your choices.

Just because they work in a quilt shop, doesn't mean they can pick colours better than you can.

Go with your gut-feelings, even if the shop assistant is as friendly and helpful as can be!

One of my students took the centre part of her new quilt to choose fabric for the next two borders. She thought that the people in the shop knew best, even though she wanted different choices.

When she returned home, she knew that her own choices were better and went back to get those fabrics.

The quilt (at right) is wonderful, by the way.

Step 3

The first two definite fabrics
The first two definite fabrics

Make an audition pile on the shop floor

Start with your favourite fabric.

Find the next definite fabric for your palette.

Find other fabrics to go with your favourite by carrying the bolt along in front of the rows of fabric and pull off the shelf anything you think may work.

Put these to one side in your audition pile.

You may end up with fifteen bolts and only need eight.

This is when confusion could set in.

As you gain confidence, the process gets easier with each quilt.

Adding new fabrics to the mix
Adding new fabrics to the mix

Pick two fabrics from the audition pile

From the audition pile, pick two fabrics, close to each other in value, and line them up with your definite fabrics.

Take a couple of steps back and squint at the pile. This will stop you from seeing the designs printed on the fabric, and allow you to see only the true value of the fabric.

If the fabric has a large print, then you will need to spread it out to see its dominant value.

Which one of the two fabrics do you like best?

Put the other one aside for now.

Keep adding and subtracting

Take the next couple of fabrics and repeat the audition process.

When you think you have all the fabrics you want, replace one with one of the same value you have put aside.

Does the new fabric go better with the whole selection?

If not, then your first choice is still best.

Step 4

Bake for several hours or days

Take your time!

Unless you must finish the quilt right now, go slowly when choosing the fabrics for your next quilt.

You will be happier with the result if you follow the recipe closely, and be confident in your choices.

Butterflies for Amy
Butterflies for Amy

Allow to cool and cut into patches

Sew the patches into your wonderful new quilt!


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