Choosing fabrics

Picking out fabrics for a quilt top is a bit like picking out the options for a new car — which is the configuration you’ll build everything else on.  And it’s what you’ll drive around in for the time you have the car.  So it’s worth giving some thought to before you start cutting.

The first consideration is the type of fabric.  I recommend a high quality quilting cotton in a plain weave.  To some degree price is an indicator as is where you buy your fabrics.  Independent boutique quilt shops tend to carry the highest quality while the chain stores carry a range of the lowest to highest quality and it’s up to you to sort it out.  In general if the fabric feels terrible on the bolt (stiff, itchy etc.) then it may be of a lower quality and include chemicals like formaldehyde in the finishing steps.  The fabric should feel good on the bolt and have a decent thread count (not too coarse or fine).

Other weaves and fibers can be used, of course, but they may not all sew or shrink the same way the cottons do.  So get the most out of your fabric budget by buying the highest quality fabrics you can.

Other things quilters tend to consider about the fabric they use is the scale, or the size of the print relative to the size of the quilt pieces; the value, the inherent lightness or darkness of the fabric; and of course, the color.

In quilts, a small piece is a one-inch square, and a medium piece might be a four-inch square, and a large piece a 12 inch square.  So a small scale print you can still see on a one-inch square; for instance small polka dots or teeny diamonds, and these I would consider a small-scale print.  A medium scale print might have something like flowers and leaves on it and be recognizable on the four-inch square.  A large scale print might have huge roses or paisleys etc. and look wonderful on the 12-inch square where other smaller scale prints just might be boring in that big of a piece.

I love Bonnie Hunter’s rule for fabrics — if it’s still ugly, you haven’t cut it small enough.  That kind of sums up my approach to scale in fabrics.

In general I love scrappy quilts, so I’m a fabric omnivore.  I love batiks and Asian fabrics, and big bold contemporary prints, and I even like some reproduction fabrics.  I love the brightness of juvenile prints, the zippy graphics of black and whites, swoon over hand dyes and original feedsacks alike.  I’ll mix them all in the same quilt if I like the colors, scales, and values together.  I can’t say that I’m a particular fan of solids but I will use them in the mix if I like the look.

And what does scrappy mean?  It means lots of fabrics used across a quilt top, as opposed to a controlled use of only a few fabrics.  There’s a simple austerity in the use of only a few fabrics which I appreciate but isn’t my calling.  The more fabrics there are in a quilt, the more gloriously scrappy, the more I am drawn to it.

There’s a saying among quilters — color gets all the credit, but value does all the work.  So I’m going to start with value.  In essence value is the lightness or darkness of a fabric.  If you’re not sure where a fabric falls with respect to another — take a black and white photocopy of them and see how they compare.  Some quilters sort their scrap boxes into lights, mediums, and darks, so they’ll have a head start when they start cutting for their next quilt.

Mediums are chameleon fabrics that can act as darks next to lights yet act as lights when placed next to darks.  If they’re placed next to each other mediums may not have enough contrast to still define the piecing lines.

When I started quilting and collecting fabric I discovered that most of the fabrics fell into the ‘medium’ category.  Be sure to gather some lighter fabrics (even pastels, and even if you’re not a pastel fan) and some darks to be sure you’ll have a full range of values for your quilt.  A range of values will define the patterns and give that elusive ‘sparkle’ to your quilt top.

I’ll finish by saying a few words about color.  Some people are frightened of it and others rely on tools like a color wheel to make some sense of it.  My suggestion is to follow your instincts and put together colors in a way that’s pleasing to you.  I will say that if you don’t know where to start, stay monochromatic, within one color, but vary the values from the lightest to darkest.  The more shades you have of a particular color the more everything will play nice together.  Also if you want some ‘pop’ here and there try a few pieces, or even sashing, of a complementary color.

Another quick tip for color selection is to look at the selvedges of your favorite prints — the individual colors that make up the print will be in numbered dots along the selvedge.  Pick fabrics to go along with these dots and those fabrics will harmonize with the print you love and want to feature.  Here’s a stack of selvedges with lots of dots from Red Pepper Quilts:

selvedge strips

a stack of selvedges from Red Pepper Quilts

Another great resource is, where every day she posts a new palette for inspiration with a gorgeous picture.  Here’s a recent one that could be the reference for a classic blue and yellow quilt:

blue and yellow palette

A recent post that could inspire a classic blue and yellow quilt


Keep the spirit of adventure and play in your fabric choices — my feeling is that if a fabric makes me laugh I have to put it in the quilt :).

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