Friday, September 19, 2014

Just the Right Fabric: Top Ten Questions to Ask When Choosing Fabric

The right fabric can make or break a quilt.  

Choosing fabric is one of my favorite things to do.  Most of the time I actually buy what I choose, but sometimes I just cruise the quilt shop, choosing what I MIGHT use for a given quilt.   As a designer, teacher, and former quilt shop employee, I have also been privileged to be able to help others choose fabric for their own quilts.

Practice choosing fabric to gain confidence.

Some quilters, especially newer quilters, aren't very confident about choosing fabric.  Often they will buy a kit, or the fabric to duplicate a sample quilt.  There's nothing wrong with that--if I see a sample that I love, there's every chance in the world I'll buy a kit.  (And perhaps even make it someday!)  However, I love to see people strike out on their own, and choose fabrics to make a quilt truly their own, even if the first tentative step into fabric selection is to swap out one or two fabrics, or choose a different set of precuts.

You're more creative than you think!

Very often I hear, "I'm just not good with color.  I'm not creative and I don't have good color sense."  It breaks my heart, and throws down a challenge; I firmly believe that we are all creative, it's only that many of us were convinced by others when we were young that we aren't creative because we couldn't draw exactly what the teacher (or whoever) wanted.   It seems to me that everyone (except those who are truly color blind) has color sense, if in no other way than having favorite colors, or  knowing what you like when you see it.   The challenge for the not-entirely-comfortable, not even counting the barrier of believing they aren't creative, is to translate the aspects that ARE comfortable for them into fabric choices.  And it takes some practice.

Notice that these are the Top Ten Questions, NOT the Top Ten Rules, or even Top Ten Guidelines.  (And even rules are made to be broken, right?)  There are exceptions to each of these, and all of these.  These are the questions that I trot out most of the time, often to help me make a choice between two fabrics that are possibilities, or as an overall final checklist or assessment.  And sometimes they just get tossed out, and wonderful quilts still result!   I look at these as a starting point.

The Top Ten Questions:

1. Focus Fabric. Do you see a fabric or collection whose colors you like, even if you don't want to use that specific fabric in a quilt?  A focus fabric is an excellent way to choose fabrics that go together in a way that pleases you.  Choose fabric with the colors you see in the focus fabric.  Most fabrics even have little circles of the colors in the selvage, if the print confuses your eye and you find it difficult to see the colors.

Here I'm pulling out colors that I see in the multi-colored print.  I wouldn't necessarily have thought to put these particular colors and shades together if I hadn't seem them--and fallen in love with this print.  I may end up not using all of them, but the focus fabric has given me many choices and plenty of guidance for my choices!

Large scale prints are especially helpful when looking for color help.  Sometimes I don't even use the focus fabric in the quilt, I just like the color combination and the focus fabric is my guide for selecting fabrics to give me that color effect.   A few examples:

Vermont from Alexander Henry

Floragraphix IV by Jason Ynenter

Kona Bay

2. Scale.  Is there a variety of scale in the fabrics?  There are some exceptions, of course--modern quilts often use solid fabrics, for example, but most of the time I aim for a variety of large, medium, and small print fabrics in my selection; it adds texture and interest for the eye.
If using prints, look for large, medium, and small scale prints.

3. Value. Is there a variety of value in the fabrics?  Usually, you want a good mix of light, medium, and dark fabrics.  

Note that light, medium, and dark are relative terms here; a fabric that looks medium compared to the fabrics around it on the shop's shelves may be a dark--or a light--in YOUR selection, depending on the other fabrics you have chosen.  In the first photo, the brown/gold/green fabric looks very dark compared to the tan, while in the second photo, the same fabric looks medium in value when compared to the dark brown.

5. Contrast. Is there enough contrast in the fabrics?  Note that this MAY be "Is there good contrast," but not necessarily; for some quilts you may not want a lot of contrast.  Be aware of fabrics, especially prints, that will "bleed" or "melt" into other fabrics.  If those fabrics will be next to each other in the quilt, will you be able to tell that they are different fabrics?  (Hint--step back and look at them from a distance.  If they look like essentially the same fabric, then the piecing you do will get lost.)  This contrast may be a contrast of value (see #4) but it may also be a contrast in color, or size of print.

I wanted a good contrast for the narrow bands in my "Upstanding" quilt, and the dark gray is a contrast in both color and value.  White, pink, or red would have "bled" into the main fabrics, no matter what value or scale I chose, since there's a variety of both those in the main fabrics.  
So, in this case, a contrast in color was the ticket.

In "Underwater Basketweaving" the contrast is in the difference in the value of the two blues.

5. Directional? Is the print directional?  Is there a definite "line," and will it drive you crazy if that line ends up to be not perfectly straight?  The "line" may not be a line at all, but a print, such as a plaid, or a geometric, that looks very linear.   Sometimes fabrics are not printed exactly on grain, and sometimes we (gasp!) don't cut perfectly straight.   For scrappy, homespun quilts, it may be appropriate or desirable to have some that aren't straight, and some quilters are all right with that effect in their quilts.  Other quilters are not.  You just need to know which of those YOU are.

The prints below aren't stripes, but they are quite directional.


6. Large Print, Small Cut. If you cut the fabric into the size of pieces the pattern specifies, will you lose a color or effect?  For example, if it's a large print but the piece will be quite small, will you still like the fabric in that role?  Or, if color and contrast are important, are the colors in the print scattered, so that some cuts will be give you blue pieces, and others will give you a completely different color?  (And will that be all right or not?)

Here, the overall impression is of a medium green,  but if I'm cutting small pieces from it I might get some that are a light golden or a light  green or a dark green. (Lovely fabric, though, isn't it?  It would be great in a quilt with larger pieces.)

I have found that this often  comes up with students who are choosing batiks for a 2-color quilt, such as a Hunter's Star.  In this batik (which, I know, looks out of focus, but that's the way the fabric is printed), even a reasonably large piece could end up being light or dark, blue or green or pink.  

In this one, the fabric reads as green, overall, but the bits of gold and blue and pink are large enough that one of them might end up the predominant color in some of the pieces.  And there are large enough areas of light and dark that it could result in quite different patches of color and value.

(Remember, this does not make these fabrics anything less than beautiful, just not necessarily appropriate for some patterns.)

7. Pop! Do you have a fabric that makes the other fabrics "pop"?  (And do you want a "pop" fabric in the quilt?)  If you pull a fabric out and the other fabrics suddenly look dull to you, you might want to re-think that fabric.  Conversely, are there any fabrics that 'dull it down," that seem to just lie flat?  I often lay the fabrics on a table, walk around the shop and, when I come back to the table, see if any fabric catches my eye or looks out of place when I come around the corner and see them in that first moment.  (It can also be helpful if you can find someone to hold the fabrics vertically for you.)

In the example of fabric selection in #1, the gold toward the middle of the line is the 'pop" fabric; I might not want to use a great deal of it, but without that bit of bright pop, the quilt would be fine, but a little subdued, and I wasn't looking for subdued for this one!

8. Mood.  Does the fabric fit the same "mood" or style as the other fabrics?  Is the quilt elegant, but one of the fabrics is more of a whimsical mood?   In a recent class, a quilter had a selection of batik and batik-like fabrics, and one that was a small, nautical print with anchors scattered across it.  The color was right--though the background on the nautical looked flatter than the batiks--but the mood was completely different and she was much happier when she chose to not use that fabric for that quilt.

The yarn fabric and the stripe have the same whimsical, informal mood but the Celtic fabric, though it has some of the same colors as the stripe and the yarn, has an entirely different mood.

Blank Textiles, Red Rooster Fabrics, and Paula Nadelstern for Benartex

9. Too Matchy?  Is the selection of fabrics too "matchy-matchy" for your taste?  Sometimes you will gather fabrics, having paid very close attention to matching colors just-so, and find that it lacks some life.  Try a fabric or two that are a little different, and see if helps the quilt to "pop."  Perhaps it's a fabric that's a hair brighter than one of the colors you've chosen.   You haven't lost anything by trying, and you might find yourself happier with your selection.

Below, the first photo shows perfectly fine matches for the Jinny Beyer print, color-wise, and it would make a perfectly fine quilt.  But I like the addition of another fabric, the Rose and Hubble print in the lighter blue; it adds some sparkle. (And it adds a little more variety in scale.)

These days many fabric designers are creating collections that help you stay away from the "matchy-matchies" by including a variety of types of prints, all designed around a color scheme and mood.
This Three Sisters collection, "Spring Fever," is a good example.  When I first started in quilting I probably wouldn't have thought to mix all these types of prints together.  (Well, I've been quilting for 40 years, and we barely had 100% cotton fabric when I started, much less all these choices.  But I likely wouldn't have made these choices then, even if I could have.)

Don't be afraid to take advantage of their design expertise, but don't be afraid to add your own tweaking to them, too!

10. Do YOU like it?  This trumps everything else.  You will be working with this fabric for some time as you make the quilt and, if you keep it, you'll be living with the finished product for even longer.  If you don't like it, now is the time to change it.  Quilting is supposed to be fun, and if you don't like the fabric you're using, what's the point?

Try it, you'll like it!

If you aren't comfortable with choosing colors and fabrics, I hope you'll give it a try; it takes some practice, but I'm confident you'll be able to do it with just a little practice--and you'll get better each time you do it, as you learn what you like, and which questions are the most helpful to you.