Color Tools for Quilters

The color bible for me is Joen Wolfrom’s Ultimate 3-in-1 Color Tool from C&T Publishing. I use it more than any other color gadget. This handy doodad has guided me through the color selection process many times.

I have an older version from 2003 (on the left above) but any version is useful. The newest version is on the right above. It’s fanned out below.

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I used to glaze over when someone started talking about the color wheel and its tints, tones and shades. It seemed so complicated. Then I learned how to use the Color Tool. My quilts have never been the same.

The Color Tool contains one card for each of the 24 basic colors on the Ives color wheel. Each card shows not only the pure color, but its tints, tones and shades as well. Here’s a quick lesson on those:

• Tints result when white is added to the color.
• Tones result when gray is added to the color.
• Shades result when black is added to the color.

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The tints, tones and shades of any color are not always what you’d expect them to be. When you use the Color Tool, this becomes clear. The card above shows the tints, tones and shades of Chartreuse. The tool has really helped me to understand the concept of tints, tones and shades.

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In the spring of 2010 I was designing my block Paisley Punch for Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks Volume 2. I’d fallen hard for a soft paisley print by Dena Designs for FreeSpirit, and decided to use it as the background. I began looking for fabrics from which to applique my paisley shapes.

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I chose some pinks, purples and greens but nothing was working. Everything looked awful against this background. I hit dead end after dead end. (It was much worse than it looks in the photo.)

I remembered my Color Tool. I used it to analyze what colors were present in my background fabric. I was surprised to find they weren’t the colors I had thought. This happens sometimes: we see tints, tones and shades but our eyes aren’t yet trained enough to recognize the base colors that are being used.

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A survey of everything from green to yellow revealed that the color in the fabric was chartreuse.

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Another surprise: the orange in the fabric isn’t actually “orange” but closer to either orange-yellow or yellow-orange.

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And the trickiest of all: the pinks and purples. I settled on fuchsia, purple and blue-violet, because all three were present.

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Here’s my final palette of yellow-orange, fuchsia, purple, blue-violet and chartreuse. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected but I could see it was going to work.

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From there I chose fabrics in a variety of tints, tones and shades from the cards. I could be pretty sure that if a color was on one of those five cards, it would work. Things started to blend and flow and work nicely together.

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Ultimate 3-in-1 Color Tool by Joen Wolfrom for C&T Publishing

This is how it usually goes. I love the Color Tool and I would recommend you try it. For what you’ll learn and how much you’ll use it, just $18.95 makes it a steal. Widely available at quilt shops and fabric stores, or online at

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