Workshop Wednesday: How to Choose Fabric for a Quilt

The opportunity to play with fabric is what attracts many of us to quilting in the first place, but actually selecting fabric to use in our first (or 21st) quilt can be daunting and make us doubt our own preferences and instincts long after that initial trip to a fabric store.

The first time I ever selected all the fabrics at once for a specific quilt was for the project I’d be making in a hand applique class at my favorite quilt shop. I had been quilting for a little over a year at that point and I had very little fabric on hand; as I recall, I was still living at home, and my room wasn’t big enough for a stash.

I used the tried-and-true method, probably recommended by the instructor, of first choosing a focus fabric then finding other prints and blenders to match. I used the focus fabric for the border, which as you can see in the photo, I chose because it reminded me of the couch that had been in my parents’ living room since I was a little girl.

I clearly chose fabrics for this applique quilt by how well they matched my parents’ couch.

For a first effort at choosing fabrics in this manner it’s not a bad one, although I would make different choices now even if I was still working with that same leaf print for the border. (You can read more about this quilt on the Quilters Newsletter blog.)

What would I do differently? Well, I don’t think I’d play it quite as safe, especially with the rust fabrics I used in the flower buds—the quilt could use more contrast there.

For many of us, breaking out of a predetermined palette takes a degree of confidence that we don’t have as beginners. And that’s okay. Quilting is nothing if not a journey that begins with taking that first step.

People have written entire books on color theory and fabric placement. But as Maria von Trapp might sing, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) for the purposes of this blog post. What does it mean to “audition” fabric? What does it mean to buy yardage as opposed to packages of precut fabrics that are selected by the fabric manufacturer?

Here are a handful of videos on choosing quilt fabric that answer those questions and a lot more. The first few all come from the free “Quilty” series featuring Mary Fons, and they’re geared toward the absolute beginner who still needs to learn fabric basics before even thinking about color and print.

Best Fabric for Quilting
First things first: before looking for the right colors and styles that will make your quilt sing, you need to know what kind of fabric to look for. In this episode of “Quilty,” Mary Fons and her sister Rebecca talk about quilting fabric basics. As Mary points out, the notion of sewing together random scraps of whatever fabric you have in your home is not the best approach for new quilters. Here’s what to look—and feel—for in the fabric store.

How to Buy Fabric at the Quilt Shop
Going fabric shopping for the first time can be intimidating or bewildering if you’re a new quilter. In this “Quilty” episode, Mary Fons guides a couple of her friends through how to navigate the shelves full of fabric bolts, including an explanation of what a bolt is.

How to Read Fabric
In this third “Quilty” episode, Mary Fons talks about “reading” fabric in terms of hue or color, value—light, medium and dark—and the types and scales of patterns that are printed on it, all of which are things to keep in mind when picking fabric for a particular quilt.

How to Choose Quilt Fabric
In her free video series for, “My First Quilt,” host Sara Gallegos also gets down to brass tacks. This episode is Part 2 of her tips on choosing fabric in which she talks about working with solids vs. blenders (fabrics with subtle prints and color variations that might read as solid from a distance), color palettes, scale or size of the print, and more.

How to Select Fabric for a Quilt
Jenny Kae Parks also covers fabric selection in her series of free quilting tutorials “Quiltmaker Lessons in Creativity.”  In this episode, Jenny Kae brings her experience from working in a quilt shop to demonstrate how different fabric combinations used in the same block pattern create innumerable designs, talks about using a color wheel or guide and even paint chips to help you select fabric, and explains her “salad method” for picking fabric.

How to Determine Value for Art Quilts
Don’t let the “art quilt” in the title of this video put you off if you’re not an art quilter. When it comes to traditional quilts in particular, it’s true that color gets all the credit but value does all the work. In this episode of “Quilters Newsletter TV,” award-winning quilter Lea McComas shared some fantastic tips with me for determining how light or dark your fabrics are. Click here to view the full episode on

Tula’s House: The Concept
And to close out this selection of quilt videos, I thought it might be fun and useful (but mostly fun) to take a peek inside the mind of a person who designs some of the quilt fabric you see on the shelves of your local quilt shop. Tula Pink is well known in the quilt world for her signature highly sought-after fabric designs, and the exclusive series “Tula’s House” tracked her process while she developed her Eden collection for FreeSpirit Fabrics. You can watch the full first episode below;  click here to learn about all of the episodes in the “Tula’s House” series.

By the way, not all quilters agree with the method of choosing prints to match a focus fabric. Consider this observation by designers and teachers Weeks Ringle and Bill Kerr from their 2010 book Quilts Made Modern.

Over the years, we have noticed that some of our students get into palette ruts. “These are my colors,” they say, as if the colors that they work with were predetermined. … More than once we’ve pointed out that the “yucky” color is the color that, when added, completes a quilt that has been perplexing the maker. Without that color, the palette seems incomplete.

If it takes you a while to be able to add a ‘yucky’ fabric to a quilt, don’t sweat it. What it all boils down to is picking the fabrics that you believe will bring your quilt to life the way you want it to. In her tutorial, Jenny Kae Parks emphasizes that these are not hard and fast rules, but just guidelines to help you on your way, while Sara Gallegos sums it up by saying, ”As long as you love the fabric, you really can’t go wrong.”

Words to quilt by indeed.

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