Color Challenges

by Weeks on 06/06/2007

in Quilting

Pat Sloan’s Color Challenge

As an exploration when teaching, we often hand students two fabrics that don’t “go together” with the assignment that they need to add as many fabrics as necessary to tie them together. Students are often dismayed at the original pairings but are always astonished at how adding others to the mix can transform a yucky combination into something really unexpected and wonderful. The goal is to get them to look beyond predictable color combinations.

So I was delighted to see that Pat Sloan at started a color challenge. Her structure is different from ours but sounds like fun and is sure to encourage quilters to broaden the color horizons.


Craft in america

For residents of the US, a three-part program entitled “Craft in America” airs tonight on your local PBS station. I have not seen the program yet but am excited about the prospect of a three-part documentary on craft followed by an associated two-year, eight-city museum tour and a companion book with a prologue by longtime craftsman, craft advocate, former president of the United States and personal hero of mine, Jimmy Carter. For those of you who do not live in the US or who miss the program, the website offers a DVD and links ot other resources. There’s also a preview of the program that can be seen online.



Seems like a simple enough task to choose a thread color for making a quilt. That is until you choose the wrong color and it becomes painfully complex to deal with. The navy thread looks like black next to the white. The orange thread peaks out between the pieces. The pale pink thread looks white next to the darker pinks. Here are some guidelines that we’ve developed over the years that may help.

For piecing, “Split the Difference and Blend.” Choose a thread that is halfway between the lightest and darkest fabrics in the quilt. If you have a multicolored quilt try a taupe or gray thread. Look for the most neutral color you can find and look at a single strand of it on the fabric. Remember that thread looks very different on the cone than it does as a strand. Bear in mind that fabric often looks darker once stitched so test a few on scraps before you commit to the whole thing.


For quilting, think about the role of the quilting. Should it contrast with the fabric to add visual interest? Would you prefer that it disappear because the piecing or fabric is visually complex? How about the backing? How will it look on the back? When machine quilting, some people advocate using different threads on the back and front. I think this works if they are pretty close in hue or value but I’ve had really bad results if they’re too different. It can look really messy as every little change in tension and be distracting. If you have big areas of a single color you can switch threads as well. Many of our quilts have long thin (less than an inch wide) elements in them of contrasting colors. I frequently leave these unquilted.


Consider also the difference in the fiber content of the thread and how the thread is going to lie on the fabric once quilted. Cotton threads tend to be thicker than polyester blends and make the quilting more obvious. In general I match the fiber content of the thread to the fabric I’m using, so I generally use cotton thread for all piecing and quilting. Sometimes, however, I just can’t find the right shade in cotton and I piece with polyester, but it’s not ideal.

Before you make your final thread choice, audition a thread color that you would never have thought would look good just to see what it would look like. About seven years ago someone rented our long-arm quilting machine to quilt a quilt with peacock blue and green fabrics. She chose a golden yellow that I would never have chosen, but it looked fantastic and totally transformed the quilt.



If you haven’t seen the new website sponsored by American Patchwork & Quilting you are in for a treat. Although the site is new and still evolving, the most helpful thing I’ve found so far is the video for learning how to bind a quilt. While this method differs from the method I use, it is the most common method of binding and beginning quilters will find it especially helpful. While I’ve seen other step-by-step tutorials on binding, the video format is so much easier to follow than text.



A Whiptips post from Reese Dixon about her log cabin quilt that looked like a swastika once pieced, was a reminder of the importance of testing a pattern BEFORE you cut out all of the pieces. I know, I know, I know. You finally have fabric you like and a pattern you can’t wait to make so you’re dying to get going and you just want to cut it all up and sew it together. Resist the urge. Test it first.

Some people advocate using graph paper and colored pencils to test how a design will look. I think it’s a lot more practical, especially if you are using patterned fabric, to use a digital camera, a color copier or scanner. Here’s what you do: Cut up just enough fabric for one block or a small section of the quilt. Using a digital camera, color copier or scanner, print out several versions of the block and arrange them as you intend to in the quilt. You might also find that you want to adjust the scale of the block or its arrangement. This is the time to make those adjustments. Follow the Ten-Foot Rule looking at it from ten feet away to see how the colors work and if any awkward patterns (such as swastikas) are forming. This may seem like a time-consuming step but what it takes in time it saves in heartbreak.


Here’s the final quilt as it appeared in American Patchwork & Quilting in June 2006.