Choosing Fabric for a Quilt {part 1}

We're slowly moving along in our Learn to Quilt with BlueElephantStitches.  There's so much one could learn and talk about that I find it hard to narrow it down into a bite sized chunk that makes sense!

So the #1 question I get is how I choose fabrics for a quilt.  The problem is there's not really a formula!  At least not for me.  I've been pondering this for days, how to show you something here that could help you and not just be a blurb out of my continually crazy brain feed that's constantly shoving new ideas to the forefront and equally as fast rejecting past ideas!

Today {part 1} we will talk a bit about how I approach fabric choices for any quilt.  Next time {part 2} we will talk about how we will approach fabric choices for the specific quilt that we are making for this quiltalong.

Here is what I often do subconsciously:  I make A Rule.  And then I Break It.

Does that make sense?

I didn't think so!  But actually it works really well for me, although I don't often think about what I'm doing.  So my most successful quilts seem to start with an overall vision of the finished product.  Usually I'll have a design or pattern in mind.  Then I'll make a loose rule that somehow involves the type of print, colors or values that will be involved.  And then as a tiny internal caveat, I give myself permission to break that rule at any point.

Let's take this one.  It's one of my all time favorite quilts in terms of color and design and well, everything!  It was made impulsively, mostly from my scrap bin.  So here's my thought process.

First the design....liberated log cabins.

Rule:  Center of blocks will be shades of mint and tangerine.  I'll do one ring around the center in the mint and tangerine, then I'll do shades of cream and white for the outside, making 12.5" blocks.

Where I broke my Rule:  After making a couple blocks, I chose one fabric that had a bit of light lime green.  Decided I liked it, so added a bit of green to my mental color scheme.  Somewhere along the way, one of the tangerine fabrics I added had a bit of bright pink (the middle block) so I decided to add one other strip of pink to balance it.  On one block (the middle left hand one)  I decided to do just one dark square and then do the rest in light colors, rather than my rule which was 'Center block and then one ring around in mint and tangerine'  You can also see on the middle block that I decided to add a darker strip in the cream portion of the block.

Overall, these fabrics were all taken from my scrap bin so I didn't spend time thinking about the actual print or picture on the fabric, but rather just the color.

Here's one I'm still working on.  The main top is completed, I'm just working on adding some star blocks to the side to make it the right width.  Here's another example of Rule/Break the Rule.  This one is a great example because I very consciously thought about this Rule before I started and while I was sewing.  (this brings out another thought, which is that I don't often pick out all my fabrics before starting.  Sometimes I do, but more often I just start sewing and pull fabrics as I go, like this one)

Design is Scrappy Trip Around the World.

Rule:  Fabrics will be mostly medium value.  Colors will be predominantly shades of warm yellows, oranges, greens, and a bit of pink.

To refine the rule a bit more, Value will be 80% medium and 10% light and 10% dark.  That means that in one block (which has seven different strips of fabric), there will be 6 medium value and one dark value.  The next block will be 6 medium value and one light value.  There will be no black and no white.

Colors will be orange, yellow, green, and pink.  Basically citrus colors.

How I broke the Rule:  I didn't really break the rule on the Value.  If I did, it was just by not following my percentages exactly.  (of course my brain could never be that precise, it was just a guideline!)

I definitely broke my color rule some, as I knew I would.  I add some aqua blue, maybe one strip every other block.  then I decided to add a bit of warm lavender, every third block (or so).  And then I added a couple of grayish prints just because.  And those I would actually take out if I did it again...

Now for my Posy Granny Square.  I'm showing you this one because it's quite a different process, but still a process!

Design/Pattern: Granny Square

Rule:  It will be made exclusively from one line of Moda fabric (I was doing a Moda Bakeshop tutorial)  It will have white as the background.  It will have a wide border that is a slightly darker color, but not as outstanding as the Granny Squares themselves.  (because I was crazy about this quilt)  The corners will be round.

How I broke the Rule:  I didn't break any rules on this one!

I'll elaborate a little more on this one because it addresses the topic of using all one collection of fabric in a quilt, specifically the precuts which Moda has made famous.

I think you can make great quilts with all one collection.  True, they won't be quite as unique, there may be others out there similiar to yours, but if YOU don't mind that, then I sure don't!  It definitely guarantees that your quilt will not turn out a hot mess.

Here are my thoughts on how you can make a one-collection-quilt look great:

1.Use a contrasting solid creatively.  Play it safe with white, or try something different like this one

2.Really think about how the collection looks as a whole and use a pattern that compliments this look.  For example, this Summersville collection looks great in this quilt because it has a soft subdued look.

3.Use an outstanding or graphic design or pattern as your focal point (as in this amazing owl quilt) and then using one fabric collection makes the fabric as more the grounding factor and becomes secondary to the overall design of the quilt.

And then sometimes I have an image that inspires the color palette.  As in the case of my McElligot's Pool quilt, or this one above.  On the triangle quilt above, I was inspired by the colors in this art print.

Design: Field of Triangles ( I was testing the pattern, which is still in testing stage!)

Rule:  Gray background in two shades.  Triangle colors in shades of warm orangey yellow and warm corally pink.

How I broke the Rule:  I didn't break the rule too much, just tried for the right shades of color and a mix of floral and geometric prints plus a few solids.  The mint colored binding was a last minute decision because I like the little bit of mint green on the leaves of that floral print in the triangles.

Sooooo.... I hope that was a tiny bit helpful to you!  It's really only one aspect of what I think about this topic.  I could go on and on!  Especially about having confidence in your own choices and if YOU like it, then it's awesome!

But I really must stop now.

I'll just add a few links that I found here and there.  These are all other quilter's thoughts on choosing fabric for a quilt.  It's always good to hear other's thoughts on the topic too!  If you have more good articles on this, add them in the comments.

All About Fabric - A Quilter's Medium

A Few Tips on Choosing Fabric

The Art of Choosing

What Fabrics do I Pick for My Quilt?


  1. Thanks Jolene, selecting fabrics is my LEAST favourite part of quilting.
    I always love your style / fabric selection of all the quilt-blogs I read. I think you are a natural at it!!

  2. This is great! Thanks for analyzing your thought process. It really does help!

  3. Thanks for that. Your format of laying out the rule, and how you broke it provides useful insights. Like you, I usually don't choose all my fabrics before I start, but add in what I have or find as I go.

  4. Nice thoughts! I would add there is no better way to refine your process than simple trial and error. And of course lots of time reading quilting blogs and looking at pictures in magazines and books!

    I posted today about what happens when you don't like your quilt...

  5. Very helpful. Well written and lovely choices on your quilts.

  6. This is great. I have been so curious about your thought process and this sheds a little bit of light.

  7. I love this post. It's great to read your thought process on this topic. I like that you allow yourself some flexibility as you go along - surely it makes for much more beautiful and creative quilts.

  8. So interesting to read about your thought process! I love choosing fabric, and often spend hours in the fabric shop creating little bundles of pretty! Looking forward to your next post :)

  9. Love love the triangle quilt. Lovely :-)

  10. This was great to read. I've never really thought about how I choose fabrics for a quilt. It's often just happens for me. And I often use a multi color fabric to inspire me and work with that, which would be my rule, I suppose. But like you I often end up breaking the rule when a fabric I really want to use introduces an extra color :)

  11. I've never chosen fabric abd never made a quilt so this is all fascinating. I have a massive stash of one jelly roll and left over dress-making fabric so far

  12. Thank you for a lovely lesson. I look forward to the next one.

  13. Totally fun to get inside your brain with this post! It's usually important to me to "break" my color rules every time too. I find that a little "off" is an important factor because it makes the quilt more interesting. I feel like your style is definitely distinctly different from mine. And, I usually think it's because you use more white, but now I see that you're also really fond of some softer colors that I don't use as much (mint, tangerine, light pink). I wonder if that's right?

  14. so interesting to read your process. this is the part that i usually can't get past and i change my mind over and over and over again. and then i end up never starting. in fact i am in the process of not making up my mind right now. here's what's currently stumping me. i'm pulling fabrics for a girl baby quilt. i have a palette that i am happy with and love my choices, only some fabrics have a little white and others have a more natural color. should i be letting this trip me up? am i making a problem where there isn't one? surely it's fine to mix but for some reason i feel unsure. i was planning on using snow or stone as my sashing color but maybe this is a situation where i should use a contrasting solid like you did with your granny. argh!

  15. Love love love the current green, yellow, pink quilt!!

  16. I enjoyed reading this post very much!

  17. I don't know how you were able to put words to this, but I really enjoyed reading it. I feel like I do the same thing, esp with breaking the rule. Gah! Now I am dying to start a new quilt. Log cabins are calling me!