Colour is a very personal thing; even if you are talking with a friend about colour and you both say you love sky blue you could find you are talking about different colour blues. Just try organising a group quilt using one colour and watch how many different colours appear, and you will see what I mean.

There are some simple rules for colour theory and they are very easy to understand. Once you understand the basics you are free to follow the rules or break them, the choice is yours. Take time to play with swatch packs available from many mail order stockists. Also look around in your daily life and see what colours appeal to you, whether it is an advert on the tube or a flower in the park or the vegetable peelings in the kitchen. All these can give you ideas for effective colour combinations for your quilts.

A colour wheel
A colour wheel

The colour wheel is a structured way of showing the colours, because the circular arrangement makes it easy to follow. The three primary colours are yellow, red and blue. In between each of the primaries are the secondary colours created by mixing two primary colours together. Yellow + red = orange, yellow + blue = green and blue + red = purple. In between these are the tertiary colours created by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. Yellow + green = lime green, and so on.

That all seems quite straightforward, but then we have to think about saturation; how bright or dull a colour it is, and also the colour value. Tints are created by adding white to a colour and shades are created by adding black. If you are using paint that is simple enough, but when using fabric it starts to get a bit trickier.

Quilt showing movement through the colour wheel, by Gail Lawther
Quilt showing movement through the colour wheel, by Gail Lawther

Exercise 1

Try taking all the blues, or any other colour of which you have plenty of different pieces, from your stash. Arrange them into a section of a colour wheel, with the blue greens going in one direction and the purple blues in another.

Exercise 2

Take all the fabrics and try to arrange them from light to dark. You can buy a red plastic gadget to look through (sometimes called a Ruby Beholder, and available from many mail order retailers) which is intended to take out any colour and just leave the value, or lightness and darkness of the colour. A cellophane sweet wrapper or a semi-transparent red plastic document wallet can work just as well. If you have access to a scanner or photocopier then photocopying in black and white works well too, as your eye can be tricked by the colours at times. If you are organised, you might like to stick these samples down and keep for reference for future quilts.

Complementary Colours

3695 and Counting by Barbara Webber, showing a dynamic complementary colour scheme
3695 and Counting by Barbara Webber, showing a dynamic complementary colour scheme

This term is given to colours that are on opposite sides of the wheel; red and green for example, or blue and orange. While we all know red and green, especially at Christmas, blue and orange can seem a little strange until you remember it doesn't have to be a bright colour. It could be a tint or shade of the colour instead, so now if you think of blue with a little coral or peach maybe it sounds more appealing.

Crazy Curves by Juliet Hare showing a soft complementary colour scheme
Crazy Curves by Juliet Hare showing a soft complementary colour scheme

3695 and Counting by Barbara Webber is a good example of the complementary colours of blues and oranges. Can you see how vibrant it appears? Another quilt using a complementary colour scheme is Crazy Curves by Juliet Hare. Here she has taken a softer palette of pinks and soft greens. Adding the green sashing gives it just the right amount of interest. If the sashing were pink too, it would all merge together too much.

Monochromatic colour schemes

All Square by Maggie Wise showing a monochromatic colour scheme
All Square by Maggie Wise showing a monochromatic colour scheme

A monochromatic scheme would be created by using just the tints and tones and pure colour of one colour in the quilt. There are some lovely examples of this; all blue for example, but many different colours of blue, or all green and so on. All Square by Maggie Wise shows good use of a red monochromatic colour scheme. Look at how many different shades of red there are here, from light pink to dark maroon.

Analogous colour

These are three colours next to each other on the colour wheel; blue, turquoise and green for example. These will always tone well and go together. It could look a bit bland and dull however, so you might want to add a dash of a complementary colour to jazz it up a bit. In this quilt, Dream Waves by Judith Wilson, there is an analogous colour scheme of blue through to purple, but she has added interest by using the different values of the colours to create a dynamic quilt top.

Dream Waves by Judith Wilson showing an analogous colour scheme of blues and purples
Dream Waves by Judith Wilson showing an analogous colour scheme of blues and purples

Unique colour schemes

Even with all the labels in the world, there are colour schemes that do not fit into any category. Think about a pattern made with glorious bright batiks and black for example, or a child's quilt in bright primaries. This is where you can decide to break the rules. Remember it is your quilt! If you like lime green, yellow and rust together then go for it. Don't be persuaded to sew something in colours you don't like, as you will find it harder and may be tempted to abandon it part way through (it then becomes a dreaded UFO - unfinished object).

Colour Combinations

Barbara Fritchie's Star by Carolyn Forster
Barbara Fritchie's Star by Carolyn Forster

In Barbara Fritchie's Star by Carolyn Forster, Carolyn has taken the same block and moved the placement of the colours to create a variety of blocks.

Barbara Fritchie's Star by Carolyn Forster

Full instructions for sewing this project using the quilt as you go method, are in Carolyn's book Quilting-on-the-Go. To order your copy send a cheque payable to Carolyn Forster for £16.95 plus £2.95 p&p, to 23 Woodbury Park Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN4 9NQ.

Some fabric examples

I have sewn the same block a number of times to show you what a difference the colour placement makes. Under each picture are my thoughts on the success or otherwise of the colour combinations; feel free to disagree with me! Colour is very personal, and something that I might think has too much contrast could be perfect for you and vice versa.



Combination 1
The bright pink of the large flowers in the centre is repeated in the smaller flowers on the pastel print
Combination 2
Two very busy prints.There is not really enough contrast in texture between the two, although the light and dark contrast is still good
Combination 3
Here the texture contrast is good but the large amount of pale pattern in the centre print reads as a light/medium value and it is not a lot darker than the paler paisley pattern
Combination 4
Although the green picks up the colour of the leaves on the small print, they are both too pale to be together; there is not enough contrast

To make it easy to view the differences I kept the light and dark areas the same in all the blocks. Just think how much more complicated we could get if we started mixing them up as well?

Combination 5
In this example the paler texture leaf print picks up one of the medium beige colours from the darker fl oral print, so there is good contrast
Combination 6
There is a good contrast of value (light/dark) and of pattern here. If you were very particular you could try to have the flower pattern in the same place in each square. This technique is called Fussy Cutting
Combination 7
I think perhaps the small flower print is too busy against the larger floral. Perhaps the small floral should have been used with a plain fabric or tone on tone, in one of the colours from the flowers
Combination 8
The dark texture print here is used to pick out one of the colours from the flower print. If you wanted a slightly softer contrast you could use a lighter shade of red or a dark pink instead

First published in Popular Patchwork DVD Special 2007