Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Contrast Basics for Traditional Quilt Making -- Value

I've just begun participating in a couple of on-line "follow along" projects and lots of the participants are posting their fabric combinations, some asking for advice, and it brought out the teaching "shop owner" in me.  So I decided to share some of what I learned via 26 years of helping students and customers chose fabric for quilt projects.  Most of my experience is with traditional block piecing so it may not apply to other aspects of quilt making. 
Let me begin by sharing that teaching and working with Gai Perry's excellent book, Color From the Heart (C & T Publishing, 1999) which is still available as a "print on demand" edition if you don't have it squirreled away in your library.
Value is more important than color in tradition blocks.
Mary Ellen Hopkins was the first teacher to point that out to me and I've tested the premise more often than I care to admit.  Sometimes I get so caught up in creating a beautiful fabric combination that I forget to consider if the value of the prints achieves the look I want.
So here's a quick lesson on value.  Blue is easy on the eyes so here's a range of blues. 
If you were to pull out all the fabric you own in one color range, you would be able to organize it from the very darkest to the very lightest.  Some quilters use "value finders" -- I squint or take off my glasses -- to get the placement correct. 
It's easy to pick the very darkest and the very lightest, but that muddle in the middle -- mediums?!?
So to make it easier, I break down that medium muddle into dark medium, medium, and light medium.   These definitions may help you sort it out.
Lights are white or off-white background with a bit of color -- you can see the background clearly.
Light-mediums are either pastel backgrounds or have a density of color so that the background is obscured.
Mediums have a color background and often have lots of other colors printed onto it.  Busy, dense prints with lots of colors are usually mediums even though the background may be navy or black, etc.
Dark-mediums may have a darker shade background, but they are also less densely printed -- more of the background shows through.
Darks are the darkest shade of a color with no other colors in the print design.
(These definitions are simple and intended to make this less intimidating.)
Once I pull a stack of potential fabrics for a project, I rank them in value order.  Then I experiment with positioning them to achieve the "look" I want.
If I want a bold or strong or clear contrast, I use the lightest and darkest values of the group, eliminating the medium range. 
If that look is too bold, I can replace the "dark" with a "dark medium" or the "light" with a "light-medium" as in the next two photos.
Eliminating both the "dark" and the "dark medium" lessens the contrast. 
The lowest contrast occurs by using values that are next to each other as in this "light-medium" and "light".  Modern quilters refer to this as "low-volume".
I can achieve a low contrast with any of my five value groups just by keeping the value close together on the scale as illustrated in the following two photos.
My students will tell you that I rarely offer them an opinion on their color choices.  Instead I try to help them evaluate their choices against the "look" they are trying to achieve.  By pointing out the value contrast that I see in their stack of fabric and asking if that is what they envisioned, they are able to make their own decision. 
The most successful tool in making value decisions is auditioning -- don't buy into the myth that everyone but you can "visualize" the way their block/quilt is going to look. 
Lay out all the options, leave the room, come back and pay attention to your first response!!
Your brain knows in a flash what it likes -- sometimes we just refuse to listen to it.
I believe that when I'm hesitate about a decision, it's my brain saying "no" and I'm not listening.
I hope this little essay is helpful to you.  Practice it by pulling out a stack of fabric (it might need tidying up anyway).  I'll work up another one in the next few days about achieving "Contrast of Color" based on my experience selling thousands of yards of fabric.
Piece on!!
Mary Huey


  1. Well done Mary! I enjoyed reading your lesson. Very helpful.

  2. Your tips are always appreciated, and since you make such beautiful quilts, I'll pay close attention to this color advice. I too get caught up in the fabric designs & color and need to think more about value. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Tammy! I still lose track of the importance of value, but when I'm not satisfied with the way a quilt is looking, value is often where I've gone astray!

  3. Nice post...I need to think more about value--and maybe less about just colorways...hugs, Julierose

    1. Thanks for visiting today, Julierose -- the problem for many of us is that value isn't as much fun as color?!?

  4. Value always give me problems. What I need is a hand held scanner that can scan the fabric and list the values of each piece. Are you tempted?

  5. Thanks for this post. I am always trying to learn more about color and value but often forget about value when planning. I have one of those red plastic thingies for checking value, but I still have trouble, especially when fabrics have red in them. I did try taking a picture and looking at it in grayscale the other day and maybe that will help me, but I like your tip to leave the room and come back for a first response. I'm definitely going to try that.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Janine -- I actually find "squinting" more helpful than the red or green value finders. Looking through binoculars backwards if you have them is also helpful. And then of course there's that practice, practice, practice thing?!?

  6. Replies
    1. And thank you for visiting and the compliment!