What Does Contrast In Quilting Mean?


Wonderfully illustrated quilting how-to article on contrast.  Learn the key things you need to do to use contrast in your quilts.

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What Does Contrast In Quilting Mean?

A lot of quilters struggle with picking out fabrics for their newest quilt. The easiest quilts to make are those where we choose fabric from a full coordinated line of fabric! Whew! Thank goodness for coordinates, eh? But what if we want to move a little beyond our comfort zone of coordinating fabrics and attempt to choose our own fabrics from multiple fabric lines? And we're also going to make a quilt with that scary word involved - 'contrast'.



Contrast can be quite fun and interesting once you've learned exactly how to use it when pulling fabrics for your newest quilt. Your best bet is to carry a small color wheel or compact color card set with you to the quilt store. We all can choose two opposite colors from the color wheel to make a quilt! Or we can choose four or five shades of one green to work with - like the green in this block.

Shades of Green


So how about we add a little 'contrast'! Contrast means (Encyclopedia Britannica) "giving shape, lines, color, tone, and texture - used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface". I've always looked at contrast in a quilt as being bold. The green star in the picture above is beautiful, but safe. It'll make a lovely overall design in a quilt. Just not terribly exciting. But if we throw in a little contrast - like peach being added to the star - it now 'pops' and shows movement. Now that's a cute block!

Peach Pop


It is very tempting to stay within one color family in one block, or a whole quilt, which can sometimes cause the block, or quilt, to look too blended. This blended look is where you can't define the design of the block. The colors lay flat. Where is the star?

Dark Star


Now see the visual shift in the shapes in the same block after throwing in a simple contrast (the off-white fabric) and choosing small, medium, and large prints in the same color family. This allows the star within the quilt block to become visible. It also has depth. Again, this block will make a lovely quilt but it is also quite boring. It also needs a larger print in the middle square.

Blue and Light


I used a red print for the next block as a final contrast. Now the block takes on a whole different look and actually appears to be two distinct stars. This shows movement, depth, and structure. (I would have personally liked a larger red print but am using EQ7 and am limited to what fabrics I have downloaded over the years!)

Red Added


A good friend taught several of us in our quilting group a great trick to finding 'value', or that needed contrast in a block. Use a cell phone, iPad, or regular camera and take a photo of your intended fabric using the 'black and white' feature. Look at the snapshot of your chosen fabric and see if there is enough value or contrast amongst the grays, blacks, and white that you see. Does your fabric come across as a blend of mediums grays? What you should see is an array of whites, light grays, medium grays, dark grays, and black.

Another great way to find the value or contrast in your fabric when shopping is keeping a red filter in your wallet. You can find an array of these types of filters at most quilt stores. Looking at your chosen fabric through a red filter shows you the value of your fabric by removing the color so that you only see the fabrics in a gray scale. Please note - a red filter will not allow you to see red or dark pink fabric so you will need to use a green filter for those colors.

Color Filters


Make your own red filter lens by purchasing a small piece of thin red plastic from a hobby store, scrapbook store, or possibly a lumber store. Cut it to the shape of your choice. Another friend from our quilting group used the red plastic from a Babybell® cheese ball! It works great!

Have fun, and don't be afraid to escape from that box! Let's go color!


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The basic unit of a quilt top, usually square but can be rectangular or other shapes. Blocks can be pieced, appliqued or plain.
Color Wheel
A circular device that has colors marked on it so you can see the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colors and the tints and shades of each.
A large central star, made up of diamond shaped fabric or a square with right triangles, to form the star points from the center out.
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