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Choosing a Neutral For Your Quilt: Part 1

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One question I’ve heard from blog readers and other quilters over and over is, “How do you choose a neutral?” Since my quilts almost always have a neutral solid background, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post (or two) on this subject for ages, and I finally got my act together and did it. Here’s the thing though: I wish I could give you an easy answer to this question, but sadly, I can’t. It’s not an exact science, by any means. Color is subjective, it’s affected by other colors around it, and it’s always and forever a matter of personal opinion. : ) It’s not an “If X, then choose Y” situation, is what I’m saying.

Still, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help select a neutral for your next quilt. Read on!

1. Dark or light? I think the first thing to consider is whether you want a neutral that is dark, light, or somewhere in between. To determine this, ask yourself whether you want a high-contrast look, or something that blends a bit more? Do you want this quilt to be bold and graphic, with a “kapow” quality to it, or do you want it to have a softer, more subtle effect?

Once you’ve answered those questions, take a look at the other colors or prints you’re using in the quilt. If you’re using a lot of light, bright prints, and you’re going for a high-contrast look, maybe a dark gray will set off your prints most effectively. Conversely, if the other colors in your quilt are bold and higher-value, a white might be the way to go.

For example, take this Cartwheels quilt that I made last year:

You’ll notice that the prints I used have a fair amount of white in them. And while a few of the prints are on the darker side, overall they tend toward the lighter end of the spectrum. I usually love for my quilts to be high-contrast and very graphic, so I decided a darker neutral was the way to go, to really contrast with those lighter prints.

But what if I had gone with something lighter? Could that have been a good choice as well? Thanks to the magic of Photoshop, we can see what this quilt would have looked like with a lighter gray background:

Hmm. It doesn’t have the impact of the original, does it? It’s not horrible or anything—in fact, the softer look might be perfect for a baby quilt (and is very similar to the color scheme of my original Cartwheels quilt, which was, in fact, made for a baby). But there’s no denying that this doesn’t have the same punch as the original, and I love me some punchy quilts. That punch comes from the contrast.

(By the way, if you’re having trouble seeing the value in fabric you’ve selected, try taking a picture and turning it grayscale to help make the values more apparent. I find the easiest and quickest way to take and view a grayscale photo is to use my phone and turn the photo black-and-white with Instagram’s Willow filter!)

2. Warm or cool? Now that you’ve narrowed down the light-or-dark question, the next factor to look at is whether you want a neutral that is warm or cool. Take a look at the rest of your color palette for the quilt: Is it primarily warm, primarily cool, or a relatively even mix of both? And do you want the neutral to counteract and balance out the warmth or coolness in your color palette, or should the neutral emphasize it and bring that aspect of the design out even further?

Let’s go back to that Cartwheels quilt from the first example:

I used primarily cool-colored prints in this quilt. Even the yellows are a bit on the cool side for yellow—they have a slight greenish cast. I wanted to emphasize that coolness with a cool neutral, so I chose Kona Graphite.

But let’s Photoshop it up again, this time with a warmer neutral (the color shown is probably in the vicinity of Kona Smoke):

Wow! The background color is not all that different, but the overall effect is startling, isn’t it? It’s amazing how a simple warm/cool shift can bring about such dramatic changes.

Again, there’s really no right or wrong answer here. It’s all just personal preference and what kind of look you’re going for. I happen to vastly prefer the original—the warmer neutral muddies the whole thing for me. But that might be exactly what you like about it, and that’s perfectly fine. And with some print/color combinations, balancing the coolness or the warmth might be just what the doctor ordered.

Regardless of your color preferences, it’s just good to make an informed decision, isn’t it? And that’s the goal of this post, to help you be more informed about your neutral selections. : )

So now that you have a framework for choosing a neutral, exactly which neutrals will fit the bill? Tomorrow I’ll be posting the second half of my Choosing a Neutral series, with my handy-dandy Kona Cotton Neutrals Cheat Sheet! The Cheat Sheet will help you identify which Kona solid neutrals are cooler, which are warmer, and which are more middle-of-the-road. See you then!

16 replies
  1. Janet M
    Janet M says:

    Lee your post is brilliant! I struggle with value contrast, warm/cool etc because everything is so relative. I also tend to be lazy and use what is on hand (stash) often with less than imagined outcomes. I am a Kona gal so I look forward to the 'cheat sheet' – THANKS!

    Reply
  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    Uh oh! I just ordered some Kona dark gray for a wall hanging and expected to read that maybe that wasn't the best choice. But, no, when you talked me through the process, I see I bought exactly what I wanted. Thanks so much for such helpful info! I'm looking forward to your next post!

    Reply
  3. Wendy P
    Wendy P says:

    I totally agree. There is a quilt called Rangoon that is so amazing. She (the maker…?) used very dark navy as a background solid, but none of the print fabrics contain blue. It's so beautiful and such an excellent choice. I wouldn't have thought of it til I saw this quilt in a magazine. It has opened up so many more possibilities.
    Thanks for the post. Looking forward to part two!

    Reply
  4. Jenny L
    Jenny L says:

    A really helpful post. I struggle, more
    Iike agonise, over colour choice and have tended to stick to white or off white. This has opened my eyes. Looking forward to the next post.

    Reply
  5. carolaj3
    carolaj3 says:

    Thanks for a great article. I used to make a lot of quilts with black background – sort of Amish. I got tired of that and went into grays. Guess what, I am starting a new Amish quilt. I made my daughter a super quilt last fall using Parson Gray fabrics- it looks great.

    Reply
  6. Rebecca Grace
    Rebecca Grace says:

    Great use of technology in quilt design, especially the tip about switching photos to black and white to check for value contrast. I've been using EQ7 in a similar way, making up just one block and then using the software to simulate how it would look as a whole quilt of that block, or with different settings, alternate blocks, border options, etc. It takes way too long to make a quilt — so it's worth it to spend some extra time working with the design concept on the front end to ensure you'll actually LIKE the quilt once it's finished! Happy belated Thanksgiving.

    Reply

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