The Tricky Traits of Value in Quilts

Determining fabric values isn’t hard, but it can be tricky.

I have long thought I understood the value of value in quilts. It’s what makes a simple, two-color quilt have bold areas of light and dark or it is what makes those cool secondary patterns in your multi-color quilt design. Easy, right?

Light. Medium. Dark.

Then (more than) a few years ago, Blended Quilts became popular. They threw me under the bus with value! I would study and read about fabric choices and how to combine fabrics to work together and yet be not so obvious. Not such an easy thing to do, successfully!

My Grandma Emma Wichern’s lavender and white embroidered quilt is precious to me. I love seeing crazy-quilts. Modern is fun, bright, and happy…or sometimes calming and simple. I have some appreciation for all types of quilts. But what really gets me excited about a quilt is when it is successfully splashed with all kinds of colorful and different fabrics. What makes that work is value.

To see the value of fabrics, you have to remove the color.

You can do this numerous ways, but the simplest trick for me is to take a picture of fabric choices or my blocks on my design wall with my phone and change the picture to black and white (mono).

Values change depending one their surroundings.

The fact that my neat little piles (okay, not neat) of lights, mediums, and darks can change their values depending on what is around them was a V8 moment for me!

Take Lily, for example:

Her background is made of all fairly light neutrals (scrappy) plus a couple of accent, color strips. When compared to the focus fabric, the background is light, the flowers (reverse side of focus fabric) are medium and the dragonfly (focus fabric) is dark.

When you are just working on your background, those strips of color can look quite bold and may seem too dark to be part of the background. But when looking at those same fabrics in black/white WITH the focus fabric laying across them, they all fall into the light category and they work!

Image of dragonfly quilt in black and white.

Even the colorful accent strips disappear in this black and white photo.

I knew that choosing the backgrounds for Lily, and her sister quilts, Phoebee, and Belle, might be a little out-of-the-box for some quilters because they call for mixing white-white fabrics with seriously beige fabrics while they combine mini-prints with batiks and more, all in one background setting. So when describing how to choose those fabrics, I even refer to the “darkest lights” as “light medium”. My intention is to encourage combining a variety of background fabrics which on another quilt might not work, but gives this quilt an interesting base for the bold winged-girl made of a dark focus fabric.

Just take a picture.

Image of Dragonfly Quilt

When compared with your focus fabric and its reverse, in the case of the Colorful Wings quilts, do your background fabrics appear light? If so, they work!

What tricks do you use for determining value in your quilt fabrics?

When did you first realize the value of value?


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  1. Merle

    I learned a lot from this blog. I would have never thought to take a black and white picture to determine value. Thanks, good info.

  2. The Bee

    Glad to hear that!