Choosing Fabric Colours | Two & Three Colours

We’ve already talked about the basics of colour theory, using a colour wheel and looked at a couple of colour combinations in Choosing Fabric Colours | The Basics. Now let’s focus on choosing two colour and three colour fabric combinations.

Knowing how to choose fabric combinations is a really useful skill for any patchwork quilter. The amount of contrast between your fabrics and colours can have a big effect on a patchwork design, and choosing colour variations will also add to the depth and texture of your overall project. Let’s take a closer look at using the colour wheel to select some different two and three colour fabric combinations.

Two Colours

In a patchwork project, using two colours would mean separating them into main design/motif and background. It’s important that there is a contrast between the two colours or your patchwork design won’t stand out; this contrast can come from having a light and a dark colour, but you can also create contrast with two strong colours by choosing warm and cold hues or by using your colour wheel to pick complimentary colours that are opposite each other.

Let’s look at some examples of two-colour combinations…

Light and dark
This combination doesn’t really need a colour wheel. The pale grey fabrics are a classic “background” choice and then the orange fabrics give the dark contrast. But just because the oranges are a stronger colour, doesn’t mean you can’t use those for the background fabric and the pale greys for the main patchwork motifs. This is a really fun way to mix up a patchwork project! Within both colour examples there is a mix of colours and print scales to give texture and variety.

On the colour wheel, complimentary colours are two that sit opposite each other. In this example I’m using violet and yellow.
Some variety and depth comes from using slightly different shades/tints/tones but both stacks of fabric clearly fit into the two distinct colours. A couple of the yellow prints use other colours too (especially the red-violet/pink flowers in the top fabric) but this still works well with the violet fabrics because red-violet/pink is next to violet on the colour wheel.

These are both strong colours so the contrast comes in different ways:
1. Violet is a cool colour and yellow is warm
2. As you can see from the black and white version of the photo, the colour colours have a high contrast.
3. The print scales also add some contrast; the violet fabrics all have subtle prints/a solid but the prints on the yellow fabrics have a bigger variety of scale and contrasting colours.

Three Colours

Using three colours gives the potential for more variety in your patchwork project but also more choices to make. With three colours you have more options for colour placement in your patchwork design. I won’t go into too much detail about that as there are so many different options depending on the specific patchwork design but you could arrange the three colours as; motifs, borders and background OR motifs, other motif details and background OR three colours arrangement in different ways for different blocks.

Looking at light, medium and dark is a really good idea when dealing with three colours; no matter how you choose those three, always keep light, medium and dark in mind too.

Split Complimentary
On the colour wheel, split complimentary colours use one colour on the wheel plus two more colours that appear either side of the opposite complimentary colour. In this example I’m using violet, yellow-green and yellow-orange.
Like the two-colour examples, variety and depth comes from using slightly different shades/tints/tones within all three distinct colours, as well as a mix of solids and print sizes.
When looking at three strong colours it can be harder to see the light, medium and dark distinctions so…

Taking a black and white photos really helps to highlight these differences and ensure there is a good mix of all three. This can be harder to achieve with some colours and fabrics but even having some amount of variety will really help with the overall look of your project.

It’s also a good idea to take the light, medium and dark contrasts into account when using the fabrics too. How you place them within your project will have a big impact. Again using a black and white photo (of your quilt blocks in position, for example) will help if you need to rearrange anything.

On the colour wheel, triadic colours are spaced equally from each other. In this example I’m using violet, green and orange. You can see how this combination is similar to the split complimentary example above (I used violet in both) but overall it gives a totally different look.

On the colour wheel, analogous colours appear next to each other. In this example I’m using blue, blue-violet and violet.
This is one of my favourite colour combinations. Although it uses three (or more) colours next to each other on the colour wheel, depending on your fabric choices you can blur the lines between all the colours to give a really multi-tonal look to your patchwork project. Analogous colour combinations can be harder to balance with a patchwork design; try to pick one of the colour palettes for your background fabrics, for example, and then the other two colours for the design. If when your quilt top has been sewn together and you don’t think the definition is clear enough to show up the patchwork design, using quilting to emphasis certain areas can help.

Analogous with a neutral
This could be classed as a two-colour or three-colour combination, it depends if you see the pale grey fabrics as one of the colours or not. It doesn’t really matter how we label any of these colour combinations, as long as you think it works with your patchwork project.
If you want to use an analogous colour combination but are unsure if the patchwork design will stand out enough, try mixing in a neutral colour too and use this for the background, for example, to highlight areas of the patchwork design.

Check out last week’s blog post Choosing Fabric Colours | The Basics to read about the basics of colour theory and using a colour wheel.

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