Colour Value Theory for Quilters – What you need to know!


Colour value theory for quilters cover image

Understanding colour values for quilters – the good, the bad and the very pretty!

So far, we have have talked about how contrast is the key to producing an eye-catching quilt, and more specifically about ways that colour value contrast can be used in a good quilt design. But, what if you have never really thought about art basics before and are a bit sketchy on what colour value is and how to determine it? No problem! Today we are going to look at what colour value is, and how it applies to quilters.

Let’s explore the concept of colour value from a quilter’s perspective…… because paint mixing theory isn’t that helpful to us textile-sewing-person types……

Colour value definition

Colour Value is defined most simply as the relative lightness or darkness of a colour (read here, “fabric”!). The extremes of this continuum are black and white. All other colours lie somewhere in between the maximum darkness of black and the minimum lightness of white. Colour value is very easy to see in a grey scale or in a monochrome colour series. Here are some easy to spot colour value graduations:

Colour value graduations in black, red and blue.
Three colour value graduations in black, red and blue. The middle colours in the red and blue scales are pure colours, without black or white added. These are known as hues, The colours on the left of the  hues are shades (hue + black) and the colours on the right are tints (hue + white)

Colour value is relative

The colour value of your fabric is relative to other fabrics or items around it. This is a really important fact! This means that whether a colour (fabric) appears to be dark or light can depend on the colours (fabrics) surrounding it. While white will always appear light and black will always be dark, colours closer to the middle of a colour range can appear light next to really dark colours or dark next to really light colours.

This is both great and not-so-great news for quilters. It is great, because it means that it is not necessary to use the extreme values of a colour to achieve good contrast in a quilt. A pastel quilt with a few well-placed mid-tones can look just as awesome as a vibrant quilt with saturated colours and a few dark highlights. Look at the image below. Both of the panels contain good contrast, even though they only cover a small subrange of colour values.

Teal fabrics showing a range of values.
Note: the light and medium fabrics in the lefthand picture are the exact same fabrics as the medium and dark fabrics in the righthand picture.

Colour Value can be complicated……

This relativeness of colour values is also “not-so-great” because you need to understand the relationship of colours with each other to understand how they will look together. This is tricky, but remembering that colours will appear lighter next to a dark colour and darker next to  a light colour will help avoid nasty surprises. Apart from this, the best method of working out “what works where” in a quilt is often trial and error, even for seasoned quilters. For this, I find a design wall is extraordinarily helpful. If two fabrics or blocks affect the appearance of one another, it’s nice to know before you sew! Experience and practice are also the best antidotes if you suffer a lack of confidence in this area. 

Repeated blocks on a quilt
Quilts made up of simple repeated blocks can take time to lay out until you are satisfied.

When I am making a quilt with lots of repeated blocks in varied fabrics, I always do a trial layout of my quilt blocks on the floor or a wall. Some layouts will always be more visually appealing than others, partly due to colour value distribution. There are usually lots of nice layouts, so it is silly to choose a jarring one that will disappoint you just because you didn’t experiment a little with block placement. And don’t stress about getting the “right” layout. There will be lots of great combinations. Just choose one you like.

So, remember: the Colour Value of a fabric (or even a whole block) is simply how light or dark that sucker is. But this is always assessed in the context of surrounding fabrics.

That’s pretty simple right? Right!

Where it gets trickier now, is to start thinking about how to determine the relative colour values of fabrics of unrelated colours. That is, between tints and shades of different colours (hues) rather than of the same hue. And then there are tones…… OK, I am thinking we should quickly define hues, tints, shades and tones before we go any further.

Hues, Tints, Shades and Tones (only the stuff that is helpful to quilters)!

Hues, Tints and Shades

portion of a colour wheel
Colour wheels have far more than the 6 colours you learned at school!

A hue is a pure colour that has not been diluted with white or black. Hues are what we generally think of as colours, and are usually found on simple colour wheels. Blue. Red. Green. Yellow etc. For this exercise, let’s pick one. Let’s say this Purple.  Now, a tint is the same purple, but with some white mixed in – or in terms of fabric, most likely with less dye applied to the white background fabric. One example tint of the the original purple is this purple. On the other hand, a shade is also the same purple, but with some black mixed in. An example is this purple. This colour may be created on fabric by mixing the original purple dye with black dye.

You need to remember that adding white or black doesn’t change the colour (hue), just its relative colour value (lighter or darker). It also decreases the colourfulness (because the colour is diluted by the black or the white).


As for tones, I’ll let Google explain…..

“A tone is produced either by the mixture of a color with gray, or by both tinting and shading. Mixing a color with any neutral color (including black, gray and white) reduces the chroma, or colorfulness, while the hue remains unchanged.”

colour wheel explaining colour value theory
GIMP software colour wheel, showing you all the tints, shades and tones of a particular red hue.

The best illustration I can think of is the colour wheel in GIMP software. The triangle in the middle of the colour wheel points to the selected colour hue. The colour graduation along the edge between the hue and white (the lower edge of the triangle) covers all the tints of the hue. The colour graduation along the edge between the hue and black (the uppermost edge of the triangle) covers all the shades of the hue. Every other point within the triangle is a tone of the red hue (ie has some red, some white and some black in it). Except, of course, the leftmost edge of the triangle. This edge is actually a pure grey scale and has no red in it at all.

Comparing colour values between your fabrics

Comparing colour hues

Let’s now go back to talking about comparing value between completely different hues. For example – a shade of yellow vs a tint of green. As I mentioned before, this is where things get a lot more tricky – where a lot of books stop helping you, and a lot of quilters lose their confidence. 

Hues have colour values relative to each other, just as the tints and shades of one hue can be compared. Pure yellow is not as dark as pure blue. Unfortunately, it is harder to judge value relationships between hues than it is within a hue family. And of all the colours, colour value relationships between bright hues are the hardest to judge.

Bright hues for comparison
Seven bright hues chosen from the pure colour wheel. The lightest is the yellow. But what order should we put the rest in?

Comparing colour tints, shades and tones

It is a bit easier to compare tints, shades and tones of different colours. This is probably partly to do with two facts: they are easier to look at, and they are closer to grey. If they were all grey, it would actually be relatively simple to order them.

Tints, tones and shades - colour value
Here are the same seven hues from the above picture, but they are softened. Top row: shades (hue + black), middle row: tones (hue + grey), bottom row: tints (hue + white).

To illustrate this, chose one of the tone/tint/shade families above and think of each colour as a grey. Now can you order them? Maybe, maybe not, but you will probably get further than if you try the same exercise with the pure hues.

Now try squinting at them (or decreasing the brightness on your device’s screen). This cuts down the amount of light entering the eye, and allows the rod-shaped light-sensing organs in your eye to predominate over the cone-shaped light-sensing organs. This is a useful trick because rod sensors don’t detect colour, only the cone sensors do. (This is also why at night everything appears to be various shades of black and white and grey).

You are now using grey as a comparison point; a visual anchor. The closer these colours appear to grey, the more monochrome the series becomes and the easier it is to deal with.

Fabrics in the real world are usually multicoloured! HELP!

Fabrics showing a decrease in the scale of the flower print from left to right.
Flower print fabrics (and one batik) in order of scale. The fabrics on the left have large scale motifs. As you move right the flower motifs get progressively smaller in scale.

On top of all this, we need to know how to compare fabrics that aren’t all one colour!! Very few quilters exclusively use solid single-colour fabrics all the time in every quilt. Perhaps a few hardcore modern quilters do; but most of us use a variety of fabrics over time, including prints and batiks. So, we will have additional challenges in determining the value of these fabrics.  There some extra things to keep in mind when thinking about the value of these fabrics.

What to remember when considering the colour value of fabric prints

  • Mottled solid fabrics (also known as textured solids) are nearly as easy to categorise as plain solid colours. The colour value of these fabrics is the average of the colour across the surface. Stand back from these fabrics and the colour variations will blend together. The overall colour you see tells you the overall value of the fabric.
  • Small scale prints/batiks behave similarly to mottled solids. A small red print on white fabric will look pink from a distance. A small black motif on white fabric will look grey. Unless you are fussy-cutting these into tiny hexies, treat them like mottled solid fabrics and visually “average” the colour value.
  • Large scale prints need to considered much more in light of how you are going to use them. If you cut a large scale print into smallish pieces, some of the pieces will be completely different colours and values to other pieces. Determine the colour value of each piece individually. If you are using medium size pieces, be aware that one edge/corner of a piece may have a completely different colour value to another edge. This can play havoc with your placement of surrounding fabrics. The easiest solution is to use large scale prints in large areas – then the colour value differences that the fabric designer chose will work for you instead of against you. If you still desire large scale prints in a complicated quilt design where colour value is important, then it is best to fussy cut them or choose a fabric print with limited colour variation.
  • Depending on the print, medium scale print fabrics are treated either as large scale or small scale print fabrics. Now you have the skills, you will be able to decide!

I still need help determining the colour value of my fabrics!!

Thankfully there are a few simple tricks you can use to determine the colour value of a fabric, whether it is a solid colour fabric, a batik or a print. In a post coming soon I will go through all the methods I know, and what I think you need to know about each one. You might be surprised….. I personally think the techniques most commonly marketed to quilters are the most flawed. You can do it better yourself without buying a thing! Subscribe to my blog to be the first to know when I publish this post soon!


Clever Chameleon logoRemember: using colour value contrast in your quilt can make your design stunning, whether it is a landscape or other pictorial quilt, scrappy, appliqué, modern geometric or anything in between, And stunning is what we’re aiming for! But also remember, stunning is objective…. first and foremost your quilts should be appealing to you…. if you like your design then you will enjoy the creative process. Always be learning, but also make sure you are Quilting your Own Story!


Now it's your turn.... what do you think?