My name is Charlotte, sometimes known as Ms Lottie, occasionally as The Slightly Mad Quilt Lady. This is my blog, where you'll find me writing a lot about my quilting and textile arts and a little about my family's life in a small seaside town in New Zealand. Haere mai!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tone vs Colour in Quiltmaking

The lovely Tanya from Suburban Jubilee wrote me a question on my last post.  And I thought I'd publish part of my answer here in a post where I could illustrate it with pictures.  Now colour and tone and value are topics that people have written whole books on and I don't suggest that I am an expert, but here are some thoughts.

Dear Ms Lottie, you know how high I hold you in regard and wanted to ask you a question about colour. You know I have been stashing and procrastinating for a long time but I am finally ready to commit. Sew Many Ways is doing a block of the month with extremely clear step by steps and I feel I can DO this. She is using a monochromatic scheme but breaking the combo into distinct light and dark placements. My question is...can I achieve this successfully with multiple colours or should I stick to just the monochromatic scheme. I have been collecting pinks, yellows and greens. I have also quite a bit of brighter green and purple? Perhaps it could work with two contrast colours? I know you can't TELL me what I should do but I do value your vast experience with colour. Much love Tanya from Suburban Jubilee 

Yes, you could do it in multiple colours, you just have to be careful with your lights and darks. I put two fabrics next to each other then stand a ways back and squint at them to see which one is lighter or darker if I'm not sure. For instance in a monochromatic scheme, navy might be your dark and sky blue your light. You could easily replace the sky blue with a butter yellow as this is a light colour, but replacing it with a red might not provide enough contrast with the navy. Put the red and the navy next to each other and squint - is there a distinct difference?

This is a monochromatic scheme (mostly) and it took a lot of squinty eyes to get my blues in the correct order.  Can you see how the dark tone of the red contrasts much more with the light blues than the dark?

You can also line up the fabrics that you like together colourwise and look at them through a tonal viewer - basically a piece of red plastic (red cellophane will do) - and this takes away the colour and just shows the tone.

Different colour, very similar tone.

The red takes away the colour and you can see the tonal difference.

In the end though, colour probably makes the boldest statement. And sometimes you might want a quilt with low contrast. A low contrast scheme can be quite restful, eg pastel blue, green, blue with cream.

All three of these quilts are low in contrast.  The middle one has light tones  and so is probably the most restful.  The red one has deeper tones and so is more vibrant.  On the far left quilt, can you see how the square on the second to bottom row stands out?  It has a much lighter tone to the other fabrics.  Squint your eyes!

I sometimes print out a picture of a quilt that I like in black and white (greyscale) to examine the tonal difference a bit closer.

I've got the tonal difference right in this log cabin block.  One side needs to be distinctly darker than the other so that when I join multiple blocks together I can make a secondary pattern.

If you are making sampler blocks you could choose to make each block monochromatic, so one block green and cream/white, one block yellow and cream/white, one block pink and cream/white and then use your more intense colours for sashings (between blocks) or borders (around the quilt).

These are monochromatic blocks, but made in a variety of fabrics, all with a cream background.  Against the cream background the pattern of each is quite distinct.

These sampler blocks are not monochromatic.  Have a squint at the top left block.  The yellow points fade into the cream background, as do the green flying geese in the bottom right block.  Take a look at the border.  Sage green and lavender are completely different colours but tonally almost the same and blend into each other.  Which in this case I think is fine.

You might also want to consider what the use of your quilt is going to be.  Is it a wall hanging that will be looked at from a distance and so needs to have a clearly defined image?  Or is it a snuggly quilt that will be wrapped around legs and folded on the back of the couch and so just needs to be a beautiful pattern made of soft and lovely fabrics?

Whatever you choose to do, have fun and remember it's the little imperfections that make it homemade and therefore from the heart.


Ms Lottie


  1. Holy cow girly, you do amazing work! I am constantly amazed at your amazing-ness...hahaha. Seriously though, I'm glad I don't quilt, I'd be so far in over my head I'm sure I'd drown!

    Have you optimised this a bit for the search engines, I'm sure this info would be really useful to others out there, if they can find it.

  2. Very thought provoking post. It will be interesting to see hear what Tanya decides.

  3. I love it when you go all teachy on us... brings back memories of antenatal classes at Kawakawa hospital ;0)

  4. That has been soooo helpful and I especially love the squint technique and the red plastic technique too. It was particularly helpful to see the examples of tonal use and I am far more confident to go ahead with various colours now because in my heart of hearts I do believe in the artful placement of "scrap". Thanks Ms. Lottie. Pinning this for sure


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