Contrast and value are some of the first design concepts to consider when making a quilt. Many quilt patterns list the fabrics needed for a project in terms of their values (light, medium, or dark) in order to create contrast, which can be high or low. Learning to evaluate fabrics in terms of value and contrast can enhance your fabric selection success.

Why Contrast?

Contrast clarifies the design and makes depth apparent. Without contrast the pieces in the quilt blend together, and the design appears flat. The pieces in the quilt take on new dimensions when the fabrics have more contrast.

Contrast, however, is a relative concept. The block pictured uses a medium-value yellow for the center star and a darker brown for the background. Because there isn't too much difference between the medium and dark values, the contrast in the resulting block is subtle. When the same medium-value yellow is paired with a light gray background fabric, the resulting block, below, has higher contrast than the first one because of the greater difference in values between the colors.

TIP: Fabric manufacturers tend to produce more fabrics in the medium range. When you see light or dark fabrics that you like, add them to your stash.

Determining Contrast Levels for a Quilt Block

Use the chart and the photo of fabric squares to assess how changing the contrast between the background and block pieces will affect the block's overall appearance.


For example, if you've chosen a light background and light block pieces (upper left squares), you'll achieve a block with low or no contrast. In comparison, a dark background with light block pieces results in a block with high contrast (lower left squares).


Visualizing Contrast

Trying to ignore color and just study contrast is not an easy task. When looking at fabrics in a store or from your fabric stash, try these techniques to determine the contrast or value. Select possible fabrics for a project, then perform one or more of these tests to see if you've included enough contrast in the group. If you need more contrast, substitute lighter or darker fabrics until you have a variety of values.


Try squinting. Closing your eyes slightly limits the amount of light they receive and reduces your perception of color, so contrast becomes more evident.


Look through red cellophane. This technique conceals the color and allows you to see the continuum of values from light to dark.


Take a black and white photograph. This completely masks color and can give an indication of contrast between and within pieces of fabric.