My favorite craft to-do list item in the history of making stuff is pulling patterned fabrics together for quilts. Seriously. DREAM JOB. When I retire (which is never) I am going to just sit on some sort of throne and pull fabrics together. That's it. (And hold my grandbabies.)
I enjoy this part so much that I am currently making two quilts. One for a baby girl and one for a baby boy while we wait to find out the gender of our next kiddo. I stuck with the "stereotypical" gender colors because that was what I wanted to do. When we find out in June what we're having, I'll keep one quilt and pass the second off to one of my five girlfriends that will also be welcoming a baby this fall.
I am SUPER lucky that we live very close to a HUGE quilt shop with the largest fabric selection I have ever seen in real life. It's my favorite place to go. But, I still enjoy pulling fabrics from larger box stores (like Jo-anns) and have also pulled fabrics together online (either through smaller fabric shops on etsy or fabric.com). If you don't have a fabric shop near you (be sure to check yelp and make sure!) then I would suggest checking out this post about online fabric resources from Emily Henderson. It's more difficult to pull fabrics together based on little swatches online, but it can be done! And as you'll see from my "rules" below, matching colors exactly isn't the most important part in all of this.
Insert obvious disclaimer here : these rules are my rules and this post is in response to all the questions I get on IG about how I mix fabrics. This is what I follow when I am pairing fabrics based solely on my taste. You might hate my taste and think these rules are garbage. That's totally okay. I can't pick fabric for your taste but I can do my best to articulate what works for me. ALSO, I have talked about this topic before in blog posts and in my quilt ecourse. I did not go back and read those posts so it's very possible there is some overlap here.
Ready? Let's roll.
Know your likes. Without this rule the rest are crap. You have to know what you like. How do you learn this? By living. By paying attention to patterns and colors and getting comfortable eliminating the stuff you don't like. When I go into my local shop 90% of the fabric in there isn't my taste. That doesn't make it bad! It just means that I am closer to narrowing down and finding what I really like and want to use for my next project. Whenever you're going to work on something, it's good to LIKE every fabric that you pick. HOWEVER, it is NOT important to LOVE every fabric you've chosen.
I think this is actually a really common mistake. You pick 12 fabrics that you LOVE and then find that they don't really work together. This is because we each tend to love the same sort of stuff. To make the pairing work though, you need more variety. A good mix of some complicated and some simple patterns. If you like really BOLD & GRAPHIC patterns and you try to mix 12 together there is no where for your eye to rest. You gotta toss some calmer fabrics in there that you just like, not love. Make sense?
My one suggestion for getting around this should you find yourself in a situation where you want to make a quilt that is all LOVE fabrics is to mix in white (or another neutral). If you make something like the pattern above, you can use a ton of bold prints because you have the white in there for a breather.
(learn how to make this triangle quilt here.)
Stick with a 2-3 color palette for the entire project. Of course you can use 100 colors. But I have found that things tend to come together a bit better when the palette is a bit smaller. Pink and orange. Blue and green. Teal, peach, coral. Whatever. Keep it small and tight (but you can have varying shades). (I consider gray and white calm enough to toss in there too.)
Pay close attention to light vs. dark. Ideally you want about a 50/50 mix of more saturated colors and lighter colors even if they are in the same family. When I say "light and dark" I mean when you squint your eyes does it appear mostly dark or mostly light?
Look for both small and larger scale patterns. I'd say this mix is about 70/30 (70% small, 30% big.) I tend to favor small patterns because from afar they can sort of look neutral but up close they provide an extra bit of detail. It's also key to PLAY with scale. You can totally have three different types of polka dots if they are varied in size. Using the same shape a few times is actually a fun way to pull something together while still looking interesting.
Ground the mix with basics. For me, adding a few stripes, florals and polka dots is always nice. These are basic patterns that obviously have their moments but are not really "trendy" in the same way that chevron might be. These fabrics are also fairly easy to find and you can get them in your colors without too much trouble. (For example, search etsy for "yellow polka dot fabric")
photo by Tara Whitney
Add in the whimsy. I like to throw in one or two patterns that make you look twice. For Ellerie's quilt (above) this was the little ducks. For the quilt I'm working on now it's the sweet rabbits. Animals are perfect for this job. So are arty/strange flowers. I love to look for something that appears hand-drawn or sketched rather than something that looks just like the real animal but that's just me.
Keep each fabric pattern to just 2 or 3 colors. I mentioned that I like the entire quilt to be a limited palette but I think it's equally important that each fabric has just a few colors to the pattern as well for simplicity. It's also much trickier to "match" various fabrics with tons of colors.
Throw in a solid. Even though I primarily mix patterns, I like to add in a solid or two to pull everything together. Often I pick this solid based on the color that seems to be "missing" from the rest of the patterns. (Like for example if I had 5 teal patterns but only 3 coral, I could add a solid coral and that would really balance things out.) When possible, I like to find solids that have a tiny bit of texture or interest to them.
Do a squint test. When you stand back from your fabrics and blur your eyes, do they make sense together? Whenever I do this I inevitably find a pattern that doesn't fit with the rest and I toss it out. This is sort of like the "gut check" test. Does your gut say it's good to go? Does your squinting say it looks cohesive? It probably is.
Forget matching. I've never been big on finding the "exact shade of pink" to keep things consistent. It's hard to do and not really necessary (to me) when the other nine rules have been followed. Instead I focus on finding complimentary pinks or lighter shades of the same pink and that seems to work well. If the exact matching is KEY for you then you can go through the same brand which might help but I encourage you to get outside the box a bit and see what you think!
Ignore everything I just said. The best way to make a quilt?!? Do exactly what you want to do with exactly what you want to use.
HOORAY! Go forth and buy quarter yardage!