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Mosaic Quilts: Choosing the Right Fabrics

When I explain to anyone how I start to create my art quilts I always mention that their evolution begins with emotion. As I am struck by an inspirational moment, I try to capture or compose the moment myself using my camera. Sometimes these photos go into my trash bin and other times they turn into Mosaic Art Quilts. But what you may be wondering is how to choose the right fabrics. This is an important step in my process because selecting the right fabrics will ultimately bring my designs to life as imagined. Choosing fabrics may be easy for some quilters but can be a difficult process for others. Here's a few helpful talking points about my fabric selection process:

  • Choosing the Right Shades or Values

  • Where I Purchase Fabrics

  • Swapping/Changing Fabrics

  • Being an Artist, have Fun with your Design

  • Best Fabrics to Use with a Digital Cutting Machine

Almost 99% of the time I am working from a photo that I have taken. The first thing I consider when choosing fabrics is to look carefully at the photograph. I study where the light source is coming from and where the highlights and shadows fall. The contrast between the two brings my design to life and offers the depth I am seeking to recreate in my quilts. This is not always an easy process and will take some scrutiny and a bit of time.

I don't hand dye my own fabrics so I can not make a shade or value of color. Instead I rely entirely on finding commercial and hand dyed fabrics to work with. Most often I enjoy working with commercial batiks, ice dyed, and mottled fabrics because I really love the interest and variations in these fabrics. Also, when I look at the fabric as a whole I see a solid color. For example, in the mid section of the photo below, I see mainly the color orange but also a ranges of orange light, orange medium and orange dark.

Once I am finished hand drawing a mosaic design of my photograph I will then carefully look at each mosaic piece to determine its primary color then its value. At this point, I will usually have my photograph opened as a backdrop or background layer in my digital cutter software or graphic drawing program. Both programs offer a color palette option where you can fill your digital drawing with colors. Referencing my original photograph I pick colors or values from the palette that best represent the values seen in my photograph. Since I do most of my color designing on a computer I also use a special tool to aid me in the process know as a 3-in-1 color tool. I briefly discussed how I use this tool in my recently aired show #2406 on The Quilt Show with Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims. This is a very helpful tool and I will share more about how I use it and in a future post.

In my digital drawing example below, I have narrowed down, from my original photo, at least 3 shades of yellows/yellow oranges and white in the cup or bowl portion of the daffodil and at least 5 shades of dirty yellow, beige, cream and white in the outer daffodil petals. From this information, I have determined both the primary color and number of values. This allows me to begin my search for the appropriate fabric choices.

I purchase my fabrics from a variety of resources: I buy commercial batiks from quilt shops, online quilt stores and at quilt shows. And for hand dyed fabrics I purchase them from fabric dye artists such as Debra Linker of and Carol Eaton of It's usually not one stop shopping and like most quilters I am always adding more fabrics to my stash.

As I am cutting and piecing a mosaic design together there are definitely times where I get some values wrong and cut the wrong fabric. Basically, this means I will need to substitute the incorrect values for correct ones. I check my fabric stash first, but if I cannot find a suitable fabric it means I must stop working on my quilt temporarily and search my resources to find new fabric with the correct value I desire. Tip: I usually purchase a range of values when I buy my fabrics. This way I can quickly and easily swap out a bad value decision for a more suitable value this prevents halting my progress or creative flow by wasting time searching/waiting for new fabrics to arrive.

This first photo is of a pile of cut mosaic pieces where I felt I got the values wrong. I had to choose different values for at least 4 of my colors in my design and re-cut all the pieces. But using a digital cutter makes re-cutting new pieces a breeze. The shapes of my design have already been saved and all I need to do is load new fabric onto my cutting mat and hit "cut" on my computer to cut the new pieces. Tip: To minimize fabric waste, save the rejected cut pieces. The cut pieces will already have fusible on them. Therefore you can adhere the pieces to a mini quilt sandwich as seen in the second photo. Then you can use the quilt sandwiches to practice or warm up your free-motion quilting prior to diving into free-motion quilting on your actual quilt.

Referencing my original daffodil and bee photo above, you can see the background is a beige color. Overall it reads neutral and is pretty bland. Here's where the fun begins. Once I have digitally drawn and colored a particular design, I use the color palette in either of the software I mentioned above. It allows you to freely explore other possible color options. In the software, I can very easily and quickly swap the beige color of my digital design with different colors in the palette long before I even cut any of my fabrics. In the photo below I made an artistic decision to choose a gorgeous turquoise blue batik to use as my background fabric instead of using a beige fabric. You are the artist and you don't need to match your photo exactly (unless of course this is your intent). You can have some fun experimenting with different colors from the palette until you find the exact color and values you desire to work with.

One final note, to get the best fabric cutting results with your digital cutter you'll want to choose tightly woven fabrics. Most quilting cottons, batiks, and hand-dyes have tight weaves and will preform best when cut with a digital cutter. Equally as important, since this is raw edge applique, these types of fabrics fray less. And of course, I recommend that you properly prepare the fabric with starch to maximize your cutting results. I'll talk more about fabric preparation and starch when using a digital cutter another time.

In the meantime...

Happy Fabric Picking! and Happy Spring!

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