How To Choose Colors For Your Quilt?

Joen Wolfrom, color expert, talked to us about her new and easy method for choosing the colors for her quilts.

Penny:   In your book Visual Coloring you suggest that we find a photograph we like or one that creates a special mood, and then use that as a basis for the colors of our quilt. Can you describe more of how that works?

Joen:     To begin with, each person has their own color personality. Mine would be different than yours. Yours would be different than your best friend’s, etc. Take a day or two or a week or a month, whatever it takes you and accumulate photos, paintings and other images from calendars and greeting cards or scientific and travel magazines. Take them from places where you find beautiful colorations or colors.

Sit down and look through those publications and even your own photography. As you go through them, you’ll see some that speak to your soul. They will have something that makes you happy or just makes you sit up. It draws your attention to it. There is a strong emotional pull.

When you see and feel these, cut them out and set them aside. Keep looking for these things. Spend a day or two to focus on doing that. You’ll be amazed by the color combinations you really love. They might not be anything you ever thought about before.

Once you’ve accumulated a number of them and you’re thinking about doing a quilt right away, pull them out. Put them all in front of you.

You’ll find that the ones you pull out will probably be able to be put in different groupings. For instance, I love autumn colors. I have an autumnal file. I like wintry colors. I have a wintry, subtle file. I love bold and bright colors, so I have a bold and bright file. I also like soft and delicate colors. I have a file for those.

Each person will have her type of grouping or file. That’s what makes visual coloring so wonderful. Whatever suits you will be what you’ll find. It won’t be what somebody else wants of you.

Each of those groups of colors and images you find put in a file. It should be a file you have easy access to. You can look at it in a moment’s notice. When you’re eating lunch, you can look at them and be inspired.

When you’re ready to begin a quilt, pull out those files and put all your images on a table in front of you. Study them. Look at the ones that pull at and move you the most. There might be one you gravitate toward. There may be two or three. Set the rest aside. Put them back in their file.

Look at the ones you pulled out and contemplate. After you’ve decided on one, go to your fabric stash with your image in hand. If it’s a really tiny image, you might want to blow it up. Generally speaking, I don’t do that.

Find the most obvious color in your picture or image and then pull out the fabrics that match that coloration. Go to another obvious color and pull out those. Keep working it through.

As you’re working and looking back and forth at your stash and your picture, your eyes become acclimated to some other hues in the images. You may not have seen them at first. Pull out those colors until you’ve run out of fabrics or colors and you’re happy with what you have.

You’ll find that some of the fabrics in your stash will have several hues that will work well with the colors. There may be an additional color or two that are in your image. I would avoid using those. They’ll be visually distracting, unless you can cut out those pieces of coloring. If it’s an overall design, you don’t want to use them. Save that fabric for a different time.

If you’re still at the table and haven’t decided which of your two or three images to use, then sometimes you have to be more pragmatic about your selection. You love these three images. You have a design in mind. Which image or coloration will work best with that design? Sometimes it’s very clear that one will or will not work well.

One might have a strong emotional pull for working with the image or design. It might be that you look at this one image and you know in your heart that you have none of those fabrics or hardly any of those fabrics. You can’t even begin to quilt.

Many quilters struggle with choosing colors for quilts and then finding fabrics in those colors.

My approach came quite naturally. When I first started quilting, I didn’t care for most of my quilts. I knew the colors were incorrect, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I don’t know if anybody else has had this experience. At the end of each quilt it seemed like there were always surprises. They were not pleasant surprises either.

At the same time I was learning about quilting I was an avid reader of Architectural Digest. I come from an architectural family. Each issue had beautiful, scenic photographs.

In one issue, I found a photo that really caught my eye. I fell in love with it. I loved the colors. I thought, “I want to make a quilt just like that.” Not the imagery, just the colors.

I found myself pulling out the colors in that design and making a quilt. I loved the quilt. It spoke to me. That peaked my interest. I saw another photo in which I loved the colors. I pulled the fabrics and matched them. I had the same results. It was amazing.

What was interesting to me was I was using these photos for a color guide. The more I used them and the more success I had with my quilts, the more I felt comfortable with colors. I ventured out more on my own. It was a natural working process.


Earlier this year, I decided to use some of Joen’s strategies to create a quilt. The first step was to find a photograph with the colors I liked, then find fabric for the quilt.

The photograph I used to choose the colors for the quilt on the right. The quilt I made using fabric selected from the colors in the photograph. This is without a border. 

By Penny Halgren of

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