Ask Jinny!

How can I determine the value of fabrics?

  • Understanding color value and what is light, medium and dark is something I'm having a bit of a problem with. Can this be learned or is that eye for color a "God-given gift"?

    Linda Williams
    South Florida

Jinny's Answer

  • Great question, Linda!  And it’s one that I often hear when I'm lecturing on color.

    Determining the value of a fabric – where it falls on a light-dark scale – is very important in quiltmaking. It’s key to shading fabrics and one my color secrets:  to create a glow in my quilts, I like to put a very light fabric right next to a very dark one.

    But it’s not always easy to determine whether a fabric is light, medium or dark.  What do those terms really mean?  So, let’s look at an example.

    Strip of Fabric Swatches

    Here are eight fabrics in teals, blues and purples.  The last fabric is black.  All of them have small-scale patterns.  It should be fairly easy to pick out the lightest (#3) and either #7 or #8 is the darkest.  But what about all those “middle” colors?  What order do they go in?
    Color can “trick” us.  So, until your eyes become more experienced (and they do with practice), I recommend that you look at your fabrics in black and white.  There are several ways to do this.

    1. Use your computer or printer.  Scan the fabrics you’re using or take a picture.  If you have a computer program that lets you remove the color and display in black and white (or, more accurately, “grayscale”), convert the photo.  Otherwise, simply print the photo to your printer, changing the print options to print in grayscale.
    2. Use a photocopier. Take your fabrics to the office or a library and make a photocopy.
    When I converted our sample strip of fabrics to grayscale, here was the result:

    Fabric Strip - Grayscale

    Now it becomes much easier to sort the fabrics from lightest to darkest.  (Remember, this isn’t color shading, it’s shading by value!)

    Grayscale Fabric Strip - Sorted
    Color Strip - Sorted

    Also, keep in mind that value is relative – depending on your selection of fabrics, a medium fabric might be the lightest (or darkest) in another selection. In the example above, 4 is definitely a medium.  But if your selection of fabrics is the three below, it’s now the lightest!

    Three Fabrics

     Hope this helps!