A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

The best way to see if you really admire a quilt’s design is to view it in black and white.

bw2 A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

I was reminded of this recently when I picked up an older book called Quilters’ Choice, copyright 1978 by the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The book features mostly black and white photos of quilts in the museum’s collection.

choice cover1 A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

bw5 A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

For quiltmakers like you and me, why is a black and white photo preferred?

The main reason has to do with value. The fabric values (lightness or darkness relative to the fabrics around them) are seen more easily in black and white. It’s easier to tell how many different values are used in the quilt.

bw4 A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

And there are no “ugly” colors to distract you—you’re free to enjoy the quilt’s design alone.

Before I understood any of this, I sometimes purchased patterns for quilts made with ridiculously simple shapes. I came to realize I was buying them because I loved their color schemes, not because the piecing designs were anything special.

Now when I spy anything in which I love the color combination, I simply jot down the colors in my pocket-sized Moleskine. I have my own names for colors so that later, I know just what the color was.

I know exactly what I mean by terms such as seafoam, salmon and periwinkle.

seafoam A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

This is what I call "seafoam."

salmon A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

This is what I call "salmon."

periwinkle A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

This is what I call "periwinkle."

Down the road, I can refer back to my lists for inspirational color combos.

This happened recently with a Quiltmaker pattern, too.

bwwhirli A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

I had a black and white copy of a very old pattern called Whirligig. I loved the simple shapes and thought it would make a great scrap quilt. I had only the photo (no dimensions), so I had to decide what size to make the block: I went with 1″ finished strips and 2″ finished half-square triangles for a finished block size of 7″.

I had small pieces of some Denyse Schmidt fabrics I love, and to these I added some vintage fabrics. It was really fun to cut a bunch of pieces and then start mixing them up to see where it would all lead.

mywhirligig A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

I made about 15 blocks and settled on 12 in the final piece.

A few weeks after I pieced this, I looked up Whirligig to see what the colors we originally used looked like.

whirligig A Quilt Lesson in Black & White

Whoa. Not what I was expecting—but the color photo proves my point. I’d never have looked twice at this pattern in these colors, and certainly would never have made it based on the colors QM used in 1994. But in black and white? It was fabulous! Lesson learned. Always look at a quilt design in black and white. (When someone refers to “grayscale,” they mean the same thing.)

Now I’m on to the quilting portion, and I’m basically stuck, asking the eternal question: how should I quilt it? In the next post, I’ll give you some ideas of where to look for quilting designs when you are stuck (and also show you the world’s ugliest pieced back).

About Diane Harris

I'm Interactive Editor for Quiltmaker magazine in Golden, Colorado, USA. For six years, I've been writing pattern instructions and product reviews, and doing a host of other tasks necessary to help produce a national pattern magazine. Now I work remotely from rural Nebraska to generate some of our online content. I manage the QM Scrap Squad, our blog tours and our Quilt-Alongs. I have one of the best jobs in the world.
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