Of all the quilt design principles, value is one of the most difficult to grasp. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color, from the palest version to the most intense.
An easy example of value is the free paint chip strips you get at the hardware store: pick up a reddish-orange one and you’ll see 4-5 shades, from pink grapefruit to tiger lily to roasted pepper to brick cottage.
The same goes for quilt fabric. It comes in a huge range of values. However, quilters often find that when they build their stash, most of the fabric falls into the middle-value range, with little at the top and bottom. Or they tend to collect mostly lights or mostly darks.
It’s always fun to create with your favorite colors, but when you’re designing a quilt, it’s often the lights and darks that make the other colors pop. Value is especially important in landscape quilts, because the dark colors recede and the light colors come forward. Therefore, mountains in the distance should be primarily dark and flowers in the foreground lighter, by contrast.
Renowned quilt design artist Carol Taylor is well-known for her work in color value, and actually organizes her stash by value.
“Sorting fabrics in value order is tricky and something I continue to work on and practice. It definitely gets better with practice. I try to line mine all up by letting the same amount of each fabric show (1”) which tends to give you an even better look when you step back and try to see if the values are in the proper sequence.
“I definitely use that trick, and also always move way across the room to view it to see if any really stand out as being in the wrong spot. And I squint; this makes them run together in an even flow of value. If one stands out, then I try moving it to the proper place,” she says, adding, “One thing you’ll find is that value is always relative, so where you place a certain fabric in one line of values may not be the same if you use it in another.
Carol’s tricks for judging value work best if you have a quilt design wall, whether it’s a formal structure or just a flannel sheet pinned to a wall.
Another way to learn about using value is to choose a quilt kit that uses value as a key design component. The colors are chosen and the pattern is all mapped out so you can focus on observing how the values work together to make a gorgeous quilt.