Contrast in quilts: 5 main elements

In talking about the importance of color and color value in our quilts in the last few days, it’s also important to talk about contrast within our work to make an interesting and eye catching design. The more I teach quilting, the more I realize that everyone is always trying to achieve the Wow factor in their quilts. So I think it’s fitting to add some insight today on how to create the wow factor by talking about contrast in quilts: 5 main elements.

In art, contrast refers to the arrangement of opposite elements such as rough vs smooth texture or small vs large. In quilting, we also consider light vs dark to be one of our opposite elements and the easiest to employ in our quilts.

Contrast is used to create interest and visual appeal to a design. Additionally, contrast directs the eye to a certain area within the design.

To create contrast with fabric a variety of light, medium and dark valued fabrics need to be used. Balancing these three values is what creates great contrast in a quilt and often there’s more medium value in the quilt than light or dark. Balance is the key. The medium valued fabrics connect everything together and create pleasing design flow for the eye to follow. They also help to maintain the high contrast of the dark and light fabrics.

If only light, medium or dark valued fabrics are used in a quilt, the quilt would be dull due to little or no contrast between the fabrics.

The use of black or white will also create very high contrast within a design.

Contrast can be created with the use of fabric only or by adding other media and design. There are 5 elements to creating contrast and that’s what we are going to explore next.

Let’s get started.

The 5 Elements

I’ve gathered up a few items in my studio that I’ve collected over time from visits to my local quilt shops. We as quilters buy all this stuff with great intentions – fabric, thread, notions, tools and much more only to put it away in a drawer. I suppose we quilters could be called hoarders especially if we never use the stuff that we buy.

Today I’m going to put some of that stuff to use and create some contrast in this little quilted pillow cover.

Color & Value

On Monday, I talked about the color wheel and the different color schemes which we found out, there are many to choose from. I’ve decided to go with a monochromatic scheme – one color or one spoke on the color wheel. I’m going to use blue.

The blue spoke – a monochromatic color scheme

I’ve collected a few blue items: fabric, piping and buttons.

A variety of items in blue

The three blue fabrics I chose look fairly close in value but they’re different as you can see here when viewed with the tonal estimator.

Value estimator showing value of the blue fabrics

To go along with the blue fabrics I chose white which also adds high contrast to a design. I  wanted to use a very light blue but when I looked in my stash I didn’t have a very light blue fabric.

It’s quite common that our fabric stashes are lacking very light and very dark fabrics as these are not fabrics we are drawn to. Most of us are drawn to the medium valued fabrics which make up most of our stash.

Like our stashes, quilt shops tend to have mostly medium valued fabrics on the shelves. I consciously try to buy light and dark fabrics to add to my stash for that day when I need them.


Fabrics these days have so many different patterns – geometric shapes – lines, swirls, circles, tone on tone, flowers, large prints, small prints and batiks. All of these patterns create texture within a quilt to create contrast.

The really great thing about the three blue fabrics is that each of them have a different pattern or texture to them. One has lines, one has vines and the other is mottled. Texture is a great way to create contrast between the fabrics.

The 3 blue fabrics each with a different texture/pattern

Shapes & Lines

Different shapes within a design also create contrast. In this cushion, there are squares, lines and circles.

The squares were created with fabric while the lines were created with piping. I originally had 3 different colors of piping but ended up going with just the one color of dark blue.

Squares and lines of piping

Adding the piping

I have to say that I have never put piping into anything in my life so there was a bit of a learning curve. To begin I cut off my piece and pinned it between the two pieces of white fabric with nice sharp glass headed pins.

These pins are great for patchwork as they are nice and long and I didn’t want the piping to shift between the fabric layers.

Pinning the piping in place

I even got out my little ruler with the guide to make sure that the piping was a ¼″ from the edge and I could use my ¼″ foot to sew it in between the fabric pieces.

A perfect ¼″

The first piece I sewed with my ¼″ inch foot and found it didn’t stay as close to the piping as I would like. The second piece I used my zipper foot and moved the needle as far to the left as I could to butt up against the piping. This method had much better results.

Sew piping in place with a zipper foot

By using different shapes within the cushion cover I created contrast.


Prior to quilting I used my handy dandy safety pin fastener to help sandwich the layers together.

Basting with safety pins and the safety pin fastener

The quilting for this piece is very simple and is only straight lines. The straight lines add to the design and create contrast in the white fabric. I selected a few spools of Gutermann & Sulky thread in varying values of blue to audition. Lighting the area with my Stella desk lamp certainly brighten things up.

I ended up going with the lightest blue – almost white so that it wouldn’t stand out on the white fabric. This light blue thread has been tinted with a lot of white.

Auditioning threads


Another great way to add contrast to a quilt is by adding embellishments such as buttons, yarn, embroidery and piping. I used piping and buttons on this piece but for the next color scheme project I’ll introduce you to couching and maybe some embroidery. My hand embroidery skills aren’t that great so we’ll see how I do with that one!

Auditioning layout of buttons

Monochromatic cushion top

With the cushion top finished, I now need a pillow form to stuff into it. I have several different sizes to choose from. This top is only 13″ square so my choices are the 12″ or 14″ pillow form. I went with the latter as I would rather have an over stuffed cushion than an under stuffed cushion.

Pillow forms in different sizes

Indeed my monochromatic cushion is over stuffed. Even though I don’t have a lot of different blues in the cushion top it’s still considered a monochromatic color scheme.

The white is neutral and does not count as a color – in other words it is achromatic!

Monochromatic cushion

There are many ways to add contrast to a quilt using everything from fabric to shapes to embellishments. What fun it is to create these fun little quilting projects and practice with the different elements. Experimentation is how we learn. Are you going to try out some of these ideas now that you know how easy it is? Contrast in quilts: 5 main elements who knew it could be so simple. Happy Quilting!

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