Consider the Color Wheel

I probably should have written this on Pi Day, March 14 (Pi being 3.14 etc.) but I didn’t think about it then. Too busy thinking about actual edible pie.color wheel pie

But what is a color wheel but a stylized pie? When thinking about fabric choices for your next sewing project, you’d do well to consider the color wheel before randomly raiding your stash. Of course the easiest thing to do is choose variations of the same color, and that may actually be the safest way to avoid a horrible clash of colors if you’re sewing an outfit you might want to wear in public. Heck, you don’t even need to check the color wheel for a monochromatic scheme like that.

But you might want to check the wheel if you’d like something a little more bold. Choosing colors that are different but right next to each other on the wheel can give you an analogous color scheme, one that seems more adventurous without risking a jarring mismatch. Yellow and green or yellow and orange go well together, obviously enough, but using all three together can result in a stand-out project, whether it’s clothing or quilting. It’s like decorating a room. Your bedroom might be primarily two shades of blue, but you’d want an accent color here and there, like the green over there next to the two lighter blues or the purple that’s next to the two darker blues. If you want something really bold, choose a complementary color scheme, which is simply two colors that are on opposite sides of the wheel, like yellow and purple, blue and orange, or red and green. Well… something to keep in mind the next time you make a clown suit or a jester costume for Halloween.

You’ve heard of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, just like the colors for Southwest Airlines and an excellent choice when sewing for young children. Secondary colors are orange, green, and purple, each one of which is two steps away from a primary color on the standard color wheel. And the tertiary colors are the two colors on either side of each primary color. Yeah. Clear as mud when you’re looking at a normal pie-sliced color wheel.

color wheel

If I don’t have any certain fabrics in mind, but I just want to pick the basic colors I’ll use in a project, I prefer to use a color wheel like the one on the left. I know, it looks like some kind of witchy symbolism to use in a midnight spell, but  it’s actually just a color wheel that’s easier for me to work with because everything is spelled out and linked together. Not quite everything, or it would be too cluttered, but it’s still easier to work with.

One combination that isn’t clearly illustrated, but still easy enough to figure out, is the split complementary color scheme. Pick a primary or a secondary color and then the two tertiary colors on its opposite side of the wheel. Or pick a tertiary color and the primary and secondary colors on its opposite side of the wheel. Pick your colors, verify your choices by sketching out and coloring your pattern with crayons, colored markers, or paint, and then head to the fabric store.

bad color wheel

All of this theory works best in a perfect world. Here’s a quick real-life color wheel kind of thingy that I spread out on my floor to help me decide what scraps to use in a sampler quilt. Ummm… Not too useful, in my opinion. But it did make me realize that my scrap stash was pretty heavy on the reds, followed by blues and yellows. Apparently, I’m naturally drawn to primary colors. That’s something to keep in mind the next time I search through the remnant bins. I need to expand my options.

Cheating the Color Wheel

Floral Fabric

If your project involves using a fabric that has a pattern consisting of a variety of colors, you can avoid using the color wheel altogether and just use that fabric to help you choose the other colors you might use. Note the fabric sample on the right. We have a peachy/tan background, which I would consider neutral. We have more neutrality in the white flower petals. The rest of the design features mostly shades of green with instances of blue, red, and yellow. Take a swatch with you to the fabric store to make sure the colors you pick to coordinate with this fabric aren’t too far off from the actual shades and tones of the fabric. A navy blue, for example, would probably be a bad choice.

I saw the best cheat yet in the most recent catalog from Annie’s. It’s a small kaleidoscope type of gadget that you can keep handy in your sewing area or you can stick it in your purse or pocket for your next trip to the fabric shop. Just spread out a few fabrics you’re thinking about getting, and then use the fancy glittery ColorScope to examine the fabrics in combination without any extraneous distractions.

ColorScope – $7.95

Choose the best color combinations ever using this convenient carry-along tool. Kaleidoscope-style viewer lets you see fabrics or yarn in a repeating sequence to make selecting the perfect colors easier than ever before!


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