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Top 10 Designer Tips for Blending Colors and Prints

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Can it really be true? Are the snow drifts and rain storms of winter finally preparing to yield the right away to spring?! Bundle up the black, gray, and burgundy. Bust out the buttercup, lilac, and tangerine. This is also the time of year when fabric manufacturers release their latest spring collections of beautiful fabric, each one filled with fresh new prints. Mastering the proper mixology of color and motif is something designers spend years perfecting. But there are basics everyone can use to create a fabulous look. We’ve collected our Top 10 Tips to get you started.

1. Choose a style

The examples above show similar color schemes, but dissimilar styles.

Traditional? Modern? Eclectic? It’s easiest to work with prints that come from within the same style category. Mixing formal with whimsical is likely to have uncomfortable results, like that time you tried to convince Uncle Roy he’d love the ballet… if only he could get past the fact that the “T” was silent. 

2. Define the basic color scheme

There are color families, such as warms, cools, and neutrals. Keeping things “in the family” is always a good bet for blending success. Once you have your basic direction in mind, consider tone: vivid and energetic brights, pale and serene pastels, or dark and intense jewels are just a few of the possibilities. 

With your top two rules set, be prepared to break them if necessary.

3. Create a color balance 

The primary and secondary fabrics are cotton décor fabric, but the accent picks up the tiny bit of plum in the birds, and is a plum faux suede.

Choose a primary color, secondary color, and accent color. To achieve the most visually pleasing composition, keep the balance of color at roughly 60% primary, 25-30% secondary and 10-15% accent. This balance should also take into account placement –- what's next to what. Flow from your anchor color, then begin to introduce the secondary color. The accent should be a little "color surprise" and shouldn't be used much or its impact will be lost.

4. Match colors rather than prints

Rather than mixing three florals, for example, look for the colors in the floral swatch and choose a large motif like a plaid and then choose an accent like a ticking that picks up the red color in the floral. 

There’s an old maxim about never matching plaids and stripes (it’s the chapter right before, “Never wear white after Labor Day.”). But you need to close the rule book on those outdated ideas. When colors look good together, chances are prints in those colors will look good together as well. 

As you blend, don’t forget about complimentary colors. On the designer’s color wheel, each color has a complimentary color exactly opposite it. True complimentary hues are also same distance from the center of the wheel, but it can be very striking to combine a color from nearer the center, like a pale yellow green, with its complimentary color from the outside edge, like a deep mauve.

5. Size matters; vary scale and proportion

Before we strike out into size, let’s get a few definitions out of way. A motif is a dominant element within a fabric’s overall design. One design can have several unique motifs, and each can be a single image or a repeated pattern. This leads us to definition #2: design repeat, which is the how much area is covered, height and width, before a design repeats itself on the fabric. 

The large print above shows several motifs within the design repeat. Pay attention to size and repeat, especially when ordering online.

As you plan, stir things up with some large prints, some medium prints, and some smaller prints. Scale creates drama and interest in your finished piece. If all of the patterns are the same scale, the result can be lifeless. 

Plus, especially in the world of home décor, don’t forget to consider the scale of your room and the furniture within it. Prints you can appreciate in your hand, a mere 18” from your eyes, can becomes a blur of nothingness when seen within a room. To vary scale often means a substantial difference. A ½” flower against a 2” flower might seem like a variance, but to truly make an impact, you should probably be looking for a ½” flower against a 12” flower. 

6. Odd versus even; an interesting mix is better than a perfect match

In good design, exactly even amounts of everything tends to become boring and repetitive. Three equal size pieces of fabric are not as appealing as a dominant or primary fabric combined with a smaller cut of a secondary fabric and then just a small accent amount of the third. Even if you only use two different fabrics, avoid using the same amount of each.

7. If a little is good, a lot is NOT necessarily better

This is one of the most common “mistakes” we see in fabric combinations. “Mistakes” is in quotes, because it is your project. At the end of the day, if you like it, you get to do whatever you want. But in general, it’s best to err on the side of simplicity – especially when you’re just getting started with design. 

Notice how the simple prints use color from the main novelty print.

When it comes to prints, the simpler and more graphic the designs, the easier they are to match. This is why stripes are such a great blender. They are kind of like the neutral of the print world; their simplicity allows them to go with just about anything. 

Mix and mingle your patterns. Florals, stripes, plaids, polka dots – they can all be blended together beautifully. The key is variety. For example, don't use three same-size polka dot patterns and expect a winning result. A small plaid looks pleasing with a large floral. Stripes and polka dots look terrific together. 

The key is to know when to stop. Pick a focal motif and blend from there, spreading out prints across a project. Once you get a balanced look, step away. If you continue to layer on fabric after fabric or to introduce trims, and ruffles, and bling; pretty soon you just have a mess. Are there exceptions? Of course! The look of crazy quilts is a favorite of ours that is a wonderfully eclectic mixture of many, many elements. What we’re outlining in this article is the basic foundation of mixing and blending. Once you know all the rules, then you can break them.

8. Don’t forget solids to give the eye a place to rest

One of the ways to bring everything together, and to avoid going overboard as mentioned above in Tip #7, is to introduce a solid. A coordinating solid calms things down, grounds your look, and gives the eye somewhere to rest as it takes in your beautifully blended fabrics. 

Thanks to the popularity of quilting, the choice of colors available in the world of solids is amazing. If you have a print you love that is your focal point, break it down into its different colors and pull one to act as your solid accent. Remember, it may not be the dominant color in the design. Pulling out an accent color for your solid is a super style secret. 

The project featured above is our Downton Abbey Christmas Table Runner.

9. Add a bit of texture

Speaking of accents, don’t forget you can bring some textures into the mix. Adding textures is not difficult, but use restraint. A texture is most appreciated when it's not competing with too many other textures (see #7 above). This recommendation extends from fabric texture into trims. A lovely trim, such as a tassel, pom or fringe can add a professional finish, but again, don't use too many styles and colors. As with everything, understated is the best option for the most professional look. 

The projects featured above are our Zippered Bags with Tri-Color Tassels and Napkins with Pom Pom Ties.

10. Try it until you like it

The final step is the least scientific: gather up your fabric swatches, toss them on the table (or digitally on your computer) and start moving them around, trying different combinations until you have something that works. Plan to play with at least three to five times as many swatches as you want to end up with. In other words, if you’re thinking about having five prints in your final mix, start with between fifteen to twenty-five options to begin. You want enough prints to be able to easily let go of the ones that don't serve the situation. You may even need to go back for more swatches.

Many stores and sites will allow you to buy a very small amount of each of the fabrics in which you're interested. You can then cut your own swatches and move them around until you get the effect you want. Then, place your final order for full yardage.

Remember when you learned about motif and repeat size above? If you’re working with online swatches, look for this information, don't assume. Otherwise, you won't know if a swatch is six inches or a foot. That can really throw your scale planning into a tailspin. You want to do your mixing and matching with swatches at the correct scale.

The design board above is one we used for a room that came together with a number of projects as our Romantic Retreat.

Many designers use a “design board” to work out the final details. You can make design boards on your computer (copy and paste photos or online images), or by hand, using a piece of white card stock, your actual fabric swatches, and photos cut from magazines and catalogs to help create a mood.

Where to go from here

These are our Top 10, but it’s really just the beginning. Once you dive it, you can expand your knowledge and expertise, bringing cool new terms into your everyday conversation and ideas into your projects; such as analogous colors, which are color groupings that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Or a double complementary blend, which is a combination of two complementary color pairs. Or even triadic combos: three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel.

Color and pattern blending is art and science and just plain fun!


Comments (6)

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Grace Marie - Thank you! These were simply swatches we pulled from out stash and/or from online sources. They are used only as examples of size, color, scale, etc. We do not have all the collection names, and even what IDs we can make, many are from collections that are no longer readily available. 

Sarah Anderson said:
Sarah Anderson's picture

Fabric swatchs are indeed really nice at figuring out colors and textures for things you may want to make. Want to make a nice pair of socks? Feel how comfortable each piece is, then look at their colorings for the one you want. Keeping the swatches labeled well can save you a good amount of time in the store as well.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Sarah - thanks for weighing in - fabric swatches are great, but you're right... you must remember to label them  

Rochelle @ eSheep Designs said:
Rochelle @ eSheep Designs's picture

Excellent tips! Not only are these helpful when starting a project, the information also applies to designing fabric "families" (which I am currently dabbling in for fun). Of course, in the world of crafting and creativity, it's also good to break a rule now and then! ;-)

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Rochelle - yep! as we say, "learn the rules and then you can break them"