UPDATE

I received the following comment on my Facebook page the other day:

Question: Do you use batiks exclusively or regular cotton fabric as well? Many of these pieces have so much detail in the fabric that I’m guessing you would have to be shopping for fabric all the time in order to find the best fit for your piece.

This question, along with recent experience in my classes, convinced me that it was a good time to re-visit “Choosing Fabric for Fabric Collage” (see original post below). Choosing fabric to bring to class, or to purchase in a store, will always be a challenge because much of it depends on trial-and-error experience. Plus there’s a mind-boggling assortment of fabrics to choose from. No doubt, the perfect fabric will be left at home—or on the store shelf— it’s just one of those rules. And as far as the second part of the comment above, “Yes, I do shop for fabric all the time—doesn’t everyone?”

Since it was obvious some could use further guidance, I decided to take another crack at selecting fabric in this update.

First, though, let me answer the Facebook question directly:

Yes, I do use a lot of batiks. In fact, that’s kind of a short-hand answer for what kind of fabrics I would choose for fabric collage. (I also use all sorts of other cotton, and non-cotton, fabrics.) However, I need to clarify. Some batiks work well while others don’t.

The distinction I draw is between regular batiks and “printed” batiks—batiks that have an overall pattern or design printed on them. I prefer the printed batiks. The way I work and how I teach my students is to use the prints in the fabric to help create form. Don’t ignore the print. Don’t cut through or across the print. The printed design is used to emphasize contours, visual movement and texture in the image being collaged. It’s like a treasure hunt to find the right print—combined with color and value—in the fabric. I then cut along that print to create an irregular shape, adding to my palette of “scraps” to choose from.

Here are a some batik examples.

The hand-dyed batik on the left is a beautiful color, however there’s no print for me to cut around—and if I were to create a shape it would look like a solid color. I’ve found solid colors hard to “blend” (but that’s a subject for another post.) The one on the right, is also a non-print batik, but with more light/dark variation which could be seen as random shapes to cut around. It’s possibly useful, depending on the subject matter, but wouldn’t be my first “best bet” choice.

The batiks that turn my head are printed batiks like the ones above. The prints provide movement and another layer of variation in color and value in addition to the base batiked fabric. I find fabrics like these much more versatile for my fabric collage method.

Take a look at the two new videos I have added to this post. They approach the issue from opposite directions.

The first talks in a general way about the fabrics I have collected recently, but without any particular project in mind. They might be good for any number of subject matter. But you can see from my examples the kinds of fabrics I would suggest to add to your stash.

The second, longer video takes a subject-oriented approach. In it, I encourage you to look closely at the features in your subject to help choose printed fabrics that will work with it. Does your subject have long, flowy hair or a tail? Is your subject round or more angular? What are the form and contours of the features you’ll be portraying in fabric? Answering these sorts of questions will help you focus in on the print you’re looking for, whether you are in class or at a fabric store dreaming about your next project.

After these videos is my original blog post from a few months prior. Collecting fabric for fabric collage is an on-going process. May this updated post help you in making your “best bet” selections for your next project.


Original Post

Of course, while I must admit that I have such a broad taste in color and design that my husband sometimes says it amounts to no taste at all (I prefer to describe my taste as “eclectic”), I do have some broad guidelines for how I select fabric.

If I had to break it down, I might use the following criteria:

  • Color
  • Pattern
  • Scale
  • Quantity

Students always find it difficult to know just which fabrics, and how much, to bring along with them to my fabric collage classes. One advantage of teaching at a place like the Quilt Gallery in Kalispell, Montana, where I was recently, is that it’s a fabric store. This is one of the places I teach where, if students don’t have the right piece, they can browse a whole shop’s worth.

So what makes a particular piece of fabric useful for fabric collage? What kinds? What colors? What patterns? How much do I buy?

These were the sorts of questions my students in Kalispell were asking, so one afternoon right after class, I invited them to accompany me on a tour of the store as I shopped for my own stash. As I pulled bolts, I talked aloud about what attracted me to them. Students also pulled bolts and asked my opinion of them.

It occurred to me then that fabric selection would be a good topic for a blog post.

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A few of the fabrics I picked out for myself on that tour of the Quilt Gallery. These all make me feel happy. I don’t know where or when I’ll use them, but someday they’ll be just what I need.

Color

As I have mentioned before, I like strong, bright colors. The more color the better. Multiple colors are great. But of course I’m attracted to certain colors—aren’t we all? If I don’t have a particular project in mind, I tend to gravitate toward that particular color range. Check out that selection above. A little heavy in the pinks and oranges, with green creeping in and touches of aqua. Add some yellow and that’s me.

Without consciously searching them out, I had pulled fabrics that color-wise could work well together. I’ve realized that if I trust my instinct, I don’t go far wrong.

Once a certain color fabric has caught my eye (rather like something shiny catches the eye of a magpie), I then look at the value range in the piece. If the fabric is pretty much all one value—is visually flat—I am less likely to buy it. If, however, it has a dynamic range of value, from dark to light—maybe even with another color thrown in—I am much more likely to keep it in my shopping cart. Patterned batiks, for example (all but three of the above samples), are often useful as they contain a lot of variation in value, and usually color.

Pattern

The photo above of my Quilt Gallery purchase ought to also give you a clue as to the patterns I prefer. The prints I choose are primarily natural shapes: leaves, flowers, insects, shells, swirls, animal prints, marbleizing, and so on. Abstract prints are also useful, especially those that are based on natural shapes.

natural shapes
Abstracted natural shapes. Marbleized prints in two different color themes, plus large flaming leaves. Always useful in a stash.

These patterns usually provide a nice variety of curves, repeated patterns, and variations in value to help give form to the images I create. I look for designs in the fabric that I can cut around and use as contours in my image. Such fabric is often able to serve multiple purposes. Long curves for hair or the flowing tail on a fish or air currents across face of a sun could all be from the same fabric.

Scale

A discussion of pattern leads directly into scale. Scale refers to how large the repeated image is. I’m attracted to larger scale prints. Students tend to be hesitant about using them, but I find them more useful that small-scale patterns. If you need a curve, it’s easier to cut one from a large pattern than it is to combine several smaller bits to create that curve.

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To grasp the scale of these patterns, I carefully arranged the fabrics on my padded board into a cat bed.

However, smaller overall designs have their uses as well. I often use them for more subtle blending from one value to the next, such as in a face of a person or the body of an animal. See the photos of the “Cousins” and Kali the dog below.

Quantity

I tell my students variety is more important that quantity. I can and do use hundreds of different fabrics per piece, yet most of my quilts are no bigger than a couple yards total in size.

I typically buy fabrics in half-yard (give or take) increments. Even fat quarters are sometimes enough. When do I buy more? The answer to that question is mostly dependent upon scale—the size of the image repeated within the fabric.

scale72dpi
In order to get enough of the parts I wanted from this Australian aboriginal print for “Dixie Dingo Dreaming” (cut out of the center) I bought at least a yard. Djinni the Studio Cat continues to assist me.

For example, in my quilt “Dixie Dingo Dreaming” I used exclusively aboriginal motif fabrics. Many of those Australian fabrics have large design elements, so large that I usually bought a yard or more of each to ensure that I got enough of those repeated patterns to use in the piece. A few of those fabrics then came in handy for Crocodylus Smylus, an Australian saltwater crocodile, a few years later.

Examples

Sometimes you just have to see something done in order to understand it. I use two of my pieces, “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Golden Temple of the Good Girls” to demonstrate how and where I used particular fabrics.

For scale of the patterns, each fabric swatch is 5 inches wide by 8 inches tall.

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“Kissin’ Cousins”, Sam and Maia, (still in progress).
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A selection of smaller overall design fabrics from “Kissin’ Cousins.” All of these I would refer to as a patterned batik. As a batik, I can use either side of the fabric to achieve the look I want. The pattern on the back of batiks looks pretty darn close to what’s on the front, just in reverse. Each numbered fabric is highlighted and referred to in the following collage details.
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Cheek and forehead of Maia (on right of photo). I have used this flower pattern several times in this piece, and numerous times in other quilts. Look for it in the following photos. In each instance, I choose the lightness or darkness of the fabric pattern plus the background color to help describe the lightness or darkness of that part of the face.
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A floral batik for Sam’s neck. The petals and leaf add form, contour, and general interest to an open area.  The same fabric was also used for the curves in the ear.
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The grassy curves in this batik pattern flow in the same direction as Sam’s chubby cheek. Notice how the background coloring is lighter at the top and darker at the bottom, matching the highlights and shadowing on the face.
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From this spiral batik I choose an area with darker lines in it to help define the edge of Sam’s jaw. The curves in the design add to the roundness of his face.
kali
Now, on to another member of the family… Kali, detail from “Golden Temple of the Good Girls.” Kali is an all white dog, but since I have an aversion to white, I decided blue would work just fine. Yet, she still looks like a little white dog, right?
kali fabric swatches
A selection of fabrics used for Kali. 1.) A Liberty of London from decades ago. Not what I’m currently attracted to. Had I thought about it, I would have long since donated it. However, it proved to be a major go-to fabric for our little pup. Moral of story: I can’t get rid of anything. 2.) A printed batik with light colored “fur tufts” (a.k.a. pine needles). 3.) Another printed batik with “fur tufts”. This fabric pattern is of Montana wild flowers, designed by Joan Hodgeboom of The Quilt Gallery in Kalispell. Three years ago I brought home an unexpected souvenir from my Montana teaching—our Kali from Kalispell—sister puppy to Joan’s Sally puppy. That’s the long way of saying I had to include this fabric in Kali’s portrait. 4.) A printed fabric with great flowing contours of a paua shell (NZ abalone) brought back from a teaching trip to New Zealand a few years ago.
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The portions highlighted are only two of the several places this floral fabric is used in Kali’s face. The combination of white on the gently curving flower petals was perfect for her furriness.
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A detail from Kali’s right shoulder. In addition to the light tufts in the design, the branches in this fabric pattern helped define the line between her shoulder and side of her body.
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Another section of the right shoulder and chest, focusing on the Montana wildflower “Kalispell” fabric, providing more petals and pine needles for Kali’s contours. Bonus fabric find: note little blue dog tucked under her heart name tag in the upper right of this photo. That one and two more pups are included in the portrait—true remnants from a shirt my mom made for me back when I was in Junior High School. Yikes!
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Detail of her right front leg using the paua shell design for shaded fur.

So, there are just a few of the thoughts that go through my head as I’m making fabric choice decisions. I know some students may be looking for hard and fast rules for choosing fabric, but I guess it’s more like guidelines.

First, buy fabric that makes you smile and you feel good about. There’s nothing bad about that. Then supplement with fabric picked specifically for your project, be it because of color, design, or scale. Go for variety. More is better. That’s my motto and I’m sticking with it.

I remain unapologetically eclectic.

12 Comments

  • Susan, Thank you for your continued guidance even after class! I was one of those students who left my chosen fabrics home on the dining room table! It DID force me to look at the fabrics I had and the scraps on the piano (from your friend- please thank her for me!) in a different light. I continue to work on my class project with delight, even thinking ahead to the background! I am holed up at home with a possible broken ankle, but once set up, will be able to work on my collage. I won’t even be responsible for dinner or laundry. HA! Thank you again for your generosity in sharing your methods.

  • Susan, loved your explanation and examples. You are an artist after my own heart! For years I have been perusing every aisle in my local shop looking for fabrics that can be used in my art quilts, much to the delight of both other customers and staff when I explain what I see in a piece. Great job.

  • Hello Susan,
    What a great tutorial–thank you! For Asilomar, I thoughtfully curated my fabric choices for the weeks leading up to your class. Then, as I finished packing, I was overwhelmed by doubt and basically started raking an assortment of “just in case” fabric choices into my bags and suitcases! Because Civil War reproductions and vintage Christmas prints are perfect for fabric collaging a chocolate lab–um, no! Thank you for your generous teaching style and for all the help with my dog, Cajun. Happy Spring from Southern California!
    Juliet

  • How informative this has been for me! It makes me look at my fabrics with a new eye after every post you make. It was especially helpful on the batiks. Where I fall short is the large print fabrics. I’m headed to Paducah next month and you can be sure I’ll shop with this blog in mind. Thank you, thank you for sharing all of this wonderful information.

  • Susan, Thank you for the wonderful videos and information in your blog. It will give me lots of things to think about as I plan and pack for your June class in Harpswell.

  • Great video! Very informative… It’s so wonderful for you to share your thought process and your talent.. Looking forward to the online classes! Thank you again!

  • The updated and detailed “selecting fabric post” is so helpful. I can really see the differences clearly now, between plan and patterned batiks! MUCH APPRECIATED!!!

  • Susan, I’m echoing every one of the “thanks!” posted here! I’m working through the lessons in “Serendipity Quilts” in anticipation of my class w/you at ArtQuilt Tahoe in November, and the update video on fabric selection is very helpful. I wish I had seen it before I began my sun quilt, but will take your advise when I begin the moon next month. I’ve been focusing on color, when I should have been looking at shapes as well. I guess that means I just HAVE to buy more fabric … What a shame! 😄

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