Saturday, March 16, 2013

Focus On Neutrals!

Often times I will refer to “NEUTRALS” as a background, and I know it leaves some confused….especially those who know English as a second language.  Or those who are so used to “Light/Medium/Dark” in their thinking-

When using the term “NEUTRAL” I am referring to the “GROUND COLOR” that my background fabric is printed on.

Neutral backgrounds mean I want the main fabric to read as white, cream, beige or tan. 

But as in this photo, they can have a myriad of prints with other colors on them. 

Doesn’t the scrappy neutral background of these 4 blocks make the quilt look more fun?  There is not a single white-on-white or cream-on-cream in the mix!  Yet, because these prints are scattered on a “NEUTRAL” ground – they still read as very light behind my main block design.

I’ve mentioned this before – but to me the job of background fabrics is to provide interest and visual impact to the quilt, but also to BE background, allowing the foreground – the main block design – to be the main focus.  I want my block design to take center stage, and my neutrals to be my back up singers.

If you watched along on last night’s quilt cam – I talked quite a bit about how I view a neutral background candidate ---be sure to watch at least the first 30 minutes of that session HERE, archived for you!

When going through my 2.5” strip bins to cut my neutral rectangles for my backgrounds,I took photos of things I included.  I hope this opens your eyes a bit more to what you CAN use up from your deep stash – and put it into really fun quilts with lots of background impact!

neutrals 005

Shirting style prints are a no-brainer! More cream is showing than print, even if the print is black stars, black and yellow bumblebees ((Love this fabric!)), blue shells on cream, or purple floral vines on cream.  It’s easy to consider these as neutrals.  But did you know you can include THESE:

antiquemall 119
Stripes and florals and little calicoes!  All with a white to cream to “almost yellow” background.

YES!  These are neutrals in the Bonnie-Sense!

antiquemall 120

Tan burlap looking fabric!  YES!  It’s no darker than paper bag brown!

Winnie the pooh?! YES!  It’s got a very light background and will be fun in the quilt!
Pink/burgundy flowers on cream?
Yes!  It’s on a cream ground – it’s not a pink fabric – it will read as a light neutral!
Teal viney flowers on a beige background!?
YES!  what is the background color of the fabric? Don’t just look at the flowers…what are they playing on?

The easiest way for me to see if it will play well is to stand 6 feet away – and take my glasses off!  From that distance, the print is obscured and I see how light the fabric really is.

antiquemall 121

Did you know you could use THESE as neutrals?
Blue gingham on cream with seed packs? YES!
Green foulard print on white? YES!
Tone-on-tone oatmeal (Mostly boring, but use it up!)

The last strip may surprise you…it’s a very pale pale shade of peachy beige with colored flowers.  I would also use this as a “neutral” because the fabric is SO LIGHT it would never play main stage in my quilt.  I will throw in very baby pastels into my neutrals to spice up the mix, but it has to be way lighter than “medium”.  Anything of “medium” value usually has too much color in it to play background and will make it harder to read what my main block design is.  I want a wide difference in value between what is background and what is main block design.

antiquemall 122

Cut up into 2.5” X 6.5” rectangles and ready to play!

Does that middle green plaid surprise you?  To me that is a NEUTRAL.  What color do you see the most in there? It’s a green print on a cream ground – to me that cream ground means it’s NEUTRAL!

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Does THIS surprise you?

Is that top stripe black, or is it white?  To me it reads more white than black – so I’m using it as a neutral.

The tulip print underneath it has quite a bit of color…but there is still more background showing and when I stand 6 feet away – it reads very light compared to what I am putting it next to.  These are the fabrics I find hard to use in main block designs so I am going to use them up as background.  Remember – you can also use the backside of questionable fabrics!  Apple slices? Neutral!  Green/Red/Tan stripe? NEUTRAL!

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Here’s some other tough ones --- would you have guessed these are neutral?

Large blue/pink/green floral on white.  There is more white space than there is floral and this will be interesting as a background!

Blue yarn-dyed plaid with carrots ---it’s on a cream ground.  It’s neutral!

1930’s print –pink flowers, green flowers and leaves on a white background.  To me this is NEUTRAL!  It’s too light to play as a main block design against other scrappy neutrals.  It would disappear. I’m using it as background!

Burgundy etched floral -----it’s on cream.  It’s not a burgundy fabric.  It’s a neutral!

((Are you getting it now?!))

neutrals 006

These are ALL Neutrals – except maybe the darkest dotted one you see on the left.  It’s a cream ground, but the black picotage is a bit over-powering by the six-feet-away rule.  I decided to put that one in with my brown strips and not use it as a neutral.

Can a Christmas print be a neutral?  Yes – if it is on a white, cream, beige or tan background.

Remember to look at the color of the background of the fabric – not just the print that is on it.  Don’t be print deceived!


Even the fashion industry is wild about neutrals!  I found these shades to fit pretty much what I use as background neutrals ---the ground of the fabric, not the print follows these guide lines pretty much!  That Mica color?  Just a fancy name for Paper Bag Brown!

I hope this helps you know what this American Quilter considers to be neutral – especially to my friends in other countries who find my yardage requirements of “5 yds of assorted neutral scraps” a bit confusing.  As they say, pictures are worth 1,000 words!

Have a terrific International Quilting Day, everyone!


  1. I wouldn't have thought of those as neutrals. Thanks for the info Bonnie. I will have to look through my stash for more neutrals.

  2. excellent post, Bon. fun to see up close some of the fabrics in your stash. Pooh and Tigger and Roo!

  3. Thanks so much for this and for last night too, it has opened my eyes to what neutrals really are !


  4. Excellent visual description of your neutrals. It makes me think. Thanks! Enjoy your day!

  5. what a nice post. very enlightening. thank you!

  6. Wonderful post, Bonnie. I learned a lot from reading and seeing the pictures. ALL your quilts are wonderful, and I learn so much from you. Thank you!

  7. This is an amazing post, thank you so much! Pictures are worth a thousand words, especially when you are a visual person (and having the 'mono' eyesight,) when you mentioned that last night it was so cool. Now I don't feel like I am the only one that the lines 'move' on. Do you have a wild eye exam? I do! Have a good weekend with the birthday boy Hubster!

  8. Enjoy your trip today! And thanks so much for sharing your view on neutrals!!
    I always learn so much from you!
    Love from the Netherlands.

  9. Wow - I recognized a lot of those prints and some I had over in my "dark" bins. Hm....need to rethink some of those it looks like.

  10. Great lesson for me Bonnie, thank you. Now I will be rethinking the Pineapple Blossom blocks I have already made. But ready for the next one. :)

  11. Thanks for the great lesson on neutrals!! It's all very clear to me now.

  12. Thank you for this post. Clears up a lot. I have more neutrals then I thought. It was interesting to go back to the first picture and see the placement of that green plaid. AND YES, it works, surprised me. I need to reorganize my stash bins.

  13. Thank you so much for this lesson. This was eye opening. I have some of those prints and now I know where to put them. I loved the new Quilt Cam last night.

  14. Wow Bonnie, you really opened my eyes to what can what a neutral can be! This is great! Thanks so much!!

  15. Loved watching quiltcam this AM. And certainly learned a lot about how to push the window on neutrals. I am just beginning to cut and stash my scraps using your approach so look forward to lots of fun projects in my future. it feels so good to have a useable stash of scraps instead of big bins of balled up fabric pieces! Thank you!

  16. Lesson learned! I love having my quilt-perspective broadened. Thanks for sharing with us, Bonnie!

  17. Wonderful teaching! Thank you so much!!!

  18. Great post, and while I have'heard'you talk about neutrals before it is good to hear again. And the pictures with explanations make it so much better. Going to go look at my strips again.

  19. Thank you for your continual teaching! I have a hard time looking at my "neutrals" and seeing what you see but I'm going to try the "stand back 6 feet" trick as maybe that will help. What amazes me about your posts is the variety of fabric that you and your students use that I have never seen before!

  20. Thank you so much for this post! Now I get it. Off to the deep stash to pull fabric for more blocks.

  21. This really helped. I have some red and white half inch check I call Italian cafe tablecloth. Never knew quite where to put it. Got it!
    Unfortunately I didn't get into ANY bonnie classes at Hershey!!?!!
    Ssooooo disappointed. I signed up for the lite lecture as my consolation prize. All booked by 12:15!

  22. This really helped. I have some red and white half inch check I call Italian cafe tablecloth. Never knew quite where to put it. Got it!
    Unfortunately I didn't get into ANY bonnie classes at Hershey!!?!!
    Ssooooo disappointed. I signed up for the lite lecture as my consolation prize. All booked by 12:15!

  23. Anonymous9:08 PM EDT

    This is the best post ever! I've struggled with this very topic. I study the quilts in your books but find it difficult to reproduce them because I didn't understand the definition of neutral but not anymore. Now I can say...I got it!!

  24. thanks Bonnie - that is a great lesson - I worry sometimes that my neutrals/backgrounds are too 'fussy' but obviously knew I was okay with this choice!

  25. Great explanation of how you view neutrals - thank you. Also BRILLIANT fun to be able to watch the recorded quilt cam :)

  26. Thank you so much for the lesson on neutrals, I'll never look at those fabrics the same way again.

    Watched recorded quilt cam, could not watch it live, I was at Lancaster quilt show, met and had my picture taken with Eleanor Burns, what a thrill!!

    Anyway loved the recorded quilt cam, thank you! Your picture was clear as a bell and the sound was awesome.

  27. Hello Bonnie,

    I like to say thank you for the neutral fabrics post und the tip to your saved quiltcam. And when I read the comments below the post, so I not only had trouble with the selection of the neutral fabrics. You have so many helped.

    I'm sorry if I have annoyed you with it, but it was really important for me and us.
    Yes German quilters sometimes need just simply a translation into pictures. Please think with your books next to it.

    I follow your posts been years, and I thank you sincerely for all patchwork tips, explanations and tutorials.

    Greeting Guilitta
    Blog: http://guilitta2000.blogspot.de/

  28. Bonnie, thanks for telling us yet again your definition of neutral - this time the great visuals along with your explanation sank in!!

  29. Thank you very much for your discussion on what you consider "neutral." It was a great lesson and very helpful. Nancy: rangerer@sbcglobal.net

  30. I understand your reasoning, but in some of the "neutrals" I saw the color more. Maybe if I stood 6 feet away and took off my glasses... :)

  31. You have openec my eyes to possibilities other than oatmeal neutrals. I am no longer a neutrals snob. Thank you for all your generosity.

  32. You have openec my eyes to possibilities other than oatmeal neutrals. I am no longer a neutrals snob. Thank you for all your generosity.

  33. Fantastic explanation Bonnie! I find that if a fabric contrasts with it's immediate neighbours, the neutrals can range from very light to dark mediums. After reading this topic I will get more adventurous with using bolder prints now!! : D

  34. Anonymous12:53 PM EST

    Thank you, this was very helpful to this new quilter.

  35. Bonnie, thanks for the lesson in neutrals. Very informative.

  36. Thank you, for all the information about the neutrals. As a beginner quilter love your sites, such awesome information. You are one awesome lady in my book...

  37. I'm planning on doing the next mystery quilt. I purchased Good Fortune and am so intimidated I can't start. I'm hoping that sewing along with others will help. This "neutrals" article is really eye-opening! I NEVER thought of some of those prints as neutral. Thanks for helping clarify for us beginners. Looking forward to the upcoming challenge.


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