When starting a new piece of work, no matter what it is, there are nearly unlimited options, and things to consider, before you can get started on your work. What do you want to make? What’s your budget? What materials do you want to use, and what colours do you want to use?
The last question is a very important one. While it may seem like those questions are easy to answer, for example ‘I want to make a blue dress made of cotton.’ While that’s a good start, unless you are looking to make a solid colour piece (and even then, this applies, but more on that later) you need to match different colours, different shades and or patterns.
This is where colour theory comes in handy. Choosing your materials is a key element in any piece. When picking your colours, if you aren’t sure what goes together, look to a colour wheel to inspire you, and help you decide. Here is a helpful video that speaks about painting, but it does a great job of demonstrating the color wheel and teaching the basics of color theory:
What looks pleasing to humans (although tastes can vary..) is generally the same. The first option, looking at the colour wheel, is to pick analogous colours. What that means is that you pick 2-3 colours that are next to each other on the tertiary wheel. This does not only refer to, say all three shades of green (though that does work too) but any three colours on there. You will end up with a harmonious piece.
The other option is to choose complimentary colours. That means that, on the secondary colour wheel, you pick two opposing shades, such as blue and orange. The effect this creates is an entirely different one from the first one, as the result to the eye is not harmonious. This arrangement creates a more exciting pattern, rather than a calm one.
Consider this when making your choices. It applies whether you choose solid colour fabrics, or patterned ones, however the colour theory applies to that as well. When choosing between 2 and 4 fabrics, only one should have a pattern, the others should ideally be solid colours. There are exceptions, such as items that are intentionally supposed to have a patchwork look, however especially when applied to clothes and patterns, less is more.
If your pattern is using more than two colours, you would also do well not to add any more additional colours, other than the ones that are already part of the pattern. Doing this will generally create a very nice effect, however go with your gut when trying to do this. If something looks good to you, do it, and if not, choose different fabrics.
When you have chosen your fabrics, you also need to choose accessories, thread and decorations. Ideally, these would fit into your colour scheme. Now, if you are using single colour fabric, you should be able to find a thread that exactly matches your fabric. If not, you want to look for something slightly darker than the shade you are using, unless you are specifically going for visible seams, a lighter colour thread will almost always look unpleasant to the eye.
You won’t always be able to find the right colour thread, so don’t be shy to use one that is a few shades off – usually the result will be a lot subtler than you might think.
A similar thing applies to accessories like bows, ribbons and buttons. Depending on what your project is, you may want to go for a contrast (in which case you will want to use complimentary colours from the secondary colour wheel), or something subtle, in which case you want to, again, look for either the same shade or a slightly darker one. If your item is polished or glossy, you will want to go even darker, as light reflections can make it appear much lighter than it is.
Now, all that applies to coloured materials, but what if you want to work with white and black? Well, both of those can be combined easily with any colour on any of the colour wheels, though the resulting contrast is strongest with a primary colour, and much weaker with a tertiary one for example.
If you want to use only one colour for your piece (this is especially true if using black), you will also need to be very careful of combining different types of fabric. Most of us are probably familiar with the problem of sorting socks – they’re all black, but usually a slightly different black from one another.
With socks, that isn’t a big issue, however when trying to sew, it can cause unpleasant effects. This isn’t always true and you may very well find fabrics that complement each other, however, especially for beginners, it is recommended to stick with one type of fabric.
If you need to use two different materials, instead of trying to go for a solid coloured result, you may find that using analogous colours works better. Say, you are using turquoise polyester, and have a slightly different coloured piece of cotton fabric – you may just be better off using a light green cotton. That way you can avoid the unpleasant effect of sloppy work or cheap materials that this can create.
As an inspiration, there is one more thing you can look at: nature. Especially flowers or other plants will often show beautiful arrangements of colours. You could use a favourite flower or photograph to inspire you when shopping for materials, or, if you don’t have anything like that, simply google exotic flowers.
Never be shy to experiment with colours, and to combine them in any way you can imagine. You won’t always hit the mark, but before you know it, you’ll have an eye for colour!