Thinking about solid fabrics
I haven't used a single purely 'solid' fabric in the cog above, so not only did every print have to work in terms of colour and tone, it also had to have the right type of print to be fussy cut. Additionally, if I'd used a particular shade of pink at the centre and wanted to tie the same colour back in further out, finding just the right fabric was often quite problematic - you just need such a vast catalogue of fabrics to draw upon to do this quickly or to sew exclusively from just one range of fabrics, as some have done when working on the Passacaglia (for example using just Cotton & Steel or just Tula Pink prints - I was trying to work more from my stash, so didn't go down either of these routes). There were other places where I wanted to give a bit of space and calm around some of the busier prints; it's surprisingly difficult to find just the right patterned print to fulfil this need sometimes. In some of my later cogs, when I reached an impasse like this, I eventually ordered a single fat quarter of solid fabric that I thought might work, as with the star points below...but somehow it never occurred to me how useful it might be to keep a stash of solid fabrics and to use them in a more positive way than 'last resort'.
This idea was only clarified for me when, earlier this year, I was working on Alison Glass' Tessellations pattern. I started off trying to do it using patterned fabrics. I don't have a huge collection as fabric stashes go and I was finding it really difficult to graduate the colours in the way that Alison does in her sample photos. The photo below (taken at night, so it's marginally more hideous than it was in reality) shows how that went. I spent hours trialling different fabrics just to make this small section, until I did what I always do when things feel too hard colourwise; I called for my husband to come and dig me out of the hole I'd got myself into.
He looked at the photos of Alison's original quilt, looked at what I was trying to do, looked through my stash and just said very bluntly: you don't have the fabrics to do this. I was slightly infuriated by what I saw as a defeatist attitude and so felt inclined to beat him out of my sewing room with a broom; I rarely entertain the idea that I can't do something because I don't have the right fabrics, but rather latch onto the idea that it's not working because I just haven't tried hard enough (which is at times like beating myself with a broom).
But when I eventually put the metaphorical broom down and gave him the chance to explain himself, he said that he felt I could solve this recurring problem on a permanent basis if I invested in a stash of solid fabrics that could be used in any project and fill in all the gaps that I so frequently found when trying to pull prints together. It's so obvious, but not something I'd ever considered before, but he was so right in how well this could work.
When I first began cutting up solid chunks and sewing them into triangles of graduating colour, I actually thought my mind may be in danger of popping - it was pure delight to sew unencumbered by the delays that numerous strokey beard moments over fabric choices present. I'd intended to mix the solids in with some prints, but found that I just wanted to have the fun of playing around with pure solids for the first time.
But however much I love the finished thing, all solids isn't the thing that really makes me heart race. I really do love pattern. So I was determined to include a mix in my next project.
My yellow daffodils include three solids and two fussy-cut prints - a fairly sparse palette, but one which to my eyes feels right. When I'd finally finished designing the pattern, it would normally have taken several sessions to pick out some fabrics to use. I couldn't quite believe it when just half an hour after completing drafting the pattern pieces, I was cutting up fabric and starting to sew; it was so easy. A true Eureka moment for me. Possibly one that most other quilters were born knowing, but new to me.
So, let's discuss the actual fabric. Investing in a stash of solids is much less expensive than buying the same quantity of printed fabric, but can still feel very, very expensive when done in one fell swoop (until very recently I've always thought that expression was 'one foul swoop'!). As this was his idea and his treat, my husband laid out certain fabric-buying criteria. His argument was that I should avoid a range with only a limited number of colours, as rather than solving the problem permanently, he felt this could just prove to be a semi-fix. He reminded me of when my daughter and I had spent a few days colouring last Christmas and both found that the set of 36 beautiful pencils which had initially felt like a huge array, often still didn't have just the shade of green or blue that we wanted. This was a slightly problematic idea, as the solids that I really love are Art Gallery Fabrics' Pure Elements range - they have a very high thread count, beautiful colours and just feel really quite dreamy and a complete pleasure to sew with. However, there are currently only 60 colours in the range, so this was ruled out with a heavy heart.
Kona Solids were the obvious choice to go for as the range has the biggest number of solid colours available (over 300), but the base cloth used for these doesn't really thrill me - it has quite an open weave and I find it a little scratchy compared to other brands (it softens nicely with washing, but I really enjoy fabrics that feel lovely at the point of sewing them together and I don't pre-wash my quilting fabrics).
I was told that Michael Miller's Cotton Couture range were really lovely and very similar to the Art Gallery Fabrics solids that I loved, but was warned by some that they'd experienced horrific colour run with these, of quilt-ruining proportions. I was so disappointed as these had initially seemed the obvious choice with the perfect blend of quality and colour range.
Eventually, I settled on Free Spirit's Solids range, which has a softer hand than Kona, a slightly less open weave and a fairly wide range of colours (currently around 170). I usually only order from overseas if I can't actually get something over here, as I feel committed to supporting the UK shops that I very much want to stay open. However, when the fabrics are half the price overseas (half a yard in America is around the same price as a fat quarter over here) and my real-life fabric godfather wanted to buy a bulk order for me as a gift, I felt the need to keep costs down, so we crossed the ocean to Hawthorne Threads.
There is so much logic to cultivating a healthy stash of solids, reducing the need to buy so many patterned fabrics, that I'm guessing this is something that many quilters have already done. But in case you've been missing this idea in the same way that I have, and are now thinking of starting a solids stash, there are few other things I'd also consider first if I were doing it again.
Free Spirit doesn't seem to produce a colour card for their range of solids. As computer screens are unreliable for colour-matching, I've since realised that it's virtually impossible for me to order more of one particular colour as I have no idea what the name of each colour is. Working on my Daffodils piece, shown earlier in the post, I'm getting toward the end of the yellows and mustards I've used; this is making me feel edgy as I don't know what colour names/numbers they are. The other issue is that while the UK-based shop, Cotton Patch, stocks some of the Free Spirit Solids range, it doesn't stock all of the colours, which means that I may need to order overseas again if I want to replace particular colours.
Shockingly, I also found recently that I did not have quite the right yellow when creating the outer section of my daffodils piece...so I had to resort to ordering some Kona, which has a wider colour range. Perhaps this means that as you may end up mixing and matching anyway, buying entirely from one brand isn't so important, unless the finish is dramatically different (the difference is much more visible between Art Gallery Fabrics and Kona, for example).
You might remember that in a recent post I asked what your greatest extravagance was (to which I received 243 answers - I've said it before, but if you have the time, do read through the comments - there's something joyful in reading list after list of things that make people happy!). I asked my husband this question over breakfast one morning. His first answer was the time he gives up to coaching youth football; the amount of emails, preparation and organisation it takes eats into our working week, especially when the summer fiestas are being planned, so he said that it feels like an extravagance that he really appreciates making the time for. His second answer was that it was probably me. At which we both laughed. A lot. Because I'm not sure either of us had ever stopped and thought of his out-of-season Father Christmassing in that way before, but I realised that this is true and dates right back to the first week I met him, aged 18, when he arrived at my door with two goldfish one evening, after I'd mentioned the idea of getting some for my room in our halls of residence. I feel slightly guilty that gifts for him did not naturally make it onto my own list of greatest extravagances, but rather 'having the heating on whenever I'm cold' and other things that make me appear like a selfish wretch by comparison!
I'd love to know how you use solids in your own projects, which range of solids is your favourite and whether you are ever hit by the brick wall of 'what comes next' too and, if you are, whether you have any other routes around it.