I love mixing prints in my various creations whether it's pillows, aprons, quilts, strip-pieced skirts, totes, etc. I'm often asked about how I decide what colors and what prints to combine. I thought I'd share my thought processes on this. I have no idea if this is the "technically correct" way to do it, but I always get compliments on the end results, so it must be working for me.
Step 1: Fall in Love - Usually I start with a print for which I have fallen head over in heels. It's usually the largest of the prints and has many colors from which to pull coordinates. Most frequently it's a paisley or a floral, but sometimes a figural print such as a toile. Below is one I found at JoAnn's recently and bought a 1/2 yard to use as an example for this tutorial. I LOVE this print and would probably use it in a quilt or perhaps a Country French-ish tablecloth.
Step 2: Mad for Plaid - Add a plaid or similar geometric. Pull one of the colors from the print to be the predominant color in the plaid, but make sure the other colors match as well. The plaid should be smaller in scale than Fabric #1 so it does not compete.
Step 3: Go Dotty - I like to add a polka dot next. It can be simply one color on a background that coordinates with your inspiration print or incorporate all the colors as this dot below does.
Step 4: Toss One In - Next I will look for a tossed motif print that adds a bit of whimsy. Something a little funky. These little bones are perfect and the blue background is a great match to the inspiration prints blue. If funky isn't appropriate for the project, I may look for a tone on tone print, perhaps in a floral if I'm working with a paisley or a small paisley if I'm working with a floral.
Step 5: Warm It Up or Cool it down - Most of my colors so far are very cool. I need a warm shade to sunny things up. So I chose a yellow. The chicken wire motif also picks up the hint of country that is suggested by the Country French paisley. If I had mostly warm colors so far, then I would cool things down with a cool print. Keep the print small or tone on tone so things don't get too cluttered.
Step Six and Seven: Racing Stripes and a Touch of White or Black - These are two optional final steps. If desired, I might add a stripe. At this point, the stripe is debatable for me. I'm pretty happy with the set so far and I have a geometric with my plaid. So I could go either way. If I was doing a quilt where lots of prints are needed, it would stay. If I was doing a strip-pieced border on an apron, I would probably pass. And then finally...most quilters recommend a touch of a light neutral or a black to give a little punch. I don't like adding in solids to lots of prints. They stand out too much and detract from the happy mix of prints. So if I was going to add a white, I would do one like this that had a very subtle print to it, but at a casual glance appeared mostly solid.
Here are some other mixed prints I've done through the years...
Large Floral Inspiration Print + a small floral + a paisley + a polka dot.
Large Floral Inspiration Print + a small geometric + a polka dot.
Toile + Polka Dot + Stripe + Floral.
Inspiration Print + Plaid - Stopped After Step Two
Tablecloth Inspiration + Plaid + Stripe + Various Tossed Motifs