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Fabric patterns, from design to textile printing

Frattale, esempio di motivo grafico ripetuto all'infinito (disegno)

Once printed, simple fabrics can transform into magically decorated and coloured surfaces.

A pattern can call to mind epochs and styles, suggestions of the unconscious and artistic currents, contributing not little to the success of a garment or an accessory.

Design of printed fabrics has produced numerous styles and images over time since the first repeated motifs were applied for the first time on cloth, and today represents a creative sector of importance in continuous evolution.

Module, motif, pattern: a brief intro

Un pattern grafico sulle ali di una farfalla (foto)
Natural pattern on the wings of this butterfly

First of all we can say that patterns are everywhere around us. This term refers, depending on context, to a design, scheme, or recurring structure.

Used as a synonym for textures, this term indicates a regularity within a set of observed objects. Just think of the stains on the wings of a butterfly, or of a birch grove, or of fractals.

In architecture and design, patterns indicate geometric repetitions of a graphic motif and the ornamental design of a surface, such as a fabric, upholstery, or flooring.

Pattern compositions are given by multiplying and flanking each other, according to a more or less visible grid, the so-called modules, units that make up patterns within the entire composition.

Simple or complex, symmetrical or asymmetrical, all identical or similar images or motifs that are repeated can become patterns. The more the repetition is symmetrical, the easier it is to recognize the basic module.

In the past, the choice of module size was quite limited: small for clothing and larger in décor. Today this convention is no longer necessarily followed.

In fabrics for furnishing and fashion, pattern has passed through many evolutions, freeing itself, through digital technology, of the main constraints, concerning dimensional relationship and repetition.

In digital textile prints in fact, there are no longer limits imposed by the size of the screen frame, allowing pattern to be printed without repetitions, or with large modules.

Brief history of the main textile printing techniques

The oldest method for making prints on fabric is perhaps woodcut, a technique dating back to 1000 B.C.

This involves using a fine-tipped chisel to carve a pattern onto a block of wood, which is subsequently inked and pressed onto a cut of cloth.

This way a first impression is generated; repeating the procedure creates a composition on the whole extent of the fabric.

In the mid-seventeenth Century mechanized cylinder printing marks the birth of printed fabrics mass production;

Wood-engraved fabrics represent thus, from the turn of the nineteenth Century, a niche market, because of the great labour expenditure that this kind of production implies.

A radical turning point in textile printing is given by the invention in the ‘ 30s of the flat screen printing, mechanized in the ‘ 50s, to land in 1962 to the rotating screen printing, object until today of continuous refinements.

The original principle at the base of screen printing is a stencil: on a silk gauze with a very dense texture, a lacquer was applied stretched around a frame.

Where the areas were not lacquered they formed the pattern to be printed. A frame was placed on fabric and, with a special tool, a colouring paste was pressed by hand through the mesh.

Fabric was left to dry between every colour print.

Rotary screen printing is based on the same principles of the plan procedure. A nickel cylinder with microperforations creates a stencil by continuously rotating in contact with fabric.

The colouring paste is pressed through the stencil with the help of a fixed squeegee inside a cylinder. You can use up to twenty-four cylinders to print a multiple-colour drawing.

With the latest inkjet digital print instead, small drops of different colour inks are projected onto fabric, according to preset micro-matrices.

Stampa digitale

Each matrice represents a minimum element (pixel) of the created (or imported) computer drawing.

Printer is controlled by a software known as print driver. This collects data from graphic files, and converts them to outgoing data, which are processed.

Information is then sent to microprocessor or printer memory for further processing. The final instruction controls both electromechanical devices and printer heads inkjet system.

Main fabric design categories

Floral motifs

Motivi di un pattern. Dalla progettazione alla stampa tessile
Example of floral pattern, sketch by © prototipa

Drawings portfolio, sometimes referred to as “botanicals”, is very extensive and covers the wide sector of flowers and plants: roses, tropical orchids, alpine flowers, palms and succulent plants and leaves, fruits of all kinds.

The styles used can be the most varied and reflect very different visual cultures or aesthetic conceptions.


A classic of printed fabrics. Constantly reinvented, it has led to hundreds of different interpretations.

Paisley is native to India, where it is historically and culturally widespread. There are various theories about what might have inspired his birth.

A theory argues that it is the adaptation of an Indian pinecone. A second one instead, that it was inspired by the tree of life or by the mango.

Illustrative / figurative drawings

Toile de Jouy mixes landscapes and figurative scenes, often with a narrative background, and has begun to succeed since the mid-eighteenth Century.

Traditionally, Toile de Jouy was printed in a single colour – almost always blue or red – on white cotton.

Geometric / abstract patterns

Motivo grafico geometrico by © prototipa
Example of geometric pattern by © prototipa

After floral, circular and polka dots motifs, geometric pattern is the most widespread, widely used in fashion and interior design.

Novelty pattern

Pattern Novelty - motivo grafico by © prototipa
Example of novelty pattern by © prototipa

Novelty pattern is a genre that accommodates a wide range of themes, which usually include a creature or an object and can represent a scene, landscape, or urban landscape.

Patterns can be subtracted from their original context and repositioned in a formal layout such as a grid or a series of strips, and can include genre paintings, photographs, and architectural design.

Novelty patterns also include extravagant, commemorative, and architectural themes.

World cultures

This expression describes what is traditionally called ethnic design. It includes textile designs and visual arts from other cultures, and their respective western interpretation.

(Very provisional) conclusions

All these categories are continually revised and expanded by the creative work of designers and will almost certainly lead to the birth and consolidation of further new genres.

(Highlight image by realworkhard from Pixabay)

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