Patterned fabric: Do you use it? Do you wear it?

Many dressmakers are attracted to patterned fabrics – unsurprisingly as making garments in black or navy is not very exciting, even though most of us wear neutrals most of the time. But while we make clothes with gaudy fabrics, flamboyant prints, and loud colourful cloth, many of us have difficulty in integrating them into our wardrobes. (I have been meaning to write about this topic since 10 August 2014!)

The most obvious, and safest way to wear pattern is to use it in accessories eg a scarf, bag, or a tie. A little more adventurously I like a patterned blouse or shirt with a business suit. More daring is to wear a skirt, trousers, jacket or coat in an obviously patterned fabric, but most people will pair this with neutrals or at least one plain colour that matches the pattern.

Much more challenging is when we wear more than one pattern at a time – clashy-clashy. Which is why this is a rare look, certainly in London. I really enjoy seeing people, often the highly confident or the artistic, putting outfits together with more than one pattern. I look out for mixed patterns on the tube and always give the person a virtual high-five when they nail it. In fact wearing “clashing” outfits with many prints is almost a faux pas – implying you come from a different culture, or may even be socially or mentally inadequate.  I really enjoy those accidental pairings that I photographed in Romania, and love naive choices of kids who are allowed to choose their own outfits. Yellow sweater, pink swirly skirt, frog wellies and a hat. Designers often pair toning patterns to good effect, and artistic types just know what works together.

The high street has some good patterned offerings at the moment, just asking to be combined artistically.  These high street outfits (featured in the Evening Standard magazine) really appealed, despite the somewhat pyjamay vibe.

In the photo below (from 2014)  I am wearing two patterns together – trousers with a scarf (on a camping holiday by the looks of it!). I may or may not have on a navy and white Breton striped T-shirt as well. I love these two textiles together as they both have a light navy background and pink flowers on them. The colours of the scarf are stronger and brighter than the trousers but they look nice together in the same way that a garden looks good together. Lorraine – a dear colleague from work always dresses beautifully, embracing colour, pattern and interesting jewellery. Although in her case the two fabrics are not as similar as the two I chose, the ditsy flowers on her dress and scarf are similarly orangey pink and green. Like me she has neutral cardigan/jacket which doesn’t fight with the pattern. Maeve, a dancer who works at The Place in Euston, is wearing three patterns which again harmonise nicely. The scale of the flowers on her dress and cardigan are similar and although they are not the same design exactly they look a bit like we have two colourways of the same fabric. For warmth and additional pattern she has added an ethnic woven wrap. This introduces stripes and another set of colours. Finally I have a photograph of Sue, another amazing leader from Notting Hill Housing. Sue has mixed two check garments – an olive and black blouse under an orange and black pinafore dress. Here by playing with scale and using two colours (with black) that harmonise nicely Sue has got a really up to the minute, classic but individual, work look. I love it.

I am not really sure if there are any rules on pattern matching. It takes confidence to do it, and artistic people just know what works, even if it doesn’t. Here are some rules that seem to work for me.

  1. I like to have one predominant colour – blue for me, and black for Sue.
  2. Another approach is to stick to one colour group. Sue is wearing deep-warm colours that work well for her. Mine are bright and cool. This helps ensure a harmonious look even when two or three patterns are used.
  3. Think about scale. Narrow and wide stripes can work well together; equally the same scale but different colours. Sue has larger checks on her dress and smaller ones on her blouse.
  4. Florals tend to work well with other florals. So do stripes. Or checks (eg three tartans). Or polka dots. But I really like florals with stripes, as does Maeve.
  5. If you are really confident use at least three patterns. For a less edgy look try two patterns and a neutral like Lorraine.

Do  you use patterned fabrics or do you prefer plain cloth? Do you ever wear two or more patterns together? What works for you?


20 Responses

  1. Jay

    I do like patterned fabrics, but you wouldn’t know it from my typical daily outfits. We’ve been conditoned to think that we have to fit in to a business uniform chic, based on what businessmen wear. I look forward to the day when female CEOs and female politicians turn up for meetings in floral print dresses. Where did we get the idea that plain grey clothes show that someone is serious and worthy of respect anyway? It hardly pans out.

  2. Sarah webb

    I also love to mix prints and agree with your “rules” to make it work, though I wish I could go once step further and just abandon the rules altogether!?

  3. Sew Ruthie

    I had one work outfit I wore a lot until I got rid of the blouse. Everything was in brown and ivory. Brown tailored trousers with an ivory stripe, brown and ivory crazy jungle print blouse and a brown and ivory tweedy textured jacket. The trousers were very subtle and the jacket more a texture than a pattern so maybe it doesn’t count?

    I’ve got another new outfit with navy trousers with a fine ivory stripe and jacket also navy and ivory but with a much rougher weave and much wider tripes which are blurred on the edges. I wear them as a suit usually with an orange or green sweater. I am not a floral person, but like stripes, textured weaves and prints that include leaves! I think that’s why I enjoyed that brown outfit so much all three of my favourite things in one outfit!

  4. Annieloveslinen

    I prefer solid colours and interesting texture but I like to mix the colours up in one outfit, like a toned down version of Gudrun Sjoden although I’ve moved away from that aesthetic lately.
    Colour is where I start, before pattern and fabric, I sometimes have a strong desire to wear something in a particular shade, I’m emerging from a plum/ burgundy phase to predominantly french navy, my next obsession. Having said that, I have a deep blackberry coloured yarn for a cardigan that I bought about three years ago that, thanks to your infectious enthusiasm, I’m making a start on.

  5. Hila

    I love mixing prints. I just tend to go with looks harmonious to me. I have noticed that a lot of people are scared of mixing prints which is such a shame – they are so much fun. You need a bit of ‘dont give a…’ to mix prints IMO. I do love the stripe scarf with the floral dress combo- I need to find something like that in my wardrobe. Great post Kate.

  6. Demented Fairy

    Interesting- I love pattern, and definitely don’t dress in neutrals as a default setting, but I’m having to scratch my head to think if I mix patterns. I was going to wave a recent make, then realised that it’s made of one patterned fabric, and two closely toning plain/textured ones. I do have a colour matched group of stripes and florals ready to cut though, so maybe I’m ready to enter into that ‘she wears crazy mixes because she’s old/artistic/old and artistic’ phase. To go with the art teacher chic?
    I think it’s time for me to bring out my inner Iris Apfel…not the specs though.

    • SJ Kurtz

      Really? You don’t mix with abandon? Come with me to the other side of the pattern playground. I do try to keep the colors harmonious, but sometimes that is not possible. And I do keep in mind my spouse’s allergy to his wife in novelty prints; I don’t mix when we go out. Life is just too short.

      I would have been an art history professor if I had gone the way I was going 34 years ago. So I guess I can play that card with a copy of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art tucked under one arm. But the bug glasses are not for me. My bifocals are just fine.

  7. megan

    I love prints and loud colours! haha and when I first started sewing I made some of the worst fabric choices print wise and went beyond gaudy to just childlike prints. After the first few makes I realised a brilliant print doesn’t necessarily make the best clothes. I still love prints but finding wearable ones for me is about abstract patterns, large scale prints and african wax print.

    Clashing print colours and different textures is a favourite look and I think just trying things out and having fun is the base of a good clashing outfit.

  8. Martina

    I like prints and bright colors…usually worn with black. Today I’m going to wear an ecru and black striped jacket with a black shell and black pants. I do like to mix prints, if I can find two that I like together. Threads magazine had a great article a couple of months ago that gave examples of how to combine up to four prints!

  9. Stephanie

    Most of my clothes are printed, but with subtle prints like pinstripes and checks or plaids in similar colours, so I think I do a lot of mixing, but closer to Sue’s version. I have a few subtle floral shirts and have made floral trousers, which I usually wear with pin stripes, but I tend to prefer more art-deco, linear, geometric prints than florals for me (maybe aligns with my analytical side?). I would not feel like myself in mixtures of bold, colourful prints. I like your floral trousers though and I love the woman’s look with the two smaller floral prints in different colour palettes.

  10. BMGM

    I enjoy the challenge of mixing prints and textures. I prefer contrasting scales and motion. E.g. stripes/plaids/checks with curvy organic forms, and different scales of prints.

    In the name of harmony, I like to keep it all in the same color key. I.e. pure, pastel, tones or shades. Don’t mix color keys in the same outfit, unless you really want to draw the eye to a discordant item.

  11. Michelle

    I do like patterns and prints – the combination of the two green patterned fabrics in the photo is fantastic – but knowing how to use them in my wardrobe is always my dilemma. I think perhaps getting the basic neutrals right is the place to start. Most patterns will go with jeans or a black skirt but it’s not very adventurous! I’d love to have the confidence to mix prints.
    Your recent posts have certainly got me thinking (still deciding if I prefer sewing or knitting), and the reflections on your business capsule wardrobe were really interesting – I think all the items were solid colours, no patterns, but there were so many options for co-ordinated outfits.

  12. Aida

    I love the idea of mixing prints but I used to find it daring to fit them in my life, The last year have done some progress and I think Hila is totally right, when I started not caring much about it and about what the others would think I started mixing them. My favourite combo is my Galleria culottes in b&w geometric print pared with Lekala shirt in floral print.

  13. ceci

    I HAVE a lot of print fabrics acquired over the years but always wear and sew more solids for whatever reason. There was a trend several years ago for dresses that combined prints in the construction of the dress; never made one but that seemed more purposeful and accessible than making a combination decision myself on the fly. Maybe something to work on in spring/summer sewing, now that I think of it. Print spontaneity…..


  14. Linda galante

    Great post! I love mixing prints and tend to go for those that have blue as the dominant color, but then I prefer anything with with blue in it. The limitation I find is the size of the print. I’m not found of little teeny prints but mixing two large scale prints is too much for me..I love your scarf/pant combo.

  15. Su

    I’ve been trying to add more pattern to my mostly solid wardrobe, though I definitely don’t mix patterns.
    I’m mostly drawn to abstract patterns with a geometric/linear design – rarely do florals – and generally only two colour- think white and black or navy and black or tonal colours.
    Kenneth King had a very interesting article in a recent Threads about mixing patterns and the different ways of mixing them.

  16. Karen

    Sharon Horgan, in Catastrophe, mixes patterns wonderfully. I aspire to be more Sharon Horgan but at the moment I’m mostly in navy. I am 5 foot just, with a significant chest, not a frame that lends itself to patterns but I would like to be bolder with patterns. X

    • fabrickated

      Thanks for mentioning this show Karen. I had never heard of it, but having had a look online I would say “Yeah!” – I love some of her looks. The patterns are super.

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