As handbag designers, we love working with textile prints and patterns… and, surface prints for use in fashion and home decor fabrics offer glorious opportunity for expanding your styling creativity and establishing a marketable skill-set.

Fashion bag designers can utilize the same methods used by textile designers to produce dynamic patterns and textures for their bag designs that will eventually turn into a beloved tangible item of beauty. To get ideas flowing let’s use the possibilities of fabric patterns and prints that focuses on some of the popular pattern repeats and how to match them to create unity and harmony in your designs.

Types of Fabric Patterns:

Here are three basic pattern repeats that textile designers use. With these basic repeating pathways, many hybrids of pattern design are created by combining two or more in unique ways.

For my demonstration, let’s use the motif of the fleur-de-lis (sometimes spelled “fleur-de-lys”), a stylized lily (in French, fleur means “flower”, and lis means “lily”) that is used as a decorative design or symbol, at one and the same time, religious, political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic, and symbolic”, especially in French heraldry.


The Block Repeat

The block repeat is the simplest style of repeat. It is simply formed by stacking the original repeat in a basic grid:


The block repeat can have an amateurish look if used in the wrong situation yet it can look great with simpler, more geometric motifs.

Brick/Half-Brick Repeat

Next up, we have the brick/half-brick repeat. You’ll notice that the motifs are arranged like bricks on a house – they are in a horizontal row, and then the next row is offset to create a staggered look. The terms half-brick and brick can be used interchangeably unless the offset of the later rows is not exactly half of the preceding row’s motifs. In that case, you would just use the term, brick.

Here’s a simple example of a half-brick repeat:


Brick/half-brick repeats are used very often in fabric design. The motifs can be exclusive of each other (as shown above) or have some overlap when they are organized.

Drop/Half-Drop Repeat

The drop or half-drop repeat is very similar to the brick/half-brick, but the motifs are offset vertically instead of horizontally, like so:


As with the brick/half-brick, the terms drop and half-drop can be used interchangeably unless the offset isn’t 50% of the original motif. You will most often see 50% offsets, but smaller or  larger ones certainly aren’t unheard of.

Drop/half-drop repeats are another very common type of repeat in fabric and surface design.


Figuring the Vertical Repeat:

If you plan to use a fabric with a printed design, you will need to match the design when you join two or more widths together.  First you must determine the height of the pattern repeat which is called a vertical repeat.  Simply measure from the top or base of the motif in one spot, down to the same spot in the design, when it appears again in the length of the yardage. That distance will be the vertical pattern repeat and is an integral part of the fabric design. For every cut-length of fabric required for your bag design, you will need to add 1 vertical repeat (amounts vary so measure the repeat) to the overall yardage. The distance of a repeat can often be indicated on the fabrics selvedge by dots or crosshairs.


Keep in mind that the overall pattern on all bag designs should match on front, back and on gussets. 

Cutting the Panel Widths:

After you have figured your vertical repeat, you need to determine the cut-length of all of your section widths. Luckily if you are using upholstery-weight fabrics to create your bag design, often you are able to get more than one section width from the fabric’s width as most are on average about 54-inches wide. The larger the shape of the bag or the more intricate the pattern design is, the more waste there will be. Clever planning will allow you to use the un-used fabric portions for facings, handles, and other similar details in your design.

When matching most pattern repeats, your cut-length per section will be larger than you actually need.  This will allow you to travel upward or downward along the seamline to align the overall pattern. Once the seams are sewn, you can trim the excess fabric away. However, it is best to sew the widths together first and then trim the panels to your desired length. For instance, say you want to design an exterior pouch pocket on the center front section of the bag. When cutting the fabric, you would not know where the motif or pattern repeat began nor ended on the pocket. The only thing you would know is that you want the motif or pattern to be centered on the pocket. Therefore you would cut the pocket first, then the remaining top portion of the center panel to size.


The diagram shows the pouch pocket and the top panel section with an extension along its bottom edge

Then, cut the side front panels a bit larger to match with the center panel. Remember to cut mirrored images. Sew your widths together, making sure you align and match the vertical pattern repeat.  Most decorative fabrics are made so that the pattern matches at or just inside the selvage.  If you line up the pattern on each width of fabric at the selvages (right sides together) and stitch right along or just inside the selvage, the pattern should match.


The diagrams shows the pocket in the center panel with the left selvedge on the right, and the right selvedge on the left.

You may trim the excess from the bottom or the top of the panels or cut to size and shape required. The actual matching of the pattern motif can be aligned in a variety of ways. In the examples below the solid line represents the seam join.

Random Match

A random match is one in which the pattern matches no matter how adjoining panels are positioned. This means you can cut and stitch each panel of fabric without having to match it up horizontally across the cloth.


Straight Match

A straight match is one in which the design elements match on adjoining panels. Every cut panel will start and end at the same point within the pattern repeat.


Drop Match

A drop match is one in which there is a vertical drop between the matching design elements. The number of panels cut before a panel is repeated is dependent on the type of drop match. or crosses.


So there you have it…. fabric patterns and basic ways of matching the repeating surface design. There are times when matching the repeat in a fabric pattern isn’t crucial such a small print or a geometric one. Though you DO cut into a pattern repeat, it is not “lost” when you sew two pieces together. You still get the tiny daisies or the polkadots. The same may be said of “abstract” styles. When cut pieces are sewn together, it still looks abstract in appearance and scale. However, when you follow your pattern-draft and cut through a sizable motif or image printed on that fabric’s surface, say the large butterfly or cabbage rose, ideally as designers we want the other half of that butterfly or rose to align with its counterpart to regain the whole motif of the surface design to make the final product’s appearance, a harmonious one and pleasing to the eye. Use these design pointers for matching surface patterns of your favourite fashion fabrics and expanding your styling creativity to create truly beautiful handbags.

To explore how you might use a patterned fabric to its best advantage, see this tutorial here.


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Filed under Bag'n-telle, Design Techniques


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