Seamless Repeating Patterns For Textile (Or Surface) Design In Illustrator

You’re currently reading Chapter 7, Part 5 of The Ultimate Guide to Adobe Illustrator for Fashion Design

A while ago, I surveyed my email list of 10k+ fashion designers to ask them what skill they most wanted to learn in Illustrator.

Drawing fashion flats won. Close second? Repeating patterns.

See? Like the BIG nerd that I am, I even made a chart.

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Which is why this section on repeating pattern tutorials is pretty big. So big that I broke it into 3 sub-sections:

  1. Basic repeats
  2. Fabric and texture repeats
  3. Editing, managing and technical details for repeats

FIRST: There are a few things you’ll want to know.

Depending on your version of Illustrator, creating and editing repeats can work PRETTY differently.

In CS6, Adobe introduced a new feature to create patterns. It was LIFE CHANGING.

Since 2000 (the year I started using AI), this has been the most EXCITING feature release I’ve ever seen.

So, CS6 or newer? You’ll use the Pattern Tool…most of the time. Simple stripes and plaids? Are easier to do manually. And yes, we’ll cover that.

And CS5 or earlier? You have to make EVERYTHING manually. #sorry

And YES, I have tutorials for both versions.

Later in this section, we’ll also cover essentials like filling your design with a pattern (think: putting a stripe into your t-shirt sketch) and editing the size or direction (e.g. on the bias).

How to Create Basic Repeating Patterns in Illustrator for Fabric Design

Depending on the pattern, you’ll approach making it differently. Which is why I have multiple tutorials on DIFFERENT repeat types.

Tossed layouts vs plaids? Apples and oranges.

Pick the ones most relevant for you and hit play.

(Psst! Did yaknow…you can be a freelance textile designer? If you love a repeat as much as I do, that may be your calling. #winkwink)

Tossed Repeating Patterns in CS6 and Newer

One of the most common type of repeats? TOSSED.

Just like it sounds, the motifs (objects or illustrations that make up the pattern) are organically “tossed” throughout the repeat.

Here are some examples:

tossed repeat illustrator examples

This 6 minute video tutorial will show you how to use the Pattern Tool in Illustrator (CS6 and newer) to create a tossed seamless repeating pattern using any motifs.

How to Create Repeating Patterns in Illustrator CS5 and Earlier

On an older version of Illustrator? Repeats are still possible. They’re just more MANUAL labor. And a pain to edit.

But you’ve still got to make them. So here’s the best way how, in a quick 5 minute tutorial:

How to Create a Pattern from an Image / Photo / Scan in Illustrator

Working with raster artwork (pixel based) that you need to turn into a repeat?

It could be an IMAGE of an actual fabric design you want to mockup as a pattern. It could be ARTWORK you scanned and want to repeat.

Either way, the process is the SAME.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to:

  • identify one repeat tile
  • crop it in Photoshop (yes I just slipped that in, even though I said you don’t need to know PS…)
  • turn it into a pattern you can use in Illustrator to fill your fashion sketches

NEW FEATURE! How to Crop in Illustrator: In the October 2017 Illustrator CC release, Adobe added a cropping feature right inside AI! It works great and is super simple. Learn how to crop images in Illustrator here. #nomorePhotoshop

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The video below is older and shows how to crop in PS. If I were you? I’d do it right in Illustrator.

How to Make a Plaid Pattern in Illustrator

Making a plaid? It’s like creating two stripe patterns (vertical and horizontal) and stacking them.

Hint hint: need to make a stripe pattern? Use this tutorial and just make ONE set of stripes ;). FANCY.

Here’s how to make a simple plaid pattern AND how to troubleshoot if you find breaks or white gaps in your layout. Because those are ANNOYING.

How to Create Twill Plaids in Illustrator (and a little Photoshop)

Yep, I snuck that Photoshop in here again. Hate to do it to you, but the truth is? Illustrator isn’t that great at mocking up REALISTIC plaids.

Need to add a twill weave (or any other weave structure) to your plaid? You need Photoshop.

(Want to debate? YES, there are ways to emulate twill in Illustrator. Do you know the method I’m referencing? Personally, I’d NEVER use it. It’s a TOTAL hack and IMPOSSIBLE to edit.)

Don’t worry though, the Photoshop trick is pretty easy. And in this video tutorial, I’ll even show you how to take the plaid back into Illustrator so you can use it to fill all your fashion flat sketches. #bonuspoints

How to Add a Background Color to a Pattern in Illustrator

Seems like a pretty simple request. But there are TRICKS to do it right. And they’re NOT totally obvious.

(Side Note: This tutorial is for CS6 and newer. If you’re on an older version, here’s what to do: Create a rectangle that has a solid color fill (and no stroke) that’s the exact size of your repeat box and put that in your repeat. Make sure the “no stroke / no fill” bounding box is ALL the way in the back, even behind the solid color shape, and boom – there’s your background color.)

How to Mockup Fabric Textures and Turn Them Into Repeating Patterns in Illustrator

Not everything you design in Illustrator – including repeating patterns – has to be created from scratch.

There are a lot of simple tricks you can use to create realistic looking textures from a photo or scan.

And this section will show you a few different ways to do that.

How to Create a Realistic Denim Texture from a Photo

It’s SUPER easy to take a photo or scan of an actual fabric texture and AUTOMAGICALLY turn it into a repeat that you can fill your fashion sketches with in Illustrator.

It helps your designs look more realistic and lifelike, which helps when you’re trying to ACCURATELY communicate your vision.

This video tutorial shows step by step how to create a denim texture using Illustrator and Photoshop (just for cropping).

NEW FEATURE! How to Crop in Illustrator: In the October 2017 Illustrator CC release, Adobe added a cropping feature right inside AI! It works great and is super simple. Learn how to crop images in Illustrator here and skip Photoshop all together.

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How to Create a Mesh Texture in Illustrator

What if you want a realistic mesh texture with holes that you can see through? You know, like mesh in REAL life?

This tutorial will show you how to mock that up in Illustrator and fill your fashion flats with it.

How to Create a Chunky Knit Texture in Illustrator

Mocking up knit textures by hand can be a BIG PAIN! Which is why this tutorial is awesome sauce! Learn how to create your knit texture from a photo in just a few minutes. Sort of like this!

This tutorial will show you how to quickly create a realistic knit texture, fill your fashion flat with it, and change the colors.

How to Create Heather / Melange / Space Dye Fabric Textures in Illustrator

There are multiple ways to do this, but this one is my FAVORITE.

Why? It creates the most realistic looking texture AND allows you to infinitely change the colors. Like MAGIC.

This way, you can easily create custom space dye blends, or quickly mock up any heather / melange color in the WHOLE rainbow. (Bonus tutorial: here’s the fastest way to do that.)

What do you need? A photo of a texture (Google works wonders for this kind of thing or just pull something from your closet and take a pic).

How to Create Lace Patterns From a Photo

Drawing realistic lace in Illustrator can be a major PITA. Which is why I always use a photo or image of lace.

If you have a lace swatch you’re working with, snap a pic or scan that bad boy in.

If not? Google holds the answers to all life’s problems. #notreallybutyoucanfindalacepattern

Here’s a tutorial on how to mockup a (realistic) repeating lace pattern using Illustrator and (don’t kill me) a teensy bit of Photoshop.

And yes, PS is required for this one IF you want your lace to actually be transparent.

Bonus Tip to Avoid Photoshop: If your lace doesn’t HAVE to be transparent and rather just LOOK transparent, there’s a workaround you can use. Simply change the opacity of your lace fabric to “Multiply” before turning it into a pattern. You can find this setting under Window > Transparency. It looks like this:

How to Edit (resize / scale) Repeating Patterns and other Technical Extras

In addition to creating the actual repeating pattern for your fabric or surface designs, you also need to know how to manage them.

These tutorials will show you the quickest ways to resize, rotate or position them on your fashion designs.

You’ll also learn how to spec one repeat tile for production, or break patterns apart to use the motifs in other parts of your work.

Pretty cool stuff.

How to Change the Size / Scale or Direction of a Repeating Pattern Swatch in Illustrator

I was at an onsite corporate training once. The senior designer told me how she was changing the size of her patterns, and I almost died. #notreallybutitwaspainful

In all seriousness, I couldn’t believe how much time she was WASTING.

Why? She was MANUALLY creating a NEW pattern every time she needed to show it at a different size. #facepalm

Seriously guys, if you’re doing this — or if there’s a chance your staff or subcontractors are doing this (do you wonder why those edit requests take SO long?), we need to have a SERIOUS chat.

Or, just watch this video tutorial. Problem solved.

You DON’T have to create a new pattern.

Instead? You check ONE box to resize, reposition, or change the direction of a pattern swatch (like if you need to show fabric on the bias).


Sorry about all the time you’ve wasted.

(On the plus side… if you’re a freelancer and this trick saves you a ton of time, you’re about to give yourself a raise by getting way MORE done in less time! #winwin)

How to Move / Reposition (and Scale) a Pattern inside your Fashion Sketch

Sometimes your pattern isn’t an allover print (AOP). Sometimes, it just fills a section or panel on your design.

And you may want to make sure it’s positioned correctly so the artwork falls in the RIGHT spot (sometimes referred to as a placed print).

This way, you can accurately mock up (and communicate with your factory) how the artwork should look on the garment in REAL life.

Here’s a tutorial on exactly how to control the position of your pattern (even if it’s inside a flat sketch) and resize it so it fits JUST like you need it to.

How to Figure Out What Size Your Repeating Pattern Should Be

Spoiler Alert: There’s no magic answer.

But there are ways you can figure it out.

Bottom line? Depends on what you’re using the pattern for.

To design and print fabric at Spoonflower?

To send to the factory that’s producing your collection?

Each situation has a different answer.

This video tutorial will help you figure out what answer is best for YOUR situation, and how to spec the size of your repeat so you make sure it comes out right on your fabric (or whatever it’s going on).

How to Release / Expand / Break Apart a Pattern in Illustrator

Whatever you want to call it, there are times when you need to pull those awesome motifs OUT of your pattern and use them as artwork.

Maybe it’s for a placed print. Maybe it’s for labels and hangtags. Maybe it’s for something else.

Whatever it’s for, I know that you need to break that darn pattern apart and use all the bits individually.

And this video tutorial will show you exactly how.

Go to Chapter 7, Part 6 Technical Design