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thinking about patterns: plaids

May 24, 2012

My body is slowly getting back to the level of functioning I had before my colonoscopy a week ago. I still have rainbow colored bruises on my arm, but they don’t hurt very much. This morning I noticed that the same arm encountered either multiple biting bugs, or possibly (something like) poison ivy. It itches like crazy, but so far I’m managing not to scratch it.

Things I’ve put off for months, I’ve managed to get started. Mostly because my classes start next week.

I got almost too many things to write about, all jostling each other inside my mind.

But I was inspired this morning by items in my laundry pile (which is immense).


Carol Joyce, in her book, Textile Design, writes about 24 different kinds of textile designs. She says floral is the most common design. Here’s her list:

  1. Floral
  2. Ethnic/folk
  3. Monotone
  4. Patchwork
  5. Liberty of London
  6. Chintz
  7. Conversational/Figurative (in Europe)
  8. Batik
  9. Paisley
  10. Geometric
  11. Foulard
  12. Art Nouveau
  13. Art Deco
  14. Contemporary
  15. Botanical
  16. Toile
  17. Scenic/landscape
  18. Country French
  19. Tropical
  20. Tapestry/warp
  21. Neoclassical
  22. Damask (including brocade)
  23. Documentary
  24. Coordinated patterns/extracts/pullouts

Plaid isn’t on the list, but presumably it is included in #10, geometric.

As I read her book 4 years ago, I noted with approval my favorite design types (in bold); I put question marks beside others (italicized). In the intervening years, I’ve realized I do really like all of the design types I had originally questioned.


So my laundry pile is chock full of plaid garments. And I bought two fabrics yesterday, also both plaids.

I got to thinking that at least one of my personas must really like plaid. But really, it has to be more than one, given the sheer numbers of plaid garments I own. My two inner children squee’d with delight over one of the plaids I saw yesterday (which persuaded me I should buy it); the other one had more a prosaic monochromatic color scheme, and a much smaller repeat, but somehow I was charmed by it.

Like I said in my earlier post, ode to plaid, the kinds of colors used in a plaid design — that is, the color palette, or colorway — wouldn’t be suitable for a lot of other kinds of designs. You couldn’t make a floral, paisley, botanical, tropical, or Art Nouveau (or, for that matter, Art Deco) design out of the particular colors found in the shirt sitting in my lap: muted grass green; navy; rust; and white. The overall impression is medium-dark, darkened more by the navy, and slightly brightened by the white. It could be somber even, but I don’t find it so. As a plaid (made into a man’s shirt), it works.

And yet, during the time I immersed myself in graphic design several years ago, I realized I hate grids: they are so rigid and orderly and completely predictable. So how can I like plaids?

Almost in spite of myself, I like stripes as well, especially horizontal ones. Even better if the lines are kind of wavy, so they resemble ocean waves, geological strata, or isolines on a topographical map.

But plaids do something that stripes don’t. In a pattern of stripes, a given line ‘interacts’ only with its neighbor above, and its neighbor below. In a plaid, however, any color line interacts with all other color lines. And as Bauhaus artist Josef Albers learned and taught, colors appear different, depending on who they are juxtaposed with  (explanatory video here). So each particular color has an optical relationship with every other color, in a plaid pattern. But also, if the plaid is woven in (not printed), the yarns will actually physically cross each other, creating blocks of either half-tones or full tones. My plaid shirt has 4 yarn colors – green, navy, rust, and white — but because the fabric is woven, we see almost twice as many colors. The green is the background, so green never crosses green. But the other three colors are stripes going both vertically and horizontally, so occasionally there are blocks that are solid navy, rust, or white. Most of the time, though, the stripes going in either direction are interacting with the green background, producing half-tones, such as green-navy, green-rust, and green-white. And then because of optical mixing effects, each color looks lighter or darker depending on who its neighbors are. So the underlying geometric arrangement is deceptively simple, but the color relationships we see are complicated.

In graphic design, grids are usually used as the underlying structure for page design. We often don’t see the actual grid itself, we just see images or vignettes filling the square or rectangular spaces between the crisscrossing horizontal and vertical lines. The lines themselves are often invisible, although they may be negative space. In a plaid pattern, that underlying structure becomes foreground, while the background is what populates the squares. This structure is orderly and predictable (which I normally hate), but it’s also more commonly found in things we humans don’t normally see easily. Like crystal lattices, which we often need a microscope to see. So a plaid pattern could be thought of as stylized chemistry and geomorphology models.

And no matter how small and simple the repeat of a plaid pattern seems to be, it offers more visual interest than small and simple designs of other sorts, like florals, polka dots, etc. I tend not to own things made of fabric with small and simple repeats, since I find them utterly boring, but I do have a pillow quilted in a Log Cabin design that includes blocks of (non-geometrically-patterned) fabrics with various small and simple repeats. If I look at blocks of white polka dots on dark green, or dark green leafy vines on white, whether I’m looking at a tiny area (1” square) or a much larger expanse (4” square, or a strip 2” x 10”), I have an overwhelming impression of sameness. Nothing about it invites my mind to linger upon the pattern. A plaid is different (for me). I find myself seeking out the repeat, but then looking at larger blocks in various configurations. For my new fabric in a monochromatic blue-and-white colorway, the pattern repeat is nine squares; one such block is 1 inch long on each side. When I look at it, I trace out blocks that are five squares by five, or rectangles that are five squares by seven. Sometimes the lines seem to spiral inward or outward. Plaids illustrate nested systems, a key principle of ecoliteracy. Maybe that’s why I can spend a lot of time looking at a plaid, any plaid, and keep finding new things in it.

I also like comparing plaids to each other. Although the structure might seem pretty rigid, most of my plaids look very different from each other, and not mostly because of different colorways. The second new fabric I bought yesterday differs from the blue-and-white, and from my green plaid shirt, in that some of the colors (sparkly pink and sparkly silver) only run in one direction. There are six distinct yarns, all in a high key. When I look closely I can see that the four matte colors run in both directions, but possibly for optical mixing reasons, all of the colors appear stronger when they are parallel to the sparkly threads.




I have another (woven) plaid shirt in the laundry pile that has at least six distinct yarn colors, running vertically, but I can’t figure out if all six colors run horizontally as well. Its design repeat is quite large: 7.75” high x 9” long. I love looking at it!




Take a look at the plaids in your life — maybe you’ll find something surprising and engaging!

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