Repeat patterns, part I – Catherine Jones


[Russian roller-printed cotton, 19th century, detail from image in Russian Textiles by Susan Meller]

Repeat patterns – repeating and potentially unbounded designs of the kind found on wallpaper and printed yardage – crop up everywhere. So much so, that we sometimes barely notice them. In Western art especially, they’ve often played a subordinate role, serving merely to fill a patch of unwanted vacant space, frame a composition, or supply some texture to a pictorial scene. Repeat patterns commonly function as elevator music: background to the main conversation. Except, of course, when they are the conversation.

Many people with all-around training in art (rather than training specific to textile design) have created repeat patterns for industrial production – frequently bringing to a specialized craft the broad strivings, ambitions, and concern with meaning typical of fine art. In addition, many artists doing non-industrial, labor-intensive original work like painting have included repeat patterns in it. Sometimes these patterns become the focus of the work, if not the whole of it.


[Picasso, Jar with garlands, 1957, detail from image in Picasso: Sculptor and painter in clay edited by Marilyn McCully]

I’m trying in this article (or series of articles) to explore some of the tensions between the technical demands of repeat-pattern design and the expressive needs of the artist. Is repeat-pattern design a generally useful discipline (like learning to draw in charcoal) or just a bag of tricks handy for turning out yardage on roller printing machines? Does putting an image into repeat somehow drain it of meaning and turn the resulting artwork into pure decoration? Maybe pattern itself has come to suggest domesticity, at least the context of Western art. If so, is that a reason for some artists to steer clear of it?

I don’t have any all-purpose answers. But I have chosen to gamble my own time and energy on the expressive possibilities of pattern. (I’ve been writing software for turning images into repeat patterns and also making making art that involves such patterns.) It does reassure me that, over the centuries, a great many artists have pushed against the boundaries of traditional textile design, seeing repeat patterns as a vehicle for the presentation of quite varied content.


[Jean-Baptiste Huet, copper-plate print on fabric, 1784, detail from image in Toiles de Jouy by Judith Straeten]

One way of coping with the constraints of repeat-pattern art is to use very large repeats – sometimes elaborate landscapes or urban scenes. The picture above – a worker pounding mordant into cloth while finished printed fabric hangs drying in the background – is just one detail of a much larger repeat. Working on this scale gives an artist room to spread out. It also minimizes the number of repeats on any given length of cloth (or wallpaper or whatever). Since laying out repeat patterns is a tricky and technical business – it’s all too easy to wind up with unplanned and unwanted stripe or plaid effects when placing many copies of an image side by side – large repeats spare the artist some headaches. And large repeats focus attention on the image itself, rather than on the way multiple copies of it fit together.

While monochrome toile de Jouy like that pictured above has become a cliche of interior decoration and tends, for this reason, to be treated as background music, some artists have turned this tradition-bound, ubiquitous, and hence barely noticed fabric into the main conversation. In 1990 two designers who met at the Glasgow School of Art founded a studio called Timorous Beasties (after the Robert Burns poem – see Timorous Beasties has produced, among other things, Glasgow Toile, a fabric with drawings in the toile de Jouy tradition but content that’s altogether different. The fabric shows disturbing street scenes in contemporary Glasgow: homeless people, crack addicts, and grim-looking buildings.

I’m not sure how most viewers would read this less-than- or more-than-decorative art. I can see it as a clever reuse of historic forms, as a manifestation of grunge aesthetics or the desire to shock, as possibly sincere social commentary, or, maybe, as a combination of all these things. Whatever meaning we assign to Glasgow Toile, it shows how far the art of repeat patterns can be pushed.


[Battlefields, cotton kimono fabric, Japan, 1930s, as shown in image from Wearing Propaganda: textiles from the home front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945 edited by Jacqueline Atkins]


[Twelfth Air Force, woman’s scarf, United States, ca. 1942, detail from image in Wearing Propaganda]

Smaller repeats offer less room for detail and force the pictorial artist to work with simplified imagery. But even simple images can convey quite specific ideas and don’t necessarily lose their meaning when repeated. The Battlefields fabric above shows helmets and barbed wire fences; the Twelfth Air Force scarf is clearly about warplanes and would read that way even without the included words. The stripped-down graphics of moderate-scale repeats seem well suited to conveying stripped-down messages in time of war.


[Marya Anufrieva, Women harvesting 1928-32, watercolor design for printed cotton, detail from image in Soviet Textiles: Designing the modern utopia by Pamela Jill Kachurin]

A more sophisticated experiment with propagandistic textile design occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the Soviet Union. In a utopian and ultimately unsuccessful effort to create new clothing for a new kind of person, artists brought their modernist training to bear on a special problem in textile design. In keeping with the desires of the new government, they tried to blend symbols of the country’s coming industrial age (tractors, wheels, gears etc.) with the familar (often floral) traditions of Russian printed fabric.

Some of the results seem to me beautiful and moving, even if horribly out of touch with the realities of the time (famine and scarcity). In the design above for printed cotton, images of machinery, suns, and women holding wheat meld into a unified whole that’s at once decorative, celebratory, and full of human meaning. (There’s hardly any recurring theme in art more basic than sunlight and celebration of the harvest.)


[Sonia Delaunay, Untitled, 1929, detail from image in Sonia Delaunay, Atelier Simultane 1923-1934]

Of the many textile designs that refuse to subside into background music, only a few strive to make an overt statement. Most communicate indirectly. In the gouache painting above we can see the beginning of a repeat pattern, one that’s not yet developed into a repeat. In this loose early state it has the look of fine art, not the rigid geometric layout of roller-printed fabric. To me the design has a psychological/political aspect. It looks ominous, reminiscent, maybe, of Robert Motherwell’s elegies for the Spanish Republic. Given the abstract nature of the shapes, there’s no way to assign them a definite meaning without knowing more about the context within which Sonia Delaunay did this particular work. Maybe a printed dress fabric derived from this design would function simply as fashion and decoration. Then again maybe not. That uncertainty and ambiguity is part of the allure of repeat patterns.

[to be continued next month…]


11 Responses to “Repeat patterns, part I – Catherine Jones”

  1. 1 Mic@ collage phot frame November 17, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I never thought repeat patterns have any significant and meaning except for showing the culture and traditions. Thanks for sharing such information, I learned a lot regarding this art.

  2. 2 Emelie "College Degrees Diploma" Scott February 11, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    I never really thought that repeated patterns could be compared to background music. Its only after reading did i realized and noticed it as such. Thanks for the nice info! It helps me appreciate things on the background.

  3. 3 Chlobby "Display homes" Pot February 6, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Repeated patters also shows how did culture continues onwards..

  4. 4 Decorative Art Painting April 1, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Nice blog regarding repeat patterns. I think repeat patterns don’t show the real talent of the artist but they have their own beauty. Larger patterns look more appealing when repeated than smaller patterns. The blog was very interesting.

  5. 5 Angela Moll March 13, 2008 at 7:41 am

    June, this is so interesting! Wild speculation here: is this the effect of place? In the sense that both Chinese and western art traditions have their origins in the work of artists living in very different landscapes. The Mediterranean basin with its raggedy hills covered with scrubby vegetation and sparse oak and/or pine woodlands doesn’t lend itself to a repeat-based interpretation as well as a high mountains covered with dense conifer forest would. The tradition gets started with a particular way to look at landscape which can go on for centuries. Add to it different conceptions of the relationship between humans and nature and you find yourself treating repeat pattern differently.

    As I say, just wild speculation, but after all, relating repeat patterns to a sense of “home” is not so far fetch so I hope you all let me speculate.

  6. 6 Catherine Jones March 12, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Angela — Interesting comment about how repeats in interior fabrics can provide a “psychological anchor.” I’m wondering if slightly varied repeats would have the same anchoring effect….

    June — I hadn’t thought of the trees and mountains of landscapes as repeats, but they really do function that way in the landscape scroll you pointed out. Interesting too that the artist painted the repeating trees and mountains himself, while delegating buildings and human figures to his assistants. Maybe – in a reversal of the usual Western approach to painting – he regarded the repeat patterns as the more important part of the composition?

    If there is increased interest in repeats (or semi-repeats) in fine art lately, this might (a wild speculation) have something to do with the increased number and respectability of graphic novels. As more artists study these and get used to looking at pages with many frames and only slight variation from frame to frame, working with semi-repeats may come to seem more natural and appealing. Well, just a thought….

  7. 7 June March 12, 2008 at 8:54 am

    By coincidence, my oils teacher last evening was talking about Chinese landscapes and showed us a batch of ink drawings where, as he pointed out enthusiastically, repeats are a regular motif. Here’s one example:

    He and another student had a prolonged discussion about repeats in landscape work and focused on something of the same questions as you, Catherine, have brought up — how to make them different from “background music.”

    Perhaps there is something in the air that suddenly makes this a hot topic?

  8. 8 Angela Moll March 11, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Catherine, thanks, I love your post and I too am waiting eagerly for the continuation.

    For me your post is good food for thought right now because I am gearing up to design some interior fabrics and I am weighing the pros and cons of repeat vs. a single image. The repetition and predictability of a repeat can serve as a psychological anchor allowing a space to be both livable and patterned. But, as you say, it can be easily turned into background music… Timorous Beasties do both, they give us repeat and they force us to pay attention. And so does Kim.

    I also like Dufy’s textile designs much better that his paintings, and also better than his ceramics.

    Thanks, Olga for your references too.

  9. 9 catherine March 11, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    Kim — I haven’t had a chance to see your work in person, but I know it from photos in print and online. You’re so right about serial images creating secondary patterns and fusing the abstract with the figurative. I think one of the reasons your images work so well in a simple quilt-block layout – apart from their inherent humor, style, and readability – is the subtlety of the quilted surface. Because the fabric isn’t stretched taut and flat and because of the stitching, each repeated image is slightly different from its neighbors, and this variation brings the whole work to life.

    Olga — Thanks very much for all the ideas and for the online references.

    I loved the comment by Simmons (of Timorous Beasties) in the in the Guardian interview: “… there were often butterflies or flowers in wallpapers and fabrics, but they were always soft and romanticised. You wouldn’t see the tendrils or scales.” It seems to me that the softly romantic approach to nature (no tendrils or scales) has been so common as to lead to stereotypes and dismissive judgments of wallpaper and fabric in general. It’s exciting when artists involved in textile design (like the painter Graham Sutherland) turn a fresh and observant eye on the natural world.

    Dufy’s textile designs are amazing – more impressive to me than his paintings – and Matisse (along with Vuillard) had, I think, an extraordinary gift for portraying backgrounds as foregrounds and vice versa.

    I agree with you completely about the “challenge of producing a repeat which is not immediately obvious.” That’s what set me off on my quest to write better textile-design software. I thought it might help go beyond simple grid and half-drop repeats and that the computer could take some of the drudgery out this process. A repeat pattern can be much more than the sum of its parts, but, as you say, making this happen is never easy. Maybe the main value of the computer is that it can, potentially, let an artist rapidly preview many different arrangements of a small set of images.

    Do write something about the Collier Campbell designs; I hadn’t known about them and would like to hear more.

  10. 10 Olga March 11, 2008 at 2:29 am

    A thought-provoking subject, thank you. I have been attracted to the concept of repeat patterns since the days of my Toile de Joiy-like wallpaper in my teenage bedroom. I used to enjoy subtly changing each repeat so that only I knew how it was different, and thus not arousing the ire of my parents!

    I love designs by artists such as Dufy and Graham Sutherland and I was totally swept away by the textile designs of the sisters Collier Campbell. I am sorry not to be able to find much in the way of illustration for these last designers and may write a post on them myself sometime as I have many examples of their work which I must photograph.

    The challenge of producing a repeat which is not immediately obvious as such intrigues me, and from time to time I use the facility on my Corel Painter program to play. I have not as yet used repeats designed this way in my work, however.

    I do think that Timorous Beasties use the repeat to produce art lurking as decoration. I certainly think it can be categorised as art in these days of the conceptual, and indeed is a much more direct decendant of Duchamp’s Readymades. Their work is subtle in its subversion,,,2008228,00.html and has no need of the screeds of explanatory stuff that normally has to accompany conceptual installations etc.

    Putting an image into repeat does often dilute its power; however, I do not think that this need always be so. After all in the very simplest example of repeating a line Bridget Riley has produced a whole body of powerfully effective work. It is never easy to produce the element which makes a work greater than the sum of its parts. Of course Riley always hated the ‘theft’ of her ‘design’ to make pop-art fashion, seeing it perhaps as a belittling from philosophical concept to being mass over-repeated in a temporary trend.

    I also very much like the way that Matisse both drew attention to repeats but also subverted them by loosening them to be both background and subject of focus in his paintings. I have recently seen Red room (Harmony in red) for real rather than in reproduction, and was struck how much in looking at the real painting the figure recedes to become part of the pattern, and what one would normally call the pattern elements acquire equal prominence.

    What a fascinating subject. I have certainly been set thinking and researching, and I eagerly await the continuation of this article. Thank you.

  11. 11 kim March 10, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    I use figurative repeats in my quilt art works. The image is often repeated in a traditional quilt block format to create an additional layer of meaning. The use of serial images creates interesting secondary patterns and added subtext, fusing the abstract with the figurative. The imagery is both narrative and conceptual, inviting multiple levels of interpretation.

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