Directionality in Fabric

As Spoonflower and other digital textile printing services make custom fabric accessible to the masses, I thought it might be helpful to talk about fabric design basics. Since I am not a fabric designer by trade, I called in Michelle Engel Bencsko of Cicada Studio to help write this. She graciously obliged. Thank you SO much, Michelle!

First lesson: Directionality of patterns.

Directionality has ramifications for the end use of the fabric and the more subjective (but vital!) eye-pleasing flow of the design. (I will have to call in the experts to talk more about flow someday.) Here are things to consider when you’re designing your pattern.


A tossed geometric print


A tossed novelty print

Many patterns are tossed, in other words are multidirectional; they can be turned any which way. These are the most versatile and can be used for any project. Most of your geometrics and florals and some novelty prints fall into this category. Tossed designs are favored by quilters because you don’t have to be as fussy cutting out pieces, and by the garment industry and sewists on a budget because you can squeeze more pattern pieces out of the yardage.


A one-way repeat. Notice the relation of the design to the selvedge.

Then there are two-way and one-way repeats. These designs travel horizontally from selvedge to selvedge — for example, the trees in the photo above are parallel to the selvedge. This is important for garment sewing (pieces are usually taller than they are wide) and drapes. Border prints are an exception; in that case trees in the border would be perpendicular to the selvedge.


A two-way folky print. Notice how the birds run both north-south and south-north. It might be that all the motifs are not flipped, though.

Two-way repeats are bidirectional, you can turn them upside down but they’re not supposed to go sideways (of course, you can always flout the rules!). You have to take more care in cutting pieces for your projects so you don’t end up with a sideways piece amongst your straight-up-and-down ones … how many of you have made that mistake before?

Ideally, all elements of the pattern go in both directions. Often times what looks like a two-way repeat is not, because all of the motifs must go in both directions.


A one-way novelty print.

One-way repeats are unidirectional. They are the least versatile — depending on the scale they are largely unsuitable for traditional quilting, unless you’re just using a tiny bit or are committed to always laying the quilt the same way, or are careful to turn a portion of pieces upside down in the assembly process to mimic two-way or tossed prints. They are still lovely for accessories, garments, drapes, etc.; you just have to be very mindful when cutting. According to Michelle, one-way repeats generally create the most pleasing designs, but is generally frowned upon in the garment industry because pattern pieces all have to be cut one way, yielding more waste than tossed prints.

Your assignment, if you choose to accept it: go through your stash (or the internet, if your stash is not hearty enough) and find a tossed, one-way, and two-way repeat in each category: geometric, floral, and novelty. That’s nine different fabrics. If you post about it on your blog (don’t know how exciting that would be to your readers, but I’d love it!) please let me know in the comments.

All fabrics shown in this post were purchased at one time or another from Superbuzzy.


  1. Patricia says:

    Ooh, an assignment! Am I going to get any “real” work done today?

    Thanks for the great info!

  2. janet says:

    that last novelty print is adorable! I just checked superbuzzy and they must no longer carry it. Any ideas for other sources! thanks in advance and for the very informative post!

  3. daisy janie says:

    Very informative post! Thank you for sharing! I’ll be exploring my stash momentarily!

  4. Dotty says:

    I took your challenge and I was able to find 7 out of the 9 fabrics (my stash is lacking in geometric prints). I have an unusual 2 way floral. Pictures are here:

  5. deirdre says:

    Love this post and I intend to carry out this assignment on my blog. I will let you know when I post it! Thanks for the great idea!

  6. Cindy says:

    I love your website and read it religously. What a great post, I don’t have a blog though unfortunately. Thanks for building up my confidence to give spoonflower a go.

  7. [...] for fabric, be sure to read Julia Rothman’s awesome tutorial on creating repeats. And also, Directionality in Fabric, on True [...]

  8. [...] I’m still crazy about those motifs. And I hope to have more posts like the one on pattern directionality that Michelle Engel Bencsko of Cidada Studio helped me write– Important things to know for [...]

  9. This is so handy! I had never thought about any of it before, but now it seems so very obvious! You’re right in that the one-way patterns are often the most attractive, but I have to be so careful when I use them. Nice work!

  10. More great stuff we have all wanted to know but not known who to ask. thanks a bunch!! Really!!