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Pattern Design: from an idea to a collection

Building a complex repeat pattern collection, from a sketch to a finished set of designs.

Published on:

March 1, 2022

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Pattern Design: from an idea to a collection

Islands pattern design collection

Making a surface pattern design collection with six or more patterns is quite a big creative project. There are many aspects to consider when creating a larger surface pattern collection. In this blog I let you peek into my method of building a repeat pattern collection from a simple idea. The collection in this blog is primarily designed for fabric but would work on many other print media, including stationery.

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Where do my ideas for pattern designs come from?

Nature and travelling are some of my most favourite ways of gathering inspiration and ideas. Experiencing new places and environments always make me look more deeply into textures, colours and shapes. At the end of 2021 we drove to Isle of Mull for five days in our campervan. The weather in Scotland can be challenging even during Summer months, but in the middle of Winter, it is pretty much expected to be wild and unforgiving. But the flip side of that coin is the rugged beauty which encompasses this island, battered by the strong waves and sea wind. And it is those sensory experiences that makes me grab my special pencil and start sketching.

Sketching for a pattern design collection

When I sketch for a pattern collection, I make sketches with their end use in mind. Depending on whether I am working with a flat or detailed illustration style, I make my drawings in a certain way, with the different motifs separated from one another, for easier digitising and manipulating on Illustrator. These sketches form the basis of my surface pattern designs.

I nearly always create my initial sketches the old-fashioned way – my special Graphgear pencil travels everywhere with me, just in case I suddenly have a spare moment and feel inspired to draw.

With this Islands collection, I dedicated a few days for sketching, thinking about all the different patterns I wanted to make with the illustrations. I made all the sketches in one go, rather than completing them one pattern at the time, as I have often done. I found this a great way to maintain the cohesiveness of a collection, as well as a good working discipline.

Sketches for Islands pattern collection

Types of patterns in a fabric collection

In a pattern design collection for fabric, there are usually three kinds of prints; heros, complex co-ordinates and blender prints. They have varying degrees of complexity, hero being the most complex and blender the simplest design. I have the type and complexity of the print in mind at this early sketching stage, because it really helps to when creating lines and textures of a motif. Sometimes I find the blender prints hardest to create, even though they are simplest of the prints. There is a certain skill in simplifying one’s thinking until the end result is just a simple line or a mark, which still tells a story. Hero prints are the ‘heros’ of the collection; they set the look and feel for the whole collection and are the most detailed of all of the designs. Co-ordinate prints sit somewhere in the middle, and complement the hero prints and the overall theme.

Islands surface pattern design collection

Islands surface pattern collection

Digitising drawings and setting the colour palette

Once I have my pencil sketches done, I go over them with a good quality black marker pen, like Staedtler or Unipin. After making the black lines and erasing the pencil marks, I scan the designs onto my laptop, in 300 or 600 dpi, depending on the size and complexity of the original drawings. Once scanned in, I use the image trace function in Adobe Illustrator to convert my designs into a vector format. It is also possible to create patterns inside Photoshop and other raster based programs, but for my Islands collection, I used Illustrator for the workflow. Because of working in vector, I needed to decide on my colour palette at the beginning of the project, because in general one should use a restricted colour palette with vector projects (less than 18 colours).

Photographs and other visual references are a great way to decide on a colour palette for a project; with my Island collection I looked at the photos I took on Mull and dropped some of those colours into my swatches on Illustrator. Another way I choose colours, is how I want a collection to feel – what sort of atmosphere or feeling can I create by using particular colours? As the collection was depicting a blustery, Wintry island, I chose fairly cool blues and greens as the base colours, whilst adding a few warmer colours to balance that coolness. The few warmer yellows were chosen to emit the feeling of the beaming Winter sun and the vibrant yellow on the island (like in the orange lichen on rocks or the gorse bush flowers in bloom).  

Working with illustrations on computer

The actual play (work) starts when I have all my motifs on the screen in Illustrator. I always start assembling one of the hero patterns firsts, because that will then guide me onto the other patterns and the overall style of the collection.

In the beginning, I change the stroke colour and play around with different options for fill colour. I also alter some of the details that were digitised, occasionally adding or deleting them – and play around with scale and composition of the illustrations. This part of the pattern making process is often the most fun, but sometimes also the most frustrating one.

With my Islands collection, my first pattern was the Seals pattern, because it established the feel I was after; fun and playful, but also beautiful and enchanting, just like seals seem to me in real life. The different types of sea weed and sea kelp we saw by the beaches and the island’s shoreline really got me thinking of all the wonderful colours and textures in them.


As a surface designer, I have the artistic licence to change colours and shapes, meaning that motifs do not need to be realistic, but in the Islands collection I was aiming for a nice combination of simplicity, beauty and realism. And once I decided on the colours in the collection, based on the hero pattern, it was easier to play around with the remaining patterns, whilst keeping within the established colour palette.

During this process, I made a few extra patterns, which didn’t end up in the final collection, but I don’t feel precious about choosing some designs over others. The main aim is to make a cohesive collection, in which every pattern plays its own, complementary role.  

Eventually one just has to decide when the collection is ready, there is no magic formula for this, at least for me, apart from just ‘feeling’ it.

Islands surface pattern collection

Assembling the surface pattern collection

When the collection and all the eight patterns were ready, I exported the designs and compiled them into a PDF file. Using the exported pattern files and some digital mock ups made with the repeat patterns, is a great way to test how the designs work together and also when printed on actual products.

Out of all the pattern collections I have made so far, I think ‘Islands’ is the most cohesive one in regards to its designs, colours and feel.

If you want me to help you make your own surface pattern design idea into reality, or licence one of my existing collections, please drop me an email at: info@heidivilkman.com

My name is Heidi Vilkman and I am a UK based surface pattern designer.

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