Glossary of Fabric Design Terms


What do fabric design descriptions really mean? Do you know the difference between abstract and stylized, for instance? How about herringbone vs. chevron?

abstract and ethnicAbstract
Motifs that are not recognized as anything specific.

An airbrush effect in fabric design is one that imitates the use of a painter’s air spray gun.

Unintentional lines formed by spaces without motifs in a design.

Allover Print
It’s a basic design with no up or down direction; the print might be tossed on a background color, or packed so closely that you can barely see the background, if at all.

Background Print
A basic design exists in the foreground; but, when you look a little deeper, you see that the background has a printed design as well. Usually this is a more subtle design.

Fabric made with a wax-resist process that  involves some (or a lot of) hand processing. The resulting designs are unique.

border printBorder Print
A border print is a design printed parallel to the selvage that is appropriate for borders and binding. It is not just along the edge of the fabric; several border prints can occupy a fabric’s width.

A fabric design realistically representing herbs, garden plants, and other botanical objects.

A stylized teardrop; the same as Paisley.

A brick layout of a pattern shifts every other row over horizontally to the halfway point of the previous design element.

A small, allover floral design.

A chevron stripe is a zigzag stripe, with each stripe in alternating colors.

Any Western interpretation of an Oriental design.

cartoonConversation or Novelty Print
Many children’s prints fall into this category of real things depicted with a humorous flair, often cartoonish in nature.

Directional Print
Watch where you cut these prints – the design follows a definite vertical, horizontal, or diagonal direction. You’ll see an obvious top and bottom.

A ditzy (ditsie) is an allover design of small buds, circles, zigzags, and other elements that are simple, silly, and may be funny.

Dog’s Tooth
Small broken or jagged checks; it’s the same as Houndstooth.

ethnicEthnic Prints
Fabric that includes motifs and designs that are specific to a particular identifiable culture, including some folk art.

Fussy Cut
This isn’t a type of print. It means targeting and cutting a specific area of the fabric, rather than randomly cutting the yardage. A print used for fussy cutting is often distinct and usually medium to large in size. Fussy cutting creates interesting design possibilities for either single patches or combined to create unique designs.

Circles, squares, triangles, lines, (hexagons, octagons, etc.) by themselves or in any combination.

You’ll see this in a fabric description, but it’s not about the design. It’s the feel of the fabric.

Herringbone is traditional woven or printed design of zigzags in a stripe layout, much like a chevron except that it has a color break where the stripe reverses.

Organic Design
Not the same as organic fabric; it’s a design inspired by, based on, or composed of plants or a matter of animal origin.

You’ll barely see the background in a packed design, if you see it at all. The motifs are very closely bunched.

A stylized teardrop-shaped design

Representational designs are realistic – they look like what they are.

A tossed pattern of small shoots, twigs, or leaves of a plant, commonly on a pastel background

Simplified depictions of real objects.

Usually seen as red, blue, or black prints on white or off-white, these prints feature relatively complex lifelike scenes in a single color.

A tone-on-tone fabric often looks like a solid color, but upon closer inspection may have a mottled pattern in a range of colors that make it appear to be solid.

A tonal print combines different shades and tones of the same color.

A fabric with a tossed design looks like the motif is literally tossed onto the fabric so that there is no specific directional flow.

These are only a few of the more familiar words used for design characteristics on fabric. Let us know in Comments if you think of more!

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Linda Bennett

How about ikat?

Ikat=pronounced E-cat: Fabric in which the yarns have been tie-dyed before weaving. Hope this helps. Cindy

Jeanne B

How about providing pronunciation for these terms? That would help me.

Rita Loubser

wHAT KIND OF dESIGH IS this? Will I be able to use this article in our Swartland Quilters Newsletter? We are in South Africa and this would help a lot if everybody can describe fabric print in the same way. Thank you Rita

Yarn-dyed fabrics are fabrics that are created by weaving different colors of yarns to create a pattern. Home-spun is probably the most familiar to quilters, but traditional tartan and madras plaids also come to mind. There may be a designated right side, but both sides will make a pattern in the weaving process that can be used as the designer wishes.

Twill is a name used for fabrics that are woven in a one thread over two thread pattern that makes a diagonal line instead of a square weave pattern. Indigo blue over white makes the pattern that we traditionally see as blue jean denim. This weave pattern is also found in toile with printed motifs and solids of different weights and colors.

Ikat is actually pronounced E-cot. It is Malay/Indonesian for “tie or bundle”. The warp or weft of the fabric is tied or bundled, dyed, un-tied and then woven.

Pat O

I’m pretty much “up” on descriptions. My frustrations come in when they don’t describe the colors (it appears white background but is actually cream). My other frustration is measurement. If more shops would provide a measuring tape or measuring device somewhere on the picture of the fabric, I would know how large that butterfly is or how small that spiral is. Its difficult to “guesstimate” even if provided with the size of the cut. (“This is a 8×8 cut of fabric” but on your computer it appears to be 5×5! ­čÖé