The beauty of imperfection. Pattern design with Shibori techniques

Nella tecnica Shibori spesso si utilizza un cordino per realizzare i pattern tessili

Shibori is a Japanese expression to define reserve dyeing and different decorating techniques used to create motifs on fabric.

It is an ancient method (Edo period in the history of Japan), still used in different cultures around the world.

Motifs can be realized with various methods: binding, sewing, bending, twisting or compression, always before immersing fabric in a dyeing bath.

You can bend fabric in the desired way, fixing it so that it remains bent, then you can immerse it in the bath of colour until it is fixed.

Key word is to experiment: mixing ideas, techniques, textiles and colours, possibilities multiply.

Pleating and color in Shibori textile dyeing techniques

In creating new patterns, it may be a good idea to document every step through photos and a visual diary: this way remembering the process will be simplier.

Each fold has the power to create a variant and affects the final design, and non-dyed areas affect as much as the coloured ones.

Considering pattern space and placement in garments design means considering its symmetry and dimensionality.

All these elements together contribute to make a truly unique hand-dyed creation.

Choice of fabric and technique

The easiest thing is to start with light fabrics, such as cotton voile, silk or muslin, all traditionally used in Japan.

Being thin, they have the advantage of making dye coloration quicker.

On the other hand, even if dye could take more time to decorate thicker and heavier fabrics, these could be more suitable for the desired use, such as coatings or heavy curtains.

Size of garments too is a determining factor in choicing a reserve technique: techniques with more demanding workings, such as sewing reserves, could be more suitable for small garments or for placed prints.

Pre-soaking phase

Always recommended before dyeing phase, it has the function to guarantee a uniform dye colouring.

As fabric can shrink when wet, it is possible that the applied reserves will loosen up and are no longer effective in preserving these areas from colour. Pre-soaking phase reduces this risk to a minimum.

In addition, water acts temporarily as a barrier, making it less likely to reach reserve-treated areas.

Heavier fabrics will need a longer soaking period.

Winding Shibori technique

A simple method that involves the use of stones around which fabric is wrapped, then tightly tied with a string or elastic. Although this technique is simple, it creates very interesting motifs.

Pebbles to put into practice a Shibori technique of textile dyeing

How to:

    1. Wrap fabric around some stones, tie it tight, and immerse it in water for at least an hour, preferably all night long.
    2. Remove fabric from water and plunge it into the chosen dyeing bath.
    3. Once desired colour shade is obtained, remove fabric from dyeing bath.
    4. Rinse fabric while it is still tied.
    5. By opening fabric you finally discover the created motif.
    6. Wash fabric with neutral ph soap, rinse and hang to dry.

Mokume technique – basting

It is a Shibori technique with a sewing dyeing reserve, known for its structural, wood effect motif.

This kind of dyeing reserve provides for parallel lines of basting stitches. Pulling threads you create a fabric curl of compressed areas in which dye cannot penetrate.

There are different types of sewing dyeing reserve techniques and this is one of the simplest.

Mokume technique lends itself well to light fabrics and dense textures (voile and Habotai silk), requires precision and the realisation of a pattern.

With a ruler and a seamstress chalk you can draw the basting lines, which will be better if made with a thread of contrasting colour.

Experimenting with small fabric samples you can better understand the amount of tension needed to pull threads.

Mokume technique also opens the door to a whole range of different stitches, offering different results each time.

Needle and thread to create a special Shibori technique in reserve

How to:

    1. Press your fabric sample.
    2. With a seamstress chalk and a ruler draw horizontal lines at intervals of 2 cm.
    3. Using a double thread, fix it with a tough knot. Make basting stitches along first line. When end is reached, cut thread at a distance of 15 cm and knot the ends.
    4. Repeat process for each drawn line.
    5. For each line, take the ends of threads and pull gently, creating a curl. Tie pulled threads with a tight knot.
    6. Let fabric soak all night long. Once removed from water, stop the water excess with a towel.
    7. Put fabric in the chosen dyeing bath.
    8. Rinse with running water, cut off all knots and remove all stitches. Rinse until water is transparent.

Wrinkling technique

The simplest technique is often the most effective.

Fabric is randomly wrinkled, then tied with cord or elastic before dyeing phase. The resulting pattern is random and abstract, with directional lines similar to branches over the entire fabric.

The most important factor is the ligature tension: too much tension (or too little) creates very few motifs and effects.

If you are not satisfied with the results, you can always retry by wrinkling again.

The twine, useful in different Shibori techniques of textile dyeing

How to:

  1. Wrinkle various parts of fabric randomly.
  2. Tie various crumples with elastic or cord.
  3. Soak fabric in water, preferably all night long. When finished, stop the excess of water with a towel.
  4. Check that elastic bands (or cords) are tight enough to resist the dyeing bath (wet fabric shrinks).
  5. Plunge fabric into dyeing bath.
  6. After finishing dyeing process, rinse with running water and remove ligatures. Rinse again until water returns transparent.

Pattern design with Serti technique

Set di pennelli per dipingere

Serti technique is a particular reserve dyeing technique, used to paint on fabric.

It is suitable for any kind of subject, but it is essential to make drawings with closed shapes.

Gutta-percha, a waterproofing that prevents colour from expanding, is applied to contours.

The ideal design has therefore well defined shapes and a clean graphic structure, consisting of closed shapes, avoiding large background surfaces, or too small and meticulous details, more suitable for direct painting.

Materials and equipment

    • Worktop (a table)
    • Wooden frame and drawing pins
    • Cut of fabric (Habotai silk is very used)
    • Brushes and pads
    • Gutta-percha and water-based specific colours for fabrics (available in fine arts shops)
    • Applicator

Work surface

It will take a good table on which to place your frame. Frame is essential, because fabric should always be detached from table’s surface.

In case dimensions require it, frame should be supported by stands.

You can choose to work seated or standing, but in second case you will have a more complete overview.

With a plastic towel or with old newspapers protect the working area.


To stretch fabric well, which must not come into direct contact with table, it is necessary to use a frame.

The more fabric surface is stretched on a regular basis, the easiest will be the entire work.

Different types of frame are commercially available, but the quality of wood is an important factor, because to stretch fabric you will use drawing pins.

To realize a simple frame choose four strips of seasoned wood (section 3-4 cm, lenght from 60 cm to 1 m approx.), and with a a hacksaw make some notches at regular intervals. (Notches allow to assembly your frame according to the size of fabric).

The wooden frame to paint on fabric

In the photo example, each notch measure 1,5 cm in length and depth, and is about 8,5 cm from the others.

Fabric preparation

By applying some drawing pins, you can attach your fabric sample to the frame.

There are different types of pins: those from architect (three-pronged) have the advantage of penetrating completely into wood.

It is important to always start from a corner, fixing fabric to the frame every five cm, and proceeding on the side perpendicular to the previous one.

After a little practice, a good tension of fabric will require less pins: a square of silk of 45 cm (side) has 4 pins to the 4 angles, and 2 pins on each of the sides.

Brushes and pads

The most suitable brushes for Serti technique are those used for watercolour: round, soft and with a thin tip.

Watercolor Materials

For all backgrounds it is better to use a flat brush, or to use some pads.

To prepare a pad, tightly ball up a piece of absorbent cotton, then wrap a gauze around it and stop the whole thing with a clothes peg.

For more limited surfaces use simple cotton-buds.

Pads and cotton-buds, each for one colour, must be discarded after use. Wash brushes immediately after use in a bath of lukewarm water and mild soap, or pure alcohol.

Washing operations must also be carried out when changing colour. Dry residual water or alcohol thoroughly to avoid stains or halos.


Specific Serti technique colours to paint on fabric (silk, cotton and sythetic fabrics) are available in fine arts stores, ready for use and water-dilutable.

The range of available colours is usually wide in assortment.

In addition, there are other types of colours in a concentrated form: professional inks for silk an wool, 50% water or industrial alcohol dilutable.


Gutta-percha is a resin. It comes in the form of dense and semitransparent liquid (but coloured variants are commercially available).

Two types of gutta (transparent and coloured), applicator and Tiralinee

Once applied and dry, it becomes a rubbery substance that adheres to fabric, making the treated part waterproof.

Colorless gutta-percha washes away after fixing.


Motifs are realized by first tracing contours with gutta-percha, which once dry, prevents liquid colours from expanding beyond the established zones.

The first operation is therefore to draw your pattern using a frame as to stretch fabric.

There are different possibilities:

  • Tracing a previously prepared model, using a pencil if fabric is sufficiently light or – in case fabric is heavy – carbon paper, taking care to trace the signs with a light hand.
  • Freehand, using a pencil (although it is advisable to follow preparatory sketches) or for the more experienced, directly with gutta-percha, without any guiding path and following the inspiration of the moment.

The important thing however, is to circumscribe in close forms all the colouring areas.

Next step: gutta-percha. You can use a brush or a specific applicator: a soft plastic container, provided with a cap, to drill as finely as possible with a needle.

In order to obtain a thinner stroke you can also screw a special tip.

Residues should be immediately eliminated, cleaning the container.

Colouring is the penultimate stage: if gutta-percha is dry, you can paint inside and eventually outside resin strokes.

Colour must be given starting from the center of the surface, leaving it to reach up to the contour line.

For the final drying phase: simply follow the indications given on the colour packages. Usually it is enough to iron on fhe reverse side of fabric.

All your motifs for a pattern. From design to textile printing

Frattali e pattern design, un esempio

Once printed, simple fabrics can transform into magically decorated and coloured surfaces.

A pattern can call to mind epochs and styles, suggestions of the unconscious and artistic currents, contributing not little to the success of a garment or an accessory.

Design of printed fabrics has produced numerous styles and images over time since the first repeated motifs were applied for the first time on cloth, and today represents a creative sector of importance in continuous evolution.

Module, motif, pattern: an introduction

The natural pattern on the wings of a butterfly

First of all we can say that patterns are everywhere around us. This English term refers, depending on context, to a design, scheme, or recurring structure.

Used as a synonym for textures, this term indicates a regularity within a set of observed objects. Just think of the stains on the wings of a butterfly, or of a birch grove, or of fractals.

In architecture and design, patterns indicate geometric repetitions of a graphic motif and the ornamental design of a surface, such as a fabric, upholstery, or flooring.

Pattern compositions are given by multiplying and flanking each other, according to a more or less visible grid, the so-called modules, units that make up patterns within the entire composition.

Simple or complex, symmetrical or asymmetrical, all identical or similar images or motifs that are repeated can become patterns. The more the repetition is symmetrical, the easier it is to recognize the basic module.

In the past, the choice of module size  was quite limited: small for clothing and larger in décor. Today this convention is no longer necessarily followed.

In fabrics for furnishing and fashion, pattern has passed through many evolutions, freeing itself, through digital technology, of the main constraints, concerning dimensional relationship and repetition.

In digital textile prints in fact, there are no longer limits imposed by the size of the screen frame, allowing pattern to be printed without repetitions, or with large modules.

A brief history of the main textile printing techniques

The oldest method for making prints on fabric is perhaps woodcut, a technique dating back to 1000 B.C.

This involves using a fine-tipped chisel to carve a pattern onto a block of wood, which is subsequently inked and pressed onto a cut of cloth.

This way a first impression is generated; repeating the procedure creates a composition on the whole extent of the fabric.

In the mid-seventeenth Century mechanized cylinder printing marks the birth of printed fabrics mass production;

Wood-engraved fabrics represent thus, from the turn of the nineteenth Century, a niche market, because of the great labour expenditure that this kind of production implies.

A radical turning point in textile printing  is given by the invention in the ‘ 30s of the flat screen printing, mechanized in the ‘ 50s, to land in 1962 to the rotating screen printing, object until today of continuous refinements.

The original principle at the base of screen printing is a stencil: on a silk gauze with a very dense texture, a lacquer was applied stretched around a frame.

Where the areas were not lacquered they formed the pattern to be printed. A frame was placed on  fabric and, with a special tool, a colouring paste was pressed by hand  through the mesh.

Fabric was left to dry between every colour print.

Rotary screen printing is based on the same principles of the plan procedure. A nickel cylinder with microperforations creates a stencil by continuously rotating in contact with fabric.

The colouring paste is pressed through the stencil with the help of a fixed squeegee inside a cylinder. You can use up to twenty-four cylinders to print a multiple-colour drawing.

CMYK: The abbreviation stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black

With the latest inkjet digital print instead, small drops of different colour inks are projected onto fabric, according to preset micro-matrices.

Each matrice represents a minimum element (pixel) of the created (or imported) computer drawing.

Printer is controlled by a software known as print driver. This collects data from graphic files, and converts them to outgoing data, which are processed.

Information is then sent to microprocessor or printer memory for further processing. The final instruction controls both electromechanical devices and  printer heads inkjet system.

Main fabric design categories

Floral motifs

Pattern Paper flowers-pale pink

Drawings portfolio, sometimes referred to as “botanicals”, is very extensive and covers the wide sector of flowers and plants: roses, tropical orchids, alpine flowers, palms and succulent plants and leaves, fruits of all kinds.

The styles used can be the most varied and reflect very different visual cultures or aesthetic conceptions.


A classic of printed fabrics. Constantly reinvented, it has led to hundreds of different interpretations.

Paisley is native to India, where it is historically and culturally widespread. There are various theories about what might have inspired his birth.

One theory argues that it is the adaptation of an Indian pinecone. A second one instead, that it was inspired by the tree of life or by the mango.

Illustrative / figurative drawings

Toile de Jouy mixes landscapes and figurative scenes, often with a narrative background, and has begun to succeed since the mid-eighteenth Century.

Traditionally, Toile de Jouy was printed in a single colour – almost always blue or red – on white cotton.

Geometric / abstract patterns

An example of geometric pattern

After floral, circular and polka dots motifs, geometric pattern is the most widespread, widely used in fashion and interior design.

Novelty pattern

An example of a novelty pattern

Novelty pattern is a genre that accommodates a wide range of themes, which usually include a creature or an object and can represent a scene, landscape, or urban landscape.

Patterns can be subtracted from their original context and repositioned in a formal layout such as a grid or a series of strips, and can include genre paintings, photographs, and architectural design.

Novelty patterns also include extravagant, commemorative, and architectural themes.

World cultures

This expression describes what is traditionally called ethnic design. It includes textile designs and visual arts from other cultures, and their respective western interpretation.

Conclusions (very provisional)

All these categories are continually revised and expanded by the creative work of designers and will almost certainly lead to the birth and consolidation of further new genres.