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How to Create A Textile Print: Motifs Make All The Difference (Part 4)

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series on creating a custom print for your fashion line. If you've been following along, you know we've already discussed where to source inspiration, various ways to use your ground, and how to create a compelling color palette. In today's post, we're delving into the heart of your textile print design: the motifs.

Motifs are the heartbeat of a pattern design, the repeating elements that breathe life and character into your pattern. Whether you're inclined towards the fluid grace of hand-drawn florals or the precise, striking lines of clean and graphic designs, understanding and harnessing the power of motifs will allow you to transform your visions into tangible, enchanting patterns.

These repeating elements are much more than mere decoration; they're the storytellers, the attention grabbers, and the game-changers of your design. From organic flowers to abstract shapes, the possibilities are endless, but it's essential to understand how to harness their power effectively. Let's discover how to make the most of your motifs, considering different styles, scales, and types.

A display of sketchbook pages of a hand painted tropical print and the same print on a one piece swimsuit.
Original tropical print designed by Hillary Sorrentino.

Core Essence of your Print:

Motifs: The most essential part of your pattern is repeating elements called motifs–they can be anything you dream up!

Personally, I adore drawing flowers and greenery. You can play with the artistic hand your motifs have from loose and organic to tight and graphic. 🌿

So what are the core elements that you need to consider as you work on motifs?

Motif Styles:

A watercolor style print of vibrant red and pink flowers.
Original painterly floral print designed by Hillary Sorrentino.

  • Painterly: Painterly motifs mimic the brushstrokes and textures you'd find in a painting, resulting in a rich, artistic look. This style is perfect if you're looking to add a touch of expressiveness and fluidity to your designs, evoking a sense of movement and spontaneity. You can also use painterly styles with a more transparent, water-color effect.

  • Hand-drawn: If you prefer a more relaxed style with slight imperfections–a little wabi sabi-eque, then drawing with an open loose hand is the way to go. Your lines will be more fluid, and your motifs will have a natural, organic feel. This is perfect for creating romantic, dreamy patterns that evoke a sense of movement and freedom.

  • Clean + Graphic: For those who love bold, striking designs, drawing with tight, clean lines will produce more graphic motifs. Your patterns will have a sharp, defined look that packs a visual punch, making them ideal for modern and minimalist aesthetics.

  • Abstract: This is more about shapes, lines, and color-sharing possibilities without any defined end goal in mind. Color makes a dramatic impact on abstract looks as it’s such a major feature. These are often very expressive, movement-oriented, and open to interpretation. They can also be very subjective as people see different shapes in abstract art.

A white ground toile print with blue drawings of cows, bunnies, flowers, and hot air balloons.
Original illustrative toile print designed by Hillary Sorrentino.

  • Illustrative: This kind of drawing style often ranges from whimsical to delicate and features detailed, intricate artwork. Often there are storytelling elements or narrative themes. Toile is a good example of a surface pattern with an illustrative and detailed hand.

  • Botanical: This type of art style is usually characterized by very clean lines with amazing, vibrant colors that feel almost real to the touch. Usually shaded and colored with a large range of colors, these beauties feel especially lovely in the swim + intimates categories.

Motif Scales:

A valentine's day themed print with lips, xo, and hearts.
Original print designed by Jasmine Stroud.

  • Macro: Macro motifs are oversized, statement-making elements in a pattern. They draw the eye immediately and are often bold and intricate. If you want to make a statement and aren't afraid of large-scale designs, macro motifs could be your go-to.

  • Mid-Scale: Mid-scale motifs strike a balance between the attention-grabbing macro and the subtle mini or nano. This size is perfect for creating patterns that are versatile and universally appealing without being overpowering or too subtle.

  • Mini: Mini motifs, as the name suggests, are small and delicate design elements that provide subtle, intricate details to your pattern. Perfect for creating a more refined and understated aesthetic, mini motifs offer a less-is-more approach to pattern design.

  • Nano: Nano motifs are the tiniest design elements in a pattern. They're often used as filler or to add texture and complexity to a design. They may not stand out at first glance, but they contribute significantly to the overall feel and intricacy of a pattern.

Different Types of Motifs:

  • Non-Print: The ultra-basic prints, dots, and stripes. Often these are prints that don’t evoke a strong feeling, their effect is more subtle. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s an animal print or a dot, but it’s not offensive to anyone. These prints are often lackluster.

A floral print with various shades of blue.
Original floral print designed by Hillary Sorrentino.

  • Floral: This category of motifs includes foliage, flowers, plants, leaves, and other organic nature-found elements. This is one of the most popular print types for womenswear, specifically intimates + swim.

  • Tropical: A separate category from floral, this includes more warm-oriented flora. Monstera leaves, palms, hibiscus, and birds of paradise are commonly used motifs in this type of print.

  • Abstract: Abstract motifs are non-conforming and focus on the use of color, shape, and form. They can range from simple shapes to complex compositions, allowing for a high degree of creative expression. If you love breaking the rules and experimenting, abstract motifs are a playground for creativity.

A beige and black diamond geometric print.
Original geometric print designed by Kristen Anderson.

  • Geometrics: Geometric motifs incorporate shapes, lines, and forms, creating a modern and clean aesthetic. These designs can range from simple to complex, providing a diverse range of pattern possibilities that offer a visually stimulating and orderly appeal.

  • Paisley: Paisley motifs are distinctive and elaborate, inspired by a droplet-shaped vegetable design of Persian and Indian origin. They're perfect if you're aiming for a classic, ornate, and sometimes bohemian feel in your pattern. With their intricate detailing, paisley motifs lend a timeless and sophisticated charm to your designs.

  • Handcrafted: Inspired by global cultures, these motifs often feature traditional patterns or symbols from specific ethnic groups or tribes. Think of African mudcloth designs, Native American patterns, or Indian block prints.

A spaced out brown animal print.
Original animal print designed by Kristen Anderson.

  • Animal: This includes very literal interpretations of animals or stylized versions. Leopard spots, zebra stripes, reptile skins, and bird motifs fall into this category. Some animal prints are graphic art of the full animal instead of just spots and dots. Think outside the box!

  • Toile: A type of decorating pattern usually done with two colors consisting of a white or off-white background on which a repeated pattern depicting a complex scene, often pastoral or historical in nature. Classic toile colors are more basic like white and blue, white and black, or white with red.

  • Nautical: Motifs like anchors, ship wheels, lighthouses, ropes, seashells, umbrellas, fish, and beachy items, which depict the sea, seafaring, or a coastal vibe.

A hand drawn New York themed novelty print with the Statue of Liberty, taxis, subway, Empire State Building, and the Plaza Hotel.
Original novelty print designed by Hillary Sorrentino.
  • Conversational/Novelty: These can be fun and whimsical motifs that don't necessarily fit into any category but are more like a cute talking point of interest like fruit, bicycles, and seashells.

  • Folk Art: Typically simplistic and repetitive, drawing from a specific culture's traditional art and craft styles and usually using bright cheerful colors.

As we wrap up our dive into the world of motifs, we hope you now understand their vital role in pattern design. By carefully choosing and manipulating the style, scale, and types of motifs, you can control the narrative your pattern tells.

Remember, the beauty of digital surface pattern design lies in its flexibility, so don't hesitate to experiment with different combinations and styles. Stay tuned for our next blog in this series, where we'll delve further into the magic of creating your custom print by talking about repeats and how to wrap up your art for factory production.

A headshot of Hillary Sorrentino.
Hillary Sorrentino

A huge thanks to Hillary Sorrentino for letting us showcase her beautiful print designs.

Hillary is a surface pattern designer that specializes in creating sophisticated and feminine illustrations and prints, through many mediums including watercolor, inks, Copic markers, and gouache.

Learn more about Hillary Sorrentino and check out her amazing work!



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