How To Match Printed and Woven Fabric Patterns Along Seams
Most clothing made for large retail markets such as Walmart or TJ Maxx will not have matching patterns at the seams. These garments are produced in bulk as quickly as possible for maximum profit without considering such details. So we have become accustomed to mismatched stripes and florals.
However, when sewing your own clothes or those of a loved one, you have the perfect opportunity to produce higher-quality results. Beginning sewers should take fabric matching into account from the first so that it becomes a matter of course as they grow in experience. Properly matched seams are a hallmark of fine sewing skills for any project, whether clothing or home decor.
Types of Patterns
Fabric patterns are most often printed on after the material is made. But there are also woven patterns, especially in plaids, using different colored threads. And there are raised (embossed) patterns where the fabric is woven in thicker and thinner sections so as to create a design. Even these raised patterns can be matched to create a more pleasing final effect.
When a fabric is printed with a large motif, the motif’s placement is an important consideration. Animals and cartoon characters may need to be centralized or prominent wording displayed to the best advantage. In these cases, matching patterns at the seams becomes secondary.
Small patterns, such as small dots or flowers, are generally not matched, but if larger patterns are incorporated into the smaller ones, match the more prominent motifs. Again, this is especially applicable for animal or facial motifs.
Plaids should be matched at least horizontally. Added external pockets may be perfectly matched so as to be almost invisible, or they may be accented by cutting them on the diagonal. Horizontal stripes or repeated patterns should also be matched for a pleasing appearance.
Tips to Remember as You Go
Buy Extra Fabric
When the fabric pattern need not be considered, it’s okay to buy the minimum amount of fabric required to make a project. But matching printed or woven patterns often requires shifting pattern pieces and material alike. If the pattern repeats along the length of the fabric, buy at least one pattern repeat extra. Patterns that repeat between selvages can be a little trickier. Smaller designs may need very little extra. Larger prints may require a piece as long as the longest pattern piece to ensure proper seam matches. Remember, it’s better to have too much than too little fabric!
Look For The Pattern Direction
Some floral patterns may have blooms and stems all “growing” in the same direction. Others may flow differently, with a more prominent bloom or other design that should be kept “upright.” The same goes for animals, rainbows, or other organic patterns.
Deciding how the pattern should appear on the finished project will help you determine what method you’ll need to use to match seams and how much extra fabric you’ll need to purchase, if any.
Sew The Most Visible Seams First
Match front or back center seams first. Then the waistline should be considered on skirts, pants, or other lower garments.
Sideseams are next on the list. Sideseams are not as apparent on tops but are more critical for dresses or any type of more formal attire.
Because sleeves are inserted with a completely curved seam, it is not possible to match them all around. However, at an eye-catching level on the front of the garment, sleeves can be aligned to create a chevon-shaped pattern with stripes or plaids, or blend in with other types of designs.
Extra details generally come last in priority, though there can be exceptions. Plaid pockets have already been mentioned above. Centering a small motif on an external pocket is another possible style accent. Button plackets or other details can blend or stand out as the sewer chooses.
Check and Recheck
As sewers gain experience, they begin to understand that the actual sewing is often anti-climatic compared to all the measuring, fabric placement, and pinning that comes before. And matching fabric designs is one massive case in point.
Check and recheck before cutting out the pattern pieces. One possible error when cutting out single pieces is not noticing the pattern or fabric has been turned upside down. Decide beforehand which direction the flowers or lines need to be facing, and keep verifying that they stay that way.
Pin fabric pieces together carefully, checking again and again that the patterns are matching along the stitching line, not the edge. Add a second row of pins an inch or so away from the seam line if there’s any chance of the fabric slipping.
About Handling Curves, etc.
Curves: Before explaining the methods, I think I should explain a little about curves. Very few garments don’t have curves somewhere, especially around the sleeves. There are also curves at the waistline, and sometimes pant legs taper, making it impossible to line up printed designs or lines perfectly.
Don’t try to line up printed or woven patterns in these areas. Instead, choose one point, such as the front notch for sleeves and the hipline for tapered pants, and line up that point for consistency, and allow the rest to fall as it may.
Darts: Darts can also be an issue. If you can find a way to leave out a dart on a top (see my article about Dart, Pleats, and Gathers), then do so. If not, you’ll need to adjust the darted piece so that it is slightly out of line on each side. Then, the pattern should come together correctly when you insert the dart.
Diagonals: Matching up diagonals can be a tricky or impossible chore. If you are making bias tape or need to sew strips of cloth together for other purposes, use a straight rather than diagonal seam to line up a pattern. If a diagonal seam is necessary, there are online tutorials to help you see how to succeed.
Methods of Matching Fabric Patterns
I will explain three methods of matching here. I have used the first two. I have read about the third but have not tried it since it seems like a lot of extra work. But it just might be the perfect solution for someone, so don’t hesitate to try it. There may be other methods, but these are the most used and touted as tried and true.
Method One: One Piece At a Time
As with many things worth doing, we must often accept that the best results come with patience, perseverance, and no convenient shortcuts. Take your time. Take breaks if you need to. The end product will be worth it.
Whichever method you choose, read all the directions through once before beginning. If some parts seem confusing, it will hopefully make sense in the doing. If not, there are also video tutorials online that can help.
Step 1: Cutting on The Fold
If you have a front or back piece that must be cut on a fold, it may be necessary to ensure the pattern is lined up perfectly on the fabric before cutting. This is paramount with stripes. Using the selvage as a guide, line up the design along the selvage edge, flattening the material evenly.
Press the fold with your hands. If the fold does not flatten easily, use an iron to ensure the pattern is straight across the width of the fabric. Once the design is even across the fabric, attach the pattern piece with pins or weights and cut out the piece. A rotary cutter is preferable when matching fabric, but not essential.
Once the piece is cut out, open it and fold/press side seam allowances toward the wrong side. Then you can match each side to the remaining pattern pieces using the Step 2 instructions.
Step 2: Matching Front, Back, and Sides
If the front or back piece has a center seam, cut each side separately to ensure a good match. Decide how the pattern should appear on each side. Then place the pattern piece and cut out one side. Remember to turn the patten piece over for the opposite side.
Press the seam you’re matching under (towards the wrong side) at the seam allowance. Then lay the piece down on the fabric so the pattern perfectly aligns with the uncut fabric. Then fold the seam allowance back on the paper pattern piece so that it sticks up, then press it down with your fingers. Lay the pattern piece for the second side beside the cut-out piece, lining up the top and bottom edges.
Pin or weigh down the paper pattern, remove the cut-out piece, unfold the seam allowance, and add pins or weight to include this bit of fabric. Do not move the pattern piece at all once it has been lined up. Cut out the second piece.
Cut out additional pieces in the same way, carefully lining up the seam edges along the sewn seam line, not the edge.
Step 3: Sew
When you’re ready to sew, lay the front pieces with right sides together and the piece with the seam allowance pressed under on top. Pin carefully, leaving the seam allowance loose above the pins, lifting and checking that the pattern remains aligned as you go.
Leaving the seam allowance folded under (toward the wrong side) on one piece allows you to see clearly how the pattern is lining up between the two pieces. If you need to serge the edges, do each piece separately so they can be laid together as instructed here.
As mentioned above, add extra pins to stabilize the fabric in place while sewing. Unfold the seam allowance so that the edges are together. Sew along the fold line, double-checking that everything is staying even.
Repeat the process with each new piece, center back/front first, sides, and sleeves.
Method 2: Lining up The Fabric Layers
If the pattern you’re matching is simple, such as horizontal strips, it may not be necessary to cut each piece separately. For less uniform prints, use Method 1.
Step 1: Line Up The Fabric Layers
Begin by lining up the fabric, selvages together, as you would for cutting out a piece that must be placed on the fold. It may help in both cases to fold back an inch or so of the top selvage edge toward the wrong side so that the stripes can be more clearly seen.
Step 2: Place and Cut Out The Pattern
Pin the fabric in place along the selvage if there’s any chance of slipping. Once the material is aligned, place and cut out the first pattern piece.
Make sure the fabric remains aligned along the selvages. Lay the first cut-out piece so it overlaps the next section of the fabric. Fold back the seam allowance of the second paper pattern piece as in Step 2 in Method 1. Lay the pieces so the stripes are aligned.
Pin the second piece. Remove the already cut-out piece, fold the seam allowance back down on the paper pattern piece and pin it along the edge. Cut out the second pieces simultaneously. Repeat with additional pieces as necessary.
Step 3: Sew
Sew following the same Step three instructions as Method 1.
Method 3: Draw Pattern Lines on The Paper Pattern
Unless you only plan to use a particular pattern once and with a specific printed design, you’ll need to make a copy of the paper pattern pieces for this method. Make sure you copy any essential markings onto each piece, along with the piece’s function and seam allowances.
This method is useful for striped or plaid patterns only. It is very similar to Method 2, with some extra steps. Using a ruler and pen, place the pattern piece on the fabric and draw the more significant horizontal lines on the material across the paper. You can then line up other pattern pieces with the first piece and draw matching lines across each one.
Carefully line up the fabric as in Method 2, step one, along the selvage edges. Then lay the pattern pieces on the material, aligning the drawn lines with the fabric. Pin/weight and cut. Then sew as other methods.