“Negative space” in textiles design

Negative space is probably the most difficult concept for non-designers to grasp. If you are designing a floral pattern, why worry about the space around the flowers? This might seem especially an unimportant consideration if the space around the motif is just flat ground. But, in actual fact, that’s when you need to think about it most of all, because it is going to create shapes that will either work with or fight with the shapes of the motifs themselves.

To make things simple, think of negative space like this. If you live in a big city you’ll be used to seeing buildings. You are probably so used to seeing them, that you now give them no more thought. They’re just there. But, you’ll have stopped, at some point, to look at the sunset through the buildings. What you’re really appreciating is the negative space between the buildings, suddenly illuminated by the changing color of the sky. Make sense? Okay.

Why think about the “negative space” at all? Simply this: when you consider the space around motifs or images you’re considering composition — and that’s essential to great design. Every designer starts with a blank piece of paper, or, more likely today, a blank computer screen. Of course, designers will have a collection of researched material in front of them for inspiration and use. But, before anything is laid down, you’re starting with a blank sheet. And, you’re probably thinking about where each element will go, and how they will interact before you’ll do anything. Designers, in other words, work as much with negative space as they do with motifs and actual images.

Although most people tend to think of “patterns” as obvious, repeating images (the polka dot is the simplest and most obvious example), in textiles there are numerous types of layouts, one of the most challenging of which can be the “placement print.” This type of design is often printed on the garment, after it has been cut out and sewn, rather than being printed all over on the rolls of fabric themselves. At other times the garment pieces can be printed and then cut out and sewn.

Designing placement prints means thinking not only about motifs and spacing, but where these “fall” on the body. Will, for example, the placement of a motif or spacing highlight a part of the body that we might be uncomfortable with? No woman is going to want to wear a dress that draws attention to her stomach. However, most women will be attracted to clothing that draws attention away from the stomach toward more flattering parts of the body. That’s an important consideration that many designers forget.

When it come to placement prints they are often placed asymmetrically on the body, e.g., on jeans: higher on one leg than on the other; on a jacket: on one sleeve only. Placement prints, and thinking about negative space, gives us a chance as designers to think outside the box, and to get really creative.

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