Sewing Tips

Sewing Prints versus Solids

Have you ever noticed how few prints there are in ready-to-wear garment collections, compared to fabric shops? With the exception of a handful of design houses who are known for their signature prints (hello Versace!), apparel manufacturers tend to use prints sparingly. But when you go shopping for fabrics in a chain store like Jo-Ann’s or Hobby Lobby or Walmart, there are prints as far as the eye can see (even excluding the quilting cottons). Often it’s next to impossible to find a solid coordinate! Why is that? I was thinking about this when I found a bolt of vintage printed cotton at a flea market (I’ll get back to the fabric stores in a minute).

The selvedge indicates it was designed by Joan Kessler, who was a print-repeat designer for Concord Fabrics from 1975 to 1995. Since I sew mostly white, I was hungry for a burst of color for my little Etsy shop. My eye spotted the springy dogwood floral (above) and I snagged it. It’s from the 1980’s when these splashy garden florals were on-trend for bridesmaids dresses, designed by Jessica McClintock .

Seriously, in the eighties this was the hot look for wedding attendants:

Aside from that brief interlude in wedding history, bridesmaids dresses are overwhelmingly in solids. There actually is a reason for this. Back when I was in merchandising college in the 1970’s (this was before I went to F.I.T. for design), the professors taught us to limit our print garment buys. Let’s say you were a dress buyer/merchandiser for a department store: you should buy at most 20% prints to 80% solids. If you were the sportswear buyer, you should limit your prints to 1 top and possibly 1 skirt per collection (the pants and jackets should be solids).

When I was hired as an Executive Trainee at Saks Fifth Avenue, they taught us the reason for this: prints are very personal in taste. Even if a clothing item fits, and is in the right price point, a print gives the customer too many reasons to say “No” and put the item back on the rack:

  • don’t like the combination of colors
  • don’t like the theme of the print (my daughter dislikes paisley)
  • don’t like the scale (too big, too small)

These issues are multiplied with bridesmaids dresses. A half-dozen women all need to agree on one dress: prints give too many reasons to NOT agree. Which brings me back to this particular ’80’s floral fabric: I’m not sure it’s a great idea for a whole row of bridesmaids and yet I love the print itself. The color combo isn’t outlandish, the floral is classic, the scale is not too huge or too ditsy (this is a toddler size 2 bloomer):


So what about suburban American fabric shops? Why the racks and racks of prints? Keep in mind that these fabrics, the ones folded and wrapped around cardboard rectangles, are designed expressly FOR the home-sewing industry. If you go fabric shopping in the garment districts in NYC or LA, you’ll find long tubular bolts, which are generally leftovers from manufacturing. You’ll see plenty of solid options. But the selections at the chain craft stores are heavily weighted towards prints.

I learned the reason for this while studying at F.I.T. As an evening student, we did not have access to the donated fabrics that full-time students get…..we had to provide all of our own materials, and they could NOT come from “suburban home-sewing stores”. We were taught that the reason for the ubiquitous prints is that studies show that the home-sewing customer often can’t easily envision what the final project will look like. Think of the difference between shopping for ready-made clothing versus shopping for fabric: with clothes you try on the finished garment, look in the mirror, and decide to purchase or put back on the rack. Not possible with sewing of course!

And so the home-sewing fabric industry overcomes this difficulty to envision the future garment, by giving you something concrete and tangible to look at, and pick up, and purchase: a finished print. Almost like buying a silk scarf. Less guesswork makes you more likely to proceed to the cash register. Or in this case the cutting table.


What then? Most of us don’t live in the fashion capitals where industry fabrics are for sale (although if you are ever visiting Rome, see my previous post!). In the U.S. , sewists generally make-do with the strip-mall fabric-and-crafts chain stores. The better-quality department stores that once had lovely fabric departments are gone. Many of the local family-owned fabric shops have closed, unable to compete with the immense buying power of the chains. Thankfully the closing of small shops has coincided with the rise of the web for fabric purchasing, which has come so far from the early days of mail-order fabrics. (I remember having membership in several “fabric clubs” back in the pre-laptop days: for an annual fee you would receive sets of tiny swatches in an envelope, and sort them out to stick on description sheets.) Nowadays you can purchase almost any fabric imaginable online. But what if you want to touch the fabric? What if you want to see how it drapes? What if you simply want to go shopping, and the chains stores are your only option? Here are some tips:

  • avoid sewing “too many prints” (your wardrobe will look more sophisticated and professional if it contains more solids)
  • before purchasing print fabric, take it to the mirror, drape it on yourself, walk as far away as possible, blur your eyes, and really look at it on your body
  • watch out for large prints that are overpowering, especially on a small frame (sometimes “non-print-prints” like dots/stripes/checks work more successfully)
  • watch out for color combinations involving opposites on a color wheel, which can appear “muddy” from afar (Christmas prints in particular have this issue)
  • consider basic color mixing: a patriotic red/blue print can appear purple at a distance…..a red/white stripe is going to “read” pink when not up-close


Going back to the print that got me thinking about all of this. Floral prints are especially successful because they “read” like looking at a garden: Mother Nature creates amazingly successful color and shape combinations. Up close, you can appreciate the details and from afar you get a pleasing melange. In summer above all, nothing beats a gorgeous print dress:

Pattern: “Mini Pinny”, Duchess and Hare

What are your print preferences? Love ’em or hate ’em?

Happy sewing!



  • [email protected]

    Thank you! Fabric choice has fascinated me since I was a little girl and my neighbor wanted to show me her Fourth of July outfit. From across the street it looked absolutely purple….yet up close it was indeed red and blue!

  • Theresa in Tucson

    I tend to prints for tops and solids for bottoms. That said, I dress in jeans and shirts/blouses most days. I confess to a weakness for “Alexander Henry” Dia de los Muertos prints and other novelty prints and have a large collection in my closet. I did not know about the difference between RTW and fabric shops so like Tobie, I will look at fabric differently.

  • [email protected]

    I think a lot of people tend to do print tops with solid bottoms, often because tops get seen more (at a restaurant table, in videos/photos) so you want a variety, whereas nobody notices if you wear the same jeans/pants over and over. Novelty prints are the sewing epitome of a “finished” product straight off the bolt..some of them could be framed as art!

  • paloverde

    This is fascinating. I hadn’t known about the difference between fabrics produced for the home sewing market vs. ready-to-wear, and the topic is not something we covered in textiles class. That said, I have a huge stash and it is probably 80% solids. And when I consider my wardrobe of both RTW items and those I have sewn, it is probably 90% solids. I am exceedingly picky about prints. I generally dislike most of them and I am always looking at some new offering and thinking that’s going to be out of style so quickly. In the last couple of years one sees solid backgrounds (often dark) with cabbage roses and similar florals on fabric everywhere. I know it’s a take on a traditional motif, but I feel these designs will become very outdated and probably be one of the defining trends of this decade.

  • JustGail

    I love AND hate prints. So often I find a fabric with design I like – wrong colors. Like the colors – not the design. Like both color and design – hate the way the fabric feels (usually cold sweaty plastic feeling polyester), how it will hold up (acrylic pills so badly), or care instructions (dry cleaning means I better really love the fabric as it will go in the regular laundry). And then there’s the fabrics for tops that are so thin they pretty much require linings or wearing a camisole or tank underneath.

    I ended up with way too many print fabrics that I like, but they don’t really go with the other print fabrics I liked. What I mean is – too many patterns suitable for cardigans or jackets that don’t go with the pattern fabrics suitable for shirts & tops.

    I don’t just have the design/color/feel issues in garment fabrics either – it’s also the quilting cottons. I have the advantage of loving scrappy quilts where if you put together enough fabrics that shouldn’t work, somehow it does.

  • JustGail

    I forgot – mirror in the fabric store?? I haven’t seen that in… ever? I do like the other tips though – especially on the colors from a distance changing.

  • Elle C

    I like prints, not love, but like. The only time I wear prints is at work, I work in health care and I make all my scrub tops. Prints work for scrubs because you sometimes get substances on your top and the prints hide them. I don’t wear prints otherwise, because I think prints can date a garment faster than anything. Stripes, dots, plaids or ikats don’t count as prints (for me).

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