Pattern Matching: The Art Of Compromise

Ahhh, giant repeats and carefully matched motifs!!! So delicious!!! Everybody LOVES to see photographs of pattern matching done well.

BUT BUT BUT!!! Lining up a two dimensional pattern on a three-dimensional object is no small feat.


And at the moment I’m not talking about the skill required, or the struggle of inexperience. I’m talking about the very real physical limitations of reality, no matter how determined or experienced you may be. This is hard to accept, I know. But when you put a plaid or big ol’ geometric tapestry on a chair – GASP – it simply cannot match everywhere. Patterns require compromise. Let me show you what I mean . . . .

Example #1: This mid-century chair


This was an interesting matching challenge. A relatively clean, simple chair. A beautiful, large, random-looking repeat. And lots of edges coming together. I always start my pattern matching from the cushion out. So I sent a couple photos to the clients, and they approved their favorite. From there, I was able to match the front boxing quite precisely, hooray!!!

After that, things get trickier.

I wanted to “flow match” my fabric, which means connecting the pattern from piece to piece so the pattern flows over the whole chair (this as opposed to centering each piece, more on that later.

Planning to flow match the cushion and deck/nosing

But here’s difficulty #1: Certain edges don’t actually come together in a tight, crisp way. SEAMS do. with practice and planning, you can get those buggers perfect.

Matching the zipper panel

But where the cushion meets the frame, or where the cushion meets the back? Those aren’t clean edges, they’re rounded surfaces, so, you know . . . good luck. Even if you get it “perfect” these edges have a tendency to move – it’s a cushion, after all, not poured concrete (hopefully?)


Now comes difficulty #2: Deciding which edges to match.

Imagine, for a moment, wrapping a Christmas or birthday present. That pattern is lined up nicely until everything comes together in the back. Oops!!!! (Unless you get super lucky and win the gift wrap lottery, DISCO!) It’s the same thing on a chair, even a very square chair. You line up edges until you run into edges that won’t line up. ARGH! Naturally, my focus is to match things up along the center of the chair. After that, things get dicey.

On the back, I matched the center boxing with the front panel


Then I considered options and decided to match the side boxing with the front panel as well. Thought that would look nice!


BUT of course, that means my top and side boxing couldn’t line up with each other.

An excellent example of a terribly lit photo.

FLIBBERTY GIBIT!!! Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?

But wait!!! Here comes difficulty #3: Matched the boxing to the outside back. Pretty sharp, right???


But TECHNICALLY, that outside back is upside down. Otherwise, of course, I couldn’t match the pattern. I’m really pleased with the effect, but if the fabric had a nap (like a cut velvet) or an obvious top and bottom (like a tree or house) flipping it wouldn’t have been an option. The edge just wouldn’t have matched. Period. ARGH!!! And to be perfectly honest, more often than not, you can’t go flipping pieces upside down. WE’LL HAVE ANARCHY!!!

But take heart –  you can definitely keep your pattern right side up and still come out looking like a rockstar. Let’s look at another project.

Example #2: This crazy love seat


This one was a personal project with my 12 year old, who chose a wicked, gigantic directional repeat by Greenhouse Fabrics. Who’s up for a challenge???


Remember that thing about flow matching from piece to piece?

Difficulty #4: Deciding between a flow match and a nice center.

I initially intended to connect the pattern, when I went to lay it out with a centered cushion, the back looked downright wrong, with the primary motif cut through at a very weird proportion.

Planning for a flow match. Hmmm, I’m unconvinced . . . .

(There’s a good trick for you – while the piece is still together, lay your fabric over and use pins to mark critical intersections: Front of the cushion, back of the cushion, bottom of the frame, top of the back, etc. It will really help you out later at the cutting table)

So instead, I decided to center the large orange/blue motif.

Planning to center the seat and back. Yup!

Much better!!!!

To be clear, this is VERY much a preference issue. I imagine many excellent upholsterers would have gone for option A. In the end, the client is right, and in this case, that’s me 🙂

AHHH but now the pattern doesn’t connect from seat to back. Couldn’t have them both.

(Also interesting to consider . . . What IS centered on that crazy motif? I did take the time to decide at the cutting table EXACTLY what my center was, but it was up for debate, no doubt. Also, What exactly IS centered on an asymmetrical shape like this camel back? Personally, I tend to like my “center” slightly high on inside backs . . . Like the face in a portrait. It’s also worth considering the angle from which you’re typically looking at furniture – not straight on, but from above. Wow, this conversation is wearing me out.)


This is also the case on my arms, which really don’t connect with anything, but are hopefully mirror images of each other, with my central motif satisfyingly and prominently positioned.  CHOICES!!!


Now, here’s a photo of the inside and outside back coming together – with an obvious top and bottom, I certainly wasn’t going to flip the outside back (duh) but I was still able to line up the midline and center my motif. However, you’ll see that my pattern doesn’t stay together as it moves away from center.


 One side is wrapped around the curved, padded, inside back, and the other is spread flat. This is almost universally the case when the inside of a frame meets the outside of a frame.

Tidy and symmetrical? YES. Aspire towards that excellent goal. Perfectly matched pattern at every impossible intersection??? No.


I also wasted a solid 25-30% of my fabric in order to do the centering/matching that I did. Even taking great care not to be wasteful, I have a stack of cuts 4-12″ wide that I had to skip in the interest of getting a match. Your 5″ wide cushion boxing? It likely just became a 16″ cushion boxing. Often, pieces were too big to use the side repeat – I had to drive right up the center of my fabric.


Anyhow, large repeats are serious business. And by serious business, I mean serious extra fabric. And by serious extra fabric, I mean serious extra money. Natch.

Okay, one last project for today . . .

Example #3: This chair and ottoman.


Okay, here comes a personal pet pet peeve. Isn’t this fabric gorgeous??? And honestly, it was one of my favorite projects of the year. BUT it happens to be a non reversible stripe. WHAT SADDIST DESIGNS THESE UPHOLSTERY WEIGHT TEXTILES?????


Let me show you what I mean with another project . . . THIS is a nice, symmetrical, reversible stripe. Hooray!!!


With a symmetrical pattern, we can center and match. The cushion can be flipped AND IT STILL MATCHES!!! If there was an inside/outside back, we could match those, even with everything right side up!!! OH food for my upholstery soul!!!

AHHHHH but not so with our asymmetrical stripe!!!! Here comes that tough decision again about which pieces to run “upside down” in order to match it. ARGH!!! WHY??????? And you can get everything matched up, BUT DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT FLIPPING THOSE CUSHIONS!!! I MEAN IT!!!!!!!!! STOP!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! THE HUMANITY!!!!!!!!!

I’m actually not exceedingly OCD, but I tell you what – non-reversible stripes regularly give me a legit eye twitch.

Thought I was going to take a picture with the cushion flipped? NEVER!

So here’s really the point I’m trying to drive home: This is the reality we live in. And happily, when you stand back, if you mind your P’s and Q’s (keep things tidy, line up what you can, be precise in what you match)  the overall effect is going to be very pleasing. But when you’re eyeball deep in the soup of pattern matching, you can start to feel all kinds of crazy and stressed out. It’s challenging enough to master the things we CAN match on something as unruly as fabric. . . freaking out over unrealistic expectations is just beating yourself up.

If you are a student, SERIOUSLY, understand that there are physical limits. And believe me, you’ve been looking at them on furniture your whole life. You just never noticed until you were the one trying desperately to match everything up.

If you’re working for clients, give them all the visual aids and communication you can, BEFORE you start cutting into their beautiful, expensive, wasteful giant repeat (and during, if need be – aren’t smartphones a beautiful thing???) Most clients are likely going to be pleased and impressed that you even thought to clarify practical considerations they hadn’t thought about. Most are going to say, “whatever you think!” Ahhhh but every once in awhile, you may encounter a client who thinks you have a Hogwarts degree in pattern matching. Best to get everyone on the same plane of reality before the upholstery fun begins 🙂

Interested in exploring pattern matching with an instructor?

Check out our upcoming workshops.

Please note, this IS considerate an intermediate skills, so new students are encourage to bring solid fabrics.

3 thoughts on “Pattern Matching: The Art Of Compromise”

  1. Rhonda Shanahan

    This is a wonderful blog post. I do consider all the points you made while pattern matching. There are pieces when it is worth the extra time and effort. Your are amazingly talented and so willing to share with others. Thank you for that!

    1. I’m not an upholsterer, just someone with a sewing machine and a den sofa consisting of a wooden frame and three back and three seat cushions. I decided to do “quick and easy” drawstring covers for the tops of the cushions. Unfortunately I picked a fabric that I love but one that needs matching. Of course, that is complicated by the fact there are six separate shifting cushions. I am so glad to have found your page. It has encouraged me that I have done a pretty good matching job where I can and that perfection is most likely not possible on this piece of furniture.

  2. Pingback: The Funky Little Love Seat – The Funky Little Chair

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