A Five Minute Fabric Course: Colors and Patterns

Textiles are a huge part of what we do here at Carolina Sewn, and our “Textiles” category of News+Resource articles will give you new insight into the materials and processes you’ll see when buying apparel and domestics for your store.

This month we are talking about fabric finishing…specifically coloring and adding patterns to fabric. Most of what you’ll carry in your store will either be sewn from solid-colored fabrics or patterned fabrics:

Solid Color

Fabrics, in terms of solid color, come in three different varieties…

Natural colored fabric swatch

Natural-colored fabric.

Yarn-dyed heather grey fabric

Yarn-dyed fabric

Vat-dyed fabric

Vat-dyed fabric

Natural colored fabrics actually require no coloring or dyeing at all: the fibers are left their natural color. Evidence of such fabric is slight color imperfections, specks, and tonal shifts from one product to the next. “Natural-colored” refers almost exclusively to naturally occurring fibers like cotton, flax, wool, etc. These hues fall into the “earth-tone” category (tan, brown, green, grey).

Yarn dyed fabrics are where the yarn (the industry term for both thread as well as the actual types of yarn that grandma used for knitting) is dyed a desired color before it is woven into a sheet of fabric. Yarn dyeing is usually reserved for certain types of patterns (see below), but a good example of dyed yarn used in a solid colored fabric is the “heather grey” seen in sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc. The grey is specked with white and black as a result of the color irregularities and inconsistencies over the length of the thread.

Vat Dyed fabric is the most common form of solid colors found on the market. As opposed to yarn dyeing, vat dyeing is done after thread or yarn is woven into cloth. The finished cloth is, as the name suggests, placed into a vat of dye, removed and then dried.


Fabrics for home and apparel often have multicolored patterns on the cloth before it is cut and sewn together for a product. These patterns are achieved mainly by weaving or screenprinting.

Woven-pattern fabric

Fabric with a woven pattern.

printed-pattern fabric

Fabric with a screenprinted pattern.

Woven patterns are constructed by using color combinations chosen for “warp” yarns (stationary threads) and “weft” yarns (threads that are perpendicularly woven through the warp) on the loom. For more intricate patterns, Jacquard looms are used: instead of the standard “over-and-under” pattern of weaving a weft through warp yarns, Jacquard uses staggered weaving patterns, such as “over-and-over-and-under”. However, most intricate patterns found in mass-produced goods are manufactured using our second method:

Weaving Loom

A weaving loom displaying the "warp" threads through which the "weft" threads are woven one at a time to create fabric.

Screenprinting is a more cost-effective pattern-creating process, especially for mass-customized products. Designs can be easily created using computer software, and are then printed onto the fabric using industrial fabric printers. To the untrained eye, the difference between this and yarn-dyed patterns is negligible. However, closer inspection often reveals that a printed pattern does not align with the physical threads in the fabric.

The Bottom Line

There is no hard and fast formula for calculating how much more a particular finishing method (or the lack thereof) adds to a product’s price over another method. As with all things, the more time, materials and labor that is involved, the higher the premium. But the big takeaway is “stop and look.” With a little practice studying different colors and patterns in the products you buy you’ll get a better idea of its craftsmanship, quality and value.

This entry was posted in Retailing, Textiles. Bookmark the permalink.