Making a vector pattern

Last week for work, I was creating a pattern for the windows of a store to screen some of the equipment behind the glass. I was looking to create a dense pattern inspired by the weaving overlap of threads in burlap sacks. (The store is a coffee shop that uses burlap sacks for decoration.) I’ve only made repeat patterns by hand before, so I got some help from my partner to understand how to make one in Adobe Illustrator. I hadn’t ever used this method before, so the following tutorial is as much to help me remember it as it is for all of you to learn from and use.

Vectors are infinitely scalable (unlike other image files that will pixelate as you scale them up). So, for a larger pattern (like one that might be printed for a big window), it’s a good idea to create a vector file.

The first thing we did was sketch the basic structure of the pattern on grid paper to understand the ratio of one element to another.

Sketch of the Pattern
We identified the smallest repeating unit. Then noted the relationship of that element (each bar is three squares, and they kind of look like interlocking capital T’s).

Now, it’s time to take that knowledge into Illustrator. Go to View> Show Grid. Your page should look like this.

AI Show Grid

Then go to View>Snap to Grid, so the lines/shapes you make snap to the grid and are exactly proportional.

I created the most basic unit of my shape using the rectangle tool with a black outline and white fill. I counted out on the grid the units to make sure I had the same ratio as the hand-drawn version.


After I had the shape, I highlighted it and hit Object>Pattern>Make. In this screen, we can edit the pattern to make sure the single element is repeating correctly.


The dialog box above pops up. After you hit OK, the pattern is shown with repeating elements. However, the default settings didn’t show the pattern repeating correctly. I wanted the shapes to interlock, so I had to edit the size of the original element. The original element is at 100% opacity, whereas the repeat copies are dimmed to 70% here. You can + Save a Copy (in the grey bar below file name) of any version of spacing you like.

First stage of pattern spacing
Default spacing
Pattern Spacing Stage 2
Getting closer, but still not locking up.
Pattern Spacing Stage 3
Went too far here, now pieces are overlapping.
Pattern Spacing Stage 4
Okay, got it just right!

After adjusting the space, I saved a copy as “LatticePattern” and hit Done (in same gray bar as +Save a Copy).

Now, when I make a shape, like this basic rectangle, I can use the fill setting to fill it with the “LatticePattern” swatch instead of a solid color. (You can see the swatches panel box open on the far right.)


Rectangle with Pattern

You can change the color of your initial pattern by double-clicking the pattern in your swatches and editing the original icon. Save this as a new copy.

Different Color Pattern

I also wanted to rotate the direction of my pattern to be more diagonal. To do this, select the object and double-click on the Rotate tool in the sidebar. The dialog box below should pop up. Here make sure “Transform Patterns” is selected, and that you’ve chosen an angle.

Rotate Dialog

This is how the final rotated, colored pattern turned out.


Ever since I learned this technique, I’ve been wanting to make other repeat patterns as borders for the photos I post here and for scrapbooking. I’ll have to work more on the designs of the patterns (and which ones match with which photos), but it’s kind of fun to think about framing photos in some way. I know photos look great without any frames. I also know it can look a little busy with a detailed photo and a patterned frame, it’s just something my brain keeps wanting to try, so I guess I’ll entertain the thought for a little while longer…


Do you ever have ideas that you can’t seem to get out of your head?

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